Located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois, the Field Museum is home to the world’s largest Tyrannosaur rex specimen, named Sue for the woman who discovered it. It also houses nearly 300 Potawatomi artifacts in collections and on display as part of the museum’s Native American Hall.
In April 2019, Citizen Potawatomi Nation District 1 Representative Roy Slavin and his wife Julia held a district gathering there with help of Fields Museum Community Engagement Coordinator Debra Pappan.
“It’s really important for me to make sure that we open the doors for Native people to come into the Field Museum and have that opportunity to use the space in that very way,” Pappan said.
Setting it up
Photographer and Tribal member Sharon Hoogstraten suggested the Field Museum as a venue while the Slavins searched for a place to host Tribal citizens in the Windy City. Sixty CPN members filled the RSVP slots, and Julia remembers accumulating a waiting list with over 30 names.
Pappan wanted to make it memorable and enlisted the help of several museum departments.
“I met with the collections staff, my colleagues, and we just talked about ways that we could make sure that they had the ability to see some of the Potawatomi things that we have in collections,” she said. “Our solution was then to bring some items out from storage and into the room, into the space that they were meeting in.”
The museum prepared a hall for everyone filled with items from collections that usually remain in storage.
“They arranged the Potawatomi artifacts for our benefit. They had it set up strictly with the Potawatomi artifacts so that we knew this was what we were seeing, and that was greatly appreciated,” Julia said.
Staff then divided attendees into groups of 15 to tour the museum and Native American Hall. Roy agreed it was a special way to experience the museum for the first time.
“I had an aunt that was a schoolteacher in Chicago, and as I grew up, she took me all over Chicago because she was proud of the city and showed me the buildings and all this,” he said. “But I had never seen this museum, and I was just amazed when I was there by the whole thing. It’s just amazing. It’s beautiful.”
The museum’s collection of hundreds of Potawatomi artifacts dates back to its founding in the late 1800s. Edward E. Ayer, the Field’s first president, donated the first Potawatomi piece in 1894 — a metal and bronze tomahawk pipe. The growth of the collection throughout the 20th century includes everything from intricately beaded moccasins and otter skin medicine bags to drumsticks and snowshoes.
Anthropology Collections Assistant Jackie Pozza enjoyed spending time with Tribal members as they looked over the items.
“It was wonderful showing everyone historic pieces we have at the museum, and they were kind enough to share their knowledge, memories and experiences with similar items they had back home,” she said. “Some recognized every piece in the case, while others did not recognize some of the historic items.”
Roy and Julie Slavin spent much of the day looking through it all, both keeping in mind his ancestors made each one by hand.
“I’m kind of a mechanical person, and that they were capable of doing and making the things that they made with the equipment that they had, it’s just amazing,” Roy said. “The things that they did. And that’s the thing that impressed me more than anything else.”
While the handcrafted tools and weapons entranced him, Julia repeatedly analyzed the textiles and regalia. As a former wedding dress tailor, she appreciates every hand movement that built something worn in ceremony.
“I would often wondered how they put these articles together being the time that these were made. They didn’t have a fancy machine and things like I have. And so, I was really interested in that particular part,” she said. “Now, I’m not Potawatomi, but I’ve been married to one for a long time, and the regalia is really important to me.”
Pozza described the artifacts as not only a representation of Native culture throughout time but also a “narrative of how the museum has interacted with the Potawatomi in the past and how our collecting practices and anthropology at large has changed over the course of our history as an institution.”
Anthropologist Milford Chandler collected many of the items now at the Field, mostly in Wisconsin and Kansas in 1925. At that time, Pozza said they “chose items that they themselves were interested in — ‘exhibition-worthy’ items, however they defined that term in the past — not ones that the community thought best represented themselves.”
Today, the Field Museum purposefully consults communities and artists to determine what to include and how to tell Indigenous stories. Its newest Potawatomi item is a piece by black ash basket maker and painter Kelly Church, titled Water is Life, added in 2019.
That change provides a safe learning space for those exploring their heritage or taking in the past. Julia said no one was disappointed.
“The people just wanted to be able to see what their ancestors and the people before us really accomplished and how we got to be where we are with our culture and how far we have actually come,” she said.
Future of the Field
The Field Museum is redesigning the Native American Hall, and Pappan leads that process. The cases remain unchanged since their installation in the early 1950s. More than five other Indigenous people contribute to the update as full-time employees. A 12-member advisory committee of Native Americans also assists in decision-making and direction, which includes obtaining pieces directly from Native artists and descendants.
“This allows us to collect items rich in stories and to give communities or artists from those communities more agency in the items that are part of the Field Museum’s collections that will be preserved for future generations,” Pozza said.
Pappan focuses on getting Native American visitors to the museum, either in groups or as individuals, and spends much of her time on outreach. This year, she has welcomed between 400 and 500 people from different tribes.
“Community engagement is a very important part of what we’re doing and changing the Native American Hall. So, it’s creating this more welcoming space for Native people to come into but then to also be able to give feedback and input on the direction that they want to see the Native American Hall go,” she said.
“We want to humanize and change the narrative of how Native people are being represented in the museum. Everyone, we want Native voices and Native perspectives.”
As for what CPN members were asking?
“They all said, ‘When can we do this again?’” Julia said.
“And it was well worth our time,” Roy added.
Debra Pappan welcomes CPN members to set up tour groups and special events at the museum. Email her at email@example.com. Visit the Field Museum online at fieldmuseum.org, and check the calendar at potawatomi.org for upcoming district events across the country.