Minnesota's "Way to Independence." (North Dakota Heritage Center Show on the History of a Native American Family) (Museums)

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Minnesota's 'Way to Independence'

Few museums in this country portray native or indigenous populations in a responsible way. Lacking the resources or the will to change, most of these institutions still lie slumbering in the embrace of nineteenth-century antiquarianism. Some, though, have succeeded in breaking free of customary ethnocentricities [see "Museums," The Nation, November 27]. The recent museum shows that have contributed the most to public understanding of indigenous peoples have been relatively modest in size and have come from local or regional institutions.

One of the shows, produced by Carolyn Gilman and Mary Jane Schneider for the Minnesota Historical Society, opened December 9 at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. Called "The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian Family, 1840-1920," it is the most subtly complex portrait of an indigenous population that a U.S. museum has ever presented. It is also one of the best history shows of any variety to appear in many years.

"The Way to Independence" offers an intimate view into the lives of three members of the Hidatsa tribe, a Siouan people living on the Missouri River in North Dakota at the turn of the century. Like most members of the Hidatsa and related groups, Buffalo Bird Woman, her brother, Wolf Chief, and her son, Edward Goodbird, experienced profound change in the years between 1875 and 1915. Though each had a distinct identity, they can also be recognized as representing other Hidatsa, and other Native Americans, in an era of forced change. They are portrayed not as faceless models of acculturation but as people responding in different ways to an unfamiliar political power. The three seems extraordinary to us in many ways, including the manner in which they recorded their lives. These are worth recounting in some detail.

Buffalo Bird Woman was raised in an environment that seemed thoroughly traditional despite the presence of white traders and their goods. When she was born in 1839, her people lived in earth-covered lodges grouped together in villages along the Missouri River. As a girl, she saw her grandmother, Turtle, plant corn with a stick and the women of the Goose Society dance to welcome the corn spirits returning from the south. The Hidatsa cultivated the river valley in the spring and hunted buffalo on the plains in the summer--a cyclical routine that required seasonal moves. Hidatsa women built the lodges occupied by their extended families. The skills required to direct the construction were ancient and sacred knowledge that could only be purchased from another woman in the village who in turn had purchased the knowledge in her youth. Buffalo Bird Woman was ambitious; she purchased and pursued this and other skills.

Her brother, born ten years later, experienced a youth that was equally circumscribed by traditional Hidatsa gender roles but that also allowed him the independence to develop a strong personality. Wolf Chief learned to hunt buffalo and smaller game with bow and arrow, butcher animals and build hunting shelters. He successfully sought visions that would give him power in war against other tribes, and by fighting as well as buying membership in men's societies, he achieved status among the Hidatsa. Wolf Chief carefully cultivated his appearance to attract women, an activity at which he apparently also excelled. Later, he recalled, "I was a fine looking young man. I wore a switch in my hair. I painted my face red and I had a bead necklace with round shells hanging down on my breast. I also wore brass armlets, and had a shirt of white sheeting with the edges all trimmed with red cloth where it opened at the neck, and ... red fringe hanging down. I had leggings of blue black cloth and a blue blanket. But my moccasins were plain."

Significant national intervention in the lives of the Hidatsa began in 1851, eighteen years before Buffalo Bird Woman gave birth to Edward Goodbird, her only child. …