This wigwam, on the second floor of the Mitchell Museum, is typical of those of Woodland Indians and is one of thousands of objects and artifacts that give a view of the lives of indigenous American people. The museum was built on a private collection donated by John and Betty Mitchell. Photo courtesy of the Mitchell Museum

Evanston is home to one of the few museums in the country focused exclusively on the history, culture and arts of the native people of the United States and Canada. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St., uses its collection of more than 10,000 objects to tell the rich story of indigenous people.

The museum’s extensive collection began in 1977 when John and Betty Mitchell donated 3,000 objects to Kendall College. It has grown to include archeological, ethnographic and art objects of American Indian and Inuit (Eskimo) people from all time periods, from the Paleo-Indian period through the present day.

The museum was originally housed in the basement of the college, on Orrington Avenue. In 1997, it moved from the campus to the free standing building on Central Street formerly housing the Terra Museum of American Art. The larger new space allowed the museum to greatly expand its exhibitions and public programs.

“Our mission is to promote and share a deeper understanding of Native American people so we can better understand our world and ourselves,” says Executive Director Kathleen McDonald.

Ms. McDonald, who came to the Mitchell Museum about eight months ago, brings with her more than 11 years of museum experience, including seven years at the Chicago History Museum.

The mission is linked to the intent of the original donors, who wanted to share their knowledge of the people and culture and try to break down some of the negative stereotypes, says Ms. McDonald.

Ms. McDonald says John Mitchell became fascinated with the Native American culture after spending summers visiting his uncle; who worked on a reservation in Oklahoma.

“He had a very strong tie and kinship to the culture and amassed this large collection throughout his life,” says Ms. McDonald.

With plans to move from Evanston to Chicago, Kendall College agreed to separate from the museum, allowing it to remain at its present location on Central Street. In 2006, the Mitchell Museum emerged as a separate 501 (c) 3 not-for- profit organization.

Today, the museum has approximately 350 members and an annual visitation of 7,800, including more than 2,800 school children.

The museum’s main exhibit showcases Native American cultures from the five major regions of the U.S. and Canada. This permanent exhibit takes visitors on a tour of the five regions and includes many objects donated by Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell.

Temporary exhibits are introduced a few times a year. Some upcoming exhibits include “Contemporary Art by Native American Artists” and “Men’s Fashion:
Bolo Ties.”

Within all the exhibitions are “hands-on tables” where visitors can touch pottery, baskets, clothing and tools. On the second floor, a reproduction of a life-sized wigwam is a perfect place for teaching children about the world of Woodland Indians.

Crafts and activities are often available for the children. Every Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon is Kids Craft Mornings where children learn to construct simple versions of traditional Native American objects such as dream catchers and beaded jewelry.

“We are planning to make the exhibits even more interactive in the future,” says Ms. McDonald. “A lot of great programs are in store as we try to tie together our exhibits on display with what our audience is really interested in.”

One new program launched this year is the Native American Studies Program, a series of lectures taught by prominent Native Americans from the community. Perfect for novices and scholars alike, each session focuses on a specific topic from Native American culture and history.

Ms. McDonald says the Museum’s greatest challenge is fundraising and adds they have begun to expand their fundraising efforts.

On Nov. 4, the Museum will host a benefit at Prairie Moon Restaurant with Mark Cleveland and his Band.

“We’ve been around for 33 years now,” says Ms. McDonald. “We have a long history of developing quality exhibits and programs and working with the education community.

Anne Bodine

Anne Bodine, Community News Editor, has been a part of The Evanston RoundTable since 2008 as a reporter covering businesses and institutions; arts and entertainment; and health and wellness. More recently,...