Mitchell Museum
of the American Indian

3001 Central Street
Evanston, IL 60201

A Regional Tour of American Indian Cultures

Ongoing Exhibition

This exhibit brings visitors on a tour through the major regions of the US and Canada and highlights the art and material culture of the tribes who lived there. Many of the objects you’ll see were collected by John and Betty Seabury Mitchell. This couple shared their passion for Native American art and culture with Evanstonians both old and young. In that spirit the exhibit strives to provide a deeper understanding of Native American art, history, and cultures to all our visitors.


(East of the Mississippi River)

Tribes in the Woodlands area relied on a balance of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture; they were not entirely nomadic, but traveled seasonally. Their homes reflect this lifestyle. The mural in this gallery will help you understand how community members with specialized skills worked together for the benefit of the community. There is also a model of an Iroquois long house that visitors can compare with the half size wigwam upstairs.

The birch bark canoe is from the Ojibwe tribe, who traditionally resided around the Great Lakes north of what is now the Chicago area. Above you’ll see photos of its traditional construction and use in gathering wild rice and for fishing.

Bandolier Bags — Bandolier bags have become an important part of Great Lakes ceremonial dress. These large, elaborately beaded shoulder bags form part of the traditional dress for both men and women among the Great Lakes tribes. They generally consist of a fully beaded panel and strap with floral beadwork on black or brown velvet. Bandolier bags developed from smaller more functional 18th century leather shoulder bags that were decorated with porcupine quill designs. Over time the bags have increased in size and become less functional. Some bags are even made without an interior pocket and so only have a decorative use.

Seminole Man's dress —Men of the Seminole tribe wore dresses or 'long shirts' like this one. The style of the garment is similar to that of European garments and is an adaptation by the members of this tribe of more traditional types of clothing. The fabric was obtained from trade with Europeans, later Americans. Beginning in the 17th century, clothing with stripes of fabric sewn together, called “patchwork”, were the common form of clothing. This was partially the result of the introduction of the hand powered sewing machine.

Cherokee Syllabary —This writing system (look at the framed syllabary in the left hand corner of the gallery) was invented by Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith in the frontier of Alabama during the years of the early Republic who had frequent contact with white settlers. By 1809 he had begun work on a writing system for his language. He developed symbols that represented the syllables used in spoken Cherokee. After years of work his syllabary was officially accepted by the Cherokee Nation in 1825. It is still used by members of the Cherokee tribe.


(West of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains)

After the Spanish introduced the horse to the Americas around 1600, tribes living at the edges of the Plains region were able to travel greater distances and began to fully utilize the region and its resources. The primary food source in the Plains were the herds of buffalo. As their dependence on this food source grew their lifestyle became increasingly nomadic. The tipi reflects this need to accommodate frequent travel. Take a look at the mural in this gallery.  It will help you appreciate the ingenuity and adaptability of these groups, in their ability to adapt. If you would like to build a tipi, please ask us to get the kit out for you.

Breast plate — This object combines traditional materials and those gained through trade. The smaller blue and yellow beads were made of Venetian or Czechoslovakian glass. The long yellow beads were made from buffalo bone. When Native Americans killed an animal for food, they also used all of the inedible parts to create useful items.

Headdress — This is one of the most widely recognized Native American artifacts in popular American culture and should always be treated with great respect. The headdress was worn by a highly respected leader, chosen for his courage, strength, generosity, and kindness. The eagle feathers that make up the headdress are given to recognize individual acts of bravery.

Cradleboard — Cradleboards varied in material and design from tribe to tribe. Look at the map below and see the adaptations that were made by mothers based on available resources and climate. The basic form consists of a backboard and a lashing of material or animal skins to hold the infant to the backboard. Many cradleboards have a third element, a band of wood, metal, or basketry that protrudes from the backboard and forms a hoop, which protects the infant's head should the cradleboard be dropped or fall over when propped against a tree or dwelling. The cradleboard keeps the baby safe and snug, and allows the mother and other caretakers to continue in their own work or travel easily. While very functional, these items were often very elaborately decorated as well. The Crow cradleboard in the case shows the elaborate beadwork of its creator. Some cradleboards were made for an individual infant, while others were handed down through families. Cradleboards were also created in toy form, so that future mothers could learn how to care for their dolls, as they would one day care for their own infants.


(The Four Corners Area - Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah)

There are two primary groups that live in this area: the Pueblo people, descendants of the original pre-contact inhabitants who lived n this area thousands of years ago; and the Navajo who, anthropologists believe, are a band that relocated from the north around 1500 A.D.  The Pueblo people reside in multi story dwellings, similar in form and function to modern apartment buildings. Each building houses multiple generations of the same family; pueblo society is both matrilineal and matralocal. The upper stories were reached by climbing ladders, which could be removed if an enemy came; inhabitants entered through a hole in the middle of the ceiling. Take a look at the mural above and to the right as you come downstairs; you’ll be able to see the structure in use. The primary staple of the Pueblo people’s diet was corn. Grinding the corn was an important job that women performed. Try grinding some yourself.

Pottery — Living in a sedentary agricultural society lends itself well to the creation and use of pottery in daily life. Notice the woman carrying a pot on the right of the mural, walking toward a pile of sheep dung, which was used as fuel in the firing of pottery. Gathering clay for pottery is a family activity. A pot is formed by coiling long rounded pieces. This technique is best exemplified in the Mogollon mug (third from the right first row from the bottom). Traditional pottery design is best viewed on the Anasazi bowl (bottom row center). A revival of traditional pottery took place during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The black on black plate by Maria Martinez is from this period.

Katsina dolls — The Pueblo people believe in spirit helpers, called katsinas. It is believed that the katsinas bring rain to this arid desert climate. They are portrayed by men during ceremonies, and dolls are made to educate children about their religious beliefs. Older katsina dolls, like the second and third from the left top row, are simple in form, cylindrical, and made of cotton wood root (which seeks out water). The newer katsina dolls (eagle dancer third from the right, top level) show more movement and greater detail.

Jewelry — Pueblo jewelry was typically made from turquoise mineral found on the surface, or from shell acquired through trade. The Navajo people traditionally lived in an eight-sided wood structures with thatched roofs, called hogans. Look at the mural on the left in this gallery and see the family hogan and its activities. Sheep are an important source of food and wool for the Navajo.

Weaving — While both men and women were responsible for herding the sheep, women in the Navajo tribe owned the sheep and were responsible for all aspects of treating the wool, except for the sheering. Try this process for yourself, card the wool, spin it into yarn, and then weave it on the upright loom.

Sand Painting — Above the loom you’ll notice a painting made of sand. In the Navajo tribe, sand paintings are made by medicine men, in order to call on a Yei’s power of healing. These paintings are constructed on the floor of the Hogan, and when the illness has been transferred from the person to the sand painting, the sand is pushed away to the North (the direction of evil).

Jewelry — The Navajo learned silversmith skills from the Mexicans when the tribe was relocated.


(Pacific Coastline of Oregon, Washington, Canada, and Southern Alaska)

Like most coastal settlements in the world, the Native American tribes in the Northwest Coast relied on fishing as a means of subsistence. Community members worked together to capture and kill large fish, including whales. Take a look at some of the photos in the gallery and you will see their permanent fishing villages and many of the dugout canoes that allowed them to venture out into the ocean. An important tradition among the peoples of the Northwest Coast is the Potlatch. A Potlatch is a community celebration of a major life event (a name giving, birth, marriage, etc.). A Potlatch may include the raising of a totem pole. The chief hosts the Potlatch and gives away many of his personal possessions, redistributing the wealth of the community. Both the Canadian and United States governments prohibited the Potlatch during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

Hat — In the small case next to the chair lift a hat woven from cedar bark and spruce root is from the Nootka tribe. Notice the design woven into the hat. It is a fishing scene complete with men in canoes and whales. The finial shape of the hat denotes that the wearer has hosted one potlatch. Chiefs who hosted multiple potlatches would wear hats with multiple finials.

Totem Pole — The totem pole for the people of the Northwest Coast has special significance. The figures on the pole are often representations of the legends of the community, and are raised by the entire community. A totem pole is carved from a tall cedar tree, which is a very important material for the people of the Northwest Coast. It was used to construct not only their sea-going canoes, but also their homes and many items of importance in daily life as well as spiritual life. In this gallery you will see two reproduction or model totem poles. See if you can identify the figures on these models.

Masks — Among the tribes of the Northwest Coast stories were very important. Stories were collected and passed down through clans. During celebrations and ceremonies, these stories were acted out by members of the clan that owned them. Just as actors wear costumes in plays or movies to get into a character, these masks brought the spiritual being to life during the performance. Masks, like many of the other painted wood surfaces, are traditionally painted in red and black. These natural paints were made by crushing the eggs of salmon (red caviar) and other fish (black caviar). Trying to paint with these materials might be a fun at-home activity. Masks with paint colors of blue and green are often post-European contact, since they are commercially made paints.

Button Blanket — In a cool rainy environment it is important to protect your body from chill by wearing a protective cloak. Before contact with Europeans and Americans, members of the Northwest Coast tribes made cloaks of woven cedar bark. After contact, wool fabric and different types of beads (glass and mother of pearl buttons replaced abalone or dentallium shell decorations) became available. The design on the blanket is that of the clan to which the wearer belongs.


(Most of Alaska and parts of Canada)

In this frozen part of world people are experts at adapting to the harsh environment. You might think that an igloo built of blocks of ice would make for a very cold home, but in fact these ice houses can be up to 68 degrees in the interior, not much cooler than your home during the winter. Another way that people who live in such a cold climate have adapted is to eat a diet high in fat; blubber from sea mammals (whales, walrus, etc.) give each person a store of calories that aren ’t available to people who eat leaner diets and live in a more temperate climate.

Sunglasses — In addition to the threat of a frigid climate, Inuit people need to adapt to the intense sunshine. Protecting their eyes from the glare created by the sun on abundant snow and ice is very important. In this display you will see three different variations using different materials to make sunglasses. Try out the pair on the touching table; see if you can tell a difference.

Whale Bone Sculpture — After a whale was hunted and stripped of its meat and blubber, the other useful parts, particularly bone, were used to create a variety of items. If you look closely at the ends of this sculpture you can see the holes in the center of the rib where the marrow once was. The sculptor chose to use this material to portray an Inuit person riding a sled pulled by dogs, a very common sight in this area, bringing together two animals that are critical to the survival of his/her people.

Gutskin Parka — In the arctic, keeping dry while fishing and hunting is as important as keeping warm. A parka made from the outer layer of intestine, called gutskin, of a sea mammal provides such protection and is easily available after the slaughter of one of these animals for its meat as a food source. A second parka, made of skins, would be worn beneath this one to provide warmth, similar to wearing an 'all weather' jacket with its liner.



Tuesday – Saturday:
10am – 5pm
Thursday: 10am – 8pm
Sunday: 12pm – 4pm

Adults: $5.00
Children, students, teachers, seniors: $3.00 
Mitchell Members: FREE
Tribal Members: FREE



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