Saturday, November 14, 2009


Panhandle fun comes easy in Canyon, Texas

An exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, depicts two American Indians skinning a buffalo.

        CANYON, Texas - American Indians, oilmen, pioneers and giant ground sloths are all honored at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest historical museum in Texas. It is located not in Austin or Houston but at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, a small city in the Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo.
          My wife, Carla, and I had hoped to visit the nearby canyon, but as we approached the town, rain was falling, ice was possible on the roads and the area was shrouded in fog. The inside of this massive museum was a welcome escape from the elements.
          The weather was a sample of what made this part of the country so difficult for humans - a land that also covers part of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. If the country had been configured by landscape, this area would have been a separate state of its own.
         This harsh environment has been inhabited by humans for at least 14,000 years, and the relics from those who have struggled here have been gathered in the museum. This is considered the best collection of Southern Plains Indian artifacts in the United States.
         A life-size display of two American Indians skinning a buffalo is accompanied by a video with the following warning: "This film contains some graphic images that may disturb some viewers."
With only a sharpened flint, an American Indian in the video skins, guts and butchers a buffalo. It’s what you don’t see before you buy a piece of beef at the market. We learned how every piece of the buffalo was useful, including the horns as cups and the bladder as a canteen. By the end of the demonstration, I was impressed with how bison were the Wal-Mart of their day.
        I felt a conscious attempt was being made to give American Indians their due; that is, in many displays, white Americans were the villains. The film on the battle for Adobe Walls and its aftermath shows that the local Indians were attempting to stop the slaughter of the buffalo on which they depended.
        Shooters were coming from around the country to kill the buffalo and leave the bodies rotting. One shooter claimed to have killed 100 buffalo in a day. Indians knew that without the buffalo, they could not live in this provision-scarce area. As result of the protest, more troops were sent in, making life more difficult for the American Indians.
        Within the museum is a rebuilt pioneer town, complete with old buildings filled with artifacts. I was struck by how small everything was at the turn of the 20th century in small-town America. Most people have bedrooms bigger than the dentists’ or lawyers’ offices of that day and even, in some cases, the general store.
Attention is paid to the earlier, nonhuman residents in the fossil collection of dinosaurs and later animals such as the giant ground sloth and mastodons that were probably killed off by the Indians.
        How did so many people in the panhandle become rich? That, too, is explained by a documentary with original film made during the period of successful oil exploration. I found myself a little annoyed at what heroic stature they gave to the men who developed the oil industry in the area. Little acknowledgement is given to either luck or sharp business practices. To emphasize the importance of oil to the region, there is a large gas and petroleum section that includes an immense oil drilling rig from 1925.
         When we stopped by the research center, we learned about its extensive manuscript collection on the history of ranching, including the records from the Charles Goodnight ranch. There is also an extensive photograph collection and oral history interviews of people telling the story of the Western frontier.
          Other exhibits on Western heritage feature paleontology, transportation and art. This is the kind of place that when I think I’ve reached the end of the exhibits, another room opens around the next corner, with something new that makes me wonder.