Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center

I confess, I was a biased visitor to Pipestone, MN and I went out of my way to find the kitschiest, strangest, most amusing manifestations of the city's claim as the "Home of the Peacepipe." This is thanks largely to Sally J. Southwick's somewhat long-winded but thoroughly researched Building on a Borrowed Past: Place and Identity in Pipestone, MN which I read for a college course on public history. I was not disappointed...

Here we see a sign declaring Pipestone as the "Crossroads of the Indian World." This sign is outside "Fort Pipestone" a replica frontier fort...that never actually existed. That's right: this fort is not even a reconstruction of a destroyed fort but a complete tourist fabrication. Entry is free, but you're supposed to buy souvenirs at the gift shop. Sadly, I did not have time to spend my hard-earned paychecks buying miniature keychains in the shape of calumets. Next time.

The biggest surprise was finding this little gem in the midst of all the peacepipe kitsch: The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center, a Dakota-owned and operated museum dedicated, among other things, to honoring American Indian women "firsts" (i.e. first Native American Miss America, first Native American ballerina, etc.). The museum also features an extensive collection of photographs from the Fort Snelling internment camp where thousands of Dakota were imprisoned and several hundred died following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The portion on American Indian women is called the "Ancient Voices Museum" and was my favorite part of the center. Though the text was a little wordy and the laminated labels reflected the light in such a way that sometimes made it hard to read, the information and photographs displayed were fascinating and moving. They highlighted several American Indian women from tribes across the United States and their landmark "firsts." I read about the first Native American woman to become a registered nurse, the first Native American woman to "speak out for American Indian issues," and many other fascinating women. Their stories were accompanied by photographs and artifacts including a display of women's clothing. I did have some reservations with the decision to highlight "firsts" as this format tended to celebrate women for doing "white" things (ballet, Miss America pageant) and essentially for assimilating into the dominant culture. However, I also understand the value of portraying American Indians' lives and achievements in contemporary society, particularly when the myth of the "Vanishing Indian" is all too present in today's discourse and popular culture. Ultimately, the very existence of a museum like this was exciting to me and I was deeply moved by the overall presentation.

I think I was so taken with this museum because this was the last place I expected to find an exhibit highlighting the experiences of American Indian women from around the country. My prior knowledge of Pipestone (again, from Southwick's book) led me to believe the town and its heritage had been entirely appropriated and repackaged by white settlers and that it remained so today. Not so, if this museum is anything to go by.

More Pipestone adventures in my next post...

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