Exploring indigenous Minnesota 

Star Knowledge quilt
The Star Knowledge quilt by Gwen Westerman.

On Dec. 7, the Minnesota History Center will open Our Home: Native Minnesota, a new permanent exhibit devoted exclusively to Native American history. 

Native Americans — Dakota, Ojibwe, as well as people from other tribal nations — have been in the Minnesota area for thousands of years and are thriving here today. 

This new exhibit shares their stories, their enduring presence and their deep connections to the land. It features more than 60 collection items, including objects, photographs, books, maps, manuscripts and art. 

Since 2014, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) has opened up its collection to contemporary Native artists from across the Upper Midwest through the Native American Artist-in-Residence program as a way to help revitalize traditional forms of art. Many pieces created by the artists-in-residence are featured in the Our Home exhibit. (The Native American Artist-in-Residence program is made possible in part by a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.)

collection of kiphi
A collection of kiphi (cradleboard baby carriers) by Randilynn Boucher

Finding what was lost 

Randilynn Boucher is a Dakota and Navajo beadwork and textile artist who lives in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 

By studying objects in the MNHS collections and talking with elders, Boucher learned about traditions associated with life stages of Dakota and Lakota girls and women. 

Inspired by her studies, she created a kiphi, a cradleboard baby carrier, which is on display in the exhibit. Boucher also shares her knowledge with her community through cradleboard workshops.

She had one memorable experience when a tribal elder shared his grandmother’s story of fleeing Minnesota following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 while carrying a kiphi as she returned to her homeland. Boucher’s kiphi was the first the elder had ever seen.

For Boucher, making this connection was an emotional moment. 

“I sat there with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes,” she said. “I felt and knew we had regained a part of us that was lost long ago. I asked an elder for the translation of kiphi, and it meant ‘to hold, to be fitted for, be worthy of.’”

A burial basket by April Stone. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Honoring traditions

April Stone is an Ojibwe basket maker who lives in Odanah, Wisconsin, and specializes in ash baskets. Stone created a coffin-shaped basket from baapaagimaakag, or black ash trees, gathered near her home on the Bad River Reservation. For Ojibwe people, basketmaking sustains and honors their relationship with the natural world.

Today black ash trees are being killed off by the emerald ash borer, a tiny invasive beetle that arrived in North America in 2002. Stone wove the basket in the shape of a coffin to symbolize how the disappearance of black ash threatens her — and all Native peoples’ — identity and traditions.

Gwen Westerman is a Dakota textile artist who lives in Good Thunder, Minnesota. She made a star quilt in 2014 as a way to stitch together her family’s connections to the sky and to each other.

Each of the star’s eight points represents a member of Westerman’s family. The quilt also features eight embroidered constellations that appear in the northern sky from Jan. 14–March 21, the birth dates of her children, Erin and Travis.

“We create star quilts like this one to honor community members and to commemorate births, marriages, memorials and more,” said Westerman, whose quilt will welcome visitors to the exhibit.

See the exhibit 

Our Home: Native Minnesota opens with a free family day on Dec. 7. Visitors can meet past Native American artists-in-residence, including Denise Lajimodiere, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who will demonstrate the art of creating intricate designs in birch bark using a biting technique. Jeremy Red Eagle, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, will show how he uses natural plants to dye quills. See mnhs.org/ourhome for more information.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.