Renewing What They Gave Us

renewing what they gave us Blog

Native American Collections at the Minnesota Historical Society


Native American cultural practices are passed down from one generation to the next. Native people choose what to retain and what to alter as they express themselves while paying respect to those who came before them. MNHS assists Native people in connecting with works created by their ancestors and provides support for learning, practicing, teaching and recovering culture.

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Legislation on Native Made Goods in Minnesota

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | August 28, 2018

Souvenir drum rattle used as example of an item that was labeled as 'Indian-made' but was not. 

In 1972, Neva and Doug Williams, proprietors of American Indian Products Company, Inc., spoke to the Minnesota state legislature about the identification of Native American made goods. The wanted to revise legislation from 1937 about the labeling of Native products. The Williams’ revisions included that the label say ‘not-Indian made’ when produced by someone outside of a federally recognized tribe. The law states that “Indian-made goods are those made exclusively by persons who are of at least one-quarter Indian blood or who are listed on the rolls of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs as Indians.”

This drum souvenir was used as an example in front of the legislature of an ‘imitation’ piece that was not made by a Native individual but sold to seem like it was. This Minnesota state law predates the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. While there has been laws that protect falsely Native made products since the 1930s, it wasn’t until these later acts of legislation that properly enforced vendors to adhere to these laws.

Dancing at Shakopee

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | August 21, 2018

This past weekend was the annual Shakopee Mdewakanton Community Wacipi (Pow Wow) in Prior Lake, Minnesota. The Dakota community has been hosting these events for many years. In June of 1971, Monroe Killy, a collector and photographer of Native American people and objects, visited the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community for one of their powwows. Killy photographed the event and was able to capture the festivities movement and color.

To see more of Killy’s photos of the event, visit Collections Online. To learn more about Monroe Killy visits to other Minnesota indigenous communities, visit the Collection Finding Aid.

Frog Woman's Signature

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | August 14, 2018

Paqua Naha's or Frog Woman's signature

Many Native artists didn’t sign their work. In the Southwest United States, traders encouraged artists to sign their work to help sales. Paqua Naha or Frog Woman, a Hopi potter and painter from Arizona had a very unique signature. Paqua, which means frog in the Hopi language, would draw a frog on the bottom of her pottery. Her daughter, Joy Navasie and also known as Frog Woman, would continue the tradition but change how the frog’s feet were depicted in order to differentiate the maker.

The Minnesota Historical Society has four of Paqua Naha’s pottery in the collection. To see Paqua and other Hopi material culture please visit our Collections Online.

Vase made by Paqua Naha or Frog Woman

Ojibwe fiber mats

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | August 8, 2018

Ojibwe bulrush mat, 1898

The Minnesota Historical Society has several Ojibwe made fiber mats in their collection. This particular mat is made from bulrush and basswood with green and purple dyed rushes weaved to form a geometric design. Other fibers, like cedar or sage, were commonly used to produce these kinds mats as well.

Pictured below is an Ojibwe woman weaving a bulrush mat, circa 1910. There were several different weaving techniques employed by the Ojibwe and these were sometimes dependent on the fiber used. These mats had multi-functional uses such as floor and door coverings, sleeping mats, and drying mats for wild rice.

Olivia Stout, History Museum Fellow Intern

Photograph by anthropologist Frances Theresa Densmore, to see more photos and items collected by her please visit our collections site.

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Model Dog Travois

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | April 11, 2018

Model dog travois 

Travois are a type of sled attached to either horses or dogs that many Plains tribes use. They are usually made with two large poles. In MNHS collections, we do not have a life-sized travois but a miniature version. This was collected by Gilbert Wilson and his brother, Fred, when they visited the Hidatsa and Mandan at the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota in between 1906-1918. Along with the miniature dog travois, Wilson took pictures of Edward Goodbird’s dog wearing a travois as a demonstration.


Edward Goodbird attaching travois on his dog. 

To learn more about Gilbert and Fred Wilson’s visits to Fort Berthold, see their finding aid on their papers and photographs and items they collected.

The Gifted Smoking Jacket

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | April 3, 2018

Oftentimes, museum and collections visitors ask us where our collections come from. This is difficult to answer as the complexities of collecting have vastly changed over the almost 170 years MNHS has been collecting items. Additionally, Native American objects historically have not had the best provenance or information on origin (location, maker, tribal affiliation). Through researching more about MNHS’ Native American collections, there are stories about the objects that discuss their origin.

One example in MNHS collections is the smoking jacket owned by Stafford King. King was gifted the smoking jacket, a bandolier bag and other items at his induction into the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in 1920. At that time, King served as a patrolman for the Minnesota Forest Service. He would go on to serve as State Auditor from 1931-1969.


Beaded smoking jacket, White Earth Ojibwe, circa 1920. 

Stafford King wearing smoking jacket and bandolier bag, 1949. 

Although the direct details to why King was inducted into White Earth have yet to be found, it is apparent that the tribe felt he was deserving of such beautiful gifts. These gifts would later be donated to MNHS in 1990.

Visit our Ojibwe Material Culture site for more Ojibwe objects. Also visit our Collections Online and Library for information on Stafford King.

A Bear-y Unique Item in Collections

By: Rita Walaszek | Objects/Works | April 3, 2018

Polar bear rug in collections storage.

The Minnesota Historical Society has around 250,000 collections objects from all sorts of people, places and things. One can search our online database to see some of the items that we have in our collections.

One very unique item in our collection is the polar bear rug owned by Harry and Jeannette Ayer when they owned and operated the Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post from 1918-1959. Harry purchased the rug from Alaska by means of extensive correspondence with the U.S. Mercantile Company. Then it hung on the wall in the trading post, today it is in collections storage with many other objects.

Rug on display at Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post, circa 1948. 

Red Lake Collections Visit

By: Rita Walaszek | Collections Visit | March 20, 2018

Looking at bows 

As part of making the collections at the Minnesota Historical Society more accessible, we often have groups come in for a tour of collections storage. Recently, students from Red Lake came down to St. Paul to do research for their History Day projects at the Gale Family Library.

Find out more about History Day.

Discover the resources at the Gale Family Library.

Visiting NAAIR Artist April Stone

By: Rita Walaszek | Artist Profile | February 27, 2018

Baskets and materials at April's home

Recently, Native American Artist-in-Residence (NAAIR) and MNHS staff had the opportunity to visit April Stone, one of the most recent NAAIR recipients. Her art is basket making, primarily black ash which she harvests herself dragging the log from the swamp to be treated for splints before weaving the material into baskets. April finds the trees close to her home in the southeast corner of the Bad River Reservation, Wisconsin.

Since basket making is quite involved, the materials and tools can take up a lot of space. April’s home, where she currently does her work, is filled with both splints and tools but also many finished baskets. Although an intriguing sight to see, April is working on moving her workspace elsewhere. Thanks to previous grants and the funding from this artist-in-residency, April has been able to construct an outbuilding that will serve as her studio space.


April in her home

April hopes to continue her work with ash basketry in order to share it with the local community and also regionally. NAAIR has allowed her to continue the strides she has made within the community by passing on her knowledge to community members of all ages. April will also be continuing studying historic baskets in collections at various museums and institutions in Wisconsin.

Learn more about the Native American Artist-in-Residence program.

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