Performance Brings Ancestral Women of Wisconsin's 12 Tribes to Life

Jan 4, 2019

For the last two years, Mary Burns’ exhibit featuring weavings of ancestral women of Wisconsin’s 12 tribes has been traveling around the area. Thanks to a group of women from the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians though, the exhibit is now being brought to life.

Mackenzie Martin continues our We Live Up Here series with the story of 22 weavings and one theater performance that together are celebrating native women in Wisconsin.

Mary Burns is a fiber artist in Mercer and a couple of years ago she embarked on an ambitious project. She decided to create an exhibit to honor elder women of each of the 12 tribes* in Wisconsin. She didn’t feel like ancestral women in Wisconsin’s tribes were being honored enough.

“So I went to the tribes to see if they were interested and if so, who they might want to have honored in the exhibit,” she said.

With help from the tribes, she was able to select 12 ancestral women to honor. Then using photographs that they provided, she wove larger than life portraits of the 12 women on her hand-jacquard loom.

The final exhibit is called Ancestral Women and also features weavings of six clan symbols and four landscapes. It opened in 2016 and is currently at Northern Michigan University.

Nine performers from the Ancestral Women: the Performance Project at the Milwaukee Public Museum in November.
Credit Carol Ann Amour

The project didn’t stop there, though. Recently, Burns’ weavings have inspired something new. A group of women from the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians has been working to bring the exhibit to life. In mid-November, they performed Ancestral Women: the Performance Project for the first time at the Milwaukee Public Museum with children from the Indian Community School.

On the stage were large prints of Mary Burns’ original weavings. Much of the performance involves the person in the portrait themself or a relative, telling stories about the person pictured, as well as tribal history as a whole. Some of the stories are happy, and some of the stories are hard to hear.

“Did you know, many of our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were forced to go to boarding schools?” asked one of the performers to the audience.

In addition, because of the way we naturally tell stories differently each time, each performance is expected to be a little different.

Carol Ann Amour has a background in education and theater and she says before the first performance, they spent a lot of time traveling around to reservations and communities around Wisconsin, listening to what women thought about it.

“We’re trying to do this in a very indigenous way,” says Amour. “There’s no one person who is in control of everything. It’s a collaborative effort. Everyone’s opinion is valued. Also it’s intergenerational. We have these women—the 12 women—but we also have middle school students who created their own dialogue as a bridge between different segments of the production… and there are young women who are jingle dress dancers… and there are young boys who are on the drum.”

The goal of the project is to share the stories and contributions of native women in Wisconsin and to inform those who may not know a lot about the 12 tribes. In addition to Mary Burns’ exhibit, Amour says the performance is inspired by strong feelings about the importance of ancestors.

“No one does anything by themselves,” she says. “No one is magical and amazing all by themselves. It’s because of what our ancestors have done. And then that whole thought... that whole notion of looking forward to the seventh generation, so that whatever we do, it’s not about what we’re doing right now today, it’s making decisions that are good for our children and their children and their children.”

Christine Doud holds a piece of paper where she wrote down how people felt right after the first performance: fulfilled, proud, enriched, and inspired.
Credit Mackenzie Martin/WXPR

Christine Doud was the stage manager for the first performance. She says what touched her the most was the emotion, tenderness, and love that the women exhibited as they spoke about their ancestors.

“It got to the point that some of our presenters were actually tearing up,” says Doud. “And the audience felt that too.”

Representing the Forest County Potawatomi Community during the November performance was Mikiya Alloway, talking about her great-grandmother, Mary Waubiness.

“I’m really appreciative to be here to speak on my great-grandma,” she said during the performance in November. “I really do believe she was a very strong woman and she believed in herself.”

Representing the Sokaogon Chippewa Community Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians was Vickie Ackley talking about her great-grandmother, Alice Ackley. During her part of the performance, she read from an article that she had found in the Green Bay Press Gazette. They had quoted Alice Ackley in 1968 when she was crowned “Indian Mother of the Year.”

Tinker Schuman is the ancestral women that represents the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. She spoke for herself during the November performance and she’s a big part of the performance project as a whole. She says what they’re doing goes beyond traditional theater.

“It’s alive, what we’re doing,” says Schuman. “It’s not just writing a play or acting it out.”

The performance project beings with Schuman's blessing and ends with a poem written by Schuman, called "Ancestral Women Of Creative Spirit."

In addition to doing the original weavings, Mary Burns has also been involved in the performance project. She says the entire experience has been a privilege.

“It’s just been an honor for me to do this work,” says Burns. “I feel that I have been given this incredible gift to work with the tribes, meet these women and their families, and sometimes it’s just the families I’m meeting, but to bring this to the general public I think is really important.”

Future performances of Ancestral Women: the Performance Project will be taking place on March 9th at 2:00 p.m. at UW La Crosse as part of the Widening the Circle Conference. There will also be a performance in March as part of Lac du Flambeau Cultural Connections. They will also be doing a workshop on the production and message of Ancestral Women April 26-27 in Wisconsin Rapids at the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.

You can find out more about Ancestral Women: the Performance Project by getting in touch with Carol Ann Amour at amourcarol@yahoo.com. You can donate to the project on GoFundMe here.

More information about Mary Burns’ original Ancestral Women Exhibit: Wisconsin's 12 Tribes is at www.ancestralwomen.com. More information on Mary Burns is here.

*Only 11 of the tribes included in this project are federally recognized. The Brothertown Nation is seeking federal status.

This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Dirty Wallpaper and Ferry Landing by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue). Performance audio for this story came from Sugar Shane Webster.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.