Smithsonian backs effort to tell history of Native treaties

RED LAKE -- In the lobby of Washington, D.C.'s, National Museum of the American Indian sits a birchbark canoe created by the Fond du Lac and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Chippewa.

RED LAKE -- In the lobby of Washington, D.C.'s, National Museum of the American Indian sits a birchbark canoe created by the Fond du Lac and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Last week, the director of the museum -- one of several making up the Smithsonian Institution -- journeyed to the Red Lake Reservation in a search for artifacts of a different sort detailing a profound history.

Kevin Gover, who became director of the museum in 2007, said he is in the beginning stages of designing an exhibition on American Indian treaties. He met with tribal leaders Thursday at the Red Lake Tribal Headquarters to present his ideas and hear feedback from the community on the future exhibition.

"This is our first real effort to address the harder, more tragic parts of native history and their relationships with the United States," Gover said. "The Smithsonian has enormous potential to change people's understanding of Native American studies -- what we're taught in school."

Gover is a member of the Pawnee and Comanche tribes. He is a former professor of law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.


Since the museum opened in 2004, Gover said, it has shied away from exhibiting difficult Native American topics.

"We knew the time would come when we'd have to tell the whole story," Gover said. "There will be some who don't want to hear it, but we think it's time. This treaties exhibit will be our first venture into telling that difficult story."

The exhibition, Gover said, will be designed in layers. A main exhibition will be designed for viewing at the national museum at the National Mall. A traveling exhibition will also be designed to travel around the country. A third exhibition will be created travel throughout Minnesota to tell the story of American Indian treaties in Minnesota.

Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. commented on the planned treaties exhibition.

"It's encouraging to hear that in the educational institutions in America, the indigenous people will finally be able to tell their story," Jourdain said. "The stamp of approval from the Smithsonian carries a lot of weight. For Minnesota to be on the forefront of it, I think all tribes are excited about that."

According to Gover, the museum approaches historical subjects like treaties differently than other institutions because the museum, itself, is controlled by American Indians.

"In our authorizing statute, by law, the majority of our trustees are Native Americans, meaning members of federally recognized tribes. That alone tells you we're going to approach matters differently," he said.

Gover said he expects the treaties exhibit to be available for viewing in two years, in time for the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War of 1862 in southwestern Minnesota. He said he also hopes to complete a major publication on treaties and develop educational materials for teachers to use in classrooms.


"We want to start getting kids used to the idea that Indian treaties are no different than U.S. treaties, and that they're alive and enforceable," he said.

The museum, Gover said, is currently working with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council on the traveling exhibition that would circulate in Minnesota.

"One of the great misunderstandings of native history is this idea that Indians did not have the ability to compete and shape their destiny," Gover said. "I think that anyone who believes that widely underestimates our ancestors -- how intelligent and strategic they were and their understanding of what their circumstances were."

The key to setting the record straight on Native American history, according to Gover, will be taking advantage of the Smithsonian National Museum because "it has enormous credibility."

"If we put materials into a classroom and we say it happened this way, it's accepted as being true," Gover said. When asked what his immediate impressions were on his first visit to Red Lake, Gover said, "I wasn't kidding when I said Indians throughout the country know about Red Lake. It's just a place I've always wanted to see for myself."

The National Museum of the American Indian is the 16th museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of Native Americans.

"In the end, this will be a tragic story," Gover said of the American Indian treaties exhibition. "But it's also a story of triumph by the fact that we're still around. It means that our ancestors negotiated well and gave us a chance to be who we are. We think it's a wonderful story and one that deserves telling in greater detail than how it's ever been told before."

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