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A little museum sets the record straight on Native Americans

LAKE COUNTY, OHIO –– She loves to tell the story, which she begins with a playful warning. The white whale soapstone carving

“moves on its own” and is slowly making its way to the end of its spacious display box, which it shares with several other soapstone carvings of whales in various shapes.

The “spirit whale’s” home is the Indian Museum of Lake County, Ohio, which is operated by the Lake County Chapter of the Archeological Society of Ohio. Tucked away in a nondescript corner of a commercial building on a busy main street of Mentor, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, its mission is to “collect, preserve and display artifacts of the Native American culture” and to “promote education and research by maintaining a museum and library.” To that end, it displays a wealth of information and artifacts representing a variety of Indian cultures spanning centuries, up to 1650.

The museum was founded in 1980 and was originally housed in a small spare room at Lake Erie College, a private liberal arts college in Painesville, Ohio, a small city neighboring Mentor. As its exhibits, acquired primarily from private collectors, increased, so did its need for space, and it now enjoys a much larger exhibit space.

Ann L Dewald, a retired elementary school teacher who’s volunteered at the museum since its inception and who now serves as its Director, has a fascination with, and passion for, the many and varied cultures of North America’s first inhabitants as she discusses the exhibits and the details of the museum’s founding. Artifacts of the Reeve Village, a Native American archeological site on private property in Eastlake,

Ohio, and first described in 1929 by Emerson F Greenman of the Ohio Historical Socie ty, served as the first exhibits.

The property was sold in 1973 for a condominium development, and amateur archeologists quickly scooped up the artifacts uncovered by the construction. Unfortunately, much information was lost due to the lack of professional archeological expertise.

A common public misperception is that North American tribes were and are homogenous, with little differences among them. The museum helps dispel this myth, as even a quick browsing of its offerings will show. From sacred Cherokee pipes and eerily- human- appearing face of a Seneca corn husk doll, to an O’Oodham Calendar Stick and a Lakota Sioux bone and quill turtle necklace, the rich variety of Indian cultures is on full display.

As is, of course, the soapstone Ivory White Whales, made by the Inuit of Manitoba, Canada, including the “ghost whale”. Dewald merrily continues the story, relating that, after it had once been passed around by a group of schoolchildren, it made quick movements all around its display case. “It’s a good spirit, w e think”, she confides hopefully.

This summer, the museum began a Plains Indian exhibit, which includes numerous Sioux artifacts such as a contemporary Dance Mask, beaded moccasins and tobacco pouches, pipes, among many other informational displays that demonstrate the intricate skill and hard work required to create them. This fosters appreciation of the Plains cultures, thus furthering the museum’s mission.

In a quick- fix, “disposable” society, it’s important to maintain the memory and knowledge of cultures that went before us, that, in many cases, still exist and that continue to merit dignity, recognition and respect. The Indian Museum of Lake County, Ohio, plays an important role in that mission.

(Contact Lisa Lynott- Carroll at

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