Frozen in time, figurines of Potawatomi Indians prepare for the
harvest on a clear autumn day, while Chippewas graze the riverside,
storing their winnowed rice. These historic images of Native
Americans have persevered within the dioramas of the
University’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History, educating
onlookers about American Indian life for decades.
Yet as a visitor five years ago, American Culture Prof. Kristin
Hass’s then 5-year-old son also learned something else from
“He said to me, ‘Mom, you never told me Indians were
extinct,’ ” Hass said.
Having children like Hass’s son come away with the message
of “extinct Indians” is a problem the
University’s natural history museum has had to grapple with
for decades. In the past two years though, the museum’s
Native American exhibits have undergone a revolution of sorts,
updated with active participation from the Native American
But as the exhibits change, some people still question if
exhibits like the dioramas do more harm than good for Native
This issue was brought to the national spotlight with the
opening of the National Museum of the Americans Indian in
Washington on Sept. 21. What distinguished the museum from others
was the active involvement of Native Americas in contributing to
the exhibits and ultimately shaping them in a more culturally
Emulating this involvement is the University’s natural
history museum, which has been inviting Native peoples to
participate in the designing of the museum’s exhibits for the
past two years. Since the Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act passed in 1990, Native peoples have come to the
University’s natural history museum to retrieve sacred relics
and ancestral remains.
Now, as the museum leadership recognizes the importance of
cooperation with the Native American community in developing its
exhibits, both sides have begun altering the displays together.
But despite these measures, problems over the museum’s
depiction of Native Americans still lie in some of the exhibits
that are still on display.
Recently changes have been made to alter the messages of the
dioramas by including labels with the names of the tribes they are
depicting and also adding information which tells visitors what the
specific tribe is now doing, said Amy Harris, director of the
Rackham student Veronica Hutchinson, who is from the Ojibwe
tribe and is also helping to update the exhibits, said highlighting
this issue are the dioramas which she says are remnants of outdated
exhibits that misrepresent Native life and should no longer be on
“Sometimes they give (people) the impression that we are
gone. But they also give them the impressions that those are the
real Indians, that modern Indians are not descendents of the real
Indians,” she said.
“We have taken some intermediary steps, but I don’t
think it addresses the issue,” she said. “We really
want to emphasize this message, that Native people are still here.
But dioramas are really a controversial subject and a lot of
Natives don’t want them here.”
How to resolve the diorama issue is still unclear. While Harris
said it is possible that in the future they will be put into
storage, she also added that dioramas could be used to attack the
issue of historical Native American stereotypes, by displaying them
as dated exhibits of Native American people wrongly portrayed in
In spite of their flaws, completely removing the dioramas would
be going too far, said Lisa Young, museum research scientist. While
in the past, the dioramas have construed a misperception of Native
people, the dioramas do accurately portray what Native American
life was like in the past, she said.
“We recognize that when we did the labels it was a
Band-Aid on the issue. … But to contextualize them, to have
a larger exhibit around them, rather than have them (displayed in a
block) together, that would be better.”
Still, Hutchinson said their anthropological accuracy does not
offset the misperception they create.
“I think they don’t present how Indian culture
really is. They still represent a concept that Indians can’t
change, they always have to be the same. It’s cultural
stasis,” she said.
Besides the added label to the dioramas, the museum has also
recently added a Pow Wow exhibit as an example of how the Native
American culture persist and is very much alive today, Harris
But underlying this issue is the fact that Native Americans are
depicted in a natural history museum, where museums have always
held an image of depicting cultures long gone, Hutchinson said.
The problem is “putting (Native American) in a museum with
dinosaurs, dead animals and plants and not having any way to
explain why they are in there — the idea that Native
Americans are all gone, that’s what they are going to pick
up,” she said.
And the long-term effect will influence generations, she
“Whether we like it or not, museums are used very heavily
as teaching tools by public school teachers. We sent out
generations of children with stereotypes in their minds.”
Regardless of their strategies to remedy the issue, money and
time have added to the obstacles in revising the museum exhibits.
So far all the changes made to the exhibits have been through
volunteer work Young said.
“With budget cuts all over the University, to redo the
exhibits the way we would like too, it would take thousands of
dollars,” she said.
Yet for Hass, money should not be an issue. The University
should create a museum solely for Native American people, she said.
Not only would it help alleviate a problem American museums have
wrestled with for centuries, but it would also demonstrate to
Native Americans how indebted this University is to them.
“It would be great if there was a museum for itself, since
the University is built on Indian land. It would be