Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016

Statement by Conner Prairie Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Cathy Ferree in response to the Indianapolis Star’s story published online at IndyStar.com on Saturday, Aug. 6:

The Indianapolis Star’s story, “Conner Prairie slavery re-enactment draws criticism,” questioned why Conner Prairie offers a long-standing program that encourages open conversations about slavery past and present, race relations, bullying, intimidation, abuse, human trafficking and the history of simply unacceptable human behavior.

Unfortunately, slavery today is more prevalent than at any point in world history before. Many of us relate slavery only to a period in time when white people controlled the lives of black people. That is not the only definition in today’s world. Conner Prairie offers Follow the North Star to demonstrate how slavery affected the lives of African Americans of the past, how the ramifications of slavery continue into the present and how slavery proliferates even to this day. The program is powerful, thought-provoking, influential and inspirational to minds of all ages determined to make a difference in our global society’s future.

In the mid-1990s, the museum offered programming that shared the history of blacks in Indiana in the 1800s. During that time, research began into what life was like for Indiana residents, including free blacks as Indiana was a free state, who encountered escaped slaves as they journeyed north to freedom. A diverse group, including a psychologist, historians, educators and scholars, served as advisors to program developers for more than two years before Follow the North Star debuted in 1998.

Since, 90,000 people, including the general public and school groups of youth ages 12 and older, have experienced the program, which has received an award for excellence in programming from the American Association of Museums and an award of merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

Follow the North Star is an immersive and extremely relevant program that encourages open dialogue between visitors facilitated by trained staff. It provides a perspective into slavery as it existed in the 1800s and tells a unique Indiana story. In the early 1800s, Indiana was a free state and Hamilton County, where Conner Prairie is located, was part of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves through their journey northward to what was hoped to be their freedom.

This program depicts the lives of Indiana residents of the time, their unique encounters with runaway slaves and their interaction with them, including the choices residents had to make. It also explores Indiana residents’ choices depending on their personal beliefs – whether to help escaped slaves progress toward freedom, turn them in to their pursuers and send them back south or do nothing.

Whether participants are eighth-grade students on a school trip approved by school administrators or are adults, for 90 minutes they are intentionally forced out of their personal comfort zones. After an introductory session, participants are placed into rural and unfamiliar surroundings, separated from their loved ones and acquaintances and forced to adhere to strict rules. Each participant is given a headband. If at any point they wish not to actively participate, they place the headband around their head and the actors do not interact with them. Participants encounter Indiana residents along their journey, some friendly, some unsupportive and some indifferent. In the end, participants learn whether they made it to freedom, were captured and returned to their owners, died or were killed. We provide them with an experience that we hope will build empathy for others, give insight into historic and present-day issues and provoke thoughtful discussion.

As a part of the program, participants undergo a group debriefing led by trained and experienced staff members who invite them to share their feelings, thoughts, perspectives and views. During debriefing, staff and guests share information and participate in dialogue about their response, which often includes current issues of race, modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and bullying. After the program, we invite guests to make a difference in their world today. By doing this, we give participants a chance to learn from history, consider real change in their own lives and help shape society’s future.

Over the life of the program, we have continually examined and evaluated our goals and the participant experience. We have made changes based on feedback to insure the program’s integrity.

It is important to reiterate that by no means does the program attempt to depict the harsh atrocities of slavery as it pertained to the African-American race in the early 1800s. We do not touch participants. We do not use racial slurs. We do not force guests to participate. We recognize that this experience comes nowhere close to subjecting participants to the harsh, abhorrent and inhumane realities that so many people had to face. Our intention is to keep history alive by putting participants into an uncomfortable yet historical situation while inspiring them to feel, listen, watch, react, respond, share – and think.

It is also important to point out that people come to Follow the North Star with different life experiences. They drive debriefing discussions based on their varied life experiences. We hope that when they leave, they explore issues from a different perspective with a greater understanding and appreciation.

Participants also make a choice to sign up for the program. It is not a program that Conner Prairie offers as part of our daily experiences.

We offer Follow the North Star at times during the school year when educators are teaching about the history of slavery. The program integrates with what students are learning in the classroom, gives them a chance to learn in an interactive environment and most importantly facilitates them to think, ask questions and participate in discussions.

We consistently solicit feedback from mothers, fathers, teenagers, teachers, school administrators, chaperones, experts and others. We have received positive, neutral and negative feedback over the years from diverse audiences who have participated. That is and always has been expected.

Follow the North Star aligns with Conner Prairie’s mission, which is to inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana’s past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences. As a museum, we strive to immerse all visitors into interactive experiences that lead to a deeper level of learning than they would get only from reading a textbook or watching a documentary. We will always be a place where the people of our community may have the types of discussions that a program like Follow the North Star facilitates.

For more about Follow the North Star, visit connerprairie.org.

Here are some recent stories about our impactful and award-winning program:

Los Angeles Times
Chicago Tribune
Euroculture Magazine
Indy’s Child
Indianapolis Recorder