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Elizabeth Seabury Mitchell, founder of Native American museum, dies at 99

Elizabeth Mitchell her husbJohn.  |  Provided photo

Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, John. | Provided photo

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:15AM

Out of the back of her station wagon, a museum came to be.

In the 1970s, Betty Mitchell and her husband, John, visited reservations and trading posts throughout the American West and Southwest, collecting jewelry, pottery, clothing, headdresses, baskets, fetishes and cradleboards to show the beauty and intricacy of Native American art and utilitarian objects.

They would load up their station wagon and bring their finds home to the North Shore. As their collection hit the 3,000-item mark in 1977, they founded the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian.

Thirty-six years later, the collection has expanded to 10,000 objects, and the modest-sized museum on Central Street in Evanston is a center for Native American culture. It hosts lectures; a performance by an “American Indian Comedy Slam” star; workshops on a range of skills from doll-making to porcupine-quill embroidery, and flute circles and dance performances.

The museum created by Mrs. Mitchell, who died at 99 on Sept. 22 in Arizona, has become a popular destination where children on school field trips can touch buffalo bones, furs and rattles. Often, its board members and volunteers are Native Americans.

The Mitchell Museum is also one of the few museums in the country that focuses on a wide variety of tribes in the U.S. and Canada.

Elizabeth Mitchell grew up in Oak Park. Her childhood was filled with riding lessons and finishing school and summers at the family home in Michigan. She began collecting after she married her second husband, John Mitchell.

His interest in Native Americans grew out of childhood summers spent on an Osage reservation in Oklahoma where his uncle worked.

He “really discovered that the people were very different than the Indians he was learning about in the comic books,” said Kathleen McDonald, executive director of the museum, 3001 Central St., Evanston.

After marrying in 1972, “that started a whole new chapter in her life and they traveled the Southwest together,” said Mrs. Mitchell’s son, Barry Hibben.

As they visited reservations and trading posts, a Red Power campaign was taking hold across the country. A watershed moment in the American Indian Movement came with the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island, which led to government policies to promote tribal rule.

But with a mix of respect, warmth and a sincere interest in history, the Mitchells overcame wariness of avaricious souvenir hunters.

“They were willing to listen to the people, sitting and talking with people over a dinner or lunch,” said Frances Hagemann, a museum board member who is Ojibwa-Metis.

“They treated people with respect, and not, ‘Hey, can I get this for a buck and a half?’ ’’ said Jim DeNomie, a member of the Bad River Chippewa who is president of the museum. “They genuinely appreciated the people of the cultures they were dealing with.”

As Mrs. Mitchell used to put it: “We weren’t just gathering artifacts; we were gathering friends along the way.”

She grew up in Oak Park, the daughter of insurance executive Charles Ward Seabury, creator of the Seabury Foundation and a founder of the Children’s Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. The family summered at their home on Crystal Lake near Frankfort, Mich. She attended Oak Park and River Forest High School and boarding school.

She met her first husband, Joe Hibben, at the University of Chicago. They wed around 1934, and spent much of their 37-year marriage in Glenview.

Every winter, she spent a few weeks visiting her parents at their home in Tucson, Ariz. While horseback riding, she spotted an Airedale mix wandering through the desert. She brought him home to Glenview and named him Cactus.

She and Joe Hibben experienced terrible tragedy. They lost their first two children within six months of each other. The boys, Tommy and Wardy, were about 8 and 10, said her third son, Barry Hibben. One was electrocuted by a powerful fence. The other succumbed to complications from polio. “I think that was one of the reasons she got so involved in charity work,” her son said.

After her divorce, Mrs. Mitchell became increasingly active in philanthropy, including supporting the YWCA, the Ewha Womans University in Seoul and Habitat for Humanity. She also became a patron of Our Little Roses, a Honduran orphanage. And Mrs. Mitchell donated her home in Michigan to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

Mrs. Mitchell also is survived by her daughter, Bonnie Hibben, and two granddaughters. A celebration of her life is planned in Michigan next summer. The museum will hold Elizabeth Seabury Mitchell Day on Oct. 26.

She died at her retirement home in Oro Valley, Ariz., in a room filled with Native American art and kachinas.


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