Exhibit explores Ojibwa history

view of Paths of the People exhibit

The Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indians have lived in the Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley -- including the valley's finest tributary, the Red Cedar -- for 300 years. That powerful history is the subject of 1,200-square-foot traveling exhibit, which just arrived at Menomonie's Rassbach Heritage Museum for an extended stay.

The exhibit, Paths of the People, traces Ojibwe history and the events that forced them to make vital decisions about the directions their lives would take.

"This is terrific content," says Frank Smoot, director of the Dunn County Historical Society, the organization that runs the Rassbach Heritage Museum. "It was developed at the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, and they brought in tribal leaders from Lac Courte Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau, a consultant from the Smithsonian, scholars from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Humanities Council."

Paths of the People begins with the traditional seasonal round of hard work that sustained Ojibwe life for generations, and moves in time to the present. The exhibit features reproduced documents and photographs from the fur trade to the tourist trade, from boarding schools to tribal schools, from treaties made and broken to treaties re-evaluated.

It also showcases some artifacts from the Dunn County Historical Society collection the public has never had a chance to see before: a fur-trade-style, muzzle-loading percussion rifle, Ojibwe-made goods for the tourist trade, contemporary Ojibwe-style beadwork, and a newly acquired set of raku porcelain masks donated by Margret Hjeltness of Menomonie.

"These masks were made by an artist named Sally Thielen," says Smoot. "She's Ojibwa and French Canadian. Her work is also in the Field Museum in Chicago, the Museum of Man in San Diego, the Museum of Folk Art in Moscow, Russia -- all over the world. Those places might be jealous of the particular masks we have."

The name Menomonie itself is an Ojibwe word meaning "place where the wild rice grows." And our entire six-million acre watershed, the Chippewa Valley, is named for the Ojibwe.

The English and Americans corrupted the word Ojibwe to Chippewa. Since Chippewa was the name written on 19th-century treaties with the United States, it is the name that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has used since that time. People at Lac Court Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau, the two reservations in the Chippewa Valley, today most often refer to themselves as Ojibwe.

Over the past 300 years, contact with Europeans and settlement by Americans have forced them to adapt in order to survive. The challenges each generation has faced -- whether at treaty grounds, boarding schools, or boat landings -- have influenced what knowledge has been passed down, what paths taken.

"We've added multimedia to the exhibit," Smoot noted, "a short piece from the Wisconsin Media Lab on spearfishing, and a 'you are there'-style video shot at the Honor the Earth powwow recently. If you haven't been to a powwow, this really gives you a pretty good idea of what it's like in just a few minutes."

Richard St. Germaine, former tribal chair at Lac Courte Oreilles and UW-Eau Claire professor of history emeritus, said about the content, "Paths of the People represents much more than another exhibit of another Indian people. It is a national model, a sensitive demonstration of a preservation of Indian history told from the voices of the people themselves."

The exhibit is included with admission to the Rassbach Heritage Museum, which is $5 for adults, less for kids, students, seniors, and active-duty military.


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Dunn County Historical Society
PO Box 437, Menomonie, WI   USA  54751
(715) 232-8685