Home Art collection New mural debuts at must-see Mitchell Museum

New mural debuts at must-see Mitchell Museum


Newly dedicated mural at the Mitchell Museum. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St. (in Central Park), sports a brand new mural on its south facade. And he needed it, because the central street side of the building is flat and perfectly plain – it has never told a passerby about what’s inside.

The mural was unveiled at 4:45 p.m. on August 26 before a crowd of around 50 people. Several women and girls wore ribbon skirts and beaded accessories, earrings and bracelets. The open house event included the unveiling of the mural, museum tours, Native American food, and an author talk. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the Native Medicine and Pollinator Garden was in full bloom.

Joseph Gackstetter, director of development and collections, said neighbors thanked the museum for planting the garden. “It is part of our overall vision, to build a bridge between the indigenous and general communities. And to see the museum as a resource,” he said.

Josee Starr, Mitchell Museum Operations Manager and Jane Grover, guest and former Evanston City Councilman. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Museum director Kim Vigue, a member of the Menomonee and Ojibwa tribes, has only been in the position since October 2021. She said: “The museum’s board of trustees is now primarily Indigenous – some members are from Evanston, D ‘others from Chicago.’

A team of five people run the museum, including Josee Starr, the director of operations, made up of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arika.

Vigue introduced lead artist Nigives White who, in turn, introduced the nine Aboriginal children who painted the mural. Each child had signed their name at the bottom of the fresco and, when introduced, pronounced their name and that of the tribe or tribes to which they belonged.

The mural is an effort to make the museum and its mission more visible in the community, as well as to “freshen up” the exterior, Vigue said. The work is composed of five painted, primed and sealed plywood panels.

The Mitchell also owns the property immediately to the west, used as an event space where visitors enjoyed local dishes. The wall panels had been laid out and painted on the large lawn under White’s supervision.

Nigives White before the unveiling of the new mural at the Mitchell Museum. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Artist White studied art at the University of New Mexico. He is now the youth coordinator at St. Kateri Center, a ministry of St. Benedict Parish in Chicago, serving the Native American community in Illinois.

At the center, indigenous believers can pray and practice their spirituality in accordance with their cultural traditions. There are 130,000 Native Americans in northeast Illinois, I’m told.

White is Arikara, Omaha and Odawa. He told the assembled crowd that the centerpiece of the mural is based on an Objibwe creation story of a flood and a rescue, to which the children added a number of animals not intended in its preliminary design.

There is a sacrificial beaver, loon, otter and muskrat. Most were saved on the back of a turtle. A skunk and an eagle also feature prominently, taken from another Ojibwe story. This story tells us how the skunk got its black and white stripes.

The young performers were mainly from the St. Kateri youth organization, aged between 9 and 17. It only took a week to paint the wall panels.

When they were mounted on the wall, they were covered in a bright blue tarp for another two weeks, waiting to be unveiled. There was just a little bit take a look below before August 26th. Much applause greeted the mural when the tarp was removed by the children.

Mitchell Museum director Kim Vigue, mural artist Nigives White and young Indigenous artists before the unveiling. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Formerly a research-only library, Mitchell’s library became a members-only lending library beginning Friday, Gackstetter said. As part of the celebration, a Native American author of children’s books, Maria Des Jarlait, gave a presentation at the library.

Des Jarlait is Arikara and Ojibwe. She grew up on a reservation in North Dakota, leaving for her studies and to become a teacher. His books are Atika’s medicine, I’m not a costume and White Cedar Woman. She wants Native American children to know their history and be proud of their identity and culture and she deeply hates the exploitation of Native Americans.

In her speech, Des Jarlait spoke of a situation she experienced, seeing “fake” Indian handicrafts for sale in a mall, which infuriated her.

The Indian Arts & Crafts Act of 1990, a federal law, prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Native American or Alaska Native arts and crafts products in the United States. Violations can result in substantial fines, jail time and civil penalties.

South facade of the Mitchell Museum, displaying the new mural. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The building inhabited by the Mitchell Museum was built as the Terra Museum of American Art, founded by Chicago businessman Daniel J. Terra in 1980. The Terra Museum’s art collection was his own.

Terra was named the United States’ first and only Goodwill Ambassador for Cultural Affairs by President Ronald Regan, serving from July 1981 to January 1989.

The museum moved to Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1987. But it closed permanently in 2004, after 24 years of operation and declining attendance. Much of the Terra collection went to the Art Institute of Chicago.

East facade of the Mitchell Museum. The building once housed the Terra Museum of Art. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Now the same building is filled with fascinating exhibits, one of the few museums across the country that focuses exclusively on the art, history and culture of American Indians and First Nations peoples of the states United States and Canada. Founded in 1977 as part of Kendall College (formerly on Orrington Avenue), the Mitchell moved to its current location in 1997.

In 2006, the Mitchells separated from Kendall to stay in Evanston and became a non-profit organization. The collection of more than 10,000 Native American artifacts represents some of the finest Native American textiles, visual arts, carvings and jewelry in the country. There is a wonderful little gift shop. Admission is $5-$7, with children under 3 free.

The Mitchell Museum is a must.