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 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 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.