The WDM’s partnership with the Whitecap Dakota First Nation shows a step forward in decolonizing Canadian museums.
The Saskatoon Western Development Museum (WDM) and the Whitecap Dakota First Nation (WDFN) have co-curated a beautiful new permanent exhibit, showcasing the history of WDFN’s partnerships with the museum and the city of Saskatoon.
The name of this exhibit is Wapaha Sk̄a Oyate: Living Our Culture, Sharing Our Community at Pion-Era, 1955-1969. This unique display was driven by a desire for justice and reconciliation, and recognizes the importance of the WDFN’s contributions to the province’s history.
The WDM’s main focus is on sharing the story of Saskatchewan, from the beginning of settlement to the present day. It has four locations and is the largest human history museum in the province. In the last decade, the museum has made a commitment to Truth and Reconciliation efforts through their work and exhibits.
Stephanie Danyluk, Reconciliation Manager for the Canadian Museums Association, explained how the history of the WDFN is connected to the work of the WDM:
“The presence of the Dakota goes back before settlers arriving here in Saskatoon, and since the settlement, Whitecap has been in constant partnership or connection with the community here.”
The Wapaha Sk̄a Oyate exhibit – which translates to “Whitecap Nation” – explores the history of WDFN in this place even further.
Despite facing discrimination and inequality, the Whitecap Dakota were fundamental co-founders of the city of Saskatoon, and they continued to participate in numerous major events in the city throughout the twentieth century.
In 1955 the WDM began hosting an annual event called Pion-Era. This event ran every year, up until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Elizabeth Scott, the WDM’s Chief Curator and Director of Collections and Research, said that the event “would showcase and celebrate Saskatchewan achievements in settlement and agriculture.”
By 1955, WDM Curator George Shepherd had done some business with Chief Harry Littlecrow of Whitecap, and they had developed a deep respect for each other. As a result of this, Shepherd invited Chief Littlecrow and the Whitecap Nation to participate in the first Pion-Era. Thus began a partnership that would continue for 14 years, with Whitecap participation at Pion-Era until 1969.
Scott described how Pion-Era allowed for the WDFN to be self-determining in what aspects of their culture they showed, and in allowing them to demonstrate their agricultural prowess as well as other traditional practices. In this way, the event was very complex, creating space for WDFN while also being a settler-centric show.
Pion-Era provided an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to learn about Dakota ways, which was very unique for a time period characterized by colonial segregation. The exhibit notes that this was also a place where Indigenous people “could meet to strengthen their social, economic and political positions.”
The participation of WDFN at Pion-Era was not without its challenges or obstacles. The exhibit discusses the historical inequities faced by the Whitecap community. This includes navigating the pass system and needing to request permission to participate in the event, as well as some paternal expectations about wearing regalia and performing “visibly Indigenous activities,” according to Scott.
Despite the challenges, the WDFN had a space that was their own, and contributed significantly to the event.
“[Pion-Era] connects to the broader narrative or historical participation of Whitecap in major Saskatoon events, but also the presence of them here, in commerce and trade and other partnerships around the city,” said Danyluk.
The work of developing the Wapaha Sk̄a Oyate exhibit at the WDM first began with a photo-naming project. In 2018, WDM staff found unnamed photos of Indigenous people participating at Pion-Era in their archives, and reached out to WDFN for help. During the process of naming the people in the photographs, with the help and consent of WDFN Elders and Chief and Counsel, the historical relationship between WDFN and the city was rediscovered, while restoring a level of justice to the WDM archive.
While naming the photos, there was a lot of engagement and interest from the Elders. Throughout the several meetings held between the WDM and WDFN as part of this process, it quickly became clear that there was a desire to share more of the details of this mutual history.
“Chief and Counsel are always interested in telling the Dakota story, especially in regional settings, and so they were interested in, ‘Well, where can this go next?’” Danyluk said.
Scott described the decision to develop the project into a full exhibit as very easy and natural. “We’re just thrilled to be trusted to co-tell this story, and it’s part of our history as well.”
Whitecap Councillor Frank Royal and many of his family members contributed to the project: “I was really happy that [the WDM] wanted to approach us to help with this exhibit,” Royal said. “We were happy to help out because there’s a lot of history there.”
Many of the artifacts featured in the exhibit belonged to William Littlecrow and members of his family. An agreement was made between the WDM and WDFN to store Whitecap artifacts at the museum. Royal, who is William Littlecrow’s great-grandson, was glad of this, saying, “We can be in touch with our artifacts whenever we have a community here, and I think that’s something we could share with the community.”
Once the decision to create the exhibit was made, the WDM and WDFN had more meetings, in which they would create content, make suggestions and explore narratives. The oral history provided by WDFN was very important to the content and research, and gave a more holistic view of the history. All decisions on each stage of the creation process were made jointly.
Danyluk, who was working for WDFN as a Researcher and Policy Analyst while the project was developed, also described how they tried to approach the story in a very personal way, highlighting individual histories and connecting them to the broader context. The exhibit’s narrative tries to understand and demonstrate why the people of Whitecap, especially when faced with various injustices, would want to participate in an event that was very settler- and colonial-oriented.
Scott and Danyluk were co-curators of the project, along with Senator Melvin Littlecrow from Whitecap. The senator was vital to the creation of the exhibit.
“His contributions run through the whole exhibit,” Danyluk said. “A lot of the individuals named in the photos, and even the dogs and horses, are because of Senator Littlecrow. Most of the stories that were told were from him; he was the oldest person who attended this event, and his family was very involved.”
Senator Littlecrow passed away mid-project in the spring of 2021. His contributions are acknowledged as one of the personal histories highlighted in the exhibit.
The Wapaha Sk̄a Oyate exhibit was created through partnership with Indigenous peoples to recognize and understand their history and how it has contributed to shaping everyone and everything in this region.
Canadian museums have a history of being more focused on colonial projects, or of failing to present Indigenous stories appropriately. For Danyluk, the fact that Whitecap was willing to put their trust in the WDM to showcase their stories in this way is a significant moment. She feels that this partnership could be one small step toward decolonizing museums throughout the country. The dedication to this path forward is especially significant considering Royal’s disclosure that many members of WDFN have been affected by the residential school system, including himself.
As for Scott, she feels that the exhibit can be a space for communities to gather and not simply a two-dimensional exhibit.
For Royal, the goal of the Wapaha Sk̄a Oyate exhibit was “to educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about our relationship and the history, and going back on Saskatoon and our contributions to the Pion-Era days. I imagine we will have lots of kids going there to see the display and exhibit. It will be there for everyone to see.”
The councillor believes that it will be good for people to learn this side of the WDFN’s history and their contributions, going back to the 19th century. “People will probably never forget our contributions,” he said.
The partnerships between the city of Saskatoon, the WDM and the Whitecap Dakota First Nation are a very important step forward for all the communities involved.
“The more people see themselves reflected in the museum, the more we’re meeting our vision, which is a Saskatchewan where everyone belongs and histories matter. And the histories, plural, is very intentional. There is no one history of Saskatchewan. We have many histories, and we want to reflect those in our galleries so that more people see themselves,” said Scott.