If my “staycation” project is to relate my own identity and personal views to those of other cultures, then I probably couldn’t live in a better city than Phoenix to explore Native American culture. The metro area boasts several museums, community centers, stores and even restaurants that reflect the strong influence of Native American life in the history of Arizona way before it became a state.

Since my focus in this travel blog is hometown museums, I naturally gravitated to the world-famous Heard Museum in central Phoenix. It’s a rich resource in the study of Native American art and artifacts, with an emphasis on the American Southwest. I’ve lived in Phoenix a long time, and my routine statement to out-of-town visitors — “Ya gotta go to the Heard” – has echoed through the years. The museum is a beautiful addition to Central Avenue, with original hacienda-style buildings dating back to the early 20th century and new wings which gleam with white walls and arched colonnades. It’s good to allow at least a couple of hours to wander the neatly organized galleries of the Heard.

Permanent exhibitions

When my kids were young, I took them to the Heard gallery that recreates the Indian boarding school experience, which can be a real eye-opener. By peeking into various rooms, visitors can put themselves in the shoes of Native American children who were uprooted from tribal lands and transplanted into American-style schools in Anglo towns. There are areas of the exhibit examining not only school life, but also school sports, art programs and dorm life. My kids still recall the blue barbershop chair, surrounded by heaps of black tresses and braids, depicting the Indian schools’ misguided attempts to Americanize the students by cutting their traditional long hair as soon as they enrolled.

In the Heard’s permanent exhibition, “HOME: Native People in the Southwest,” the snaking display cases walk visitors through the rituals, utilitarian objects, art objects, ceremonial clothing and jewelry representing a number of Southwestern tribes. The glass cases of Hopi katsina dolls offer hundreds of examples of these carved figures, all of which depict various ancestral deities. Two must-see areas: the Navajo (Diné) hogan – you can practically smell the logs used to make this ceremonial space – and the Hopi room explaining the making of piki bread. Diné and Hopi people form the largest chunk of Arizona’s Native American population.

Also making wonderful stops while at the Heard are the sculpture gardens, the memorial to Native American soldiers, and the two gift shops.

Mapping my visit

This visit of mine to the Heard, however, was a mission to find cultural connections and, specifically, gain better understanding of the differences between the observer (myself) and the observed (Native American culture as represented in a museum). How interesting to read Casey Blanton’s “Narrating Self and Other: A Historical Overview,” which looks at shifting attitudes about the purposes of travel writing. Early in the piece, he incorporates a quote from travel-narrative scholar Janis Stout, who says that tales of journeys tend to confront “the elemental questions of epistemology, the relation between subject and object, knower and known.” The quote makes me realize how a museum experience can widen my horizons but also point to my dearth of knowledge about a certain subject. Much of Native American culture remains outside my sphere of experience and knowledge, but visiting the Heard is a step toward knowing more.

In line with my studies this week in English 624, the thoughts behind my Heard visit centered on “Mapping the Territory, Mapping the Self,” the name of our second module. The idea is to delineate why a traveler chooses or “maps” a certain destination, and how that choice reflects upon the traveler herself. To add this kind of personalization to my visit and to narrow my focus, I decided to zero in on maps themselves. I concentrated on artifacts and displays that directly and indirectly have to do with mapping the Native American experience. In other words, the displays need to show geographical boundaries and/or a linear reproduction of a historical theme, such as a timeline.

Here is a sampling of my finds:

— In the temporary art exhibition “Personal Journeys: American Indian Landscapes,” I admired what might be called a social landscape. Elizabeth Yazzie’s “Textile” from the 1980s is a woolen weaving depicting vignettes of dances, weddings, hogan life and other cultural events. In fact, I interpreted it as a “map” of Diné life, so full of details as it is.

As Joni Seager writes in the introduction to “Maps” on the website World History Sources, “As far as historians and geographers can determine, every culture in every part of the world uses and makes maps.” Later, she explains the variety of content, purposes and styles that maps have shown over the centuries. In Yazzie’s work and others, I could detect how they are artworks, yet maps at the same time.

In the same art gallery is Norman Akers’ (Osage) painting “Spring Matrix,” which struck me as an emotional and psychological “map” of Akers’ life that uses floating symbols to represent all that’s important to him.

—  An outdoor mural by Mario Martinez (Pascua Yaqui) called “Sonoran Desert: Yaqui Home” (2005) uses colorful drawings, family photographs and portions of maps to signify both the Yaquis’ diaspora from Sonora, Mexico, and the establishment of a new life in Arizona. It is a wonderful “map” of Yaqui ideals regarding home, nature and the spirit world.

— In “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” I studied a map reproduced for a wall display. Titled “Off-Reservation BIA Boarding Schools, 1879-2000,” the 34 dots on the map span the country from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Sherman, California. Finding out that so many Indian schools existed, and in other parts of the gallery, reading about Anglo administrators bent on acculturating Native youths, I wondered about the ethics of such attempts at transformation. To what degree were these youths stripped of their heritage?

Toward a better understanding

So as you can see, my visit to the Heard helped me make connections to our English 624 readings; I could see my skills as an ethnographer growing. I was coming closer, as Stout says, to closing the gap between the known and the unknown. In addition, I thought about the “contact zones” that Mary Louise Pratt writes about, in describing the space where disparate cultures meet and often clash. What’s wonderful about the Heard is its comprehensive look at Native American life in the Southwest, and how its quiet spaces help visitors contemplate the divergence and convergence of cultures. Sometimes lifeways are at risk of disappearing, and sometimes they blend into other societies and flourish. As I often say, “Ya gotta go the Heard.”

“Spring Matrix” by Norman Akers (Osage), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Heard Museum.




10 thoughts on “Making connections with Native American culture

  1. Deborah,

    I enjoyed your blog. It is descriptive, engaging, and informative. “Making connections with Native American culture” shows the purpose of your entry. It is an appropriate title, helping the reader to understand–through your examples–how historical events and Anglo influences shaped the lives of Native Americans.

    You answered several questions relevant questions that a tourist would need / want to know: location and length of time needed to tour the museum, why you chose Heard Museum. You connect your reader to the museum as you describe your personal visit with your children. In addition, I understand one of your most important main points: “The Indian schools’ misguided attempts to Americanize the students,” connecting the audience to your perspective of culture. Furthermore, your word choice sets the tone: “eye-opener,” “uprooted,” “heaps of black tresses and braids” near the blue barbershop chair.” Including “permanent exhibition, “HOME” establishes authenticity of the museum and reinforces why you chose the museum. You might want to revise your statement, “To wander the cleanly organized interior exhibition spaces is a pleasant outing for all ages” with something like “a pleasant and educational outing for all ages.” Or, “pleasant and enlightening” outing. Also, adding one or two descriptions of “clothing and jewelry” could connect to the reader’s cultural interests.

    As in your initial blog, you connect scholarly resources to your personal reflections, and throughout your blog, you analyze political and social aspects of Native American culture. In your conclusion, you explained your English 624 teachings, which reiterated the purpose of the blog. Consider using Stout’s quote as an agency to connect something about your observations that broadens your “sphere of experience.” Is there something you learned about the culture that scratches the surface of what you want / need to know about your own culture? This, I think, would also show your analytical / critical skills and possibly connect to your reader’s cultural experiences.You personal views are evident; I am eager to see the connection to your “own [cultural] identity.” The visual is very effective, requiring the reader to look, think, study, and analyze.

    Your blog of travels and self-discovery is such a “nice place” to be.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much, Janise. I appreciate the suggestions on tightening my wording in a couple of places. I get a little carried away sometimes … Also, you’re right, I do need to reveal more about what I want/need to know about my own culture, after viewing Native American culture.


  3. Hi Deborah,
    Great read and the museum sounds like a great cultural experience.
    I enjoyed the information, and you did a thorough job of making sure to explain everything you saw. However, some of it was a bit lengthy. Consider making subhead with exhibit information, your history with the museum, your ideas of Native American Culture before and after visiting, etc.
    Also, I thought this was a well written entry, but you have a few mistakes, “I decided to home in on maps themselves” and perhaps you meant hone.
    Looking at the prompt for this week and for the next entry, I wonder if this entry is better for module 3 than for module 2. Module 3 is all about culture and where their are remnants of colonization, so this entry might be better for that module and to consider another one for this – perhaps more about how you “map” your home or how you see it. This just seems like such a great entry for the culture module.
    Overall, nice work, and I look forward to the visit to the next museum!


  4. Hi Debra,
    Your description of the Heard Museum is detailed and well-constructed. You gave me the impression that I was touring the museum. You do an excellent job of tying into your course readings and to this blog assignment’s objectives. Your use of quotes from your readings supports your comments. I was particularly interested in your description and assessment of the boarding schools that were established for transplanted Native Americans, the In “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience.” I tend to think of older maps as historical artifacts that show changing territorial and cultural boundaries through history. The map you mentioned “Off-Reservation BIA Boarding Schools, 1879-2000” shows more than record of schools, it also represents history. The 34 dots on the map show, as you say, the “acculturation” of Native Americans. That would be an interesting map to see. It might have made a good image for your blog. Your description of the blue chair surrounded by pieces of long black hair and braids presents a sad picture of attempts to make Native Americans assimilate and adopt a different cultural identity. You did a great job. I enjoyed reading your blog.


  5. Deborah,

    Your purpose and focus lend so much credibility to your topic. I like how well you connected the post to outside readings, but I’m wondering about your use of the blog format. A blog can accommodate the essay structure that you’re using, but many people make posts or read posts using a phone or tablet, and often those posts are rendered as shorter texts to facilitate their smaller visual footprint. I can see several divisions that you could impose on this particular entry: the connection to an external text, accompanies by an image of the actual source text, so a reader could like to purchase a copy or read more about its author; a description of each piece of artwork or narrative that you encountered in the museum, accompanied by an image of the art or a visual to help illustrate your thinking, your connections.

    When I follow blogs, I’m looking for smaller chunks to digest and enrich my life on a daily basis. To improve your blogs readability and potential reach, you might consider multiple posts, more impulsive and inspired, to encourage your creativity and your audience’s response.



    Liked by 1 person

  6. I forgot to add that embedded hyperlinks also help your reader navigate from your blog to other useful resources. This will add more value to your posts, in my mind.



  7. Deborah,
    Great post! Sadly, I have lived in Phoenix since 1994 and have never visited the Heard Museum. You did a great job illustrating the history we can see if we go there as you mapped out your experience. I liked how organized your blog was with your section headings. Good work. Now I will have to make sure I visit the Heard!


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