Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Throughout school, many of us are told that the pursuit of knowledge is crucial to understanding and accepting our place in the world. Anything we wish to learn, we can do so. However, that’s not the case for tribal communities.

“For us, knowledge is earned and gained throughout your life and where you are in life,” explains Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a member of the Havasupai Tribal Council. Knowledge is not freely given to tribal members, let alone outside members as they may have been taught to expect, especially when visiting museum exhibits.

“In the past, information was picked for the tribes and some of that knowledge was sacred knowledge that never would have been allowed in the public,” Watahomigie-Corliss says.

To ensure the knowledge and information presented in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s new Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau exhibit was appropriate for visitors, a group of tribal members from the Zuni, Acoma, Southern Ute, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Dilzhe’e Apache and Diné (Navajo) communities was asked to approve of items and their descriptions.

“Tribal communities were asked what they wanted the public to know about them, and so this exhibition reflects their stories, their values and their way of presenting themselves in the modern world,” says Robert Breunig, MNA president emeritus.

Breunig curated the first version of the installation in 1980 and returned to work on the current iteration. He helped raise funds and collaborated with the tribal consultation team to ensure the end result was a fair representation of both past and present Native lives.

“A common refrain that echoes throughout the entire gallery is ‘We are still here,’” says MNA CEO Carrie Heinonen. “One of the themes central to all the tribes is how they are honoring the history and traditions that define their culture while simultaneously living in the modern world.”

Although the Havasupai live in the remote village of Supai located inside the Grand Canyon, Watahomigie-Corliss draws similarities between their lives and those of residents in Flagstaff and surrounding areas. She explains they remain technologically connected, deal with current events such as water rights and mining issues and oversee local judicial and educational systems.

Watahomigie-Corliss holds two bachelor’s degrees from Northern Arizona University, one in public relations and one in advertising, as well as minors in museum studies and arts and cultural management and an associate’s degree in business administration from Coconino Community College. 

As an intern in MNA’s heritage program in 2016, she was able to put her skills to use to help organize the annual Zuni, Navajo and Hopi Festivals as well as the Celebraciones de la Gente. This experience gave her the opportunity to rework the ethnology exhibit and give Native tribes back their voices.

“I wrote it down in my notes, the time when Robert Breunig asked me if I would be the main contact for this exhibit,” she recalls. “That was the coolest thing, my very first opportunity to do what I went to school to do.”

The consultation group was presented with items from the museum’s collection to sort through and decide which ones could be included in the new exhibit.

“For all the items we chose, we had to really think if it was OK for the public to see it,” Watahomigie-Corliss says.

Some Havasupai items they agreed to let the museum use were an abalone shell, a pair of moccasins and a medicine pouch.

“For those sacred items in particular we had to ask and pray and tell it what we were going to do, that we are living in a new age where we lost a little bit of our history due to assimilation,” she explains. “The museum gave us privacy and allowed us to do a ritual with the items before they were put on display. It was very powerful to have that opportunity.”

The final curated collection will include more than 350 items of significance for the ten represented tribes.

The exhibition was designed by Ralph Appelbaum, whose Ralph Appelbaum Associates design firm has worked on world-renowned exhibits such as the American Museum of Natural History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"Located in the heart of the sacred sites, the Museum of Northern Arizona continues to provide a respectful home to the life way, belongings and stories of the people who came to love this land first,” Appelbaum says. “The design team is honored to facilitate the presentation of this one-of-a-kind collection, never static, always expanding, and always reflecting how regional cultures continue to respond to the world around them in generosity and grace."

Watahomigie-Corliss praises the museum for its continued efforts to keep their relationships with tribal communities current and for ensuring the new exhibit represents an acceptable version of their histories and knowledge.

“It’s how we would have always wanted exhibits to be in any and every museum,” she says.

Her next goal is to rework the displays housed within the Havasupai museum in Supai.

“In the past, it was catered to the outside public: we planted this, we used these stone tools to grind corn, these are the houses we used to live in,” she says. “It was collecting dust.”

“The vision is a museum from the tribal perspective, with classes so the tribe can reconnect with their culture,” she continues. “I’ve been gathering information over time; we had our own name for our months, for the star constellation which we all know as Orion. That information is dwindling and we never had a safe place for tribal members to learn that information back. The museum would also create exhibits for outsiders to look at as well and include information we thought was OK to share, going back to the exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona.”

Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau aims to reshape the way historians and curators interact with tribal members in order to fairly represent their stories.

“It’s a way to take back our history,” says Watahomigie-Corliss. “If the outside world is going to continue to insist to write about our tribe, we will make sure it is correct and ask for it to be corrected if it’s not.”

Museum of Northern Arizona’s new permanent exhibit, Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau, will open to tribal communities Saturday, April 14, 2018, and to the public Sunday, April 15, 2018. Visit for more information.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments