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History of Survivance: Upper Midwest 19th Century Native American Narratives


Dakota quillwork leather vest, approximately 1890-1899. Minnesota Historical Society,


Minnesota Digital Library.

For every object that ends up in a library or museum collection – whether it’s a manucript, a photograph, or something more approaching the concept of “art” – there is a narrative, a story that gets told. The story a visitor to an exhibit ends up hearing, of course, is dependent upon who is telling the story and the slant of their own perspective. When the subject of the exhibit is Native Americans in the Upper Midwestern United States during the extraordinary upheaval of the 19th century, one must be particularly careful about the story being told since the narrative that largely exists is one of cultural denouement, of endings, as told by a colonizing population to its descendants.

The dominant narrative of the demise of traditional Native American culture in the face of colonization, conversion to Christianity, confinement to reservations and economic collapse is, however, not the only story that can be told. The accounts of the lives of Native Americans during the 19th century that are told by Native peoples themselves are strikingly different to those recounted in history books, movies, and all too frequently in museums. Rather than narratives solely recounting destruction and demise, Native stories about Native history tend to focus on what White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor has called survivance – a narrative incorporating themes of survival and resistance that insist on the inclusion of the Native presence.

The following is an exhibit of resources that can be found within the Digital Public Library of America retold through the lens of Native American survivance in the Minnesota region. Within are a series of objects of both Native and non-Native origin that tell a story of extraordinary culture disruption, change and continuity during 19th c., and how that affects the Native population of Minnesota today.




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