Skip to main content

Focus on the Indians of Indiana

  • Author:
  • Updated:

INDIANAPOLIS - A state called ''Indiana'' obviously has a long history of American Indian people with it. And despite removals and terminations, it's not just ancient history, but a narrative that comes down to the present day. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art here is an excellent way to get up to speed.

An unusual place that displays both Native and Western traditions, the museum tells thousands of years of history of the Miami, Delaware and Potawatomi tribes in an exhibit called ''Mihtohseenionki: The Peoples' Place.'' But it also has an excellent general exhibit with artifacts from Native people from all over the continent. And a recent visit coincided with the museum's 16th annual Indian Market and Festival.

The Mihtohseenionki exhibit tells how the Miami people were born from the Coming Out Place (later identified as the St. Joseph River in northern Indiana). In the 1630s, the tribe was driven out by the Iroquois tribes, but during the time between 1670 and 1700 it was able to return to its homelands, and in 1701 a peace treaty with the French stopped the attacks.

The 18th century brought more extensive European contact, the exhibit relates: people who wanted furs and lands from Indiana tribes. They also brought smallpox, and even used it as a weapon to devastate tribes, such as by giving infected blankets or handkerchiefs to the Indians.

After 1776, Indiana tribes had to contend with both American settlers and soldiers. For instance, on March 9, 1782, troops commanded by Col. David Williams ''killed 90 Christian Moravian Delaware as they sang songs, prayed and begged for their lives.''

An intertribal alliance led by the Miami chief Little Turtle defeated the Americans in 1791, but forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated the coalition in 1794. A treaty signed the next year ceded the first of the Indian lands in Indiana, and practically all Native land in the state was ceded by 1840, the exhibit details.

The Potawatomi tribe was removed from Indiana to Oklahoma in 1838, followed by the Miami tribe, which was removed to Kansas in 1846 and then to Oklahoma, and the Delaware, who were removed to several places, including Oklahoma.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

However, five families of Miami stayed behind, and their descendants are now the Miami Tribe of Indiana. Though terminated by the federal government, the tribe incorporated in 1937 and has begun a program to study the Miami language, the last native speakers of which died during the 1960s. It now has 5,000 members.

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi also remained in Indiana, chiefly because it had converted to Catholicism. Terminated in 1939, the band was reinstated to federal recognition in 1993 and has begun to repurchase its ancient lands.

The Eiteljorg has a truly remarkable exhibit of artifacts from all areas of the United States and the Arctic. Compact and comprehensive, it contains many brilliant and beautiful examples of the cultures of Natives from the Woodlands, the Plains, the Basin, California, the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas.

These include a Micmac chair from the 19th century whose back is adorned with quill-decorated birchbark. Reminiscent of the shape of a cross, the back invests an element of beauty and wildness into a traditional Victorian chair.

The museum also has on display headdresses, including a turban trimmed with otter fur, a Pawnee bear claw necklace, a Ute girl's cradle with a blue bead part that would surround the child's head like a halo, and a huge Kwakiutl whale mask that looks like a submarine.

Though mounted in a fairly small space, the Eiteljorg exhibit packs an enormous cumulative punch, showing the entire gamut of Native art objects, from rattles, cradleboards, baby clothing, to chairs, utensils, clothing, masks, hats and chests to totems, horse adornments, pottery, baskets, musical instruments and katsina dolls.

The museum's annual Indian Market and Festival was held in a park adjacent to the museum, across the city canal. More than 140 Native artists participated, including painters Felix Vigil, Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo; Anita Jackson, Echota Cherokee; and photographer John. T. Shopteese, Prairie Band Potawatomi.

Performers appearing at the two-day event included Tony Showa, Navajo storyteller and drummer; the Eagle Wings Pageant Dancers, Paiute/Shoshone/Washoe; Harvest Moon, a Quinault storyteller and basket weaver; and tribal/world funk band Pamyua, Yup'ik/Inuit/black.