WINNEBAGO, Neb. (KMTV) — It’s easy to assume a museum’s goal is to share stories and exhibits about ancient items or contemporary pieces. But, when the story is about your people, your culture and your history, it becomes more personal and much more relevant. That’s the goal of the Angel De Cora Museum and Research Center in Winnebago. The museum shares the story of the Ho Chunk people and their life in both the upper Midwest and in Nebraska. It offers an educational opportunity for people to learn more about Nebraska’s Indigenous citizens during Native American Heritage Month.
The museum is dedicated to welcoming and helping to educate Ho Chunk Nation citizens first and foremost, said Sunshine Thomas Bear, the tribal Cultural Preservation Director and curator of the museum.
“This is about being able to teach our people and bring them back to the culture and language,” Thomas Bear said. “There’s a lot of lateral oppression we face as a people. It’s kind of been taught to us, after removing and pitting us against each other.”
The Winnebago – Ho Chunk in the traditional language – were originally an upper Midwest Indigenous nation, living in and around Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. But, as white settlers expanded westward, they were eventually forced from their homeland, with some of the tribe settling in northeastern Nebraska, about an hour north of Omaha. Other Ho Chunk returned to central Wisconsin and continue to live there today.
The Winnebago reservation was established as part of an agreement between the tribal nation and the federal government, which included Chief Little Priest and about 75 soldiers joining forces with the United States army, serving as scouts in battles against other Indigenous nations. Little Priest, while he didn’t like being pitted against whom he considered brothers, saw the need for a permanent homeland for his people, which served as the driving force in his decision.
The Angel De Cora Museum provides a look at Winnebago’s story, as well as earlier Native American life in the region. From remnants of pottery to arrowheads, visitors can witness firsthand the story of the Winnebago.
Thomas Bear said De Cora was abducted as a child, along with other children, while playing along railroad tracks.
“She was asked if she had ever been on a train before, and when she said no, they grabbed her and the others," Thomas Bear said.
The children ended up in Virginia. After attending school in Hampton, Virginia, she graduated from college, becoming an artist. Learning her heritage, De Cora returned to Winnebago, but with her family having perished over the years, there was nothing to connect her to Winnebago, so she returned east, said Thomas Bear. However, De Cora, who died from the flu at 47, went on to become an artist and activist.
The museum’s exhibits are primarily gifts from local families, as well as items on loan from other museums and agencies. One piece – a pot designed by Winnebago artist Jacquie Stevens – was donated by her relative Emmy Scott, who, along with other supporters, hopes it serves as inspiration for future artists. The pot, like others, has its own life, personality and character, said the artist when creating the work in 2001. Stevens, who died from Covid-19 in 2021, had her art displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, as well as Joslyn Museum in Omaha.
Along with beadwork, including bandolier belts, head bands and hair ties, the museum’s exhibits include ornately-designed moccasins, dresses and shirts. Paintings depict traditional leaders, including Chief Little Priest. Drawings highlight contemporary works by tribal citizen Chuck Raymond.
While open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, the museum’s goal is more than just a public display of culture and history, Thomas Bear said.
“A lot of what we have are items we have repatriated from other museums,” she said. “That’s another part of my job, as the tribal Historic Preservation Officer, the tribe’s representative for the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. I was recently in Chicago at the Field Museum. I do a lot of work there. They have a lot of our items. We’re really trying to step away on the NAGRA side where museums have hidden behind the culturally unidentified."
“We’re trying to get away from that and bring things back to tribes – not just my tribe – but everyone’s tribe." Thomas Bear said. "Things were taken, obviously, against our will. Some things were given, but those items need to come back to the tribes.”
As tribes work to identify items - they are more easily recognizable than most people may think – each historically has artistic styles. So, while Thomas Bear may not recognize an item as belonging to the Winnebago, she may know whose tribe it does belong or know someone who can better identify its home.
The work is ongoing, and institutions aren’t always willing to work with Indigenous nations. But she and other historical experts press on.
While visitors won’t see the behind-the-scenes work Thomas Bear and others do, they can check out the museum’s Facebook page for Native American Heritage Month events throughout November. Some of the activities, she said, include making moccasins, beadwork and learning to sew, as well as a dusk parade (similar to a Christmas parade) at the end of the month.
The Winnebago also offers visitors an opportunity to learn about the Ho Chunk’s 12 clans at the Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza. Sculptures face each other in a circle, with each clan’s name and its role within the tribal community.
Other Nebraska tribes also have museums. The Ponca Museum and Library is home to exhibits featuring a traditional headdress, beadwork and a hide recognizing the tribe’s restoration in 1990. A heritage trail takes visitors along a path, which features an earth lodge, historical markers and sculptures, culminating in a statue of Chief Standing Bear, looking over the Niobrara River valley. Chief Standing Bear won the first civil rights case in Native American history, when, in 1879, an Omaha judge ruled Native Americans were people under the United States Constitution, allowing him to return to his homeland in northeast Nebraska to bury his son.
The iSanti Dakota (Santee Dakota) tribal museum is located inside the headquarters building in Santee, about nine miles east of Niobrara. The museum includes a rifle used by Chief Little Crow and a hide map of the Santee Trail of Tears, when tribal members walked nearly 200 miles from the Crow Creek agency in central South Dakota to the new reservation in Knox County.
While the Umo Ho (Omaha) Nation doesn’t have a tribal museum on the reservation, the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Center, at the site of her hospital in Walthill, is scheduled to open in 2023. The center will include displays and exhibits recognizing the tribe and the first Native American (and Native American woman) to become a physician.
As for non-Native visitors to the Winnebago museum – or any Native American-related museum – Thomas Bear seeks for them to gain an understanding of Indigenous history, culture and tradition.
“Some of the questions out there can be a little insulting,” she said. “But, I think there is healing and truth. I try not to be harsh with them, but as truthful as possible. Because, then they’re aware of the atrocities. We know it’s not their fault, but we want to educate and change ideals of people who walk in these doors. And, hopefully, they leave being someone who wants to educate themselves more about our tribes, our country, in our area, Nebraska, and be an ally to us. And, you, know, understand that we’re not gone, we’re still here."
“We’re still fighting to be seen and for our rights that are owed to us by treaty. But, I think it’s always an ongoing fight, but one we’re taking on," said Thomas Bear.