Q&A: Heather Miller, Director of Tribal Relations, Illinois State Museum
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois State Museum has hired Heather Miller (Wyandotte Nation) to fill a new leadership role as Director of Tribal Relations.
In his new role, Miller will build relationships with dozens of tribal nations that the museum is consulting with in an effort to clean up its collection of 7,590 human remains and 36,400 grave goods, according to the federal database.
Native News Online spoke with Miller on Zoom from her Chicago apartment about the Illinois State Museum’s brand new post, the future of repatriation work, and other efforts she’s undertaking to help decolonize work. of the museum.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What are your different roles in this new position?
I’m the newest director of tribal relations and historic preservation at the Illinois State Museum. In this position, one of the main elements of the job will be to ensure that the State of Illinois is up to date with its NAGPRA requirements.
So one of the great things we know about Illinois is that we have [more than] 7,000 ancestors in the collections. We need to do better on this. My job is to make sure that we take care of those ancestors and relatives and do the right thing for our tribal communities that have ties to those ancestors and relatives.
Another part of the position will deal with historical sites. I will be responsible for the management and maintenance of historic sites in Illinois that have a significant tribal presence. These could include things like Dickson Mounds and Cahokia Mounds, but they are also going to include the two state boarding school sites which will need interpretation and maintenance. Part of the job will also be to manage the policy, interpretation and maintenance of some of these tribal historic sites.
What aspects of your job are you most passionate about?
What excites me the most about this is that this is a brand new position. No one has ever had it, and it seems the time has come. I don’t think five years ago people would talk about the kind of NAGPRA work that we intend to do at such a serious level here in the state. I think we’re finally getting to a point where people will take this seriously and want to see these changes. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy on every level, but I’m saying it’s just a different time now, and I think people are ready for that.
We have some really exciting things on the horizon, like the potential for the Potawatomi Prairie Band to gain land here in Illinois. It will be a historic moment and I will participate in its realization.
What is the relationship between the Illinois State Museum and the Department of Natural Resources?
The Illinois State Museum is under the Department of Natural Resources. In 2015, the Governor of Illinois attempted to shut down the Illinois State Museum, but was unsuccessful due to union lobbying. The museum had to stay open, and because of that there was a transition. The Department of Natural Resources now wants to move some of the historic sites under the management of the Illinois State Museum, and that is why we are placing more of these historic sites in a tribal portfolio and under tribal responsibility.
What prompted the Illinois State Museum to hire specific staff at NAGPRA, starting with the hiring of Director Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko in 2019?
It was really the closing of 2015. It was a big deal for the museum. It took them a little while to pull themselves together and find another director. It was one of the big critical moments, and then. Hiring Cinnamon was the first step in this whole process.
Cinnamon comes from a very strong decolonization background, particularly in the museum sector, and his work around NAGPRA has been amazing for someone allied in museum work. So it was great having him with us here in Illinois and pushing this work forward. She immediately knew she needed to hire someone to handle the relationship building needed for NAGPRA’s work. It’s been a nearly three-year process for her, in terms of finding the right person and building the support needed for the position. So, we are finally at this place now. In order to make sure that we turn things around respectfully and in the right way, I need to make sure that I build my relationships with these 32 tribes that we have recognized as having claims to Illinois.
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What is your previous experience in building professional relationships with tribal nations?
Most recently, I was executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago. In this role, I managed an organization with a budget of $800,000. We did cultural work, educational work and works of art – all from a cultural point of view. So many of the things that are our themes now in the museum are things that I have experienced and worked on in previous positions, especially at the Indian Center.
I have worked with several different tribal communities across the United States. And so I have a history of relationships with a wide variety of tribal organizations, entities, and government relationships. These experiences [have] unique position to work now in this particular role.
What prevented the museum from culturally affiliating and returning these ancestors and their funerary objects?
These are the scientists and our researchers. This is the legacy of colonization and the exclusion of Indians from their say. You can look at the currently drafted laws that are in place here in Illinois and see how they are specifically designed to protect scientists and to protect researchers.
An example of this is the state of Illinois burial law. My first task was to conduct consultation calls with our tribal representatives from our list of 32 nations identified around this burial law. When you read it, it contained language like “these specimens are to be preserved for the people of Illinois for the study of education and scientific benefit”. So just reading that language, it was clear that the only reason NAGPRA wasn’t being followed was because scientists and researchers in the field had their claws in those laws, and they weren’t going to let that go . It was very obvious that the state is controlled by those who are not interested in tribal culture or tribal history. This is the part we want to change.
Can you explain how this state specific funeral law somehow overshadowed the federal law, in this case NAGPRA?
The most poignant thing with this law was that it simply ignored NAGPRA and a tribal perspective. One of the things that I found particularly annoying with that original law was a section called the O’Hare Modernization Law. In the language of this particular section, he was talking about how the O’Hare Modernization Act was such a good law for Chicago and how it did such a great job of including women and minorities in Chicago’s infrastructure and that any type of construction additions to O’Hare could be approved because O’Hare had the authority to take over all construction.
The thing that is so obvious there is that there is absolutely no tribal consultation, or any area where tribal knowledge can be inserted. So if O’Hare is to acquire another property here on the north side, chances are it has a historical connection to tribal communities or is hoarding structures.
When we look at ways to bring in NAGPRA, we need to understand that if O’Hare or any entity within the state wants to do construction, then the bare minimum they can do is bring a tribal perspective for a consultation to occur. [This will ensure] that no tribal nation is offended by how this work is progressing in the future.
What advice would you give to other institutions looking to do good NAGPRA work?
I think the time is right, simply because many tribal communities are interested in having more voice in the management of all things, not just NAGPRA-related things. But if we start at the NAGPRA level, because that’s a federal mandate, then we can start to develop our relationships with the tribal communities, and we can find ways to have their voices heard in all types of areas. I think anyone, no matter where they are, can take that step and start building those relationships.
A final thought?
Keep watching us and hold us accountable. For so long, Illinois had no one to hold them accountable, and they got away with a lot of mistakes. Now is the time for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous communities to raise their voices and ensure they engage with us. People are welcome to contact me and people are welcome to contact me and hold me accountable for this position that I am not in.
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