The vast and complex topic of American Indian identity – how it is expressed through language, art, religion and cultural practices and how it is affected by U.S. federal and tribal laws – is the focus of the new exhibit that opened on Sept. 28 at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian (MMAI) in Evanston.
Organized by the MMAI, 3001 Central St., “Cultural Identities: Mixed Blood” will be on view through Aug. 31, 2014. The exhibit introduces many of the internal and external forces that impact tribal membership and cultural identity and shape the experience of American Indian peoples.
Exhibit graphics use quotations gleaned from a MMAI survey of 60 members of the American Indian community. Survey participants shared their sentiments, experiences and perceptions as mixed-ancestry or mixed-culture American Indians in the U.S. and Canada.
A section examining Native identity from the era before European contact and on into the 1800s will look at the dynamics of intertribal marriages and how clans and bands have differentiated themselves. Objects on view include Hopi deerskin wedding boots, Inuit carvings and copper jewelry pieces.
The exhibit also explains how Indian-owned slaves, intertribal adoptions, and adoptions of Indian children by non-Natives have complicated the identity picture.
Developments such as the forced assimilation of American Indians through Indian boarding schools and missionary schools, stripped them of their languages, religions and traditional cultures. The exhibit introduces the Indian Adoption Project of 1958 to 1967, which placed hundreds of American Indian children from Western states with white families in the East and Midwest. Even today, adopted Indian children from that program continue to search for their lost Native past.
Concepts of Indian identity were shaped by the federal government’s blood quantum laws, established to determine who was eligible for financial and other benefits under treaties. A version of this system for certifying a person’s degree of “Indian-ness” is still in use today. A display of U.S.-tribal peace medals, an 1886 government food-ration card issued to an Indian family and photos of Indian boarding schools illustrate the topics.
The exhibit explores how American Indian arts and crafts continue in the 20th century as expressions of American Indian identity. Items on display include a Navajo necklace made from U.S. silver dollars, a beaded pair of gym shoes, and a Navajo-beaded Chicago Bulls hat.
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