Adirondack Museum Dispels Myths With Native Exhibit

Theresa Braine/The Mohawk and Abenaki section of the new 'Life in the Adirondacks' exhibit at The Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, in New York State.

Theresa Braine

New ‘Life in the Adirondacks’ exhibit dedicates area to Abenaki, Mohawk presence in northern New York State.

For millennia, the ancestors of today’s Mohawk, Abenaki and other Native tribes have called the Adirondack Mountains home. Yet much of that history, not to mention present experience, has gone unrecognized. A new exhibit aims to change all that.

“We have not tackled the story of Native Americans in the Adirondacks in the past,” said David Kahn, executive director of The Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, formerly the Adirondack Museum. “The institution has been influenced by the sort of general perception that Native Americans didn’t really live here full time, this hasn’t been Native territory. But it’s not true.”

Perched on the shores of Blue Mountain Lake, the 121-acre, indoor-outdoor museum lies in the heart of the mountain range that forms part of the traditional territory of the Abenaki, Mohawk and other tribes. Although Natives were well entrenched for millennia before Europeans came, previous exhibits had never addressed that. A sizable section of the 19,000-square-foot interactive Life in the Adirondacks, a permanent exhibit that debuted on July 1, highlights Native life and culture in the region to help fill that gap. The museum is open seasonally, through October 9.

“We’re trying to set the record straight with this exhibit,” said Kahn. “We’re hoping that this exhibit will be a kind of wakeup moment for anybody who might have had that misperception that this wasn’t Mohawk and Abenaki territory. Because it certainly was.”

Native artists on hand for the opening said it does just that.

“Awesome. It’s been wonderful,” said Diane Cubit, an Abenaki artist who was helping visitors make prints based on her artwork on opening day. “It’s huge for me. That’s why I’m here.”

While the Abenaki are well known in Canada and among First Nations, “we haven’t gotten that here in the U.S.,” she said. “To have anyone in New York State recognize that the Abenaki were here is huge.”

Cubit’s sister, Jennifer Coler, spoke of how it felt to honor her mother and grandmother.

“Basically, they were not allowed to be proud,” she said. “For us to celebrate who we are in their memories is very moving.”

Aesthetically, too, the exhibit got high marks.

“The colors are great. The graphics are amazing,” said Natasha Smoke Santiago, Mohawk, a potter and the artist-in-residence at the museum, who had finely crafted jewelry on offer.

She added that it made her happy “that they wanted to genuinely include us in the exhibit—and that they picked really beautiful work.”

Outstanding features include a language center, where touching a symbol on a screen generates a mini oral-history lesson—with English subtitles.

But first one enters through a present-day portal, greeted with video interviews of modern Mohawk and Abenaki people talking about their daily lives and how that interweaves with tradition. Later in the exhibit is the cultural appropriation section, complete with cringeworthy photos of partying white people from the 19th and 20th centuries in faux-Native dress, captioned with the words, “How would it feel to have your community portrayed this way?”

The cultural appropriation and contemporary life sections were must-haves designated by the Native American Advisory Committee that was convened to help design the exhibit.

“One of the other things that we’re hoping that this exhibit does is that it counters the ersatz Indian imagery that has been associated with the Adirondacks for generations,” Kahn said. “Where you have promotional brochures going back to the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries showing Plains Indians in war bonnets to help promote the Adirondacks. And you see totem poles all over the Adirondacks.”

Thus a totem pole is part of the cultural appropriation section—an example of what Native culture in this region is not.

The building that houses Life in the Adirondacks was initially dedicated entirely to modes of transportation, Kahn said. That 47-year-old exhibit, which had been in place since 1969, was taken down to make way for the revamp.

“Basically the whole building was filled with carriages and sleighs,” he said wryly. “So it told the story of how people used to get around in the Adirondacks before motorized transport.”

Life in the Adirondacks was years in the making, and the Native component was purposely planted in the building that will serve as the entry point for the entire museum.

“This is now an overview exhibit of the Adirondack story, and we’ll be directing all our future visitors to begin their visits here,” Kahn said. “Then they can go and see the other buildings. But this will be the starting point. So it was important to us to have the Indians in this core exhibit for everybody to see.”