American Indian museum launches new exhibit


Alice Yin/The Daily Northwestern

Melissa Halverson explains the historical significance of the water buffalo in Native American storytelling. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian launched a new exhibit Saturday.

Alice Yin, Reporter

Some stories are told not through words but rather generations of wizened instruments, animal fur throws and dusty pottery sets.

The stories of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian’s new exhibit, “Storytelling: Inspiring Traditions for Generations,” which opened Saturday, bridge gaps between generation and culture with different categories of animals, prophecies, trickster tales and more.

A stroll past the exhibit, 3001 Central St., displays just how distinct each culture is. Many tribes engaged in the “Winter Count,” a practice in which an elder would think of a symbol at the end of each year that most encompassed that year.

“I never heard about the Winter Count — that people would want to reflect on the year that passed and would want to memorialize it,” said Katherine Foster, who was visiting from Des Plaines. “And that sounded very interesting. It makes sense because people don’t want their lives to just slide away.”

However, some sections also give visitors a sense of how similar the culture is to their own. The “Creation” section’s artifacts relate to a story of a “Magician” who made beings similar to himself out of clay.

“As you can see here, Native Americans also had questions about where we all come from,” exhibit project manager Melissa Halverson said.

Visitor Julia Rath, a Skokie resident, said she enjoyed visiting the museum, which she has been to before.

“All cultures have certain ethnic and cultural traditions,” Rath said. “They might all be a little different from each other but they all share the same theme, because it’s all really about people and families and ancestries and traditions and where we come from and storytelling — all of it.”

In the spirit of passing down culture between generations, this storytelling exhibit also allows visitors to interact and be a part of the practice. Inside a replica of an Iroquois longhouse, complete with an animal fur rug, is a recording station where people can record their own stories for future visitors to hear.

In addition, the “Winter Count” has a table where guests draw their own symbol of what was memorable for them that year.

“So I would say this is the year of the really bad winter. That would be my Winter Count,” Halverson jokes.

Although some artifacts were dated more than a century ago, many also connect visitors to the contemporary culture of the Native American people. Native American youth, who took storytelling workshops, created an informational video that plays in the exhibit. “Trickster stories,” a type of fable, can be read through a graphic novel published in 2010.

“My favorite piece is an Ojibwa water drum, and it’s over 100 years old. And it’s sitting right next to a very contemporary drum that has paintings on it. It’s really interesting to see them side by side,” Halverson said. “I love that they are all next to each other and you can see that this tradition of storytelling is a very old tradition.”

In total, the exhibit contains more than 60 artifacts, all part of the Mitchell Museum’s own collection from tribes all over the North American continent. Halverson, as project manager, combed through all 10,000 of the museum’s objects, and culled the best ones to represent the stories she wanted to tell.

“I’m honored to be a part of it and I’m honored to be a part of storytelling,” she said.

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