Exhibition upends traditional representations of Native American cultures

Apsáalooke materials recontextualized in Field Museum, UChicago collaboration

Apsáalooke warriors began their training as children. To prepare for battle, the boys of the tribe practiced what they called “counting coup” on game animals. Counting coup involved touching an enemy but not otherwise harming him; to achieve the feat, according to the great chief Plenty Coups, “a warrior would often display great bravery.”

This is one of many traditions that will be highlighted in Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, an exhibition organized by the Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

Curated by Apsáalooke scholar and artist Nina Sanders in close collaboration with her community, the project consists of both a large-scale exhibition at the Field and a companion show at the Neubauer Collegium. A landmark occasion for both sites, the exhibition could also become a bellwether for institutions elsewhere—modeling a way for museums to partner with Native peoples.

For Sanders, the goal of the exhibition is simple: to show visitors that Native Americans have a present and a future, not just a past.

A visiting fellow at the Neubauer Collegium, Sanders sees Apsáalooke Women and Warriors as a living celebration of her people and their culture. In a foreword to the accompanying publication, she described the exhibition as a way “to transmit the ideas, words, and art of the Apsáalooke across oceans and into future generations.”

On March 12, the Collegium will open its show with a reception and a parade—one that will transform the UChicago quad into a space for dozens of Apsáalooke (pronounced “Ahp-SAH-luh-guh”) to celebrate, on horseback and in traditional regalia. (The Field exhibition opens to the public on March 13.)

Both the Neubauer Collegium and the Field Museum will showcase a wide range of objects from the Apsáalooke, also known as the Crow. Those include two tipis at the Collegium and 21 never-before-displayed war shields at the Field. But the exhibition also looks forward: Juxtaposed with historical materials will be beadwork, paintings, photography, fashion, music and other works by contemporary Crow artists.

‘You have felt my heart’

For philosopher Jonathan Lear, the Roman Family Director of the Collegium, Apsáalooke Women and Warriors continues an interest that began during a lecture he heard over 30 years ago. The speaker quoted Plenty Coups’ stark summary of life after the tribe’s 1868 confinement to a reservation: “After this, nothing happened.” Years later, the quote clicked into Lear’s brain like a record in an old jukebox.

He then read Plenty Coups’ biography, written by Frank B. Linderman, and was struck by the courage the chief had displayed in telling his story to a white writer. After all the injustices he and his tribe had suffered, Plenty Coups had no reason to trust Linderman, yet he found peace in sharing his story. “You have felt my heart, and I have felt yours,” Plenty Coups told Linderman.

Lear soon embarked on what he called a “years-long immersion” in the history of the Apsáalooke, a journey that included numerous trips to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana with his wife and son.

Eventually, he wrote Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a 2006 book about the tribe’s endurance after the destruction of its nomadic way of life. That publication represented Lear’s attempt to continue the conversation Plenty Coups had initiated—to bring the chief into “open-ended conversation with thinkers who have sustained me: Aristotle and Plato, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, Freud.”

Lear later joined forces with Alaka Wali, the Field Museum’s curator of the North American Anthropology. Working with the Collegium in 2015, Wali participated in Open Fields, a collaborative research project focused on the representation of Native American art and artifacts in U.S. museums. That project brought together scholars, artists, and indigenous leaders; their conversations helped lay the groundwork for Apsáalooke Women and Warriors.

‘A living cultural vibrancy’

A visiting lecturer at UChicago, Wali had long sought to rethink how the Field presented Native American cultures. The collection began with artifacts displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition, at a time when anthropologists and archaeologists believed they were salvaging the remains of dying civilizations—not realizing that by separating tribes from their material history, they were harming the very cultures they sought to preserve, and losing crucial context.

In recent years, Wali has partnered with contemporary artists to develop exciting and respectful ways of repurposing the Field Museum’s collection. In 2013, she invited Pawnee artist Bunky Echo-Hawk to create an exhibition that paired his paintings with the museum’s Pawnee artifacts. In 2018, Kanza artist Chris Pappan’s drawings were displayed as transparent overlays on glass cases of Native artifacts.

Apsáalooke Women and Warriors represents a sort of preview for the museum’s next step: A large-scale renovation of its Native North American Hall, to be completed by 2021.

Lear and Wali originally envisioned working with Sanders to create a small exhibition that would pair contemporary art with the Field Museum’s collection of sacred Crow shields. Wali’s colleagues at the Field were so excited by the idea that they proposed having Sanders curate a major exhibition in one of their ticketed galleries.

Like the Field’s show, the Neubauer Collegium’s companion exhibition aims to deepen understanding of the Crow’s origins, cultural worldviews and egalitarian gender roles—but at a more intimate scale, and with a more conceptual approach.

Visitors will “step inside a Crow tipi that serves as a womb of sorts,” said Neubauer Collegium curator Dieter Roelstraete. “They will get a chance to immerse themselves in the exhibit and gain an even better understanding of the themes the Field Museum is focusing on.”

Placing historical artifacts alongside pieces that show contemporary Crow culture “transforms the meanings of the artifacts themselves,” Lear said. “They will no longer be viewed as remnants of ‘natural history.’ Because of this show, they will be seen as evidence of a living cultural vibrancy among the Crow people.”

For her part, Sanders hopes the exhibition will inspire other museums to “open space for indigenous people” to participate in the sharing of their culture: “What is being seen as revolutionary is really just common sense.”

—A version of this story was first published in the University of Chicago Magazine.