A Few Days in Southern Arizona

23 April 2011

We had the chance to head south for the week in mid-April for a few days of business and a few of exploring. While we really didn’t make it out for any hikes in the bush, we did visit two museums worth writing about.

Navajo Weavings
In Phoenix we visited the Heard Museum, spending the morning learning about the Native American boarding school experience, enjoying the Heard’s stellar collection of Hopi Katsinas, and looking at still more Navajo textiles.

The current exhibit of weavings is titled A Turning Point: Navajo Weaving in the Late 20th Century. This exhibit is on display through May 22nd. It features contemporary weavings and highlights the change taking place in Navajo weaving- what was once considered a craft is now being viewed by the weavers themselves as an art form. Until relatively recently a rug was woven, sold to a trading post or gallery, and that would be the end of the weaver’s connection to their work. Navajo weavers are now proudly taking credit for their creations, even naming them.

Today many weavings even come with a photo and name and location of the weaver attached along with the price tag. Here in Colorado we are fortunate to have lectures about Navajo textiles at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and we have attended the fund-raising rug auctions arranged by the Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango for the university’s Henderson Museum. The auction takes place every fall with the proceeds supporting the care and maintenance of the extensive collection of weavings at the Henderson Museum. One of our recent acquisitions at the auction came complete with the photo and info about the weaver who we hope to meet in our travels one day.

A Ganado Red in the Heard museum by the Navajo artist Genevieve Shirley.

The next exhibit of textiles at the Heard Museum is titled Navajo Textiles: 100 Years of Weaving and opens June 11th. It will feature weavings from the Heard’s own collection dating from the late 19th century to the present day.

And finally, if you happen to fly into Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, you must see the collection of Two Grey Hills weavings on display there. There are four cases highlighting the work of a number of weaving families. The rugs, with their rich earth tones, are a welcome and grounding sight after a morning of air travel.

The Katsinas
One of the Heard’s permanent exhibits is titled Home: Native People in the Southwest, and features artifacts from prehistoric times through the present. It covers the local indigenous cultures as well as other cultures throughout the southwest. The highlight of the exhibit for us was the collection of Katsinas, also called “Kachinas”, although the Hopi language apparently has no “ch” in it, and Katsina is the correct term. Two large cases are filled with figures, some older, but many newer. Many of them came from private collections with a wide range of figures done by individual artists. Nicolai’s  favorites by far were the Koshare or clown Katsinas, one of which is represented having fallen on his stomach and reaching out for a rooster he is chasing.

Boarding Schools
If you plan to visit the Heard any time soon- I am not sure how long the exhibit runs- be sure to see Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience. Walking through this exhibit takes you along on the journey of the reservation child to the assimilated, “productive member of society” that the boarding school was meant to create. There are many recorded reminiscences of experiences, photographs, and recreated dorm and school rooms where you will get a feel for the drab, militaristic experience the children were forced to endure. This period in our country seems largely unknown to many people. Many know that it happened in Australia for example, as presented in the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, but most people are unaware that the same thing happened here as well.

Tucson- the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a singular reason to visit Arizona. Although the brochure says to allow 2 hours for a visit, I feel you can make a weekend trip out of a visit there. We spent about 4 hours there and it felt rushed. We did not even step inside any of the museum buildings- all our time was outside. The museum is nothing short of incredible, covering 21 acres where you will see over 1200 native plants and 300 animal species. The trails through the grounds are 2 miles in length with interpretive signs, covered exhibits, and volunteers answering questions and offering information on various topics along the way.

View of the Sonoran desert landscape.

Since the museum is largely outdoors, come prepared with water, hat, sunscreen, and so on, and try to visit in the cooler months. There are plenty of shady places to sit and enjoy the views or spend time identifying Sonoran desert flora, and of course indoor galleries and gift shop as well.

For more on our adventures, hiking, primitive skills, and desert gear, visit the Desert Explorer website.