Chicago’s Field Museum opens historic Crow culture exhibition

‘Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors’ opens after a year of work led by curator Nina Sanders
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Chicago’s Field Museum opens historic Crow culture exhibition

Photo by Adam Sings in the Timber

"Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors" curator Nina Sanders.

Chicago’s Field Museum opens historic Crow culture exhibition

Photo by Trevor Reid / University of Montana

A 9-foot tall statue by artist Ben Pease called “Into the Future“ symbolizes both male and female roles in the Apsáalooke culture. It is on display in 6,000-square-foot "Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors" exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The exhibition is the museum’s first large-scale exhibition about Native Americans curated by a Native American.

Chicago’s Field Museum opens historic Crow culture exhibition

Photo by Trevor Reid / University of Montana

Seven Apsáalooke war shields are on display in the Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The shields are guarded over by portraits of Crow women, who traditionally cared for their husband’s spiritual possessions.

Chicago’s Field Museum opens historic Crow culture exhibition

Photo by Trevor Reid / University of Montana

A small-scale version of the Crow lodge is on display in the Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The lodge is traditionally regarded as a mother, as it provided shelter and safety for the Crow people.


The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is a formidable building.

The cavernous main entrance with its towering Roman columns greets visitors with wonders of the natural world: dinosaur bones and a massive chandelier made of ferns. Hidden below the surface of the museum is a secret. Deep within the bowels of

Deep within the bowels of the complex, a substantial collection of Apsáalooke items, ranging from war shields to teepee doors, were stored in towering beige collection drawers. Thanks to the work of Apsáalooke curator Nina Sanders and a handpicked team of contributors, many of these items are seeing the light of day for the first time in over 100 years.

The exhibition “Apsáalooke: Women and Warriors” opened to the public last week. It is the first exhibit at the Field Museum curated by an Indigenous woman, and is the largest of its kind. The 6,000-square foot space is the culmination of nonstop work that began in April of last year.

The displays are personal, with each explanatory placard written in the first person by Sanders. Standing to the side of an animated depiction of the creation story that she narrated in Crow, Sanders is proud of the exhibition, but sees it as just the beginning.

“I feel relieved, but I feel like it’s the beginning of new work that we all have to do as a community,” Sanders said.

Many of the contributors, including doctoral student JoRee LaFrance, were present. The energy, she says, is tangible and flowing throughout the room. LaFrance was taken aback to finally see all the work that she and her peers had put into the exhibition, and was reminded of long hours that went into creating the space.

“It was amazing to have so many Crows in one area all wanting the same thing,” LaFrance said. “And that’s for our people to survive and to thrive and to be happy [and] for us all to reach our fullest potential and to remain Apsáalooke.”

Situated in the back of the sprawling exhibit is a collection of seven war shields. The shields, which were sold to Field anthropologists at the turn of the 20th century, were held in collections, gathering dust.

Behind the display cases of the shields are towering portraits of Apsáalooke women, who act as the symbolic caregivers for the objects. These portraits pick up where the traditional role of women left off. When the shields were in the hands of the Apsáalooke, the women were the ones who looked after them, and kept and told their stories.

Anthropologist Aaron Brien led the curation of the shields, spending hours in the basement retracing their history and the stories surrounding them. Brien says that many of the stories and the meanings behind the shields have been lost to the Apsáalooke. His hope is to bring the names and meanings of these objects back into everyday life for the Crow.

“We’re fortunate to have a lot as Crow people, but we’re unaware of how much we have lost,” Brien said.

Walking through the blue-walled corridors and colorful displays of the exhibition is like travelling through a living, breathing love letter to the Apsáalooke. The lights are dim, and the air is filled with music created by Apsaalooka rapper Supaman.

The clash of hip hop drum loops and traditional songs is an indicator of what this space means to show who the Apsáalooke were and are today and how both elements are meshed together.

The exhibition will run in the Field Museum until April 2021, with plans in place to have the objects and stories travel to other museums across the country.

Alex Miller and Trevor Reid are students at the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula, Montana. Miller can be reached at michael6.miller@umontana.edu. Reid can be reached at Trevor1.reid@umontana.edu.

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