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The future of Milwaukee Public Museum's 'A Tribute To Survival' exhibit

Milwaukee Public Museum
(Left) The late George Amour (Ojibwe) is out front carrying an eagle feather staff. Amour is followed by the late Houston Wheelock (Oneida) carrying the American flag. Both men were veterans, who are traditionally asked to lead powwow grand entries and are the only ones allowed to carry flags.

One of Milwaukee Public Museum’s (MPM) best known exhibits is A Tribute to Survival, which opened in the fall of 1993. The centerpiece of this exhibit is a giant turntable that rotates 37 life-sized figures from Wisconsin's seven tribes that recreate a powwow grand entry.

With the museum scheduled to move to a new site in 2027, many questioned what would happen to this exhibit — especially the people who helped to create it. When Carol Amour, the original script writer for Tribute, heard the news of the museum's future move she was "saddened, probably horrified."

"We had said initially that this was a 'forever' exhibit that was being built to pay tribute to the tribes of Wisconsin and to the Native people of Wisconsin. And it still has so much to teach and so many of those models are still here with us and so, you know, why should that tribute stop? It's still very important and we still have so many things to learn from it," she says.

When Diane Amour, a member of the Prairie Band Potowatomi Tribe who was also part of shaping Tribute, discovered that the exhibit did not make it into the plans to move to the new museum location, she immediately had questions about what would happen to the figures and other artifacts in the exhibit. So, together the sisters-in-law started an effort to work with the museum to make sure the exhibit could have a future in order to continue to teach new generations.

However, before the future plans for the exhibit unfold, it's important to learn what made the making of Tribute so unique. Originally inspired by the Indian Summer festival in Milwaukee, MPM reached out to the local Native community to invite "as much participation as possible" in terms of how things were set, the look of the exhibit, who the figure models should be and how to do proper outreach according to Carol.

"At that time that was pretty unusual, because that was back in the late 8os," she notes.

Diane was a part of a group called the American Indian Advisory Council, whose goal was to raise awareness of the Native community who were often invisible to the greater Milwaukee community. When she went to the first meeting with the museum, Diane admits she was skeptical.

"When [Nancy Lurie, a MPM anthropologist] first came, I have to say that we were kind of worried, like why are we going to help a museum?" she recalls. "Anthropologists and historians set things up from their point of view, and so in this case they came and asked first [for us] to be at the table right away and that we would have a voice in how it would proceed."

Anthropologists and historians set things up from their point of view, and so in this case they came and asked first [for the Native community] to be at the table right away and that we would have a voice in how it would proceed.
Diane Armour

Diane notes that they were intentional in picking the people who would be used as models for the giant turntable and made sure they had representation from the different tribes of Wisconsin. "A lot of the figures, the models were chosen by people from this area and people who lived in this area," she explains.

These kinds of decisions and input were made at General Council meetings at MPM, where everyone from the Wisconsin Native community were invited to come and have a say in how Tribute was shaped.

Carol notes that the original exhibit plan was for the figures to be behind glass on the turntable. "Right away you think that's like museums, every thing is put behind glass and then immediately that makes it look like from the past. It makes it look like it's not going forward, or it's not alive and well right here right now," she explains.

Outfits from MPM's collection were also originally intended to be used in the exhibit, which was another component of the plan to have the turntable behind glass in order to protect them. However, Native community members didn't like the idea of being put behind glass, since the key principle of Tribute was to show that Native Americans are still present and thriving despite the many attempts to eradicate and assimilate them into the dominant society.

According to Carol, MPM's head of exhibits and design suggested having all new outfits made by Native people in the state in order to remove the need for a glass wall. "There was a lot of discussion about that, and then that's what happened! ... [And then I was assigned to collect the outfits] which turned out to be great because I got to travel all over the state and meet people from all the tribes," she recalls.

A Tribute to Survival took about five years to complete and was a collaborative process with hundreds of tribal members in the state, rather than strictly historians and anthropologists. This collaboration can also been seen in the script displays, which have both a Native person's perspective first followed by the museum writer's information. Diane says they also went shopping at powwows to buy outfits, and her own mother made many pairs of moccasins used in the exhibit.

"To me it was a fulfilling experience and seeing that come alive or be a different kind of exhibit," Diane says. "I think a lot of our people in our community when they go there and see the exhibit feel, 'Oh there we are. Here we are.' So in that way it's really good."

The future of A Tribute to Survival

Carol and Diane have been working with MPM, who has signed an agreement with their Tribute Documentary Group, so that they can produce a documentary about the making of A Tribute to Survival.

"We're hard at work on that already, we're starting to fundraise so that we can do this. And what's terrific is that from the beginning [of] signing off with the museum in December, they've now created a working group at the museum to help us," notes Carol.

There are also tentative plans to make a virtual tour of Tribute so that anyone, from students to adults, can continue to tour the exhibit even after MPM relocates. When it does come time for MPM to officially move, the group is hoping to facilitate finding new homes for the figures that won't be used in an official capacity elsewhere.

Diane says some of the figures are of people who have walked on, and some of their families don't want those figures to be displayed anymore. Some models will take their own figures, and others like that of the female veteran, will go to the Veteran Historical Society Museum at the request of the model.

Carol Amour (left) & Diane Amour are both part of the Tribute Documentary Group, working to document the making of A Tribute to Survival and ensure its future.
Audrey Nowakowski
Carol Amour (left) & Diane Amour are both part of the Tribute Documentary Group, working to document the making of A Tribute to Survival and ensure its future.

"The idea would be that those stories could continue to be told and it could even become Beyond Tribute. So we would add in stores from all the tribes about all of the things that have been done in the last 35 years and will be done in the next 100. So pretty exciting, the possibilities," explains Carol.

Both women say it's exciting to see people coming together to move this project forward in an Indigenous way — in a consensus where all have a voice and work together. "It’s a way to carry on our story, to keep telling our story that’s not in a museum," says Diane. "So people are just excited that our voice, the Native voice, will continue somehow."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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