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Milwaukee Public Museum 'Tribute to Survival' Native American Exhibit Will Soon See Changes

Updated: May 22

By Joe Morey

News Editor


The Milwaukee Public Museum will soon debut a new Native American exhibit to replace the current exhibit that is more than 30 years old. The new exhibits will build upon and reimagine many of the exhibits in the current building.

 

The new exhibits that display items affiliated with the Ojibwe such as moccasins, knockers, etc. will include labels of the Ojibwe word for the item first and the English term second. James Flores, manager of tribal relations at the MPM, said the Museum is working with Sara Gordon, a Red Cliff Tribal Member and University of Minnesota-Duluth instructor to provide MPM with accurate translations that are being reviewed by additional tribal partners.


"Our goal is to gather input from different tribal representatives to approve the items, how these stories are shared, and provide translations for items in the tribal language they originate from," explained Flores. He noted it has been a complex process working with so many different tribal governments but this work is critical in ensuring the stories shared are appropriate and told from the tribal nations they come from.


The new exhibits will feature sugar bushing, ricing and spearfishing, among other cultural activities. The current exhibit has many historical items and contemporary items, like moccasins and war clubs. As you enter the 2nd floor exhibit, you encounter a contemporary powwow Grand Entry scene, entitled A Tribute to Survival, featuring drumming and singing echoing through that section of the museum, and at one time, the scene rotated.



The powwow scene is made up of casts of 37 actual tribal members from back in the 1980’s, dressed in their regalia. The exhibit is over 30 years old.


Flores said the tribal members from various woodland tribes had input into the design of the exhibit and that it features well-known members from that era, including Pete Gabow, Mark Denny and Houston Wheelock, to name a few.


Since A Tribute to Survival will not be moving to the new museum, MPM is working with models and family members to gather input on the future of the mannequins in the exhibit.


Wheelock is donating his cast to the Oneida Museum once the current exhibit closes to make way for the new one.


Throughout the other Native American exhibits at the MPM are various aspects of contemporary American Indian life - reservation and urban - in titles known as "The First Americans," "Outnumbered and Outarmed," and "Federal Policies and Indian Strategies.”


Madeline Anderson, MPM Director of Communications, and James Flores

Flores, who is a member of the Oneida Nation, said they recently did a call for an Indigenous artist to design an outdoor installation honoring Wisconsin’s First Nations at the newly planned Milwaukee Public Museum, a $240 million project set to open in 2027, two blocks north of Fiserv Forum. The new museum will include a 200,000 square-foot building complete with four floors of exhibits, a planetarium and a butterfly garden. The current museum will reopen through a majority of 2026.


According to Flores, the Indigenous installation will have a “prominent location” within the new museum’s green space, which will have other artwork and native plants. The space will be used for outdoor learning and programming.


In a recent Wisconsin Public Radio article, Flores said many exhibits in museums in general are focused on Native Americans in a historical context. His team is looking for a design with a “modern twist.”


“We want to make sure we are conveying to the public that Native American culture is a living culture and that we’re still here today,” Flores said.


As part of his position with the Milwaukee Public Museum, Flores conducts outreach with community members and elected tribal government officials, and works with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in the repatriation of cultural and ceremonial items that fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).


Flores previously served as admissions counselor for Native American outreach and recruitment at UW-Madison and scholarship coordinator for the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation. Along with Micaela Salas Livingston, he pushed UW-Madison to offer free tuition to Indigenous students, a policy the university adopted this past year.


The Milwaukee Public Museum is located at 841 N. James Lovell St., Milwaukee and is open daily 10 am to 5 pm.


Rendition of the future Milwaukee Public Museum


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