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  • Kim Piekos

Lake Forest Organizations Collaborate to Bring Native Voices to Life

By Kim Piekos

Hundreds of years ago, Native American Indian tribes traversed what is now Lake Forest as they transitioned between summer quarters south of Chicago and winter quarters in Wisconsin. History shows they regularly stopped here to trade with other tribes.

In light of this history, nearly half of the cultural institutions in Lake Forest -- including Lake Forest Open Lands Association and Lake Forest College, among others -- are collaborating to bring a yearlong educational initiative, Native Voices, to the community.

"There is no American identity without embracing the impact and work of Native Americans,” says Carol Summerfield, executive director of the History Center.

“We recognized that this is an unlimited opportunity to create an incredible confluence of native voices and experiences for the Lake Forest community to learn about,” explains Carol Summerfield, executive director of the History Center.

Susie Hoffman, former director of engagement with Open Lands, spearheaded the idea of building a coalition of cultural organizations within the city to create meaningful and ongoing education about Native Americans who travelled through this area. In 2022, she partnered with Summerfield and, together, they brainstormed what topics to cover, how to make it engaging to the public and how to incorporate more native narrative within what the organizations already do. Focus areas include land management, arts and culture, the historical narrative of how people have learned about the Native American culture over time and food traditions.

Susan Lenz, senior vice president of community conservation for Lake Forest Open Lands Association, has been impressed with how well the various community organizations have worked together.

“The collaboration is quite special,” she says. “Everyone is on board with the mission of this initiative, and each organization draws on its own area of expertise.”

For example, Gorton Center will show films produced by Native American producers and directors. The Lake Forest Library is hosting book groups for children and adults featuring books written by Native American authors. Open Lands is hosting a summer camp for children of all ages called Exploring Land, Water and Air: Native American Perspectives of Nature. Elawa Farm will hold a farm-to-table dinner that features native American chefs preparing modern interpretations of native cuisine. The History Center will host lectures exploring the history and culture of Native Americans past and present. Public schools are incorporating programming into curriculum. Ragdale and Gorton are hoping to host nine Native American performers to demonstrate what performing arts look like currently in this culture.

Though she recognizes that these programs will create awareness for the public about the different aspects of Native American life here, Summerfield believes there’s an underlying integral purpose.

“Our goal is to cover the breadth of people who are Lake Foresters and to make sure that our narrative is as inclusive as possible, reflecting the diversity of everyone who calls Lake Forest home,” she explains. “This is just another step forward in this journey.”

Lenz believes the Native Voices initiative is essential to the mission of Open Lands, especially its land acknowledgement statement that recognizes that the nature preserves it stewards are the ancestral homelands of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes.

“When you think of the people that have come before us, how they lived, worked and survived, how they loved the land, appreciated it and lived with it, naturally we should aspire to learn as much about them as possible,” she says.

The collaboration will extend beyond Lake Forest’s borders in the near future. The History Center will offer programs at the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies as they curate and pull together a new archive of Native American history for Cook County and beyond. Likewise, the History Center will facilitate conversations with staff at the Field Museum about how they are broadening and deepening the stories people tell around Native American culture and history in their renovated exhibit.

“We feel like we caught a wave and are a lead voice in other organizations expanding programming around the Native American narrative,” Summerfield says. “Truly, American identity is built out of what we saw as Native American identity; there is no American identity without embracing the impact and work of Native Americans.”

Native Voices began in November 2022 and will run through November 2023. The calendar of programs is available at Events are being added weekly, so you are encouraged to check back regularly.


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