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Here's why Dickson Mounds is temporarily closing some of its archaeological exhibits

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Courtesy Tim Shelley
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The Illinois State Museum is temporarily shutting down some of the exhibits at Dickson Mounds in Lewistown.

The museum is reviewing and removing some artifacts as part of a consultation process with the tribes whose ancestors are buried there.

Illinois State Museum Director Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko said the museum system has struggled to comply with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act over the past 30 years. A new federal grant is reviving those efforts.

"One of my big commitments is to get the resources to return ancestors to tribal communities," she said. "So we have a big project ahead of us. And this is one of the steps."

Catlin-Legutko said she's an advocate of "decolonizing" museum space.

"Decolonizing practice really privileges indigenous voice and perspective, and it requires collaborative work, as well as truth-telling," she said.

The last remaining tribes in Illinois were forcibly driven out of the state by 1832, following the conclusion of the Black Hawk War.

Catlin-Legutko said future exhibits will do a better job of presenting the indigenous perspectives of the 10 tribal communities whose ancestors were buried at the Dickson Mounds site.

"Our job is to keep these conversations going all the time, rather than, 20 years ago, we talked about it and considered it good. It can change. Just like all our hearts and minds can change," she said.

The museum director said it's too premature to talk about exactly what will be taking the place of the exhibits currently cordoned off, but she said it will ultimately be shaped by conversations with tribal communities.

This isn't the first time the state has revised exhibits following objections. Conversations held with the Peoria and Miami tribes of Oklahoma led to the Dickson Mounds Burial Exhibit's permanent closure in 1992. That exhibit featured more than 200 uncovered skeletal remains. Catlin-Legutko said it is important to treat human remains as such, not just as scientific specimens.

"It's really important to give indigenous folks the proper respect that they've always had. And that's our commitment," said Catlin-Legutko.

Archaeology exhibits on the museum's second floor are temporarily closed during the consultation process. The rest of the museum remains open to the public as usual.

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