Michael Pace hoists a tomahawk over his head, steps forward and lets it fly. Applause breaks out as the blade sinks easily into a wooden target 20 feet away.
Pace, Lenape, is the only Native employee at Conner Prairie, a living history museum in central Indiana. Crowds gather as he demonstrates traditional beading techniques, speaks in his Native tongue or sharpens the blades of his tomahawks.
“People still come here thinking that if they meet an Indian, I’m going to cut their heads off,” Pace says. “Native history is very much out of sight, out of mind, but this land that we’re standing on now, it used to be all Indian territory.”
Michael Pace demonstrates the correct way to throw a tomahawk.
The state of Indiana, so named because of it was the “land of Indians,” was home to the Lenape (or Delaware), Kickapoo, Miami, Wea, Mascouten, Potawatomi and Shawnee. Settled first by the French then the British, Indiana was important for the fur trade, which continued into the early 19th century when Indiana became a state and tribes were forced to move west.
William Conner, an interpreter and fur trader, arrived in Indiana in about 1800. He married Mekinges, the daughter of Lenape Chief William Anderson, and lived with their six children in a log house on a plot of prairie land in present-day Hamilton County.
When the Treaty of St. Mary’s was signed in 1818, forcing tribes to move, Mekinges took her children and left. Conner, who helped draft the treaty, quickly remarried and in 1823 built the first brick house in Indiana for his new wife, an 18-year-old who eventually gave him 10 children.
That house is the focal point of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, a 200-acre outdoor museum that seeks to recreate life on the Indiana prairie, circa 1836. Two hundred seasonal staff members dress in period attire and demonstrate candle-making and other “pioneer” chores.
Michael Pace closes his eyes as he shares his personal ties to Conner Prairie.
Yet for more than 60 years, the park ignored an essential part of history. Since pharmacologist Eli Lilly founded the park in 1934, it was “all about the pioneers,” said Ellen Rosenthal, president and CEO of Conner Prairie.
“The Indiana experience is not just about the Europeans, the pioneer settlers,” she said. “There’s a very rich history of Native Americans in the region.”
In 1993, Pace, a former assistant chief for the Delaware Tribe of Indians, of Oklahoma, began leading a weeklong celebration of Native culture every October at Conner Prairie. He helped establish the Lenape Indian Camp—or Lenapehoking (Place of the Lenape). Based in 1816—two years before the Treaty of St. Mary’s—the camp includes a traditional bark house and a trading post staffed with costumed fur traders.
The camp helped fill a gap in history, said John Herbst, president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society.
“Until we built the trading post, there was a discarding of the Native American part of the story,” said Herbst, former president of Conner Prairie. “Everything started with the building of the brick home for Conner’s second wife.”
Michael Pace shows off some of his traditional Lenape beadwork.
Staff re-enacted trade, skinned deer hides and made canoes, Rosenthal said.
“It was very authentic and people loved it, but we had a dilemma,” she said. “People complained because there was no one in [what they considered] Indian dress.”
The museum reached out to Pace, who joined the staff in 2001 and is the sole “actor” not in costume.
“He’s not just a representative of the culture,” Rosenthal said. “He’s real. He shares Native culture in everything he does. He makes it a living culture because he’s here.”
The great-grandson of Mekinges, Pace has personal stakes to the park, and he’s single-handedly changing the way more than 340,000 visitors per year experience history.
“I guess my main purpose here is to get rid of stereotypes and interest people in authentic history,” he said. “Stereotypes are still there, but I try to make it fun, show visitors that Natives are normal people and we lived well in our environment here.”