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Oyate Tawicoh’an (The Ways of the People)

Curators are educators, too. Every decision we make during the exhibit planning process is made with educational goals in mind. Like each word in a Poe short story, each object and illustration is selected for its contribution to the whole and for its ability to tell a story larger than itself. We try not to select obscure objects that are difficult to relate to, and we strive not to write dense labels that put off the average visitor. You see, curators, too, want the general public to understand what they see in a museum and to learn from it.

At the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, South Dakota, we have taken a fairly simple approach to presenting and interpreting another culture — we ask members of that culture to join with us in order to produce and explain an exhibit essentially from rheir point of view.

South Dakota is home to nine Sioux Indian reservations and is surrounded by more in neighboring states. Consistent with our mission to interpret the cultures of all South Dakotans, we are presenting the Sioux people in one part of a three-part, $3 million permanent exhibition installation.

The traditional approach to presenting Indian culture in museum exhibits has been an anthropological one — nice niches (home, family, roles of men and women, occupations, religion). It appeals to Euro-American sensibilities and mirrors the way we think of ourselves. Early in our planning, however, we discovered that this approach might not be the best way to explain Sioux culture. For example, white society tends to compartmentalize religion. Except among the most devout, the sacred and the secular usually occupy separate spheres of our lives. This is not true in Sioux society. The sacred and the secular are inextricably combined and cannot logically be separated into two areas of discussion in a museum exhibit.

To respond to problems such as this, and to meet our educational goals, we needed to try an approach other than the traditional one. In 1990, we officially established an Indian advisory committee (although an ad hoc committee had existed since 1976) to help us sensitively interpret Sioux culture and to represent the Indian point of view in exhibits on post-contact South Dakota.

Together, staff and committee members devised a different strategy. The Sioux would be presented in their own terms, through their four cardinal virtues: courage, fortitude, wisdom, and generosity. The committee remained with us every step of the way, offering their advice, objecting to some of our characterizations of beliefs or objects, and helping us locate craftspeople and other consultants that enabled us to carry out this project.

In the exhibition, Oyate Tawicoh ‘an (The Ways of the People), we wanted our visitors to learn the following:

  • that the Sioux have a vibrant active culture;
  • that the traditional Euro-American view of the Sioux does not explain their culture best;
  • that cultural differences exist between whites and Indians, and can be understood by explaining Sioux societal values; and
  • that even simple objects have larger meanings.

While our new interpretive plan seemed a good one in theory, we were concerned about how to put it into practice. The vast majority of our Indian collection dated from approximately 1880-1920, well after initial white contact. How could we use these objects to explain a way of life that existed long before white people set foot in South Dakota?

One of the elders on our committee solved our problem. He explained that, while the material cultural had changed, the underlying principles and beliefs had not. No one on our committee had a problem with creating an “ahistorical” exhibit — one that spoke out of time. In fact, the committee preferred this approach because white audiences in particular tend to think of Indians in the historical past, and fail to see them today. The people on our advisory committee were adamant that Indians be spoken of in the present tense.

The Voice of the People

To show visitors that the Sioux are still around, and still have a vibrant, living culture we employed several techniques. “Voice” is an important tool in accomplishing this. For instance, each main label is written in the first person, present tense. The label on the buffalo begins, “We are so close in spirit that to speak of Oceti Sakowin [the Sioux] is also to speak of the buffalo …” The visitor learns that for these cultural explanations, it is not the museum but rather the Sioux who are speaking. Titles are written in Lakota (one of three Sioux dialects) with English following. Objects are referred to first by their Lakota/ Nakota/Dakota name, followed by an English translation in parentheses.

A living language also supports a living people. Each of three audiovisual stations gives visitors the opportunity to hear both the native language and English. Even the matter of naming our subject was given a great deal of thought. Although universally known as the “Sioux,” our advisors preferred the term “Oceti Sakowin.” Sioux is a corruption of an Ojibwa word meaning “snakes,” while Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires) is what the people have referred to themselves as for years. We hope that visitors will easily incorporate such new names and terms into their vocabularies as they move through the exhibit.

Cultural Imperatives

Whites have never understood the Sioux impulse to give things away. It was an unending source of frustration to Indian agents and missionaries that goods received by one family could quickly end up in the hands of another. The Sioux, of course, felt quite the opposite, never understanding how whites could be so miserly. Misunderstanding over this issue continues to this day, and illustrates the cultural divide existing between whites and Indians.

The Sioux virtue of wacantognaka (generosity) dictates that a person is known for what he or she gives, not keeps. The cultural imperative to generosity gave rise to the extraordinary productivity of Sioux women, who lavishly beaded gifts, and the extreme bravery of men, who captured horses to give away. Indeed, people in mourning gave away literally all of their belongings (including their clothes, horses, and tipi) at the conclusion of their year of mourning. Seeing this concept explained may help white visitors gain a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for. their neighbors — the Sioux.

One way to shift the point of view away from who Euro-Americans believe the Sioux are to the view the Sioux have of themselves was to avoid using the work of white artists as illustrations for the exhibit. We decided to use illustrations created by Sioux people — a way of presenting them as they saw themselves. As it happened, our collection offered a wealth of imagery that illustrated points the exhibit tries to make.

We avoided the use of loaded English words with negative connotations. For instance, raiding for horses was one way that a young man gained prestige, wealth, and demonstrated his courage. Traditionally, white anthropologists have called this activity “horse stealing.” Instead we use the term “horse taking” or “horse capture,” both of which we believe are correct and far less negative.

Objects and their Meanings

Visitors will learn that simple objects have larger meaning, and they may learn to look for those meanings. For instance, we show a necklace made of horse teeth, which a young man named Hump made himself from the teeth of horses he had captured. Of course it is adornment, but in this context it represents more — a young man’s acts of wo ‘ochitika (courage).

We learned to look for the larger meanings in objects ourselves, as we spent weeks looking at our Indian collection with fresh eyes. With the aid of our advisors, we grouped the objects in a new sequence under each of the virtues and stopped thinking of anthropological niches. Although the fit was not always perfect, we believe we are using most of our great objects in fresh new ways.


Of paramount importance was to produce an exhibit in which our Indian visitors would feel comfortable. We want them to feel a shock of recognition that they may never have felt before in a non-tribal museum. And, we want them to feel a sense of ownership in our museum that we may have failed to instill in the past. All of the Indian people associated with the project thus far have felt very positive, but only time and visitors will tell us if we succeeded. [Stay tuned to The Docent Educator for a follow-up report.]

We believe Oyate Tawicoh ‘an will work well for the self-guided visitors, but we know that it will work even better for the tour-guided visitor. Our tour guides can make explicit the subtle connections between object and beliefs. They can help visitors come out of themselves and go into the mind set of the other culture. They can lead the visitor to accept the other culture on its own terms, rather than their own, at which point they may begin to understand the “other” in a way they could not before.

It is impossible to develop a museum exhibit in the United States without acknowledging the presence and influence of whites. While we will not explain trade networks that brought European beads and other manufactured objects into Indian communities, white anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians are given an opportunity to explain where they think the Sioux came from. The difference, however, is that side by side with this explanation will be the Sioux creation story, given equal weight, to explain their origins as they see themselves. Instead of valuing one explanation over another, we offer the visitors two possible explanations, and allow them to pick one, or blend the two. It is the ultimate open-ended question!

Curators do believe in the educational possibilities of museums. As guides through museum collections, they can aid you in designing tours and programs with deeper educational meaning — the object is more than a relic. And you, in turn, can aid them in making more explicit the deeper meanings and values object hold, in a way that speaks to all visitors.

How To Establish Your Own Advisory Committee

Assuming your museum does not already have an Indian advisory committee, the education department should seriously consider establishing one. Designing tours and education programs present equal opportunities for presenting the “other” to students and visitors. [Our advisory committee is exclusively Sioux. If you have a pan-Indian committee, you may need to increase your numbers.]

Seek broad representation among indigenous people. Try to get people who are articulate and knowledgeable about their culture. It is advisable to have a religious representative to help you navigate those tricky waters; seek representation from a range of ages and both sexes. It also does not hurt to have at least one person who is politically connected. You should also look for someone who knows the language well, although under the happiest of situations, all of your committee members would be native speakers.

Working with an Advisory Committee

Here are a few key things to keep in mind when working with an advisory committee:

  • make certain that committee members are, or become, acquainted with your institution; help them understand you specific needs and how they differ from other educational media (an exhibit is not a book, for instance); make sure they can support your institutional goals;
  • listen to what they say, and how they say it; try not to let your preconceived notions of what their real concerns might be prevent you from understanding what their concerns actually are;
  • pick up on their terminology, use their phrases, ask for explanations of what you don’t understand, but make sure you make an effort to find out about their culture on your own. (You should read the works of white anthropologists carefully — descriptions of objects and ceremonies are probably more reliable than speculations on motives or other cultural explanations);
  • make an effort to properly pronounce their words. Nothing is more annoying to someone’s ears than their beautiful language being massacred;
  • remember that in many cultures, deference to elders is the norm. This may mean that younger members of your committee will be reluctant to express a dissenting opinion in a group. Save time for the occasional private conversation.

Claudia J. Nicholson is Curator of Collections for the Cultural Heritage Center Museum, a program of the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, South Dakota. She received her B.A. in history from Mary Washington College and an M.A. in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Prior to moving to South Dakota, Ms. Nicholson was an exhibits specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C

Nicholson, Claudia J. “Oyate Tawicoh’an (The Ways of the People),” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Winter 1994-95): 12-15.


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