Mattie Harper DeCarlo was in the middle of a meeting at the Minnesota Historical Society when she turned around and realized her great-great-grandfather was staring over her shoulder.
Charles Wright, or Niizhoodenh (which means “twin”), was one of many Ojibwe pictured with visiting Dakota friends in a mural-sized 1912 photograph of the White Earth Reservation’s annual pow wow.
“I had seen the photo multiple times as an 8-by-10,” DeCarlo said, but never realized he was in it.
She also sees an exciting opportunity in this blown-up photo: “To get community members involved. Who knows, maybe they are gonna walk by and see someone they know.”
Ojibwe and Dakota histories of the region form the basis of “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” a permanent exhibit opening Saturday at the Minnesota History Center.
The show launches a new Indigenous-focused exhibition space, with additional shows rotating in from time to time.
“We really feel like it’s important for average Minnesotans — and anyone who comes into the gallery who doesn’t know that much about the Indigenous population — to understand the ways in which our people aren’t just surviving, they are thriving,” said Kate Beane, the Historical Society’s director of Native American Initiatives. She teamed with DeCarlo, a senior historian for the society, to lead the exhibit.
“We want people to understand the contributions we make, and have made over time.”
A history of resilience
A giant map of the Ojibwe migration westward to Minnesota. A 10,000-year-old copper spear point discovered in Minnesota. A cradleboard, embroidered with thousands of purple, red and black beads, made this year by Dakota/Diné artist Randilynn Boucher. An 1858 copy of the Minnesota Constitution, translated to the Dakota language.
These are just a few of more than 100 objects on display. The introductory text to each section is written in English, Dakota and Ojibwe.
Many of the objects have multiple historical layers. One example is a blanket, game pads and sticks used in the Ojibwe “moccasin game,” known as Makizinataagewin. Traditionally played by men (but sometimes by girls), the game has healing powers for all who play. But the show also explains how in the early 1900s, agents for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs arrested players, incorrectly assuming this was a gambling game that was “thought to be keeping people from doing more productive things,” said DeCarlo.
So the players took the game underground. The moccasin game (there’s also a Dakota version) lives on today. Charles Grolla (aka Ogimaagiizhig), an Ojibwe language teacher at Cass Lake-Bena High School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, includes it in his curriculum.
“In legend, the makwa [bear] says it’ll last as long as the world lasts,” he writes in a wall label. “It should live on.”
Historic photos of Ojibwe and Dakota women learning lace-making reflect another slice of history.
In the 1830s, Christian women missionaries started teaching Native women what was known as “civilizing” arts. Lace-making schools carried patronizing and racist connotations of Victorian-era ideas of “cleanliness.” Missionaries would then sell the lace in the East.
A dainty lace vest, circa 1900, serves as a reminder of the years when Episcopal missionary Sybil Carter taught lace-making at White Earth. Carter died in 1908, and eventually this activity also faded away. Instead, Native women gather today to bead, quilt and create objects that reflect their cultural values.
Contemporary Native lives
Despite the deep and painful history of colonialism depicted in this exhibition, the resilience of the Native community shines more strongly.
A colorful ribbon skirt is displayed next to a photo of Dakota “water protector” Sarah Weston, who is wearing one. She is part of a new tradition of wearing ribbon skirts while protecting the land and defending Native sovereignty.
Next to that, a mannequin displays Joe Campbell’s “activist outfit” of bluejeans, leather boots, a blue bandanna, shirt and patterned vest. A member of the Prairie Island Indian Community, Campbell was an environmental advocate who fought the construction of a nuclear plant on land taken from his community in 1973.
Another glass case contains an outfit worn in the 1920s by Elizabeth Sherer Russell, an Ojibwe woman who was one of the state’s first Native nurses. As part of the Chippewa Nursing Service, she provided public health services on reservations in northern Minnesota.
Made of fringed buckskin and decorated with beaded floral designs, these clothes look like they came from a movie set. “It is not a traditional Ojibwe outfit — it is kind of Hollywood-y — but she was dressing in a way that she thought would help her be seen as a Native person in order to be heard,” explained Ben Gessner, associate curator of Native American Collections. “That’s pretty common in this era,” after World War I.
Historical Society staffers worked with Dakota and Ojibwe communities in developing “Our Home.” They hope visitors will leave feeling inspired, empowered and optimistic.
“Oftentimes when talking about Native history, you can leave feeling depressed or angry about the injustice,” said DeCarlo. “I want people to walk out of there feeling curious and hungry for more knowledge.”