Telling the Apsáalooke story

Crow curator partners with Field Museum for exhibition of tribe’s historic and contemporary art and culture
Thursday, May 2, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Photo by Adam Sings In The Timber

A delegation of Apsáalooke artists and scholars visited the Field Museum in Chicago as part of a collaborative exhibition curated by Nina Sanders. (From left) Elias Not Afraid, beadwork artist; Joree LaFrance, doctoral candidate at University of Arizona; Kevin Red Star, painter; and Ben Pease mixed media artist examine a historic Apsáalooke item in the Field’s collection. Many of the items in the collection were purchased by researchers in the late 1800s.

Apsáalooke curator Nina Sanders is bringing a new kind of Apsáalooke history exhibition to the Field Museum in Chicago. “It’s different because it’s a person from the community telling the story of the community with input from the community,” she said.

Sanders is working with a number of Apsáalooke artists, scholars, anthropologists, writers and change makers to collectively bring the story of the tribe to a 6,000 square-foot space in a museum that has an interesting past when it comes to studying Native peoples.

Sanders is a curator, writer, beadwork artist, and cultural consultant. She has worked for the School for Advanced Research, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, where she curated and created finding guides for over 250 historic Crow photographs for the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive.

Sanders said American anthropology and museum practices at the end of the 19th century were very much about the preservation of the culture and practices of the vanishing Native peoples of this country.

Many museums, including the Field, dispatched teams to visit tribal peoples across the nation to collect as much information and artifacts.

From those visits the Field Museum was able to collect 80 shields from the Apsáalooke people, many of whom sold these sacred objects in an effort to provide for their families in what could only be described as a desperate situation.

During the late 1800s most Native peoples in the American west were relegated to Indian Reservations where they were no longer allowed to live their traditional ways. The people in this region were stripped of their rights and cultural practices and could no longer roam the plains following buffalo herds. Instead, they were given rations and hunting restrictions, creating a dependent relationship on the U.S. government.

From that desperation, many museums benefited. Apsáalooke people and other tribes sold what they could to researchers, including war shields, beadwork, household items, and, sometimes, their stories.

“They took that knowledge and capitalized off of it,” Sanders said of the anthropologists of that era.

She added there continues to be a fascination with Native cultures, specifically because Native people are still viewed as a vanishing race

“We are romanticized for all kinds of different reasons, people are fascinated with us because we are in some ways endangered,” she said. “But they underestimated our resilience and our ability to retain out art forms.”

Open Fields Project

Sander’s partnership with the Field Museum stems from her work as a visiting fellow at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago and their Open Fields project.

According to the Neubauer Collegium’s website, the Open Fields project has convened scholars, practitioners, and indigenous leaders representing a wide range of perspectives to pursue two goals: articulating a vision for the future of ethnographic museology and updating antiquated methods of conserving and preserving indigenous material culture. Working with Indigenous people is a key component to meeting those goals.

“Finally there could be a show where the Crow people can be the curator, rather than an expert from who knows where with Crow advisors,” said Jonathon Lear, Roman Family Director at the Neubauer Collegium. “This is a way for (the museum) to move forward in a more sensitive and creative way.”

Lear sees the exhibition as an opportunity to give a new generation of creative Apsáalooke people a voice, and as an opportunity toward reconciliation for the museum.

“This is a big institution with a problematic past and they are trying to be better,” Lear said. “Institutions have a history and the history of the Field is very problematic, but they would like to do something good in the world.”

Sanders agrees with the sentiment and she said the collaborative effort between the Neubauer and the Field is a step in the right direction.

“We, as Native people, have to be really patient” she said of working with non-Native professionals. “We have to have the ability to rearticulate things over and over to create understanding and we have to support one another.”

The Field exhibition called, “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” will open at the Field Museum on March 13, 2020 with a smaller sister exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium, both will feature historical and contemporary art, a companion catalog will also be produced with Apsáalooke writers contributing. Nina recently curated an exhibition of contemporary Native art at the Coe Foundation for the Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

More than a decade ago Apsáalooke tribal member George Reed worked as a cultural consultant on an exhibition at the Field that featured Crow artifacts, but “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” takes it one step further by giving an Apsáalooke curator control over the entire exhibition.

The show will feature historic Crow shields, clothing, household items and parade regalia. Artists Kevin Red Star, Ben Pease, Birdie Real Bird, Karis Jackson, Elias Not Afraid will be featured and designer Bethany Yellowtail and performer Christian Takes Gun Parrish, also known as Supaman will have work featured in the exhibition.

Sanders said she is on the lookout for other established and emerging Apsáalooke artists; she also has a list of people she hopes to bring on the project.

“The Apsáalooke people have an abundance of creative items, and this show maybe a small step toward healing for our community,” she said. “As a professional, it’s frightening. It’s good though because we are in that community. It’s just a part of (us). Curating a show is easy, because it’s not my intention to interpret everything for everyone. I know there were people I was already working with who could step up, people who are trying to make change. This is a good way to do it.”

Crow Anthropology

Working with the war shields has a special place in Sanders’ heart.

“It was what I prayed for,” she said. “Working with these shields is not something I was qualified to do on my own; I needed the expertise of an Apsáalooke man who has multiple worldviews so they can make this educational for the public and other anthropologists”

Sanders brought on Apsáalooke anthropologists Aaron Brien and Marty Lopez.

Brien teaches in the Native American Studies department at Salish Kootenai College, his field research focuses primarily on Apsáalooke people. Lopez is a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana, who uses his expertise to create documentaries.

The first shield Brien saw in the Field museum’s collection was one that belonged to his great-greatgreat-great-grandfather Crazy Sister-in-Law, the father of renowned medicine woman Pretty Shield.

“It was emotional,” he said. “I know him; I own gray horses because he rode a gray horse in the Battle of Arrow Creek.”

Brien said Crazy Sisterin-Law played an instrumental role in that battle, which was a turning point in Apsáalooke history.

“My reaction was immediate, like boom,” he said. “I didn’t actually examine the shield as an anthropologist until I stared at it for about an hour. I have a profound respect for something that was used to protect his family, I mean that’s us!” he said. “There’s also a sadness, why did he give this up?”

Brien said looked at over 50 shields in the Field’s collection, and even examined two other shields that belong to family members.

Brien said the acquisition of cultural and ethnographic items in the late 1800s and early 1900s was riddled with morality and ethical issues.

“Many of the people who sold these items were driven by poverty,” he said. “It’s another example of the exploitation of poor people.”

Brien said that practice is one of the reasons he studies Apsáalooke people.

“Look, they are going to study us anyway, you have to mitigate it,” he said.

Alaka Wali, the curator of North American Anthropology, said that contemporary museums have more ethical practices.

“Museums in general are doing things that are different now,” Wali said. “They’ve realized they need to change the ways they represent, we are building on those elements”

She added that an exhibition of this size with this much collaboration is something very new for the Field.

“For the Field it is groundbreaking,” she said. “Nina is doing this in a way that is different, from the museum perspective it’s a huge opportunity for us. We hope the Apsáalooke will enjoy and benefit from it as well.”

She added that the project is good for the museum because it will expand their knowledge and they will be able to tell more accurate and compelling stories moving forward.

“We are deeply appreciative that people are will to work with us, especially given the history of the institution,” she said. “We are very appreciated of the fact that people want to claim the collections as their own, we benefit a lot from this work.”

Local anthropologist and General Studeies Department Head at Little Big Horn College Tim McCleary said using an authentic Apsáalooke voice in an Apsáalooke exhibition of this scale at a major institution is cutting-edge. McCleary stated there is a movement in contemporary anthropology to bring in more authentic Native voices; because they bring in a connection to the community that doesn’t exist otherwise.

“I read a lot about Crows before I ever moved here, and after I got here I realized they weren’t even close,” he said. “Who better than Crows to do this? Even for myself as a non-tribal member. I don’t have that connection.”

He noted the Yakima and Umatilla tribes have excellent museums that use authentic tribal voices to tell the history of the people, but mainstream institutions are not there yet.

“The fact that the museum wants the community to reconnect with the shields on such a large scare is really cool,” he said.