A Knack for Native American Art

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

John M. Mitchell was neither a scholar nor a curator, but that didn't stop him from amassing a collection of Native American art and artifacts that numbered in the tens of thousands.

And it did not stop this avid collector from sharing his passion with others.

Initially, he housed the artifacts in a minimuseum called the Green Bay Trading Post, which was located in the basement of his Mitchell Brothers Realty office. In 1977, when the collection outgrew the basement, he donated it to Evanston's Kendall College. Today, the John M. and Betty Seabury Mitchell Museum of the American Indian ranks among the premier collections of Native American art and artifacts in the Midwest.

"With John it was what he liked aesthetically," says Patrick Jennings, director and curator of the Mitchell Museum. "He was an eclectic collector."

But he was more than that. Ron Wetterholt, a retired teacher, recalls how Mitchell visited Evanston classrooms where he passed his treasures around the room allowing children to see and touch what they had only read about.

"Too many non-Native Americans have the mistaken idea that all Indians died 125 years ago in a John Wayne movie," says Wetterholt, a volunteer at the museum for the last eight years.

The Mitchell Museum disabuses them of that notion by introducing visitors to the rich Native American culture of the past as well as the vibrancy of its present.

"We present the American Indian culture through the past in artifacts and through the present in artwork," Jennings says. "We're trying to get kids to understand that Indian nations still exist."

And, by offering a number of hands-on exhibits, the museum has - in essence - picked up where its founder left off. Among the Mitchell's most popular exhibits are the interactive ones where visitors can make music, grind corn, comb wool and test their skill at Indian games.

However, the museum's chief claim to fame is its impressive collection of approximately 30,000 items including art, pottery, textiles, ceremonial objects, tools and weapons of Plains, Woodlands, Southwest and Northwest tribes of North America.

Long popular with school groups, the Mitchell also attracts a number of Native Americans who want to get in touch with their heritage, says Penelope Berlet, the museum's education coordinator.

The collection

Jennings and his staff juxtapose the art and artifacts of the past with those of the present so that visitors experience ancient and modern Indian culture simultaneously.

For example, modern Navajo sand art hangs near 800-year-old artifacts from the now extinct Anasazi, a cliff-dwelling tribe from the Southwest known for their distinctive architecture and pottery. …