American Indian Art and Artifacts at the Science Museum of Minnesota

October 19, 2010


By Sheila Regan

Deep in the underbelly of the Science Museum of Minnesota are thousands of Native American artifacts. Down in its basement, the museum has 10,000 Native American objects, including nearly 1,500 objects from Dakota and Anishinabe tribes, according to Science Museum curator Tilly Laskey, who calls the collection one of the “best kept secrets in the Midwest.”

Laskey, who specializes in North American Native American material culture and contemporary art, currently is in charge of organizing, cataloguing and researching the ethnology collections, curating exhibitions and working with research associates and interested community members. She said that the Science Museum’s collection of objects is different from that of an art museum’s because “we don’t just collect the most beautiful objects,” she said. The museum also collects objects for other reasons besides aesthetic ones. “We tell people’s stories,” Laskey said.

The thousands of items include such gems as Anishinabe bandolier bags, lures created by the Lac Du Flambeau band, Dakota ribbon and porcupine quill work, horse hair and bead work examples, Dakota amulets (which at one time held a child’s umbilical cord, Anishinabe dolls, Blackfeet clothes made from Stroud cloth and ermine, pre-Columbian textiles and many other objects.

A portion of the Native American archive in the museum is part of the Henry Whipple collection. Whipple was the first Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota. He lived from 1822-1901 and was active in missionary work, believing that Native people should adopt Christianity. Whipple collected hundreds of arts and crafts objects from Dakota, Anishinabe and other tribes around the country. An exhibit featuring The Bishop Whipple Collection was displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society in 2008. The exhibit, containing 40 items, featured traditional quillwork, beaded garments, bandolier bags among other items. You can see some of the images from that exhibition at: http://www.mnhs.org/exhibits/whipple/objects.htm

While the Native American pieces are not in plain view with regular museum admission, people who are interested in viewing the objects may make an appointment with the staff of the Science Museum, the only science museum in the United States that is led by an American Indian (SMM President Eric Jolly is Cherokee).
The museum is also currently undergoing the process of photographing the pieces so that soon their images will be accessible online. In collaboration with the Minnesota Historical Society, using Legacy Amendment funding, the digitization project is in the testing phase. Eventually it will allow visitors to browse the collection online and do specific searches. The online archive is supposed to be completed within a year.

According to Public Relations Coordinator Sarah Imholte, the museum’s visitation policy is “fairly flexible and open, especially in comparison to other museums across the country.” She said that Tilly Laskey, who is in charge of facilitating tours, “takes great care to do whatever she can to facilitate tours and has never turned away a request.” However, Laskey’s schedule books up quickly, and it is best to plan a visit at least three weeks in advance.
The collections, situated by geographic area, and by tribe, live in file cabinets, and are supervised by Laskey, who consults with the American Indian Advisory Committee. Laskey said the committee determines such issues as which objects can or cannot be handled by women, or which objects need to be segregated (for example various medicine bundles).

The Science Museum has a few human remains left, which it is in the process of repatriating, Laskey said. In addition, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, made it illegal for museums to acquire any artifacts with religious significance (such as funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony). The Science Museum’s policy states: “The Museum will strive to resolve questions of the disposition and treatment of sensitive materials through cooperative and timely discussions between the Museum and interested Native American groups. Where issues remain after good faith discussions, an attempt will be made to settle these issues through mutually agreed upon processes of mediation or arbitration.”

Besides the Native American art and artifacts, the Science Museum also houses The Hiller Ethnobotany Collection. Wesley Hiller was a dentist who lived in Minneapolis, and an amateur anthropologist. Starting in 1938, he began collecting seeds, focusing on ancient indigenous species. His estate donated his collection, consisting of indigenously cultivated species of corn, beans, squash, rice, pumpkin, watermelon, tomatoes, cotton, tobacco and sunflowers to the museum in 1977.
Since 2004, the museum has worked to cultivate The Three Sisters garden, using the seeds donated by Heller. The museum has successfully germinated the seeds, and has worked with youth in maintaining culturally relevant planting and harvesting techniques.

Inside the Big Back Yard lies the The Turtle Effigy Garden, which was designed by Paul Red Elk (Lakota) and Yako Tahnahgh (Mohawk/Anishinabe) in the shape of a turtle. The herbal plants in the Turtle Effigy Garden are those used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes.

Sheila Regan wrote this story for the Native American Community Development Institute. NACDI's comprehensive approach to building a more sustainable community in South Minneapolis is supported (in part) by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation through the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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