Tribes tell their stories in new Arkansas exhibit

By Daniel Shea
Little Rocke, Arkansas (AP) 4-09

Their names mark rivers, valleys, schools and communities across the state, recalling the people who were settled in Arkansas when Europeans first arrived in the 1500s.

But while the names may be familiar to many, the history of the Quapaw, Osage and Caddo American Indian tribes might not.

To help change that, the Historic Arkansas Museum opened a permanent exhibit March 28th called “We Walk in Two Worlds” to pass along the history and culture of the three Native American nations that were once settled in Arkansas.

To mark the event, Gov. Mike Beebe sent each tribal council the state’s first formal invitation to come back to Arkansas since the tribes were forced from the land in the early 1800s, said Swannee Bennett, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director.

At the public opening, March 28, representatives from each of the three nations, along with a drum circle, singing dancing and other demonstrations by tribal members were present.

The exhibit – which was three years in the making – is divided into six chapters that form a cycle, each one flowing into the next until the circle is completed. By the end, a display shows visitors where the tribes started and where they find themselves now.


The exhibit was set up to describe the history of the tribes through Native American voices, beginning just before European contact, moving through their forced relocations to Oklahoma around 1830 and into the cultural revival that has defined recent decades. It includes more than 160 artifacts from the tribes.

“We try to make sure that the words you read are from Native Americans,” Bennett said. “We wanted to have a Native American interpretation.”

To do that, the museum sought tribal advisers from each nation who helped mold the exhibit into a reflection of their historical and contemporary experiences, as passed down in the tribes.

Ardina Moore is a Quapaw tribal historian and a teacher of the Quapaw language, but is also part Osage. She said the name Arkansas comes from early French explorers who were told by an Illinois tribe that the people who inhabited what is now the state were the “Akansea,” which means “People of the South Wind.”

The museum also was able to display items from the Smithsonian Institution – ranging from buffalo hides to traditional weapons – that are on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian. Those artifacts supplement items from the Arkansas museum’s own growing collection and some provided by the tribes. Moore even donated the cradle board made for her by her grandfather, the last hereditary chief of the Quapaw nation, Victor Griffin.

Moore said she did not enter the exhibit until the grand opening for special guests March 27, when the space was blessed with a cedar wood smoke ceremony – a traditional Native American ceremony for new beginnings.

“What pleases us the most is the idea that people are going to recognize our heritage and our culture, which to this point has been kind of ignored,” Moore said. “It helps to be appreciated.”