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The Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project grew from an increased need to educate the public about the Upper Midwest region's indigenous peoples. It drew upon two decades of public folklore success in working with these communities to document their heritage through contemporary practices of traditional arts. Organized by the former Wisconsin Folk Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, and informed by the region's folklorists, the project aimed to represent well-known master artists of varied ages, genders, artistic expressions, and American Indian nations, taking a broader regional approach instead of the state orientation more common in public folklore work at the time.
Fieldwork undertaken in 1994-1995 resulted in the ethnographic documentation of 16 Woodland Indian traditional artists in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa, and acquisition of c. 50 pieces of the artists' work. The featured artists included Bertha Blackdeer, Kenneth Funmaker Sr., and Elena Greendeer (Ho-Chunk Nation), Gerald Hawpetoss (Menominee Nation), Adeline Wanatee (Meskwaki Nation), Kim Cornelius Nishimoto and Louis Webster (Oneida Nation), Ned and Josephine Daniels (Forest County Potawatomi Nation), Edwin Martin (Stockbridge-Munsee Nation), and representatives of several Ojibwa bands, Margaret Hart (St. Croix), Julia and Earl Nyholm (Keweenaw Bay, Bad River, Lac Vieux Desert), John Snow (Lac du Flambeau), and Batiste Sam (Mille Lacs). The range of traditional art forms included appliqué and dressmaking (Greendeer), yarn sash fingerweaving (Wanatee), moccasin-making (Daniels, Hart, Hawpetoss), various types of beadwork (Josie Daniels, Greendeer, Hart, Hawpetoss, Sam), silver and German silver jewelry-making (Funmaker, Martin), cornhusk doll-making (Nishimoto), rabbit fur blanket-making (Julia Nyholm), woodcarving of cradleboards (Ned Daniels), flutes (Webster), and icefishing decoys (Snow), black ash splint (Blackdeer) and birchbark (Sam) basket-making, and the building of birchbark canoes (Earl Nyholm).
Two exhibits emerged from this research in May 1995. The primary exhibit installed at the Wisconsin Folk Museum, "‘We Chose to Go That Way': Works and Words by Master Traditional Woodland Indian Artists of the Upper Midwest," included artifacts and portrayed the artists, work processes, tools, materials, and places of work. It was accompanied by a summer-fall artist demonstration series. The second exhibit, "‘The Only Way to Get It Is to Make It': The Experiences of Woodland Indian Traditional Artists," was a traveling photo-text exhibit that toured four Woodland Indian nation centers in 1995 including Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post (Onamia, Minnesota), George W. Brown, Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center (Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin), Oneida Nation Museum (Oneida, Wisconsin), and the Arvid E. Miller Library (Bowler, Wisconsin, Stockbridge-Munsee). A Down Home Dairyland Wisconsin Public Radio program was also based on this work. The very small selection of project photographs used in the two exhibits is presented in digital form here and ultimately will link to digital versions of the original exhibits. Support for this project was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund for Folk Culture, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, and numerous private contributions to the Wisconsin Folk Museum.
The artifacts were transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society and the traveling photo-text exhibit to the Oneida Nation Museum in 1996, while the foundational ethnographic documentation and exhibit texts remain with the project worker collective of folklorist James P. Leary, photographer Lewis Koch, and folklorist Janet C. Gilmore. For more details about these materials, project and staff, and recommended credit format, please see the "Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project Collection" guide in "Public Folk Arts and Folklife Projects of the Upper Midwest," in Archival Resources in Wisconsin.
Support for the preparation of digital recreations of the project's exhibits has come from the National Endowment for the Arts and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cluster Enhancement funds, in cooperation with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Besides UWDC staff Melissa McLimans and Catherine Phan, Julia Wong, Mark Livengood, and Carrie Roy, under the direction of Janet C. Gilmore, have participated in the digital reproduction and metadata recreation processes.