‘Our Home: Native Minnesota’ opens at MN History Center

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Minnesota is a Dakota word that describes the reflection of sky onto water, a well-known image in this state of many lakes and rivers. Dakota and Ojibwe people, as well as people from other tribal nations, have lived in this area for thousands of years.
A new, long-term exhibit called “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” opened Dec. 7 at the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul.
“We constantly hear from visitors and teachers that Native stories are fundamental to their understanding of Minnesota history. Now we have a permanent gallery devoted to the stories of today’s Native communities,” said Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) Director and CEO Kent Whitworth.“These are inspirational stories of survival, resistance, and resilience that offer hope for the future. These stories show how Native people have retained their cultural practices, teachings and values, and their essential connection to home.”
The exhibit challenges viewers to see Native Americans in the present tense, while learning about their long history in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. More than 1,100 people turned out for the opening, and experienced a day filled with Native music, artistry, and games. Free admission was provided by major sponsor U.S. Bank, and associate sponsors 3M and Ecolab.
Mattie Harper DeCarlo is a senior historian with the Minnesota Historical Society, and one of two content curators for “Our Home.” She said, “There were so many stories we could have told with this exhibit. Our final decision-making was based on encountering and challenging stereotypes of indigenous people in Minnesota. Native people tend to be seen as either traditional or assimilated. We’re really pushing against that way of thinking with this exhibit. Native people have had to adapt to changing circumstances throughout time. We have always been very dynamic communities.”
She continued, “This exhibit isn’t arranged chronologically. We present historical and contemporary stories side by side. In addition to stories that have not been told before, “Our Home” features historic and contemporary photographs, maps, and artifacts to illustrate Dakota and Ojibwe life as it was – and as it is now.”
Harper DeCarlo grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, earned her undergraduate degree from Hamline University, and her MA and PhD in ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She said, “One common stereotype that still exists today is of Native people as ‘savage,’ which is fueled by narratives about Dakota and Ojibwe people as constantly at war with one another. Sometimes this stereotype was used as a justification for U.S. colonialism. For example, agents of the U.S. government argued that U.S. peace treaties were necessary to create peace between the two tribes, that they were incapable of otherwise making peaceful agreements.
“However, we show in this gallery that Ojibwe and Dakota people have long-standing friendly relations going back way before the U.S. was ever a presence in the region. The challenge with museum work is how to tell a nuanced, truthful story on an exhibit panel in 75-100 words.
“Native American history is much more complicated than most people think.”
In her work as a graphic designer with MNHS, Midway resident Terry Scheller translates exhibit content into strong visual images that capture and hold people’s attention. Scheller was an integral part of the design team for “Our Home.”
She said, “When you work on museum exhibits, you work as part of a team. You learn to see an exhibit as a vessel for telling a story. You can’t treat exhibit text like a novel, or even a 30-second ad. You look at it in layers. How do you want visitors to feel when they walk in? For this exhibit, visitors are met with a feeling of welcome, beauty, peace, and a connection to nature.”
Scheller explained, “The main exhibit text is presented in English, Dakota, and Ojibwe. It resonates with all of our audiences, Native and non-Native, and school groups. The text is written with first person pronouns, as if the viewer is being spoken to directly.”
Scheller hopes this exhibit will bring native people up to the present in the eyes of visitors. She said, “Native people are relevant today, they’re not just stuck somewhere in history.” Harper de Carlo hopes that Native people will feel a sense of belonging when they visit “Our Home.”
The Minnesota History Center is located at 345 Kellogg Blvd. The museum is closed on Mondays. Paid parking is available in the lot on-site.
Admission to “Our Home: Native Minnesota” is included with regular History Center admission of $12 for adults; $10 for seniors, veterans/active military, and college students; $6 ages 5-17; free for ages four and under and MNHS members. Museum admission is free for everyone on Tuesdays from 3-8 p.m.

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