Published: November 8, 2018

Making Room for Native American Voices

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


It takes many people—and some self-reflection—to transform an outdated exhibition hall. 

A woman, Maritza Garcia, wearing a light blue dress and a headdress with a feather, performs a dance in front of onlookers at the land acknowledgment ceremony.

Meranda Roberts and Eli Suzukovich, research scientists working on the Native North American Hall, co-authored this article. 

Working in museums can be really exciting: we have staff who are on the cutting edge of their research fields, and collections from hundreds—or millions—of years ago that still reveal new information.

We’re also challenged to rethink our exhibitions to keep up with changing knowledge, technologies, and practices. In the 1980s, the Field Museum embarked on an ambitious project to renovate most of our permanent exhibitions. We succeeded in renovating all but one of the halls with anthropology displays by 1995. Between 1999 and 2005, our staff renovated the “Indians before Columbus” hall, which is now the Robert R. McCormick Halls of the Ancient Americas.

But one exhibition, the Native North American Hall on the east side of our main floor, hasn’t changed since the early 1950s. Until now. After years of intensive planning and fundraising, we’re finally undertaking the renovation of this hall. Some might ask, “what took you so long?” But we would argue that this is a fortuitous time as museums embrace collaborative practices, invite in diverse voices, and adopt innovative ways of displaying and talking about collections.

Two people wearing white coats and blue gloves in a lab, looking closely at a long necklace and touching it up with paint brushes.

The conservation team, including technicians Ellen Jordan and J. Kae Good Bear, examines, cleans, and documents some of the first 300 objects that were uninstalled from the preexisting Native North American Hall.

John Weinstein

Building on past experiences, we’ve adopted a new collaborative process that allows Native American scholarship and museum practice to inform the exhibition, including content development and the look and feel of the displays. We have an advisory committee of scholars and museum professionals from across the country, from diverse tribes and nations, who meet regularly with the Field exhibition team. The advisory team includes a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, the tribe on whose land the Field Museum stands. Also joining us is a representative from the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative, a group that brings together most of the Native American organizations in the Chicago region.

Two women stand next to each other and smile at the camera. One wears black with a blue necklace and glasses, and the other wears blue with a red scarf. An ornate brass door is visible behind them.

Community Engagement Coordinator Debra Yepa-Pappan and Curator of North American Anthropology Alaka Wali.

John Weinstein

A theme that keeps coming up as we meet with the advisory committee is that of place. It’s important for this new exhibition—and the Museum as a whole—to acknowledge that the Chicagoland region resides on Native land. We’re also thinking about who tells stories, and how. The voices, narratives, and perspectives of Native peoples and Indigenous nations will be anchors for the new hall.

When you visit after the exhibition opens in late 2021, our hope is that you’ll gain a deeper understanding of Native peoples, their central role in shaping American history and contemporary life, and connections between the past and the present. Although we are still developing specific content, topics may include family and individual narratives about urban Indian identity and life, land and environmental concerns, language and cultural diversity, artistic creativity, and change over time. We will feature our spectacular collection but contextualize it with the help of multiple media technologies.  

You’ll also see another side of Chicago—Indigenous Chicago! For example, this city was home to the first urban Indian organization in the United States. Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai) founded the Indian Fellowship League (IFL) in 1904 to organize Native Americans. The goal? To create social and professional networks and to advocate for Native rights locally and nationally. The IFL’s creation set in motion a movement among urban Indian communities across the nation that focuses on maintaining cultural, social, and political voice. This is just one part of the deep history of Native peoples in this region that we hope to tell.

Community partners gather to watch a performance by American Indian Center members Maritza Garcia and Adrien Pochel as part of the land acknowledgment ceremony.

Michelle Kuo

The ceremony took place in the gardens outside our building, with the unveiling of a sign that acknowledges we reside on the traditional homelands of more than a dozen Native tribes.

In addition to the exhibition work, we are making a concerted effort to broaden access to collections housed at the Museum. Anyone can explore our anthropology collections online, and our collections staff ensures that cultural material is accessible and treated with dignity. Our Community Engagement Coordinator, Debra Yepa-Pappan, is a critical member of the team. She organizes Indigenous community visits so that people can view the collections and interact with belongings collected from their homelands. This level of engagement allows Indigenous people to connect to histories, art practices, and cultural understandings that have become endangered as a result of European-American influences.

Seven people sit around a table looking at a poster with a circular sketch on it. One person points to the chart and appears to be explaining it to the rest of the group.

Advisory committee members and Field staff collaborate to develop concepts for the new exhibition.

John Weinstein

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the new exhibition is that we are planning for it to be a fluid space, allowing room for rotating mini-exhibitions or stories. Our hope is to represent the vast diversity of the Native American experience and honor the breadth and depth of our collections. If you visit when the exhibition opens in the fall of 2021, you may return a year later to find a host of new stories. The exhibition will always be co-curated with Native American scholars, museum professionals, or other community members.

Due to the rotational aspect of the exhibition, we will be able to showcase more items from our collections that tell a more thorough history of Chicagoland and beyond. These pieces will not only speak to how Indigenous communities interacted with the land, water, and wildlife during the period of European expansion in North America, but how their contributions are still used today to sustain the environment. We hope that this type of engagement can help other museums think about how they wish to incorporate Native voices throughout their spaces.

As a visitor, you’ll encounter unique perspectives and learn from multiple knowledge sources about both the history of Native Americans after European settlement and contemporary concerns and ways of life. Stay tuned for more stories as we work to build the new Native North American Hall.