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Forest County Potawatomi Community Museum re-opens with exhibits featuring the past while focused on the future

Katie Thoresen
The newly renovated Forest County Potawatomi Museum starts with an exhibit detailing the tribes history dating back 10 generations.

As the last beat of the drum song faded out, Donald Keeble, or Thigwé in his Neshnabe name, opened the doors and welcomed people to the newly renovated museum for the Forest County Potawatomi Community.

Keeble is a Forest County Potawatomi Tribal Member. He’s the museum director and the NAGPRA representative for the tribe.

The idea to re-invent the museum was started by his predecessor, but Keeble and his staff were the ones to see it through, which was a challenge during the pandemic.

“We wanted to make it more elderly and kid-friendly. That was an important part. It needed to be updated with information because our tribe has progressed so much over the past 20 years,” said Keeble.

The museum features a wigwam and canoe that people can explore and interact with. Information panels are both in both the Bodwéwadmi language and English.

Multiple exhibits allow people to press buttons to hear how words are pronounced.

Katie Thoresen
People tour the Forest County Potawatomi Museum during its grand re-opening.

The museum starts with an exhibit detailing the tribe’s history dating back 10 generations.

It’s Vice-Chair Heather VanZile’s favorite part of the exhibit.

“That’s really inspiring, not just as a tribal member, but as a leader as well. We really are grasping the root of where we came from. Some of them were struggles, some of them were great times in our history. I really loved seeing that outline,” said VanZile.

The museum was designed to swap out exhibits and update them easily. The upgrade also included improvements to the HVAC system so they can borrow items from other museums.

“If we wanted to borrow something from the Smithsonian, we meet those requirements. Also bring some of our items back home, which is one of the larger goals I have. We are well capable of taking care of our own items now,” said Keeble.

Katie Thoresen
The grand re-opening ceremony for the Forest County Potawatomi Community Museum.

Keeble says many historical items of cultural significance to Native Americans were taken through grave robbing or violence.

“We should dictate what the items do, not an outside institution telling us, ‘Hey, you can come look at your items, but you’ve got to make an appointment with us,’” said Keeble.

Both VanZile and Keeble say education is one of the most important aspects of the museum.

They hope visitors leave with a better understanding of who they are.

“This means a lot to our community. A lot in that we’re able to share our culture, traditions and also at the same time we’re able to continue passing that down to the next generation,” said VanZile.

Keeble in particular hopes the past gives people a better understanding of who the tribe is today.

“We’re not just a historical people. We’re contemporary. We’re here today. We’re thriving. Yeah they get a piece of our history, but look at the beautiful community that we’re building today,” said Keeble.

The museum is open to the public. Currently, it’s open Monday through Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It will expand days and hours during the summer.

The museum is located in the Forest County Potawatomi Cultural Center along with the library at 8130 Mish Ko Swen Drive, Crandon.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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