The names of the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago and many streets and towns in this region serve as markers to the Native American heritage that originated here. A new exhibition at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian seeks to unveil the many influences Native American culture has had on our state and why that should never be forgotten.

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From the Autumn 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Many Chicagoans are well aware of our area’s Native American roots. But few understand the depth of the influence Native American settlers had on our region today. A new exhibit at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston seeks to change that. Opening this summer, Heritage Markers: Local Native American History & Cultures unveils the wide array of influences Chicago’s early Native American settlers have had on the region we call home.

In fact, from street signs to statues, Native American heritage is all around us. Names like “Illinois,” “Chicago,” and “Wilmette” are all derived from American Indian languages. Dotted throughout the area are markers of Native American legacy from yesterday and today. And over 40,000 American Indian peoples representing over 150 tribes live in the Chicago metropolitan area. With Heritage Markers this summer, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian explores the stories, contributions and legacies of these Native peoples—past and present.

The museum has always offered a wonderful permanent exhibit on all regions of the U.S. and Canada, but the exhibit is a broad representation of Native American cultures and places within the continent, making it difficult to delve into detail of local Native American history. As Kathleen McDonald, executive director for the Mitchell Museum told me, “Heritage Markers aims to fill that gap in local history, (information) often requested by area teachers and visitors.”

The exhibit uses oral histories from local heritage markers, contemporary Native organizations, street signs, and town names as a jumping-off points to discuss and explore the local American Indian history.

It begins with arrowheads and stone tools found in the backyards of locations like Evanston in order to explore the tribal presence throughout northern Illinois. Tribal oral histories and origin stories are contrasted in the exhibit with archeological interpretation of regional sites like the famed Garrison Site in Lake Forest which dates from 10,000 years ago to 1450 AD.  The exhibit examines certain Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) customs and practices, as well as the history of relationships between Native peoples and European settlers.

It explores the initial interactions of Native Americans with the first European explorers—men like Reverend Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, as well as the early settlers like Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable and his Potawatomi wife Katherine (whose original home settlement rested at the location across from the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago, at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive today). Archange and Antoine Ouilmette (for which the Village of Willmete was named) are profiled in the exhibition, along with the ramifications of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the August 15, 1812 engagement between United States troops and Potawatomi Native Americans that occurred near Fort Dearborn on what is now known as The Magnificent Mile. And it also explores the early treaties achieved between the U.S. and local Native American Tribes and the subsequent removal of many of those tribes from Illinois.

As McDonald explains, “The purpose of the exhibit is to make people more aware of the American Indian roots (in) this area and the importance of their role in early navigation, trade and the very survival of Europeans. It also shows just how many people were removed from this area and the complex societies that they had in place at that time. But it also reinforces that some American Indians never left and, after relocation efforts in the 1950s,  a strong and vibrant American Indian urban population grew again in the Chicagoland area.”

With the sheer depth and breadth of local artifacts, ephemera and other items stemming from Native American settlements in the museum’s possession, paring down what is available to what you see in the new show was a bit of a challenge, McDonald told me. “In this exhibit we had a lot of space constraints, so we started with the available areas in the exhibit that we could place artifact cases to properly protect the objects.” Then, we prioritized the types of objects we would include and balanced that by having a selection from as many tribes that lived in this area over time that we could fit.”

Many who visit the new show will likely be surprised at just how many streets and places in Illinois are named for Native American people, tribes and reference Native American language.

Visitors might also be surprised to learn that Chicago was one of eight major relocation cities in the U.S. following the Relocation Act in 1956. It follows then that there are many Native organizations to support the cultural, educational and spiritual life of this urban community, offering true enrichment for the entire region.

The Mitchell Museum is one of only a handful of museums in the country that focuses exclusively on the art, history and culture of American Indian and First Nation peoples throughout the United States and Canada. Uncovering the history and culture of peoples  so rich in their influence on the place we call home today is a noble mission that one can only hope the museum continues for decades to come.

Heritage Markers: Local Native American History & Cultures is on view at The Mitchell Museum of American Indian through the fall of 2017.

Hidden Heritage
Evanston's Mitchell Museum of the American Indian launched a new exhibition this summer that explores the many ways in which our region has been shaped by its early Native American settlers.

By Isaac Jacobs
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