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Native Indian art and culture

The Heard Museum....

My early childhood involved a lot of playing cowboys and indians.

While living in Manila, Philippines, I went to an American school for four years until I was ten. Somehow I was subtly americanised during those malleable, impressionable years, without even noticing it. Long before I could place Liverpool or Manchester on a map of England or pronounce Worcester and Norwich properly, I could name all 50 US states along with their capitals. Shakespeare, Cromwell and the Tudors were unknown entities to me but I was familiar with the Pilgrim Fathers sailing on the Mayflower and the pioneer wagon trains, the Boston Tea Party, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving were major festivals, my younger brother, sister and I went trick-o-treating at Halloween, ate peanut butter cookies and our Mum's homemade Betty Crocker cakes and played baseball, basketball and American football. We used to catch the school bus clutching our lunchboxes packed with tuna and dill pickle or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My sister and I belonged to the Pioneer Girls and earned our badges making campfires and toasting marshmallows over them. And, of course, we played Cowboys and Indians, dressed as Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Wyatt Earp or Chief Sitting Bull and his squaws. We built teepees and had pow-wows and wielded tomahawks, bows and arrows and carried papooses on our backs.

It wasn't until years, decades, later that I actually stepped foot in the United States. Apart from a brief two-day visit to Miami on my way to Honduras about 8 years ago and some stop-offs in US airports, the country whose culture I had absorbed so readily in my childhood had remained a distant idea on the other side of the world from all my travels. Until 2011. Moving to live in Mexico in 2009 meant the Americans had become our next-door neighbours. A trip with Cristina and Marc to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park last Easter set the ball rolling. But it was our trip to Arizona which awoke in me many of the hazy memories from the past. I felt I was coming home in a way. I was back in Cowboy-Indian territory, the land of my childhood, of my fertile imagination. It felt familiar with its Far West flavours, cowboy towns, Indian arts and crafts, ghost towns, horses..

Indians carved out of wood

Map showing the location of the different Native American Indian tribes in the USA

Arizona is actually a good place to find out about the Native American Indians. With 21 tribes numbering 300,000 people (almost 7% of the state's population) whose homelands and reservations occupy a quarter of the area, it is one of the states with the greatest presence of America's First People. Wherever you go, there are reminders, past and present, of their rich culture and heritage, their art and traditions. I felt an immediate attraction to them, maybe because of my past.

To discover a bit more about the American Indians, we made a bee-line to the Heard Museum, one of Phoenix's true gems. Beautifully organised and informative, this was no stuffy museum to shuffle our feet through. No, it was more like a living cultural experience since not only was the past preserved but contemporary artists and Indians are reflected there. In addition to the permanent exhibits, it runs many temporary ones and even organises a special fair, the Indian Fair and Market, each year. Even the Museum's history was interesting. It was founded in 1929 by Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard to house their personal collection of Indian art. Dwight was a businessman from Chicago but when he became seriously ill with a chest ailment, his doctor advised him to find somewhere to live where the climate was warmer. So the Heards loaded some possessions in a wagon, bought some horses and set off towards the Pacific Coast. They ended up in Phoenix, a small town at the time, and decided this would be home. Over the years, their collection of artifacts from all over the world began to fill their house and, fortunately for us, they decided to build a museum in the grounds for the public to visit. Actually, Dwight never saw the museum opened since he died of a heart attack just months earlier. Today the museum is home to 40,000 American Indian artifacts and has become world famous. Rghtly so.

In the courtyard of the Heard Museum in Phoenix

Sculptures outside

Shady patio with café and gift shop

One of the exhibits at the entrance - "Indigenous Evolution" (2004), a modern-day sculpture making reference to the traditional organic fences built by Native people of materials such as adobe and saguaro cactus. The colours represent the land and the sky.

Beautiful pottery items with traditional designs

A Pueblo-style church building

A collection of katsina dolls on display.

The exhibition of Navajo textiles

Walking through the gallery area

Painting by a contemporary artist - the sticker on the pick-up's bumper reads "The EARTH does not belong to us... We belong to the EARTH"

The temporary exhbition of American Indian dolls

One of the dolls on display

A kid-friendly area to help younger visitors discover more about the Native American people

One of the large murals

Thank goodness most of the exhibits were kept in showcases or I might have walked off with some of them. Everyday functional objects and clothes had been created with beautiful colours, patterns and designs. Pottery, rugs, clothes, katsina dolls, turquoise and silver jewellery, and many more items were temptingly on show. I could have stayed there for much longer but with teenagers for company and the combined effect of it being very close to a late lunch made that impossible. Actually, the Heard Museum also has a beautiful café serving up Southwest-inspired cuisine, an art gallery, and a bookshop and gift shop so there's plenty to do. Still, we had time to see the main items and learnt a lot about the Navajo tribe, who call themselves the Diné People, the Apaches and the Yavapai, the Hopis and Yaquis. Although modern day life has changed a lot of their customs, it was interesting to see how efforts have been made and are continuing to be made to preserve many aspects of their life, their beliefs and their culture.

Past and contemporary pottery items are on view

Some of the designs on the woven plates

Spectacular red, black and white design

Some of the carved katsina dolls on display. Katsinas are the spirit messengers of the universe, representing all things in the natural world and the ancestors. They are given as gifts to young girls as a prayer wish for good health, growth and fertility. With this daily reminder in the home, young girls remember the Katsinas and their teachings.

Jewellery items made from turquoise, coral and silver.

Rugs for sale in the shop

Cushions with eye-catching patterns and colours

Storyteller figures

Decorated gourds

In the Museum's own words:

"Native people ...have faced change regarding how they live on the land. They have seen change within their families and communities. They have seen change in the language that is spoken at home, and they have made choices about how they will keep important elements of home for future generations. Native artists express multiple visions of home in their art."

Giant saguaro cactus are a distinctive part of the landscape in some areas of Arizona

We particularly enjoyed the quotes around the museum in which the voice of contemporary Indians can be heard too, echoing their close relationship to their lands, the natural environment, the tribe, the family.

"A home is both the space inside and outside the building.
A home is more than just the structure, the house...
It is the aroma, the textures of the building that help us remember.
The smell of the wet dirt walls,
the smell of dry dust.

It is the smell of the green brush on the roof, in the walls.
It is the texture.
The smooth mud walls
the rough ribs of the cactus and ocotillo,
the branches of cottonwood, and posts from cedar and pine.

Home is the place that has the right feel,
the right smell,
the right sense of coolness when you touch the walls." (Ofelia Zepeda, Tohono O'odham)

Many pueblo homes have outdoor, beehive-shaped ovens used for special occasion baking such as feast days. They were introduced by the Spanish.

"What I see is my home. I don't own it but it's home - the river,
the trees, the birds that fly, they're all mine." (Estefanita Martinez, San Juan)

Black-on-white pueblo pottery

"In Tewa, there is no word for family,
but there is a word for all of us." (Tessie Naranjo, Santa Clara)

Every year, Hopi farmers plant their fields of blue, white, multi-coloured and sweet corn. Each type of corn has its purpose and use in Hopi life.

"Shuffling of feet on the earthen floor.
The rattling of a pot,
in the kitchen.
The echo of someone chopping wood
A dog in the distance
Barking as if it belonged to someone." (Ofelia Zepeda)

Typical fireplace in a kitchen

"We see ourselves as caretakers of that piece of the earth that we use.
We have respect for the heavens, the stars, the moon, the sun and
nature itself, the clouds, rain, snow. What makes us whole is to recognize and
respect all these things and their seasons." (Albert Sinquah, Sr., Hopi-Tewa)

"The mountains remind me of home. It just feels like you're in a big bowl, and you're
protected from all the outside forces." (Michael Ornelas, Navajo)

Animal design on a Navajo rug


Drum made using deer hide

"You learn English to progress in the White World, and your own language to survive forever." (Veronica Homer, Mohave)


Apache leather moccasins and boots

Small bags made of animal hides and decorated with beads

Home for these people means a connection to their land for more than 1,000 years. Perhaps that's what makes this culture so appealing, so authentic. They have something many of us lost a long time ago... a sense of community, a sense of being part of nature, of respecting the natural elements and territory, of preserving traditions and arts down the generations. I didn't know that there was a tribe, the Havasupai tribe (meaning "People of the blue-green waters"), which still lives isolated down in the Grand Canyon. A short video made by them showed how they continue to live at the bottom of the canyon, basically as they have done for hundreds of years. The only way out of the canyon is on foot or by horse with the occasional arrival of a helicopter.

The beautiful Havasupai Falls down in the Grand Canyon, part of the Indian Reservation

We wandered around the temporary exhibition of Native American dolls, the art gallery, the Navajo Textile rooms with their huge colourful rugs on the walls, and out into the sculpture courtyard before having a quick look at the area for younger visitors with its large murals and activity centre. It's obvious that the art of these people has been inspired over the centuries by their close contact with their homeland and the natural evironment. The colours and materials of this land are intricately laced into their works of art whether woven, sculpted, painted or carved. If I had the opportunity, I would buy a plane ticket to Phoenix for March 3-4 to visit the Museum's annual Indian Fair and Market, taking a camera and empty suitcase with me. This event draws over 700 American Indian artists and 20,000 visitors to see these talented artists, sculptors, painters, potters, weavers, bead workers, carvers, and basket makers and experience their music, dancing and food too.

Wherever we went around Arizona, we found lots of Native Indian arts and crafts. Shops were packed full of them, but it was worth looking carefully at the label. In one shop, I saw some miniature woven baskets with Native Indian designs on them for just $5. Excited at my find, I picked them up only to read on the back that they had been made in ..... Pakistan. "Why are these baskets made in Pakistan?" I asked the shopkeeper. "Well, my dear," she answered. "That's why they're only $5. If they were woven here, they would cost you $30". It seemed a bit unreal that a replica could be made half way around the world, shipped over and be a fraction of the price of the original ones but that's world economy for you.

Woven baskets in a shop

Feathered dream-catchers, rattles and other popular items

A full Indian headdress with feathers

Life-size carving of an Indian

Sculpture in metal of an Indian on a horse

Nativity scenes with a local flavour

Design featuring "Kokopelli", the mysterious character which can be seen in a number of Native American cultures. Kokopelli can easily be recognised by his dancing pose, hunchback and flute.

One day while we were wandering around the Old Town of Scottsdale, we came across an Indian doing a traditional Navajo sand painting. We had already seen shops full of small ones, but hadn't realised just how it was done. Pinching a very small quantity of fine coloured sand, made from naturally-coloured crushed rock, stone and minerals between his thumb and finger, he skillfully trickled it onto the work of art he was creating. Later, reading up about it, I discovered that Navajo sand painting was part of a spiritual healing ceremony whereby the person in need of physical, emotional or spiritual healing would sit on top of the sand painting created by a medicine man in the middle of the ceremonial hogan. This would help the patient absorb spiritual power, while the Holy People would absorb the illness and take it away. At the end of the ritual, the sand painting (meaning "place where the gods come and go") would be destroyed within 12 hours since it was toxic. In the 1940s, the Navajos began to make permanent ones in order to preserve this long-standing tradition. Now the shops are full of small framed ones with typical symbols which you can buy to take home and put up on the wall.

Hogans are the traditional house of the Navajo Indians. Nowadays most Navajos don't live in hogans, but there is often a hogan near the main house which is used for ceremonies.

The guide explaining the meaing of a sand painting

Interestingly too, according to the Indians, Spider Woman has been on the scene much longer than Spider Man. Legend has it that she is the creator and weaver of life, and is the great teacher, protector and Mother of all creation to many Southwestern Native American cultures. She is said to have taught the people how to weave as well as other skills. Regardless of how they learnt, we were amazed at the woven baskets, textiles and rugs produced both many years ago and now.

A small loom

Bright colours and patterns on a Navajo rug

Figures depicted on a rug

At the end of our holiday, we had a two-hour wait in Phoenix Airport for our flight to Denver. Fortunately, there were three souvenir-craft shops to keep us occupied. Cristina and I spent ages in each one, poring over the native crafts, trying to decide what to spend our last few dollars on. After the umpteenth visit to the three shops, I think the shop assistants were getting rather suspicious as to why we kept appearing. We finally made our choice. Cristina went for the Indian horse she'd been eyeing up for days in other shops. I couldn't resist and bought a book on Native traditions and art in Arizona.

A bit later, as we flew over the clear Arizona desert and its canyons, I was glad we'd come to the Southwest. At least I'd updated my knowledge of cowboys and Indians a bit.

Posted by margaretm 06:55 Archived in USA

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What wonderful photos of even more amazing handicrafts! Arizona and New Mexico are my two favorite states (after New York!) despite the heat ... it is surprising to see that the diversity of native American cultures (both in the U.S. and in Mexico) ... not at all as they are portrayed in the Cowboy and Indian movies that we grew up with.
Thanks for sharing your impressions, Margaret.

by Lynda

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