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Share Your Voice: Madison (American Indian Engagement Session)

Attendees discuss plans for a new state history museum

Share Your Voice: Madison (American Indian Engagement Session) | Wisconsin Historical Society

 A guest talks about her personal experiences visiting a supper club during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Nibiiwakamigkwe (or "Wet Earth Woman), a Métis member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe near Winnipeg, talks about how the perception of environmentalists such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold differ greatly between American Indians of Wisconsin and non-Native people during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison. (Photos by Dean Witter — Wisconsin Historical Foundation)

 

Story by Dean Witter and Rebecca Comfort
Wisconsin Historical Foundation and Wisconsin Historical Society

MADISON — Members from a diverse array of American Indian nations shared valuable insights and powerful anecdotes, and engaged in dialogue about accurate and authentic representation of Native peoples during a robust discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new history museum project listening session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Capitol Square.

The event was similar to the Society's other “Share Your Voice” public sessions being held across the state, but this iteration is specifically aimed at engaging Wisconsin’s Native nations and members of urban Indian populations in dialogue specific to issues relating to American Indians and museums.

The event — held at the site the Society plans to replace with a much larger, state-of-the-art history museum — was scheduled to coincide with the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) meeting in Madison later that evening, followed by the intertribal organization’s annual Legislative Breakfast the next morning. 

EnlargeRebecca Comfort, the Wisconsin Historical Society's American Indian Nation Liaison, speaks to guests during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.


Rebecca Comfort, the Wisconsin Historical Society's American Indian Nation Liaison, speaks to guests during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Rebecca Comfort, the Society’s American Indian Nation Liaison and a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, greeted guests briefly, adding “miigwech” (Ojibwe for “thank you”), before introducing Brian Jackson, WIEA President, who spoke on behalf of the organization co-hosting the event. 

Jackson, Director of the Lac du Flambeau Public School Cultural Connections Program, talked about the struggle for American Indian rights in Wisconsin, recalling the violent protests and overt racism that erupted following the 1983 Voigt decision, a federal court ruling that affirmed the treaty rights of the Ojibwe to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territory. He also addressed the upcoming 30th anniversary of the subsequent passage of Act 31 in August 1989, which mandated educational requirements designed to help Wisconsin residents understand American Indian history, culture, and sovereignty in an effort to prevent the violent backlash — still lingering from the ’80s — from happening again. 

Jackson noted how he approaches outreach efforts in his district’s public schools.  

“The first thing I say is, ‘I want to shake your hand first. I want to know who you are and where you’re from,’ whether they’re German, Norwegian, Dutch or whatever the case may be,” he said. “Once we start talking about who you are and your identity, then we can build a relationship.” 

EnlargeBrian Jackson, president of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, talks about his outreach efforts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 in Madison.


Brian Jackson, president of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association and Director of the Lac du Flambeau Public School Cultural Connections Program, talked about the struggle for American Indian rights in WisconsinDirector of the Lac du Flambeau Public School Cultural Connections Program, talks about the struggle for American Indian rights in Wisconsin during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

“I think it’s important that we understand all people,” he added. “Once we do that, we can go deeper into who we are and where we come from.” 

Jackson applied the same philosophy to the new museum listening session. 

“That’s what it’s really about — building relationships,” he said. “Part of that journey is happening here today. We’re here in Madison talking about our shared voices.” 

It was the second of dozens of 2019 statewide engagement sessions the Society will conduct across Wisconsin through June, following the first seven held in late 2018.  In addition to actively reaching out to each of the 12 American Indian nations of Wisconsin, targeted events to reach people living in Madison and Milwaukee provide additional opportunities for engagement as well. 

Diverse urban Indian populations, where people may feel more closely affiliated with metropolitan areas or are perhaps affiliated with a tribe located outside of Wisconsin, are sometimes overlooked. The Feb. 19 session brought a mix of both — including people who traveled from Stevens Point, Crandon and Milwaukee, as well as local residents. 

Regardless of location and tribal affiliation, attendees found common ground during discussion and in the much of the feedback provided to Society staff. The frank and extremely valuable insights garnered will go a long way toward informing future museum discussions.  

After watching a video about the project and reviewing early exhibit concept design renderings presented by session facilitator Cybelle Jones — Principal & Executive Director of Gallagher & Associates, the exhibit design firm hired by the Society — a few members of the audience revealed how the perceptions of certain people and ideas depicted in the presentation weren’t in alignment with historical teachings and commonly held understandings by many American Indians.  

EnlargeGuests discuss how the story of American Indians of Wisconsin should be told in a new state history museum during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests discuss how the story of American Indians of Wisconsin should be told in a new state history museum during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session on Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

“Do not sugar-coat the Native view,” said a guest named Robert, who identified himself as a Mole Lake tribal member attending on behalf of his employer and neighboring nation, the Forest County Potawatomi Community. “You have to tell it straightforward and to the point, (to) talk to your Creator truthfully. And when I looked at (the video and renderings), I didn’t see that. Some of it is totally contemporary — a non-Native society view." 

Others in attendance also pointed out that Native and non-Native people often have incongruent views with regard to people such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir and understandings related to the legacy of agricultural growth during early non-Native settlement in the state.  

A woman named Rachel — who is Choctaw and a doctoral student at UW-Madison — pointed out how agricultural growth in the region directly correlated with efforts to ethnically cleanse American Indians from the Wisconsin landscape east of the Mississippi. She added that the longevity of sustainability and responsible forestry management practiced by the Menominee long predates similar practices by non-Native people credited as early environmentalists, such as Aldo Leopold. 

“John Muir was given a really prominent place in that video,” said another woman, who identified her affiliation with a First Nation in Canada, adding that Muir disparaged Indigenous people and supported their forced removal from the Yellowstone and Yosemite areas.  

“When they were removed forcefully from the area, the landscape began to deteriorate because it wasn’t being taken care of,” she said. 

“I know it doesn’t really fit our view of John Muir,” she continued, acknowledging that people tend to memorialize John Muir, evidenced by schools and other places being named for him across Wisconsin, and symbols that can be found throughout UW-Madison's campus, such as Muir Woods. “I just hope we can see that he was still a person who was very influenced by the views of his day — which were not rooted in viewing Indigenous people as equals, or as protectors of land.”  

EnlargeCybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates talks about the challenges in creating exhibits during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session on Feb. 19, 2019 in Madison.


Cybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates talks about the challenges in creating exhibits that tell all sides of a story during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session on Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Jones, whose work with Gallagher & Associates has provided her the opportunity to work with diverse Native nations throughout the country on other museum projects, was thankful for the comments. She emphasized the importance of having conversations about diverging perspectives and stressed that continuing to engage in such dialogue is essential. 

The notion that someone can be perceived as a hero from one perspective while at the same time be perceived very negatively – as someone who inflicted a lot of damage – from another perspective is important for museum guests to understand, Jones said. “(People) can then question their own history — they can be part of that continued dialogue.” 

Recognizing the importance of the conversation unfolding, Society Director Christian Øverland, who was listening in the back of the room with Special Projects Director Alicia Goehring, asked permission of the participants to change the agenda on the spot — scrapping the remaining workshop activities in favor of continuing the discussion. 

“We were noticing a really good conversation … and I think maybe we should continue (the discussion) and hear what you want to talk about,” Øverland stated. “We'd like to continue because we’re learning so much ... but it’s your session. What do you think?” 

EnlargeSociety Director Christian Øverland thanks guests who attended the "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.


Society Director Christian Øverland changed the planned format of the "Share Your Voice" new museum American Indian Engagement Session to allow for more open-ended discussion after a particularly informative conversation. "I think maybe we should continue (the discussion) and hear what you want to talk about," he said. At the end of the session, he thanked guests for their honesty and willingness to participate. "From someone who has learned a lot today, thank you," Øverland said. "It has inspired us to do a great job for you."

The idea was enthusiastically supported. 

As a result, the final 30 minutes was dedicated strictly to audience-led discussion, during which many poignant thoughts and anecdotes were shared.   

One First Nations woman named Nibiiwakamigkwe (or "Wet Earth Woman"), a Métis member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe near Winnipeg, provided insight into a rendering intended to celebrate the tradition of Wisconsin supper clubs. 

“It really does look like a warm, inviting space,” Nibiiwakamigkwe said.  

“But my memories of supper clubs when I was little (include) walking in and seeing blatant images of red face, tobacco Indians … these really not OK things,” she added. “When I walk into a supper club, I don’t always feel that warmth and that community (feel) because I’m aware that this place wasn’t made for me.”

Also highlighting a similar shared experience by a friend who is African American, Nibiiwakamigkwe acknowledged the difficult task facing the Society, “(My friend) walked into the supper club and every head turned around and looked at her, so she just turned around and walked out, because how can you feel safe in the kind of space that was created and designed, and is currently curated, to not include you?” 

“I just hope that you include Native perspectives throughout all of (the exhibits) because we still live here and we’re still a part of it," Nibiiwakamigkwe added. "I see that you’re trying to do that here and I do appreciate it. I hope you’ll continue to look into that.” 

Jones added that the exhibit renderings have not been updated since before the listening sessions began last fall, and reiterated the importance of allowing others to weigh in, stating, “We continue to have frank conversations.” She noted how similar feelings about the supper club experience were also shared during previous discussions with American Indian people.  

“We have to think about that,” Jones said. “How do we (develop an) exhibit that, for one group is this fun, jolly place, but for others feels very threatening? I don’t have an answer, but I think this is where these conversations start.” 

A man identified as David, a resident of Milwaukee and a member of the Bad River Ojibwe, spoke of how tribes were forcibly removed from their land and sent to reservations after the economic value of timber and minerals were identified by white European settlers and speculators.   

“The history of this state is inextricably tied into the need for these resources by the economic powers that came in,” he stated. “(Those lands) were all obtained through treaties. … It’s not two stories. It’s one story that we all share together, and that’s what somehow needs to be told (in the new museum).” 

Like others, David was diplomatic in acknowledging the challenge museum planners face.  

“A lot of this stuff is nice and there are a lot of different audiences you have to appeal to,” he admitted. “But cows weren’t in America. Cows are European. So, if we do really want to be serious about this, we’re going to have to take into account what people here (at the session) are saying. Treaty education is going to be vital if you want people to really understand how this state came to be.”  

As the session drew to a close, Karen Ann, an accomplished Iroquois raised beadwork artist and member of the Oneida Nation, complimented attendees on the discussion and also recognized the challenge ahead. 

“I find that museums have this huge responsibility,” she said. “They have about 12 seconds to capture the interest of the audience that walks in. And from listening to this room, I hear a huge variety of messages that are important to each and every one of us, and we want to capture that 12 seconds for (all of) our messages. But the common thread I’m hearing throughout this room is that there is a great deal of respect in here for one another.” 

Karen Ann also noted the importance Øverland’s on-the-spot willingness to adapt. 

“I think this is a good start,” she stated, “and what really gave me hope was the way you changed your 90 minutes and stopped talking and started listening. So good on (you).” 

In closing, Comfort, the American Indian liaison, addressed the crowd and assured them that their voices are being heard within the Society, adding that many of the issues brought forth during the afternoon’s conversation are actively being discussed.  

“We need all of the voices that are here today,” she urged. “We’re trying to do something that’s unprecedented and very complicated, but we’re committed to being at the table and showing up to work through the difficult issues.” 

Øverland ended the session with heartfelt praise.  

“We appreciate your stories and look forward to continuing this conversation,” he said. “From someone who has learned a lot today, thank you. It has inspired us to do a great job for you.” 

 Guests discuss new museum ideas with each other during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session on Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests discuss new museum ideas with each other during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session on Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

A guest shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

A guest shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

A guest shares his thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

A guest shares his thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

A guest shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

A woman shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum Feb. 19, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session in Madison.

 Guests watch a video about the Wisconsin Historical Society's plans to build a new state history museum at the start of the Feb. 19, 2019 "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session at the current Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests watch a short film about the Wisconsin Historical Society's plans to build a new state history museum at the start of the Feb. 19, 2019 "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session at the current Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests use Post-It notes to write down important ideas they feel should be included in a new state history museum during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 in Madison.

Guests use Post-It notes to write down important ideas they feel should be included in a new state history museum during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, which would be replaced by the new museum.

Post-It notes with guest suggestions of what should be included in a new state history museum fill theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 in Madison.


Post-It notes with guest suggestions of what should be included in a new state history museum fill theme boards along the side of the room during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

 Guests examine new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests examine and comment on new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

 Guests examine new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests examine new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

 Guests discuss new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests discuss new museum suggestions made by guests that were placed on theme boards at the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests discuss new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Guests discuss new museum exhibit design concept renderings during the Society's "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session Feb. 19, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison.

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the Feb. 19, 2019 "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

 

Madison (American Indian Engagement Session) Word Cloud

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the Feb. 19, 2019 "Share Your Voice" American Indian Engagement Session were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.