Published: November 11, 2019

What Native Staff Are Reflecting On During Native American Heritage Month

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Learn about their work and hear what they’re thinking about this month—and beyond.

In November 2018, we announced our plans to renovate and reimagine the Field’s Native North America Hall. But this effort is about more than an exhibition; we’re working towards a collaborative process led by Native staff, scholars, and community members. 

Here, several Native staff members at the Field introduce themselves and share what’s meaningful about their work.

Dr. Eli Suzukovich, III

Little Shell Band of Chippewa-Cree, Sakāwiðiniwak, and Krajina Serb

I am a Research Scientist in the Integrative Research Center and Anthropology Department. Currently, I am working with the curation team for the Native North America Hall update (slated to open in 2021). I am curating the Chicago Native Community and Meskwaki Seed and Food Sovereignty exhibits.

I have never really been into months or days that celebrate Native Americans, per se, as I think we should always be thinking about and celebrating Native Americans every day. We are a part of the history and contemporary life of this land and country, so much so that you cannot talk about the U.S. without talking about Native Peoples. However, if having a month to remind the nation of this is necessary, then it's something good. I hope as people either come to the Museum or learn about Native American culture, history, or daily life through other venues, that they continue learning throughout the year.

A man stands next to a stacked stone structure with a wide expanse of plains in the background.

Eli Suzukovich conducting cultural resource management work in Wyoming (2005), with Tribal Historic Preservation representatives from the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe along with Natural Resource Managers from the Wyoming Army National Guard.

Christy Smith

Michelle Brownlee

Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe

I am a Collections Assistant assigned to the Field Museum's Native North America Hall renovation project. Our team is responsible for assisting with the deinstallation of over 1,500 objects from the hall, creating storage mounts, and reintegrating the items to storage. We host tours and visits for various groups and researchers, many of whom are members of Indigenous groups across North America. We also assist the Exhibitions development team in their search for new items to be displayed once renovations are completed.

My favorite part of my job is creating storage mounts. Being a part of the deinstallation process, my colleagues J. Kae, Nicole, Katie, and I are often the first Native people that have had the chance to handle these items in 70+ years. The display mounts that were used in the older cases were so invasive and so much damage has occurred; it is very comforting to know that my team and I are the ones who create the housing that will allow the cultural belongings coming from the hall to finally relax and be cared for in a way that is respectful towards the items as well as the people they belong to.

A woman stands behind a table with three large, painted pots. She holds a measuring tape and leans over the table to write something down.

Before making storage mounts, Michelle Brownlee measures items that have been deinstalled from the Native North America Hall.

Nicole Passerotti 

Seneca Nation, Bear clan

I’m an Assistant Conservator working on the hall renovation project. Our team is responsible for the documentation, long-term preservation, and research into our Native North American collection. One of the greatest privileges I have as a conservator at the Field Museum is that I get to work hands-on with the collection items. One of our team’s goals is to help facilitate access to the collection with tribal community members while working collaboratively to plan for the care and preservation of these items.

Our conservation team recently had the opportunity to share information about general collections care at the 2019 ATALM conference. The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums, or ATALM, is an amazing international non-profit that supports and provides Indigenous programs, encourages collaboration among tribal and non-tribal cultural institutions, and works to help develop and sustain the cultural sovereignty of Native Nations. It’s important to me for people to know and remember that Native Nations are sovereign and have cared for their own cultural heritage for over millennia. Creating partnerships between the Field Museum and tribal nations is key to moving forward for long-term preservation and access to the collection.

 

Two women stand next to a table with several small pots and pieces of cloth. One woman uses a tool to show the other how she cleans an object.

Nicole Passerotti shows an ATALM 2019 Conference attendee the types of tools conservators use when they encounter mold on collection items.

Meranda Roberts, PhD

Northern Paiute/Xicanx

I am a postdoctoral researcher and co-curator for the Native North America Hall renovation, as well as the upcoming exhibition Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. My typical day includes researching the backstories of cultural items that could potentially go on display, reaching out to Indigenous collaborators who are helping with exhibition development, and giving insight into how the Museum can work better with Indigenous communities.

Two women smile for the camera, the one on the left wearing a red elk tooth dress. They both wear colorful scarves. Part of a tipi is visible in the background.

Meranda Roberts (right) with Nina Sanders, guest curator of Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, at the annual Crow Fair in August 2019. 

Meranda Roberts

While at the Field Museum, it is one of my goals to have the public realize that Indigenous people are everywhere and that we have constantly influenced the world around them. More importantly, I want non-Natives to become more aware of the issues that are impacting our various communities, particularly the issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, four out of five Native women are affected by violence and "the U.S. Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average." 

Though this topic might not appear to be related to a museum's hall renovation, I hope to change that perspective by using the new exhibition space to teach non-Native visitors how the cultural items they enjoy looking at can heal the trauma experienced by Native communities by reawakening traditions that may be endangered. I want visitors to look beyond the aesthetic beauty of many of the items and consider how pieces can speak to the beauty of Native women's leadership, love, and dedication. The collection holds the answers to many questions regarding how communities can begin to heal. The collection is alive with possibility.

 

Katie Hillson

Member of Osage Nation

In my role as Assistant Collections Manager, I am leading a team responsible for the deinstallation, handling, housing, and record-keeping of Native North American items in the Field Museum's collection. We are also working hard to facilitate collections visits from tribal communities and strengthen communications with tribal representatives in order to learn how we can provide the most respectful care possible.

It is extremely rewarding to have the chance to meet and facilitate collections visits for tribal communities. Getting to see firsthand the powerful connections that these visitors have with items of their cultural heritage has been by far the most meaningful experience for me here.

A woman sits at a desk and uses a rule. Other supplies like a hot glue gun and measuring tab sit on the desk.

Katie Hillson draws a box template on blueboard, one step in the process of constructing custom housing for collections items.

J. Kae Good Bear

Navajo, Mandan & Hidatsa

I am a Conservation Technician working on the Native North America Hall renovation. I’ve spent the past year assisting in the deinstallation of over 1,500 items in the old hall. This includes but is not limited to photographic documentation and light surface treatments of items removed from cases.

I just want to start off by saying that I am humbled to be part of the team working on the renovation of the Native North America Hall. It’s amazing and rewarding work to bear witness to and participate in the dismantling of historically inaccurate portrayals of Native America.

A woman wearing a lab coat and three multicolored necklaces stands in front of double doors. A coat rack behind her holds more lab coats.

J. Kae Good Bear in the Regenstein Conservation Laboratory, where conservation staff examine, photograph, and care for a variety of collections. The lab is viewable to the public inside the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific

Every day is Native American heritage day when genetics have blessed you with cheekbones like mine. Lol. On a more serious note, though, I appreciate the increased visibility that Native American Heritage Month lends. You can’t change the culture of a society without first making the invisible visible. I’d encourage people to actively take part in the many cultural offerings throughout the month. We’ve put together a great lineup of events this month here at the Field Museum, including a Native American Heritage Celebration on November 16.

Often in Chicago, I find that I am the first interaction that most people ever have with a Native American. I approach my interactions from the basis that I may be the first and only interaction that a lot of folks will have with a person of Native American descent, so I do my best to make each exchange a positive one. My hope is always that people will come to a better understanding and positive perspective of Native America that they can carry forward throughout the year and for the rest of their lives.