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The hawk-feather bustle worn by a Quapaw boy in fancy dance has a beaded leather center featuring the image of Mickey Mouse.
That one artifact embodies the message of “We Walk in Two Worlds: The Caddo, Osage and Quapaw in Arkansas,” the new permanent exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum. As Charlene Wright, the Caddo representative in the team that put together the exhibit, says, “We live.”
So much of what we in Arkansas know about the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw comes from the grave — in the form of pots. When “We Walk in Two Worlds” opens to the public Saturday, March 28, these three tribes that once lived in Arkansas will make it clear they are very much alive.
By the exhibit, the tribes invite us to walk alongside them in a historical journey that features the remains of their deep past, sees them warred on, sickened, cheated and pushed off their land, and proves their survival as people whose Native American roots still nourish their identity today.
HAM's first major foray into Arkansas's native history came in 1995, when with the support of federal Judge Morris Arnold, a colonial Arkansas scholar, and Sterling and Anne Tucker, the museum arranged to exhibit two rare 18th century Quapaw robes from the collection of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. The Quapaw painted images of Arkansas Post on the skins.
Work on “We Walk in Two Worlds” started two and half years ago, HAM assistant director Swanee Bennett said, prompted by discussions with museums director Bobbie Heffington of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. Heffington wanted to see some kind of exhibit that would “interpret the Native American experience,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘We need room and money.' She said, ‘Let's starting meeting about that.' ” The idea broadened when the Indian members of the advisory board — which also included scholars and museum experts — expressed the desire that the exhibit should be told from their viewpoint. “One of the most poignant examples of the Native American voice,” Bennett said, “was not to tell how the Quapaw were first forced to leave from [writings by] Crittenden or formal government documents, but rather from transcribing the voice of Heckaton,” the Quapaw chief whose letter pleading with Arkansas Territory Secretary Robert Crittenden to let the tribe stay in Arkansas was published in the Arkansas Gazette.
The 158 objects in the exhibit are on long-term loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and various private collections. It includes items from HAM's own collection, as well, including 17th century Spanish reales that washed out of the banks of the Black River and silver trade crosses. It's organized into six areas touching on ancient lifeways and their descendant incarnations, European contact, removal, survival and contemporary life. From the distant past come prehistoric Caddoan head pots and halberds similar to those de Soto's men would have hoisted. From the 19th century, a painted parfleche, a Quapaw roach, an Osage pipe tomahawk of wood and steel, a silver “peace medal” presented to the Osage leader Wau-sha-wa-ta-ga in 1849 by President Tyler. From 2004, an Oto Missouri drum made for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. Thanks to 20th century technology, a lenticular disc in the center of the exhibit juxtaposes faces from the past with current photographs. Indian commentary on the exhibit itself will be represented in text panels positioned around the lenticular.
HAM kicks off a two-day celebration of the exhibit opening with a private reception from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday for members and invited guests; tribal chiefs and chairpersons will attend. On Saturday, there will be drumming, singing, dancing, food, memory book-making and other activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Chairs of the Saturday event are Ardina Moore, Quapaw from Miami, Okla.; Kathryn Red Corn of Pawhuska, Okla., Osage; and Wright, of Binger, Okla.
“I feel really good” about the Indian voice in the exhibit, Red Corn said last week. She especially hopes to reach children with two 19th century dolls dressed in traditional garb that the Osage museum in Pawhuska is lending. The dolls should show “we weren't always warring and dancing,” Red Corn said. “Our children played too.”