Lurie – New Exhibit

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My name is Nancy Oestreich Lurie, and from 1972 to 1993 I was head of the Anthropology Department here at the museum. And the exhibit that you see behind me was my swan song. I was the chair of the committee that created the exhibit, and we were already talking about the fact that the Indians had survived and we had sort of tentatively come up with the title “A Tribute to Survival.” So when we went around to other museums, and particularly the Indian museums, Indian people were very, very much in favor of the title and of the idea and starting with the present day, with the powwow. So then when we got back and we applied to National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant for $100,000—and we still had a lot more money to raise—we then were very fortunate that there was a kind of overarching interest group of Indian people in the city who weren’t really representative of, but members of, the 20 or so Indian organizations in the city. They were kind of a coordinating committee.

And so we decided we had to have general councils. Now, among Indian people, or Indian inter-tribal, tribal gatherings—particularly tribal gatherings—a general council is a meeting anybody can attend, express views, everybody is heard, and people, if there’s particularly some issue or question, people can work out and try to reach consensus. So the big problem was, however, NEH would not permit us to use money for banquets, and you cannot have a general council without food. So we had to beat the bushes for other sources. And so we had the general council and the coordinating group said, “Just put a bunch of flyers on the desk in the offices where people come in in these various Indian organizations, Indian Manpower, and United Indians, and various groups.” And we gave the date and we had the meeting here and about 200 people showed up. And so we introduced them to what we’d been doing. We knew many of these people to begin with. Some of the Indian ladies catered the meal, so we had venison and so on.

And we were scheduled to open in 1992. It was supposed to be part of the sesquicentennial, with Columbus’ discovery. And the discussion progressed and people liked this and liked that and so on, [and] were very enthusiastic. And the people who would be doing the facial casting were there and told what would be entailed in that. And finally, toward the end when people said, in fact, one of the dancers in the exhibit here, “I like everything except the date. There’s going to be so much hoopla about Columbus. Can’t we have it a year later to open.” And we were very happy because we were working against time. And, I said, by that time people will have had Columbus up to here and they can be ready for another perspective, the Indian’s point of view.

And one of the things that came up very early in the general council—we had several of them—was that the Howard collection [James Howard’s Indian collection, previously donated to the museum], while it was really beautiful, represented different periods in the powwow history, from the earliest to the more recent powwows. And that they felt it would be better if we wanted to start with the present, “We’re here and we plan to stay,” [and] that we should have a modern powwow, which was an excellent idea except that it meant rearranging and reorganizing and in fact raising some more money to make the outfits. And so, it was also decided that all of the tribes in Wisconsin should be represented—we have six tribes here, eleven reservations—and just about anything that happened in Indian Affairs in general happened to some tribe here in Wisconsin, everything from removals, to termination, to homesteads instead of a reservation, and we have one unrecognized tribe trying to get recognition, [and] that this would be a good cross section.

We do try with this introductory area to prepare people for the rest of the exhibits, not only that the Indians are here today, still, but that Indians aren’t just Indians, that there’s great variety from tribe to tribe, from region to region, and ways of living, adaptations to different environments. We’re trying to convey this diversity. And so you can view these exhibits chronologically or you can look at them as units in the survival taking the Indian people, here, there, and elsewhere, taking advantage of opportunities of trade, of new goods, of artistic florescences, and also responding to threats, to real jeopardy, managing to survive.

And so if you read the labels, we have both the Indian voice and the museum voice. The Indian voice is in light blue and the museum voice, the scientific, strictly historical, is in sort of beige, almost white. And this has been an issue in many museums where Indian people feel that their side of the story, their side of the creation story, their side of the migration, has not been told. We have tried to provide both voices in these labels.

People think of museums as only collecting old stuff. But we’re collecting for the future, and besides the things that are here in the exhibit, when I was head of the department and my successors, we’ve collected t-shirts, (“Indian and Proud,”) bumper stickers, (“Indian Gaming, You Can Bet On It” and “Custer Died for Our Sins”), and so on. So these are the kind of things you collect. And then the final exhibits include very, very contemporary things: Indian boarding school period, Indian people involved in our various wars, and most recently such things as seeking tribal sovereignty. Here in Wisconsin, we had the treaty fishing controversies that went on for a while—these are all dealt with.

Something is happening every day, of course, but the most recent, among the most recent major issues in this area and a few other parts of the country has been the controversy about fishing, treaty rights to fish in lands that the Indians had ceded. And in Wisconsin this became a very, very big issue in the 1980s and early 90s. And the materials we’ve assembled here represent the effort of the Indians, the Indian people, to assert their fishing and hunting rights. The major fish in contention were walleyes. Other fish were involved, but that was the big issue and so with characteristic Indian humor the people who were fighting for the fishing rights designated themselves the “Walleye Warriors.”

This was my last exhibit while I was still employed at the museum. And it was sort of a culmination of a dream to begin work on the North American Indian exhibits, which was one of the things I had looked forward to and got involved in just about everything except that. And part of the reason is that I’ve done much of my own research here in Wisconsin, especially with the Ho-Chunk, earlier known as Winnebago, and had many, many friends among the Winnebago, as well as the other tribes in the state. So there were already working relationships to draw upon in regard to putting on an exhibit of this kind.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

Production, Mike Media Group
Camera, Michael DiGioia
Video Editor, Kahrin Deines

Photo credits:

Wisconsin map – Courtesy of National Atlas,

Newspaper articles from Wisconsin State Journal,

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