Excerpt: Decolonizing Museums, by Amy Lonetree

Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, by Amy Lonetree[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

Museum exhibitions focusing on Native American history have long been curator controlled. However, a shift is occurring, giving Indigenous people a larger role in determining exhibition content. In Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Amy Lonetree examines the complexities of these new relationships with an eye toward exploring how museums can grapple with centuries of unresolved trauma as they tell the stories of Native peoples. In the following excerpt from the book’s preface, Lonetree describes an exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, reminding us that objects in museums are living entities and that every engagement with those objects needs to begin with that core recognition.


This book is about three museums—the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Michigan—and their collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities. My study of the history of the representation of Native Americans in museum exhibitions explores the significance of these three separate institutions, each of which possesses unique and important collections of American Indian material culture, and how they have developed the exhibitions they present. I have worked at two of these museums and have conducted extensive research at all three. Through these experiences, I have witnessed firsthand the complex and important process of developing community-collaborative exhibitions in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

One of the most vivid memories of my experience in the museum world—and one that has shaped both my understanding of collaboration and the significance of objects to Indigenous communities—took place in 1995 at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). As an exhibit researcher working on Families, an exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities focusing on Minnesota families that opened at MHS in 1995, one of my responsibilities was to locate a Native American family to be featured in the exhibition. One section of the exhibit dealt with the theme of family reunions and their role in maintaining identity. A colleague, Carolyn Anderson, recommended that we consider featuring the Kittos—a Dakota tribal family originally from southern Minnesota. The Kittos’ own reunions perhaps best exemplified the importance of family reunions in supporting family identity. For the previous ten years, the Kittos had worked on an extensive genealogical project to trace the history of their family and its involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

That war was one of the most searing and significant events in modern Dakota and Minnesota history. In 1862, after suffering the full onslaught of invasion, colonial oppression, broken treaties, and loss of land and lifeways, the Dakota fought a brief war with the United States in the Minnesota River valley, which left hundreds dead.[1] Following the war, the state of Minnesota pursued swift and violent acts of retribution against the Dakota Nation, including a mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota warriors and a policy of ethnic cleansing that led to the removal of all tribal members from the state. Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey summarized the scope of the action he planned to take in the aftermath of the war: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.”[2]

The legacy of the events of 1862 still weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of contemporary Dakota people. Reuben Kitto, the family patriarch, began research to trace the history of his ancestor Mazaadidi (Walks on Iron), who was arrested in November 1862 and taken prisoner by the U.S. military for his alleged involvement in the war. Kitto’s research later confirmed that Mazaadidi was one of over three hundred Dakota men sentenced to death by hanging by a U.S. military tribunal, but his sentence was later commuted. While Mazaadidi was not one of the thirty-eight Dakota warriors executed on the day after Christmas 1862 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, he was imprisoned at Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, for several years.

Following a pardon from President Lincoln in 1864 and his subsequent release, Mazaadidi rejoined his wife, Pazahiyayewin (She Shall Radiate in Her Path like the Sun), and their children, who had survived their own harrowing journey out of Minnesota following the war in Dakota Territory. In November 1862, Pazahiyayewin, along with her elderly mother and four children (one of whom was only a few weeks old), was force-marched, along with roughly sixteen hundred Dakota women, children, and old men, over 150 miles from the Lower Sioux reservation to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling.[3] After a horrific winter at the fort under military guard in 1862-63, the surviving Dakota were forcibly removed from the state of Minnesota to a reservation in Dakota Territory in 1863. Mazaadidi and Pazahiyayewin would later settle on the Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska.[4]

Reuben Kitto’s search for his family’s history and the knowledge he gained from his research led to a renewed commitment to bringing his family together to honor their cultural heritage and identity. He began sending family members newsletters that described his research, which ultimately led to the family’s decision to hold reunions every four years on their ancestral lands. This deeply felt and renewed sense of pride in the family’s Dakota identity, shared through the newsletters and at the family reunions, was captured in T-shirts, jackets, hats, and shawls that featured the family’s medicine wheel emblem.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s exhibition-development team recognized the Kitto family story as a principal illuminator of the importance of family reunions, and they wanted to showcase the family’s incredible story. I contacted Reuben Kitto about our interest in featuring the family in the exhibition, and he enthusiastically agreed to meet with museum staff to discuss the possibility. I found out later that his gracious and enthusiastic response had a great deal to do with his friendship with Carolyn Anderson as well as with the kind words that our mutual friend Bonnie Wallace had said on my behalf when Reuben asked her if she knew me following our initial conversations. Bonnie, a much beloved member of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul urban Indian community, knew everyone, and her opinion mattered tremendously to her dear friend Reuben Kitto.

At the time, I remember being surprised by his response. Here was a Native American family with a great story to share who had enthusiastically agreed to work with us almost immediately. I had spent months on the front lines of developing collaborative exhibitions with other Native American communities, and I knew how difficult it was to establish a connection of trust. Without trust, a collaborative partnership is simply not possible. The “love-hate relationship” between Native people and museums is something I was all too familiar with. As both an insider and an outsider to MHS, I had faced numerous challenges in trying to vouch for the museum with Native people. So I was deeply touched when Reuben and the rest of the Mazaadidi and Pazahiyayewin clan were interested in collaborating, and we arranged to meet with members of the family. They had several objects to show us in addition to the ones with the family emblem designed for the reunions.

On the morning of the meeting, I was even more surprised to see over fifty Mazaadidi and Pazahiyayewin family members show up at the museum to meet with the staff and discuss their participation. As the meeting began, they shared with us the contemporary objects they developed for the reunions, but they also brought beautiful family treasures, some of which dated back one hundred years. The treasures were stunning: star quilts given to honor members of the family; a pipe belonging to the women of the clan, who had passed the pipe down through the generations; a Bible translated in Dakota that belonged to a relative who was a missionary on the reservation in the early twentieth century; beautiful beadwork, including a bag made by a master craftswoman in the family; and framed photographs of their relatives.

As the members of the family showed us the objects, they also conveyed a wealth of important information about the pieces—when they were made, who made them, and the materials used—all information that museum curators hope for when documenting objects. In addition, and most important, each of the pieces they presented inspired family members to share personal recollections about the ancestors who originally owned them.

Kunsi (Grandmother) Naomi Cavender shared one story in particular about a beautiful social pipe adorned with feathers and beadwork. She placed it in the center of the table and invited us to feature it in the exhibition. She said it was given to her by her grandmother Louisa Sioux Henry, who smoked the pipe with other women on the reservation in the evenings when they told stories. Kunsi Naomi, visibly moved while remembering the stories she heard as a little girl, said this was an important piece and expressed her desire that people should see it.

We also learned that the pipe symbolized the family’s inextricable ties to the history of the Dakota Nation and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath. The pipe originally belonged to Louisa’s grandmother, who carried Louisa on the horrific forced exile from their Minisota Makoce (Land Where the Waters Reflect the Skies) homelands in 1863. She later gave the pipe to her granddaughter, Louisa, who in turn gifted it to her granddaughter, Naomi. Grandma Naomi would then give it to Reuben Kitto. He restored the pipe with a lovely new stem and feathers and returned it to her. This is the pipe—rich with the meaning of their survivance and the family’s deep connections to the Dakota Nation—that the Kittos entrusted to the Minnesota Historical Society for exhibition.

I was deeply honored to be part of the exchange, to be in the presence of beautiful objects, and to be able to listen to the stories that surrounded them. In many respects, this was one of the most important moments in my professional career as an exhibit developer, because it embodied the ideal situation: objects that come with stories shared by those whose families remain deeply connected to the pieces. Conventional museum documentation focuses on the materials used, the time period in which they were made, and the cultural group attributed to the pieces (or provenience). Yet this information does not begin to convey the true significance of the objects. The objects are important because they belong to living Native peoples who maintain deep and ongoing connections to the pieces.

The Mazaadidi and Pazahiyayewin descendants who shared their family treasures and stories with me and my colleagues that summer day in 1995 gave us the opportunity to honor them and their ancestors with an exhibit that celebrated the most important tribal value of all: kinship. By so doing, they also gave the museum an opportunity to present Native American life through a representation that was framed and told by those who were intimately part of that story.

This small exhibit, developed by the Minnesota Historical Society in cooperation with the Mazaadidi and Pazahiyayewin family, drove home to all of us involved with the project one of the most important values to remember in Native representations in museums. Objects in museums are living entities. They embody layers of meaning, and they are deeply connected to the past, present, and future of Indigenous communities. Every engagement with objects in museum cases or in collection rooms should begin with this core recognition. We are not just looking at interesting pieces. In the presence of objects from the past, we are privileged to stand as witnesses to living entities that remain intimately and inextricably tied to their descendant communities.

From Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums by Amy Lonetree. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk) is associate professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-editor, with Amanda J. Cobb, of The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations. She is co-author of People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Shaick, 1879-1942.

  1. [1]For additional historical coverage of the war, see Gary Clayton Anderson and Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes; Meyer, History of the Santee Sioux; Carly, Sioux Uprising of 1862; Gary Clayton Anderson, Little Crow; Schultz, Over the Earth I Come; and for more recent coverage of the war as part of a larger text on Minnesota history, see Wingerd, North Country. On the legacy of the war and its aftermath, see Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors, and Waziyatawin, What Does Justice Look Like?
  2. [2]Quoted in Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches,” 190.
  3. [3]In 2004 and 2006, I participated in a commemorative event to honor the thousands of Dakota people who were forced out of the state of Minnesota following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. During the commemorative march, participants retraced the original 150-mile route that the sixteen hundred mostly Dakota women and children were forced to walk in 1862. The Dakota Commemorative March, held every two years in Minnesota, is viewed by many as an important act of decolonization and Indigenous commemoration and as a powerful act of healing, remembrance, truth telling, and reclamation. The event has profoundly influenced my personal and professional life, and in an essay based on my participation, “Transforming Lives by Reclaiming Memory,” I examine the commemorative march not only as an act of healing but also as an expression of Indigenous memory and a Dakota challenge to the master narrative of the U.S.-Dakota War. The essay also has personal importance because thousands of Ho-Chunk people were exiled from Minnesota at the same time and the forced removal of my people has largely been erased from the memory of this event. Through my participation, I challenged the erasure of Ho-Chunk forced removal from Minnesota and therefore added another layer of memory to this decolonizing project.
  4. [4]For a summary of their lives, see Ramona Kitto Stately’s touching essay on her participation in the Dakota Commemorative March, “Pazahiyayewin and the Importance of Remembering Dakota Women.”