The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St. (at Central Park Avenue), boasts a brand-new mural on its south facade. And it needed it, because the Central Street side of the building is flat and perfectly plain – it never told passersby anything about what was inside.
The mural was unveiled Aug. 26 to a crowd of 50 or so. Several women and girls wore ribbon skirts and beaded accessories, earrings and bracelets. The open house event included the mural unveiling, tours of the museum, Native American foods and an author’s talk. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the indigenous medicine and pollinator garden was in full bloom.
Joseph Gackstetter, director of Development and Collections, said neighbors have thanked the museum for planting the garden. “It is part of our overarching vision, to build a bridge between the indigenous and general communities. And to see the museum as a resource,” he said.
Museum Director Kim Vigue, a member of the Menominee and Oneida tribes, has been in her position since October 2021. She said, ”The museum board is mostly native now – some members are Evanstonians, others are from Chicago.”
A staff of five manages the museum, including Josee Starr, the operations director, who is from the Arikara, Omaha and Odawa tribes.
Vigue introduced lead artist Negwes White who, in turn, introduced the nine native children who painted the mural. Each child had signed his or her name at the bottom of the mural and, when they were introduced, spoke their name and that of the tribe or tribes to which they belong.
The mural is an effort to make the museum and its mission more visible in the community, as well as to “freshen up” the exterior, Vigue said. The work is composed of five painted plywood panels, primed and sealed.
The Mitchell Museum also owns the property immediately to the west, used as an event space where visitors enjoyed native foods. The mural panels had been laid out and painted on the large lawn there under White’s supervision.
White studied art at the University of New Mexico. He is now the Youth Coordinator at St. Kateri Center, a ministry in the St. Benedict parish in Chicago, serving the Native American community in Illinois.
At the center, native believers can pray and practice their spirituality in accordance with their cultural traditions. There are 130,000 Native Americans in Northeastern Illinois, I was told.
White is Ojibwe and Diné (Navajo). He told the assembled crowd that the centerpiece of the mural is based on an Ojibwe creation story of a flood and rescue, to which the children added a number of animals not planned in his preliminary design.
There’s a beaver, loon, otter and a self-sacrificing muskrat. Most were saved on a turtle’s back. A skunk and an eagle feature prominently too, taken from another Ojibwe story. That story tells us how the skunk was given his black and white stripes.
The young artists were primarily from the St. Kateri youth organization, ages 9 through 17. It took just a week to paint the mural panels.
When they were mounted on the wall, they were covered with a bright blue tarp for another two weeks, awaiting unveiling. There was only a little peeking under the tarp before Aug. 26. Much applause greeted the mural when the tarp was pulled away by the children.
Formerly a research-only library, the Mitchell’s library became a members-only lending library as of Friday, said Gackstetter. As part of the celebration, a Native American author of children’s books, Maria DesJarlait, gave a presentation in the library.
DesJarlait is Arikara and Ojibwe. She grew up on a reservation in North Dakota, leaving for her education and to become a teacher. Her books are Atika’s Medicine, I’m Not a Costume and White Cedar Woman. She wants Native American children to know their history and to be proud of their identity and culture and she deeply resents exploitation of Native Americans.
In her talk, DesJarlait spoke of a situation she had experienced, seeing “fake” Indian crafts for sale at a mall, which made her furious.
The Indian Arts & Crafts Act of 1990, a federal law, prohibits misrepresentation in marketing American Indian or Alaska Native arts and craft products within the United States. For violations, there are substantial fines, prison terms and civil penalties.
The building inhabited by the Mitchell Museum was built as the Terra Museum of American Art, founded by Chicago businessman Daniel J. Terra in 1980. The art collection at the Terra Museum was his own.
Terra was named the first and only U.S. Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs by President Ronald Regan, serving from July 1981 to January 1989.
The museum relocated to Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1987 but closed permanently in 2004, after 24 years of operation and declining attendance. Much of the Terra collection went to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now the same edifice is filled with fascinating exhibits, one of only a handful of museums across the country that focus exclusively on the art, history and culture of American Indian and First Nation peoples from the United States and Canada. Founded in 1977 as part of Kendall College (formerly on Orrington Avenue), the museum moved to its current location in 1997.
In 2006, the Mitchell Museum separated from Kendall College to remain in Evanston and became a nonprofit organization. The collection of more than 10,000 Native American objects represents some of the country’s finest American Indian textiles, visual art, sculptures and jewelry. There is a wonderful small gift shop. Admission is $5 to $7, with children under 3 free.
The Mitchell Museum is a must-see.