When visitors enter the new "Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau" gallery at the Museum of Northern Arizona, they will be greeted with video messages from individuals of 10 area tribes, each in their own distinct language.
These greetings and the words, “Welcome! We are the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau,” create the foundation for the visitor experience and for the gallery’s central theme: “We are still here, we have not disappeared.”
“Traditionally, the museum model is to catalog history over time and to put natives in a perspective of dying cultures,” said Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a Havasupai and member of the Havasupai Tribal Council. “This [exhibit] portrays us as living, thriving people.”
Watahomigie-Corliss is among 42 tribal consultants who worked closely with the museum, its scientists and designers to remake the standing exhibit about tribes that have occupied the Colorado Plateau for a millennium or more. Progressive in tone and presentation, the exhibit utilized the counsel and voices of the people.
The new gallery, which opens next weekend, encompasses the lives of the Zuni, Acoma Pueblo, Southern Ute, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Dilzhe´e Apache and the Diné (Navajo) people, and is narrated in the first person. Take for example the introduction to the Havasupai display:
“We Havasupai are the Havasuw’ Baaja’ (‘people of the blue-green water’). This name refers to the color of the water in Havasu Creek, which runs through our Supai Village on its way to the Colorado River. Havasu Creek creates the famously beautiful waterfalls within Havasu Canyon—a side canyon in the western part of the Grand Canyon. Like our Hualapai and Yavapai neighbors, we speak in the Yuman language. Our Hopi neighbors know us as the ‘Cohonino’ (Kòoninam in their language). And from these words came ‘Coconino,’ as in Coconino Plateau. This plateau is our aboriginal territory, named for us, for we are its original inhabitants.”
Occupying just less than 2,000 square feet, the exhibit gives visitors history and a look at how these indigenous people see their place in the modern world.
The 342 objects on display range from the practical, like a woven parching tray used by the Havasupai to dry corn and other foods, to the complex and decorative designs of Acoma pottery. In the center of the room is a table offering museum-goers a tactile experience. Objects visitors are welcome to touch and feel include a collection of sheep bones that a Hopi woman would use as dolls to explain Hopi social structure to children. Multimedia presentations showing tribal activities from the early 1800s through today, and contemporary artifacts, like a skateboard decorated by Hopi artist Mavasta Honyouti, portray a people who honor and celebrate their traditions to this day.
Carrie M. Heinonen, director and CEO of the museum, said the exhibit shows “communities that are alive, thriving and evolving today.”
She said Honyouti’s skateboard is a perfect example. On it he painted a superhero, “Walpi Woman,” a reference to the historic First Mesa Hopi village. The deck pays homage to today’s vibrant native skate culture.
Among the communities featured in the exhibit are two of the smallest present-day tribal populations in the U.S. — the Southern Paiute and Southern Ute, with around 300 members each — and the largest, the Diné, with more than 300,000 members. While American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise about 1.3 percent of the total U.S. population, native people make up a much greater portion of the residents of the Colorado Plateau. In three northern Arizona counties — Coconino, Navajo and Apache — native people are 28, 46 and 75 percent of the population respectively.
Anthropologist and museum curator Robert Breunig, who had directed the Museum of Northern Arizona from 2003 to 2015 and had overseen the installation of its previous ethnology exhibit, returned to lead the new project. He said this time around he was acting as more of a conduit than a curator.
“The best part of this whole project for me was just getting together and talking with the people of the various tribes. I was moved by how much sharing went on,” he said. “I was simply the conduit through which they told their own stories.”
Breunig said he and other museum representatives spent countless hours with tribal members perusing and discussing cultural artifacts to display.
“We physically laid out numerous items and went through them and talked about each one. It was a back-and-forth conversation,” he said.
In the end, the character of the exhibit might be explained by what is included and by what is not.
Breunig said tribal members asked that some artifacts in the museum’s collections be excluded from public display. He said some were sacred objects and some were artifacts for which the tribal consultants gave no explanation. “That’s their right,” he said.
Within native communities there is knowledge that is sacred and confined to the community and even further to specific members of the community, such as elders, Watahomigie-Corliss explained.
“In native culture, information is earned and taught at a specific age and within specific circumstances. Such knowledge is taught by elders and is not given freely to all … I would hope that people would have respect for the information that is shared and an understanding that some knowledge is sacred and kept for the tribe.”
Heinonen said to hold back objects and information the tribes considered ill-suited for public display is a progressive approach for the museum.
“We’re presenting a Native American sensibility of knowledge and how knowledge should be shared,” she said. “It’s a way of thinking that’s antithetical to Western sensibilities, where we feel we have the right to know all, that knowledge is for all…
“If our visitors come away with that understanding, then we’ve done a service to the native people. Additionally, I hope people will come away with a newfound respect for these communities, with some new insights into their world view and with the positive thoughts that they offer us.”
Design of the new exhibit was executed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, an international firm that has worked on some of the world’s most renowned museums, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Appelbaum designers molded the Native Peoples space to showcase the rich and distinctive heritage of each community, while exploring shared themes, like food and ceremony, that transcend tribal lands.
Heinonen said the project cost more than $1 million and was funded by grants as well as donations from longtime friends of the museum. She said major contributions came from Arizona Public Service, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It is a truly stunning installation,” Heinonen said. “One of the most beautiful I’ve seen in my museum career.”