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Illinois State Museum hires first director of tribal relations to ‘address past harms’

Heather Miller.jpeg
Nika Schoonover/NPR Illinois
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The Illinois State Museum's first Director of Tribal Relations, Heather Miller.

In a first-of-its-kind hire last month, the Illinois State Museum added a director of tribal relations – a pioneering role in the institution’s 145-year-history.

Heather Miller will be responsible for building and repairing relationships between the Springfield-based museum and Native American tribes with historical ties to the state, specifically when it comes to how the state has handled native artifacts and remains.

Miller, an enrolled citizen of the Wyandotte Nation, says she’s been passionate about working with Native People and communities nearly her whole life – “since I knew that I was native,” she said.

Miller spent her youth in Florida but her mother grew up in Oklahoma on a Wyandotte reservation.

“And when we were little, she shared memories of that with us.,” Miller said. “She didn’t really have a lot of connection to [the reservation] just because she’d been moved away but she really wanted us to have a connection and so she made sure we understand that was a place we were from and that was who we are.”

Miller was most recently the executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, where she worked with members of more than 100 tribal nations who live in the city.

Prior to moving to Chicago in 2017, Miller worked with tribal nations in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Illinois after earning degrees from Miami University in Ohio and Montana State University.

Miller’s hire is part of a larger vision for the museum by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, who has served as ISM’s director since 2001.

“Heather’s leadership will not only build new tribal relationships but also address past harms where the Museum has not included Native voices and made space for Native people to tell their own stories,” Catlin-Legutko said in a news release announcing Miller’s hire last month.

Illinois has one of the largest collections of native ancestor remains in the nation, but over the last two decades, Catlin-Legutko has discovered myriad violations of how the state has handled those remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA requires federal agencies and museums that receive federal money, like ISM, to provide information and consult with the appropriate tribe about remains or other cultural items in their collections.

Near the top of Miller’s to-do list in her new role is examining how well Illinois is following existing laws governing how the state handles tribal relationships and creating a plan to course correct.

Miller also wants to create a Native American Advisory Committee, which will have members of Illinois’ historic tribal nations be more involved in the decision-making process for areas such as how ancestors’ remains are taken care of, how historic sites are managed and how the information at these sites is represented.

Before their forced relocation in the early 19th century, the dozen or so member tribes of the Illinois Confederation were the largest group of indigenous people in what would eventually become the state of Illinois. Now known as the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, the tribes occupied major parts of the state including villages near Starved Rock along the Illinois River, on Lake Peoria and in Southern Illinois.

Historical accounts are scarce and sometimes contradict, but most agree that Native Americans in Illinois suffered violence in conflicts with settlers beginning likely in the 18th century, in addition to disease brought by those settlers. Those left by the time of the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s were forced first to Kansas and then later Oklahoma.

The Illinois State Museum has recognized 32 tribal nations with historical connections to Illinois that will be involved with the advisory committee, which Miller said will ensure they have a voice in how the museum operates.

“The way that we’re looking at collections, the way that the museum is telling stories about tribal communities and making sure they have a voice in terms of those stories and that representation, and that they’re being the first ones consulted on all of these pieces,” Miller said of her goals for the committee.

Miller has already begun working on forming the committee and projected its rollout in the next six to eight months.