Home Historical art Journeys to the Heartland: Exploring Native American Heritage

Journeys to the Heartland: Exploring Native American Heritage


WINNEBAGO, Neb. (KMTV) – It’s easy to assume that the purpose of a museum is to share stories and exhibits about ancient artifacts or contemporary pieces. But, when the story is about your people, your culture, and your history, it becomes more personal and far more relevant. This is the goal of the Angel De Cora Museum and Research Center in Winnebago. The museum tells the story of the Ho Chunk people and their lives in the Upper Midwest and Nebraska. It provides people with an educational opportunity to learn more about the Native citizens of Nebraska during Native American Heritage Month.

The museum is primarily dedicated to welcoming and educating citizens of the Ho Chunk Nation, said Sunshine Thomas Bear, director of tribal cultural preservation and museum curator.

“It’s about being able to teach our people and bring them back to the culture and the language,” Thomas Bear said. “There is a lot of lateral oppression that we face as a people. We were kind of taught that, after we were kidnapped and turned against each other.

The Winnebago – Ho Chunk in the traditional language – were originally an indigenous nation of the Upper Midwest, living in and around Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. But, as white settlers expanded west, they were eventually driven from their homeland, with part of the tribe settling in northeast Nebraska, about an hour north of Omaha. Other Ho Chunks returned to central Wisconsin and continue to live there today.

The Winnebago reservation was established as part of an agreement between the tribal nation and the federal government, which included Chief Little Priest and approximately 75 soldiers joining the United States Army, serving as scouts in battles against d other indigenous nations. Little Priest, while he disliked being opposed to those he considered brothers, saw the need for a permanent homeland for his people, which served as the driving force behind his decision.

Tim Trudell (The Traveling Tourists)

Painting of the Chief Little Priest. Photo by Tim Trudell

The Angel De Cora Museum provides insight into the history of Winnebago, as well as the previous lives of Native Americans in the area. From pottery remains to arrowheads, visitors can witness Winnebago history firsthand.

Thomas Bear said De Cora was abducted as a child, along with other children, while playing along the train tracks.

“We asked her if she had ever been on a train before, and when she said no, they caught her with the others,” Thomas Bear said.

The children ended up in Virginia. After attending school in Hampton, Virginia, she graduated from college and became an artist. Learning of her heritage, De Cora returned to Winnebago, but with her family having perished over the years, there was nothing to connect her to Winnebago, so she returned east, Thomas Bear said. However, De Cora, who died of the flu at 47, became an artist and activist.

Museum exhibits are mostly gifts from local families, as well as items on loan from other museums and agencies. One piece – a jar designed by Winnebago artist Jacquie Stevens – was donated by her relative Emmy Scott, who, along with other supporters, hopes it will serve as inspiration for future artists. The jar, like others, has its own life, personality and character, the artist said when creating the work in 2001. Stevens, who died of Covid-19 in 2021, had her art exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, as well as the Joslyn Museum in Omaha.

Pottery designed by Winnebago artist Jacquie Stevens.  Photo by Tim Trudell.JPG

Tim Trudell (The Traveling Tourists)

Pottery designed by Winnebago artist Jacquie Stevens. Photo by Tim Trudell

In addition to beads, including sling belts, headbands, and hair ties, museum exhibits include ornately designed moccasins, dresses, and shirts. The paintings depict traditional leaders, including Chief Little Priest. The designs showcase the contemporary works of tribal citizen Chuck Raymond.

Although it’s open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, the museum’s purpose is more than just a public display of culture and history, Thomas Bear said. .

“A lot of what we have are objects that we repatriated from other museums,” she said. “That’s another part of my job, as a tribal historical preservation officer, representing the tribe for the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. I was recently in Chicago at the Field Museum. I work there a lot. They have a lot of our stuff. We’re really trying to get away from the NAGRA side where the museums have been hiding behind the culturally unidentified.”

“We’re trying to get away from that and bring it back to the tribes — not just my tribe — but everyone’s tribe,” Thomas Bear said. “Things were taken, obviously, against our will. Some things were given, but those items have to go back to the tribes.

While tribes go to great lengths to identify objects – they are more easily recognizable than most people realize – each historically has artistic styles. So while Thomas Bear may not recognize an item as Winnebago, she may know which tribe it belongs to or know someone who can better identify their home.

Pottery work.  Photo by Tim Trudell.JPG

Tim Trudell (The Traveling Tourists)

Pottery work. Photo by Tim Trudell

The work continues and the institutions are not always willing to work with the Aboriginal nations. But she and other historical experts continue.

While visitors won’t see the behind-the-scenes work of Thomas Bear and others, they can check the museum’s Facebook page for Native American Heritage Month events throughout November. Some of the activities, she said, include moccasin making, beading and learning to sew, as well as a sunset parade (similar to a Christmas parade) at the end of the month.

The Winnebago also offers visitors the opportunity to learn about the 12 clans of Ho Chunk at the Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza. The carvings face each other in a circle, with the name of each clan and its role within the tribal community.

Other Nebraska tribes also have museums. The Ponca Museum and Library houses exhibits featuring traditional headdress, beads and skin acknowledging the restoration of the tribe in 1990. A heritage trail takes visitors along a path, which includes a mud hut, historical markers and carvings, culminating in a statue of Chief Standing Bear, overlooking the Niobrara River Valley. Chief Standing Bear won the first civil rights case in Native American history, when in 1879 an Omaha judge ruled that Native Americans were persons under the United States Constitution, allowing him to to return to his native land in northeastern Nebraska to bury his son.

The iSanti Dakota (Santee Dakota) Tribal Museum is located inside the headquarters building in Santee, about nine miles east of Niobrara. The museum includes a rifle used by Chief Little Crow and a masked map of the Santee Trail of Tears, when tribesmen traveled nearly 200 miles from the Crow Creek agency in central South Dakota to the new reserve in Knox County.

While the Umo Ho Nation (Omaha) does not have a Tribal Museum on the reservation, the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Center, on the site of her hospital in Walthill, is scheduled to open in 2023. The center will include exhibits and exhibits recognizing the tribe and the first Native American woman (and Native American woman) to become a physician.

As for non-Native visitors to the Winnebago Museum—or any Native American-related museum—Thomas Bear seeks to provide them with an understanding of Native history, culture, and traditions.

Flag of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska

Tim Trudell (The Traveling Tourists)

Flag of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Photo by Tim Trudell

“Some of the questions asked can be a little insulting,” she said. “But, I think there is healing and there is truth. I try not to be hard on them, but as honest as possible. Because then they know about the atrocities. We know it’s not their fault, but we want to educate and change the ideals of the people who walk through those doors. And hopefully they will leave being someone who wants to learn more about our tribes, our country, in our area, Nebraska, and be an ally for us. And, you know, understand that we’re not gone, we’re still here.”

“We are still fighting to be seen and for our treaty rights. But, I think it’s still an ongoing fight, but one we’re fighting,” Thomas Bear said.

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