Regional Tour of American Indian Cultures
Our permanent exhibit “Regional Tour of American Indian Cultures” takes visitors on a tour through the major regions of the US and Canada and highlights the art and material culture of the tribes who lived there. Many of the objects you’ll see were collected by John and Betty Seabury Mitchell. This couple shared their passion for Native American art and culture with Evanstonians both old and young. In that spirit, the exhibit strives to provide a deeper understanding of Native American art, history, and cultures to all our visitors.
(East of the Mississippi River)
The Mitchell Museum is in the Woodlands region.
Tribes in the Woodlands area relied on a balance of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture; they were not entirely nomadic but traveled seasonally. Their homes reflect this lifestyle. The mural in this gallery will help you understand how community members with specialized skills worked together for the benefit of the community. There is also a model of an Iroquois longhouse that visitors can compare with the half-size wigwam upstairs.
Birch bark canoe – The birch bark canoe is from the Ojibwe tribe, who traditionally resided around the Great Lakes north of what is now the Chicago area. To the left, you’ll see photos of its traditional construction and use in gathering wild rice and for fishing.
Bandolier bags – Bandolier bags are still an important part of the Great Lakes region and ceremonial dress. These large, elaborately beaded shoulder bags form part of the traditional dress for both men and women among the Great Lakes tribes. They generally consist of a fully beaded panel and strap with floral beadwork on black or brown velvet. Bandolier bags developed from smaller more functional 18th-century leather shoulder bags that were decorated with porcupine quill designs. Over time the bags have increased in size and become less functional. Some bags are even made without an interior pocket and so only have a decorative use.
Seminole Man’s dress – Men of the Seminole tribe wore dresses or ‘long shirts’ like this one. The style of the garment is similar to that of European garments and is an adaptation by the members of this tribe of more traditional types of clothing. The fabric was obtained from trade with Europeans, later Americans. Beginning in the 17th century, clothing with stripes of fabric sewn together, called “patchwork”, was the common form of clothing. This was partially the result of the introduction of the hand-powered sewing machine.
Cherokee Syllabary – This writing system was invented by Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith in the frontier of Alabama during the years of the early Republic, who had frequent contact with white settlers. By 1809 he had begun work on a writing system for his language. He developed symbols that represented the syllables used in spoken Cherokee. After years of work, his syllabary was officially accepted by the Cherokee Nation in 1825. It is still used by members of the Cherokee tribe.
(West of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains)
After the Spanish introduced the horse to the Americas around 1600, tribes living at the edges of the Plains region were able to travel greater distances and began to fully utilize the region and its resources. The primary food source in the Plains were the herds of buffalo. As their dependence on this food source grew their lifestyle became increasingly nomadic. The tipi reflects this need to accommodate frequent travel. Take a look at the mural in this gallery. It will help you appreciate the ingenuity and adaptability of these groups, in their ability to adapt. If you would like to build a tipi, please ask us to get the kit out for you.
Breastplate – This object combines traditional materials and those gained through trade. The smaller blue and yellow beads were made of Venetian or Czechoslovakian glass. The long yellow beads were made from buffalo bone. When Native Americans killed an animal for food, they also used all of the inedible parts to create useful items.
Headdress – This is one of the most widely recognized Native American artifacts in popular American culture and should always be treated with great respect. The headdress was worn by a highly respected leader, chosen for his courage, strength, generosity, and kindness. The eagle feathers that make up the headdress are given to recognize individual acts of bravery.
Cradleboard – Cradleboards varied in material and design from tribe to tribe. Look at the map below and see the adaptations that were made by mothers based on available resources and climate. The basic form consists of a backboard and a lashing of material or animal skins to hold the infant to the backboard. Many cradleboards have a third element, a band of wood, metal, or basketry that protrudes from the backboard and forms a hoop, which protects the infant’s head should the cradleboard be dropped or fall over when propped against a tree or dwelling. The cradleboard keeps the baby safe and snug, and allows the mother and other caretakers to continue in their own work or travel easily. While very functional, these items were often very elaborately decorated as well. Some cradleboards were made for an individual infant, while others were handed down through families. Cradleboards were also created in toy form, so that future mothers could learn how to care for their dolls, as they would one daycare for their own infants.
(The Four Corners Area – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah)
Two primary groups live in this area: the Pueblo people, descendants of the original pre-contact inhabitants who lived n this area thousands of years ago, and the Navajo, who anthropologists believe are a band that relocated from the north around 1500 A.D. The Pueblo people reside in multi-story dwellings, similar in form and function to modern apartment buildings. Each building houses multiple generations of one family; pueblo society is both matrilineal and matrilocal. Inhabitants reach the upper stories by climbing ladders, which were removable if an enemy came. The main entrance is a hole in the middle of the ceiling. At the museum, you can view a few artist murals of these existing structures.
The primary staple of the Pueblo people’s diet was corn. Grinding the corn was an outstanding job that women performed. Try grinding some yourself when you visit the museum!
Pottery – Living in a sedentary agricultural society lends itself well to the creation and use of pottery in daily life. Gathering clay for pottery is a family activity. A pot is formed by coiling long rounded pieces. This technique is best exemplified in the Mogollon mug, viewed in our South. Traditional pottery design is best viewed on the Anasazi bowl (bottom row center). A revival of traditional pottery took place during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The black on black plate by Maria Martinez is from this period.
Katsina dolls – The Pueblo people believe in spirit helpers, called katsinas. It is believed that the katsinas bring rain to this arid desert climate and help in other ways. They are portrayed by men during ceremonies, and dolls are made to educate children about their religious beliefs. Older katsina dolls are simple in form; cylindrical, and made of cottonwood root (which seeks out water). The newer katsina dolls show more movement and greater detail.
Weaving – While both men and women were responsible for herding the sheep, women in the Navajo tribe owned the sheep and were responsible for all aspects of treating the wool, except for the steering. Similar to the example in this picture, you can enjoy an interactive weaving experience in our southwest section.
(Pacific Coastline of Oregon, Washington, Canada, and Southern Alaska)
Like most coastal settlements in the world, the Native American tribes in the Northwest Coast relied on fishing as a means of subsistence. Community members worked together to capture and kill large fish, including whales. Photos in this gallery depict permanent fishing villages and many of the dugout canoes that allowed them to venture out into the ocean. An important tradition among the peoples of the Northwest Coast is the Potlatch. A Potlatch is a community celebration of a major life event (a name giving, birth, marriage, etc.). A Potlatch may include the raising of a totem pole. The chief hosts the Potlatch and gives away many of his personal possessions, redistributing the wealth of the community. Both the Canadian and United States governments prohibited the Potlatch during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
Hat – In the small case next to the chair lift a hat is woven from cedar bark and the spruce root. is from the Nootka tribe. Notice the design woven into the hat. It is a fishing scene complete with men in canoes and whales. The finial shape of the hat denotes that the wearer has hosted one potlatch. Chiefs who hosted multiple potlatches would wear hats with multiple finials.
Totem Pole – The totem pole for the people of the Northwest Coast has special significance. The figures on the pole are often representations of the legends of the community, and are raised by the entire community. A totem pole is carved from a tall cedar tree, which is a very important material for the people of the Northwest Coast. It was used to construct not only their sea-going canoes, but also their homes and many items of importance in daily life as well as spiritual life. In this gallery you will see two reproduction or model totem poles. See if you can identify the figures on these models.
Masks – Among the tribes of the Northwest Coast stories were very important. Stories were collected and passed down through clans. During celebrations and ceremonies, these stories were acted out by members of the clan that owned them. Just as actors wear costumes in plays or movies to get into a character, these masks brought the spiritual being to life during the performance. Masks, like many of the other painted wood surfaces, are traditionally painted in red and black. These natural paints were made by crushing the eggs of salmon (red caviar) and other fish (black caviar). Trying to paint with these materials might be a fun at-home activity. Masks with paint colors of blue and green are often post-European contact, since they are commercially made paints.
Button Blanket – In a cool rainy environment it is important to protect your body from chill by wearing a protective cloak. Before contact with Europeans and Americans, members of the Northwest Coast tribes made cloaks of woven cedar bark. After contact, wool fabric and different types of beads (glass and mother of pearl buttons replaced abalone or dentallium shell decorations) became available. The design on the blanket is that of the clan to which the wearer belongs.
(Most of Alaska and parts of Canada)
In this frozen part of the world, people are experts at adapting to the harsh environment. You might think that an igloo built of blocks of ice would make for a very cold home, but in fact, these ice houses can be up to 68 degrees in the interior, not much cooler than your home during the winter. Another way that people who live in such a cold climate have adapted is to eat a diet high in fat; blubber from sea mammals (whales, walrus, etc.) give each person a store of calories that aren’t available to people who eat leaner diets and live in a more temperate climate.
Snow googles – In addition to the threat of a frigid climate, Inuit people need to adapt to the intense sunshine. Protecting their eyes from the glare created by the sun on abundant snow and ice is very important. In the Arctic section at the museum, you will see three different variations using different materials to make sunglasses. Try out the pair on the touching table; see if you can tell a difference.
Whale Bone Sculpture – After a whale was hunted and stripped of its meat and blubber, the other useful parts, particularly bone, were used to create a variety of items. Pictured here is an Alaskan walrus carved from whale vertebrae. The whale and walrus provided sustenance, which is still critical to surviving the harsh winters in the Arctic.
Gutskin Parka – In the arctic, keeping dry while fishing and hunting is as important as keeping warm. A parka made from the outer layer of the intestine, called gutskin, of a sea mammal provides such protection and is easily available after the slaughter of one of these animals for its meat as a food source. A second parka, made of skins, would be worn beneath this one to provide warmth, similar to wearing an all-weather jacket with its liner.