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Sharing Traditions

An exhibit at the Chicago area's Mitchell Museum of the American Indian highlights storytelling.

A little over a year ago, Jasmine Alfonso (Menominee/Oneida) felt inspired to share her story, a tale that begins with her ancestors—where they lived, where their stories unfolded and where their bones are now buried.

“You see a forest, a lot of snow, winter scenes, animal tracks in the snow, the sun and water,” she says of her video, which is being screened as part of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibit, Storytelling: Inspiring Traditions for Generations, in Evanston, Ill. “Then it opens up to this tree line with the skyline in the background, and I’m showing people that actually this place I’ve been talking about is Chicago.”

The exhibit, which opened in late January, explores the historical and contemporary ways Native Americans share stories, pulling visitors in every direction. Rattles and drums lay silent in a glass display case to the west. A red and cream-colored rug woven with the pattern of the Navajo Butterfly Maiden, Palhik Mana, hangs against an east wall. And an Iroquois longhouse, complete with an electric fire and bearskin rug, wraps along the north side of the room.

Objects on display such as Hopi katsina dolls, the jingle dresses of the Winnebago and Cheyenne, and fetish animal carvings of the Zuni and Oneida also help illuminate underlying tribal themes and meanings. “The thing I like about this museum is that I can pull all these different kinds of things and put them right next to each other and they still all tell the same story,” says Melissa Halverson, the museum’s curator.

Alfonso’s story takes modern form as digital storytelling, and it’s one in a collection of videos from other Native storytellers living in the greater Chicago area. Through her video, she reminds us the Menominee lived in Chicago before the first settlers came to the area in the late 1770s. Although her tribe was relocated to Wisconsin, she was born in Chicago. She never had to leave.

“What I hear often and what gets covered by the media often is not the same story I would personally tell or how I personally feel,” Alfonso says. “Some of the people in the [Native] community here in Chicago take up a deficit view of themselves because we grew up in an urban area—that we don’t have our culture, language or identity—and that’s not the story that I want to tell about myself.”

Her family found their way back to Chicago, a narrative, she says, in which they derive purpose and tradition. That is the story she wants to pass on to the next generation of American Indians and storytellers alike: strength through perseverance. The preservation of rich oral histories like Alfonso’s and the stories of others like her is critical, Halverson says, a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.

“I want to be a direct, informative link to the public, and I want to be able to tell the information in a way that gets the average museum visitor to come and really think about it from a different perspective,” Halverson says. “But what I’d really like is for them to come in on their next visit and not think so much as learning about ‘the other.’”

Storytelling: Inspiring Traditions for Generations will remain open through the end of 2014. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian houses exhibits focusing on Native American and First Nations history, artwork and culture to encourage public understanding of indigenous peoples. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (extended hours on Thursday until 8 p.m.), and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Evanston, Ill.; 847/475-1030, www.mitchellmuseum.org.

A transplant from Salt Lake City, Mallory Black (Navajo) is a writer and journalist living in Chicago, where she is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her love of public radio has inspired her to pursue a career in audio reporting. She reported this story in February from Chicago. Reach her on Twitter at @mblack47.