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.
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.”