How Should Museums Curate Native Culture? Chicago's Field Museum Gives Indigenous People a Voice in Curation

  • February 26, 2020 11:23

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War shield made and owned by Wraps His Tail
© Field Museum photo by John Weinstein
These Apsáalooke cultural teachers and others contributed to the exhibition Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. From left to right: Phenocia Bauerle, Charmaine Hill, Nina Sanders, JoRee LaFrance.
© Adam Sings In The Timber

Newest Field Museum exhibition will highlight Native American women and warriors, opens March 13 in Chicago

University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society to host companion show

For many years, Native American communities weren’t given the opportunity to tell their own stories in museums. As a response to this, with respect to Indigenous history, the Field Museum’s newest special exhibition will be the institution’s first large-scale exhibition curated by a Native American scholar in collaboration with their community. Apsáalooke Women and Warriors will open in March 2020 at the Field Museum in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, which will host a companion show. Both locations highlight the art and culture of the Apsáalooke (pronounced “Ahp-SAH-luh-guh”) people, also known as the Crow. Each site will feature historical and contemporary cultural material, from historic battle shields to high-end fashion designs, and will explore the powerful roles that women and warriors hold in the complex society of the Apsáalooke Nation, a living people, of the Northern Plains.

“We are delighted to work with a prominent Apsáalooke scholar, Nina Sanders, as our guest curator, and with so many Apsáalooke artists and cultural teachers,” says Jaap Hoogstraten, Director of Exhibitions at the Field Museum, who is also overseeing renovations to the Field’s permanent Native North America Hall, slated to open in 2021. “The exhibition tells the stories of the historic journeys and spiritual quests of the Apsáalooke people—told from Apsáalooke points of view. By featuring items from Field Museum collections as well as newly created artworks, the exhibition will offer museum visitors fascinating and often unexpected entry points into these stories.”


Apsáalooke Women and Warriors explores the history, values, and beliefs of this American Indian Community known for their horsemanship, artistic pursuits, and matriarchal ways of life, and honors the tradition of “counting coup”—performing acts of bravery. Visitors at both sites will learn about Apsáalooke origins, cultural worldviews, and the powerful roles that both women and warriors hold in the community through a unique mix of traditional objects and contemporary Native American pieces from the perspective of guest curator Sanders.

Karis Jackson, Blessing of a Leader
Field Museum

The Field will feature a total of 21 never-before-displayed Apsáalooke war shields from the museum’s collection, with seven on display at a time. Apsáalooke warriors made the war shields, while women were keepers of the shields. Visitors will have the ability to draw connections between the shield owners’ stories and the shields based on their craftsmanship and imagery.

“The shields inspire us, they remind us that people have the ability to defy the laws of physics and change the course of nature and history. The shields represent superhuman potential and divine intervention” says Sanders. Sanders is a descendant of one of the shields, meaning one of her ancestors made the shield. “The shields wereused in and out of battle —every part of the shield manifests the needed supernatural aid required for the warrior to succeed and survive in battle. For example, you will see one with a hawk squirrel because the man might have needed the strength to move quickly through the forest, depending on their role in battle.”

Along with the shields, the Field will also display horse regalia, a 9-foot-tall modern tipi, and over 20 works of contemporary art, including paintings, photography, unique beadwork, and high-end fashion. 

“It was important this project be truly collaborative and as inclusive as possible. From this the exhibition grew into an opportunity for both the Field and the University of Chicago to exhibit the shields, the artwork, and intellectual contributions of many Apsáalooke People” says Sanders. “There are over 20 Apsáalooke contributors but we acknowledge that we  cannot possibly represent each and every narrative and cultural belief system in our community. However, through a significant collaborative effort we can make a good impression on the Apsáalooke people, other Native Nations, and hopefully compel other institutions to reimagine collaborative exhibition-making.”

Apsáalooke Women and Warriors also highlights Apsáalooke gender and a look into an egalitarian society. The three genders include bía (woman), bachee(í) (man), and batee (two-spirited). Apsáalooke women are the keepers and influencers of the Apsáalooke way of life. Women, as well as men, were allowed to choose their partners. Men are responsible for protecting the woman so that she could carry on as a life-giver, culture keeper and foundation of the family and community. Sanders further explains, “In the community, people who identify as LGBTQ are considered two-spirited, imbued with the qualities and characteristics of all genders. We have many stories about exceptional batee people who counted coup or made beautiful works of art.”

Karis Jackson, Blessing of a Leader, Part Two
Field Museum

“When I became a curator of the North American Anthropology collection, a big part of my mission was to work with Native American artists and curators,” says the Field Museum’s Alaka Wali. “The cultural items in our collections are powerful—they are still living. Having representation from the communities who are part of the heritage is important because they can speak to the cultural materials and bring them to life in a way that we cannot.”

The Neubauer Collegium’s exhibition, co-curated by Sanders and Neubauer Collegium Curator Dieter Roelstraete, presents the themes of the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibition in the context of a major research university. (Sanders and Wali are currently serving as Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellows.) The smaller, more intimate exhibition is ideal for distilling the themes and ideas encountered at the Field, taking visitors inside the domestic space of an Apsáalooke tipi through an immersive sculptural installation in the gallery. A shield loaned by the Field will be at the heart of this exhibition site, further emphasizing the central role of Apsáalooke women in their culture, both past and present. This site will also include two tipis positioned outside the gallery in the Collegium’s public spaces and several works of contemporary art and objects made by Apsáalooke artists.

Celebration shirt (baleiíttaashtee) also known as a war shirt
© Field Museum photo by John Weinstein

“A project of this importance and scale required close collaboration among a large group of people from the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, and, most importantly, the Apsáalooke community. I’m thrilled with the results, and I’m excited to share them with the public,” says Jonathan Lear, Roman Family Director at the Neubauer Collegium.

"We properly consulted with the families and relatives of the items displayed in the show, and have taken this feedback to properly care for these ancestors,” says Meranda Roberts, a co-curator of the exhibition site at the Field Museum, postdoctoral researcher, and a person of Northern Paiute and Mexican-American heritage. “This collaboration is so important and will help shape ongoing renovations of our permanent Native North American Hall and will set the precedent for other museums for how to work with the Native community.”

Apsáalooke Women and Warriors will be presented in English and Spanish at the Field Museum, with select sections also in Apsáalooke, and will run through April 4, 2021. The Neubauer Collegium companion show, free and open to the public, will be presented in English and will close in August 2020. Entrance to the Field’s site will be included with an All-Access or Discovery pass to the Museum.

Ben Pease, Sacred Under the Cliff of Yellowstone
Field Museum

Apsáalooke Women and Warriors is an exhibition jointly organized by the Field Museum and the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, opening at both sites in March 2020.




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