Tuesday, January 12, 2010


The Heard Museum: A Showplace for Southwest Indian Artists

       On a recent trip through the Southwest, I developed an appreciation of American Indian art that I had not had before. My education started in New Mexico but didn’t come into focus until I visited the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix.
       In Albuquerque, N.M., we visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. As we headed for the main section of the museum, we found a major Pueblo gift shop that was larger than the cultural center displays that focused on the area’s people.
        I was disappointed to see so much space given to trying to sell me something. The selection was large, and the products were not made in China.
        The first room was jewelry - the standard Zuni silver and gemstones - followed by rooms with rugs, sculptures, Kachina dolls, pottery, curios and traditional clothing. There were some T-shirts, but everything else looked quite authentic. Looking at the prices, I could see this was not a five-and-dime store. The artists were getting very respectable prices for the fine handiwork.
         It took me several trips into museum shops to appreciate that what I was seeing was not mass-produced reproductions but originally designed art objects created by Indian artists.
         I should have guessed from all of the different art objects for sale in the shops that the native people of the Southwest are very much into creating art of all types. This is obviously a continuation of traditions going back thousands of years. It started with the petroglyphs chipped into the stone walls of canyons by the Anasazi and with their pottery.
         By the 11th to 14th centuries, the Indians who followed them were into many forms of artistic expression. Stone, pottery, baskets, walls, rug weaving, wood carving, seashell decorations and bone were all being turned into art objects. Their religion and art appear to have been highly entwined. All manners of tribes I had never heard of left art objects behind, and modern Indians are turning out a dazzling array of new material.
          Tourists coming to reservations help revitalize art forms by providing a market for them. This is particularly true among the Navajo with their rugs and silver work, the Hopi with their Kachina dolls, and the Zuni with their turquoise and silver jewelry.
           Some years ago, when I visited the area as part of a professional convention, I was impressed at how much a colleague was willing to pay for a small, black-and-white Navajo rug. The prices are now even more breathtaking.
          It wasn’t until I visited the Heard Museum that it finally became clear to me that the shops I had visited were actually another type of museum of native art.

The bronze Intertribal Greeting by Native American Artist
Doug Hyde stands outside the Heard Museum.

       The Heard is said to be the most important repository for Indian art in the world. More than 225,000 people visit the Heard Museum each year, and an additional 25,000 schoolchildren experience the museum through tours and outreach programs.
       The Heard demonstrates that creative art did not stop with the arrival of the Spanish and other Europeans. The Heard has many examples of modern vases and pots done in styles that build on, but go beyond, the methods used by the earlier artists.
       Its collection of hand-carved Kachina dolls shows their evolution from a rather simple form to more complex forms. One section holds the Sen. Barry Goldwater and Fred Harvey Co. collections of 437 historical Kachinas. The Kachinas are carved from one piece of wood, and nothing is to be added to them except feathers. In contrast to the old simply designed Kachinas, the recent ones are more like action figures but are still carved from one piece of wood. The museum shop has a magnificent display of modern Kachinas.

The older styles have evolved into newer forms of modern art.

       The displays at the Heard show how history has influenced contemporary Indian art. Petroglyph images made by the Anasazi are apparent in many of the art forms.
       One of the exhibitions, titled "Every Picture Tells a Story," is an interactive examination of meanings and stories behind the designs such as dust devil, leaf and hummingbird designs. Kokopelli, the traveling sex symbol of the petroglyphs, shows up in many art forms - on pottery, in rug designs and on jewelry.
       As a collector of masks from many places in the world, I was particularly impressed with some of the ceremonial masks in the shops. Unfortunately, my travel budget does not cover the prices now being charged for them or for the Kachina dolls.
        Nevertheless, I now see Indian art with much more appreciation and understanding.
Remembering Our Indian School Days

        On the second floor of the Heard I came upon an exhibit that had a strong emotional impact, “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience.” I have heard this story a number of times in my visits to American Indian sites, of how Indian children were separated from their families and isolated in special schools that were to Americanize them (civilize them?). This exhibit had some special features. We walked through different rooms of the boarding school, a classroom, a dormitory and a barber shop with remains of the shaved braids over the floor.
       The impact is strengthened by the use of recordings of former students (prisoners?) giving their personal recollections. The stories emphasize how they felt about being taken away from their parents and put in schools as a way of civilizing them. The U.S. Government had figured out how much it cost to kill each Indian and decided it was cheaper to educate them. The school was a military arrangement where the children wore uniforms, marched to class and drilled regularly. The children were taken from their parents at five years of age and returned at 14, supposedly with skills to make a living in the white man’s world.
        Historical pictures, music and sounds are added to immerse us in the effect of this experience on these children.
        I checked the Internet to see if other visitors had the same reactions as I did and found that evaluations of the Heard were either very positive or very negative, with some people complaining that it was a boring experience. I on the other hand found it one of the best attractions in Phoenix.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Puerco Pueblo Indians

Petrified Forest: Home for Puerco Pueblo Indians

       A multitude of "do not’s" confronted me my visit to the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert in eastern Arizona, including, "Do not remove any natural or cultural object from the park, including fossils, rocks, animals, plants, artifacts, etc. Do not throw rocks."
       This is the kind of warning intended to save the area for future generations. The problem is that it is years too late. Despite precautions and warnings, people keep walking off with samples. In the early days, they took petrified trees off by the truckload.
       When I compare pictures taken today with pictures of years ago, I can see how the Petrified Forest has been thinning out. When my wife Carla and I visited 35 years ago with our four daughters, it was a much richer environment.
       On a more recent trip, as we entered the 28-mile-long road through the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, we were asked whether we had any petrified rocks or other artifacts in our car. When we left the park at the other end, the guard simply looked at us and waved us on, but other cars were stopped, and the trunks were being inspected for contraband.
       At the center for visitors, a 20-minute introductory movie explains how the forest was formed. It’s unbelievably old, the trees growing before the advent of major dinosaurs on earth. Someone with a very active imagination, and probably considerable research, came up with the story of how all this came about.
       Giant trees were uprooted by massive floods and carried to this spot, where they were covered with sediment that prevented them from decaying. Then there was the slow process of mineral-laden water percolating down. Over eons, silica crystals replaced the cells of the trees.
       On the first part of the drive there are no petrified trees, but the colorful, untamed landscape has places to stop where you can get spectacular views. The views are so large that you can’t capture their full impact with a camera.

Puerco Indian Ruin is the remains of a settlement occupied by Pueblo Indians 600 years ago.

       We toured Puerco Pueblo, the remains of a 100-room pueblo that was partly reconstructed. In the usual Kiva, the men could meet to discuss important spiritual questions while the women ground the corn for dinner. At first the Indians in the area lived in scattered settlements, but around 1100 they began building larger pueblos such as Puerco. At that time the Puerco River provided water year around and soil was rich allowing farming. Birds and other game were available. The last occupants appear to have left around 1400.
       At the lookout points for the Painted Desert, we wondered how anyone, even with a bit more moisture, could ever have lived here. Life would have been very tough, and I suspect people on average died quite young.
       We took a longer walk into a valley called Blue Mesa on a trail through a badlands that had some petrified trees but was mostly rounded hills that were eroding badly. It was eerie to be walking in a landscape that was so devoid of plants and had trunks of trees some 227 million years of age.

Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock in the Petrified Forest

       At Newspaper Rock there are 650 petroglyphs on boulders below the viewing cliff. The artists among them produced these patterns and figures by pecking at the dark coating on the rock with tools to remove the desert varnish and expose the lighter rock. Because some visitors had defaced the area, you must view them with a spotting scope that does provide a clear picture of this large variety of American Indian symbols.

Giant Logs abound in the Petrified Forest

       The final walk we took was at Giant Longs Trail, which has the largest display of trees in the park. We could see that some of the trees had been 6 feet thick and, we were told, 200 feet high. Given how much animal life has changed in 234 million years, I suspect there have been similar changes in trees.
       Horseback riding, hiking and overnight camping are allowed in parts of the park. Despite the "do nots" and loss of petrified trees for souvenirs, this is a site not to be missed.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Diligent digging reveals Indian history in Ohio

       At the reconstructed Sun Watch Indian Village/Archaeological Park in Dayton, Ohio, we learned about the health and living conditions of the Fort Ancient Indians who had occupied this area for 20 years in the early 1200s. Being an American Indian along the Great Miami River before the Europeans arrival did not end up sounding much like living in paradise.
       When excavations were begun in 1971, archeologists did not have the equipment to avoid digging up graves, but now with modern devices great care can be taken not to disturb grave sites.. We watched a worker with an electronic device mark the areas that had objects lying underneath with the density of bones, and these areas will not be excavated. The American Indian Advisory Council interred the remains of those bones that had been dug up earlier, but not before some interesting facts about the early Indians’ general health were discovered.

An ongoing dig is unearthing the story of Sun Watch.

       Half of the children died before the age of six, 25 percent of the adults had spinal diseases and even in young people, teeth were in poor condition. Few who survived childhood lived beyond the age of 45, with the average life expectancy for men being 36 years and for women 28 years.
       By careful examination of the ground, archaeological teams have been able to reconstruct the outer defensive wooden wall, 18 huts housing from six to 16 people each, a large communal building and a smaller communal building for men. In the middle of the central plaza was a 40-foot high cedar pole and four companion posts, which indicate that the inhabitants had used astronomical alignments for such rituals as when to start planting and harvesting.
       The gravesites were arranged between the huts and the center poles with rank determining placement. A small area near the men’s meeting room held the bodies of those with the most power in the community, the level of status being shown by the sea shells and other objects of worth buried with them. Further from the huts and closer to the pole were the bones of people of medium status, and just in front of the huts were the bones of those considered to be of the lowest status.
       On the day we visited, the archeologists conducting the ongoing excavations were being assisted by ten undergraduate students from a class at Ohio State University, ten interns from other schools and a number of volunteers. The dirt is carefully sifted through a screen so that the smallest piece of crockery or bone is not overlooked.
       The best place to find objects of value is in the trash pits. These originally held 300 to 500 pounds of corn, but the food had deteriorated. The people then used them as landfills. It is from these pits that much of the lifestyle in the village has been reconstructed. One of the findings is that these people had a wide-ranging trade system that brought in products from as far away as the ocean.
       Student April Shoemaker showed us her team’s discoveries: an owl carved on bone, a crockery shard, several pieces we didn’t recognize and a small, stone axe head. Another student demonstrated where to stand near the cedar pole to make judgments about the change of seasons.

The reconstruction of the interior of a native dwelling.

       A movie in the interpretive center explained the history of the village people and the reason they had chosen this site. The river provided water and fish, and the soil originally was rich and very suitable for growing corn—their main food—beans, squash, gourds, sunflowers, and tobacco. A number of factors contributed to the demise of this village, among them the declining fertility of the soil and the depletion of trees and game.
       The last of the Fort Ancient Indians were driven from the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions when the Europeans came. Old World diseases killed off many. The Iroquois, equipped with rifles from the Europeans, began the Beaver Wars and drove off the rest by 1690.
       In the interpretive center, we explored the interior of some of the reconstructed houses, examined the villagers’ tools and saw mannequins engaging in day-to-day activities.

In the interpretive center mannequins were displayed engaging in day to day activities.

       Besides the involvement of college students, we noticed that children of varying ages were being taken on tours of the interpretive center and the village.
       On our travels around the United States, we are finding an increasing number of sites that pay respect to American Indians by building interpretive centers and reconstructing the lifestyle. They are usually well done with excellent displays and knowledgeable guides.