TLAM 2011 at the Arvid E. Miller Library/Museum with Betty and Nathalee
“To be an Indian is having non-Indians control the documents from which other non-Indians write their version of your history.” --William T. Hagan, “Archival Captive—The American Indian.”
Although the sheer volume of American Indian archival materials in non-native collections is overwhelming, and Indians will necessarily continue to be dependent “upon the collections over which non-Indians preside,” there is, according to William Hagan, a growing movement among tribes to take an active interest in their own histories, and in the development of their own tribal archives. This movement became palpable to the nine TLAM students who traveled to northern Wisconsin for a visit to two tribal libraries/archives earlier this Spring. Below is an account of their trip.
Our first TLAM class field trip began at the College Library cul-de-sac on Thursday afternoon, March 24, where our two-vehicle caravan set off for Bowler, Wisconsin, home of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. Three hours later, we arrived at Konkapot Lodge, a tribal business located on the 22,139-acre reservation. After settling into our rooms and admiring the hand-hewn log construction of the great room, we eleven intrepid travelers piled back into our vehicles and headed for the North Star Mohican Casino Resort, a mile up the road. After a dinner of Indian Tacos and other quasi-native fare at the Longhouse restaurant, we took our chances on the casino floor, using the $15 gift cards provided by the lodge and the casino itself. The big winner of the night was Troy, who dominated the Blackjack table for the short amount of time allotted to us for gambling. Hopefully, his windfall provided adequate compensation for his having to shoe-horn himself into the rear seat of the van with Hannah and Kaitlin for the duration of the trip!
After a quick breakfast at the lodge on Friday morning, we made our way to the Arvid E. Miller Library and Museum, the official depository for the public records of the Mohican Nation, Stockbridge-Munsee Band. Nathalee Kristiansen, manager of the library and museum, greeted us with a warmth and good humor that would characterize many of our interactions with the various tribal members we would encounter on our trip. Seated at a round conference table surrounded by photographs of tribal elders on the walls, we first watched a short film on the history of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, “We Are Still Here,” as told by a handful of the tribal Elders. As the film concluded, a tall, gregarious man named Joe Miller, a Tribal Council member, entered the building and proceeded to tell us all how very much he appreciated our visit to the museum, and to offer whatever help he could to make our brief stay more enjoyable and meaningful. Mr. Miller’s courtesy, graciousness, and sense of humor typified our group’s experience as a whole during our all-too-brief sojourn in northern Wisconsin.
The displays of artifacts at the Arvid A. Miller Library and Museum were the focus of our attention after the film, and included a wigwam; stone and wood tools and weapons; ceremonial objects; lacrosse sticks; a map showing the Stockbridge-Munsee’s migrations over the last three centuries; photographs from the mission school period; a model of a former logging community; and a collection of tribal bibles, including the very famous Vinegar Bible, originally a gift to the New York Mohicans from the Prince of Wales’ prelate in the 18th century, that became lost for a time and was eventually repatriated to its present tribal home in the 1990s. Betty Groh, the museum tour guide and Elder, kindly answered our questions, and humorously volunteered that she didn’t look much like an Indian because, “My grandfather made the mistake of marrying a Swede.”
The library/museum’s collection has outgrown its home, but our group was privileged to visit its archives in the basement, where new storage units were opened for us and revealed a variety of baskets, tools, textiles, etc. Larger items, including several drums, sat atop shelves and file cabinets holding maps and written materials. There was so much to take in, in that cramped space, and we felt some disappointment that we didn’t have more time to explore the archive’s treasures.
Leaving Bowler, we headed northeast to the reservation of the Menominee Nation, 235,523 wooded acres straddling the Wolf River, 45 miles northwest of Green Bay. With 8,551 tribal members, the Menominee are, unlike the Stockbridge-Munsee, native to Wisconsin. After lunch at the Forest Island restaurant (featuring a corn-less Indian corn stew) in the Menominee Casino Resort Complex, our TLAM tribe visited the stunning new library building on the campus of the College of Menominee Nation, next door to the resort. A “green” building with geothermal heating and cooling system and electric power, the library felt warm and inviting, with honey-colored woodwork, a stone fireplace, large plate-glass windows on every floor looking out on the surrounding forest, and that inimitable fresh, clean smell of a barely-used-because-it’s-so-new edifice. Continuing our VIP treatment, the director of the library archives, Maria Escalante, wel-comed us on the main floor and led us to the library’s lower level, where her staff waited to greet us. After a brief talk about the library and the archival collection, we were free to examine a table of stunning black-and-white photographs taken by National Geographic magazine, for a 1974 story on the Menominee of Wisconsin. Hoping to add the photographs to its collection and display them, Monique Tyndall expressed frustration that she could not get a response from NG. Eventually, we were led to the archive itself; on the way, several of us noticed a whiteboard in a small office, with an outline of the plan for our visit written on it: Yet another example of the respect, courtesy, and focused attention we received throughout the day. In contrast to the Stockbridge-Munsee archives, the Menominee’s were housed in the state-of-the-art library building, with much more generous space for its automated track shelving, conservation area, storage, etc.
After a relatively brief tour of the library’s upper floors, including a chat with the children’s librarian, we drove a short distance to the Menominee Cultural Museum, another brand-new building whose main exhibition area was unfinished and largely empty (save for an enormous model of a sturgeon, a primordial fish held sacred by both the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Menominee; a birchbark canoe; and a motley assortment of other artifacts.) Again, we were warmly greeted (even though we weren’t expected) and allowed to poke around. While a tribal Elder lured a few of our group into a back room for a private viewing of more historical objects and personal stories, the rest of us walked across the road to the logging camp museum. There we watched a tall, muscular gentleman work on a deer hide that was stretched across a vertical pole frame, close to the wood stove that kept the 100’ long log structure, a replica of the camp’s bunkhouse, relatively warm. With its walls, rafters, and just about every other surface covered with antique tools—mostly axes—I think most of us were anxious to move on to the cookhouse next door, with its less menacing artifacts (super-sized pots, pans, utensils, etc., cast-iron stove, and inconceivably long plank dining tables.)
As Shawano County had been blessed with 18” of new snow a few days before our visit, most of the authentic buildings at the camp were inaccessible, we ended up taking a short car trip to scenic Keshena Falls on the Wolf River, itself the heart of the Menominee reservation.
Although we only got to scratch the surface of the tribal libraries and archives we visited, the visit left an indelible impression on all of us, one that I believe will lead many in our group to make the trip to Shawano County again in the future.