Everyday Green: Tribal Museums and Cultural Centers

"Preserving the diversity of traditions, lifeways and cultural values is a core concern in New Mexico’s rural and tribal communities."

Date August 5, 2013 at 2:58 PM

Publication Green Fire Times

Categories Art Markets & Galleries Community Culture Green Living

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Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, Pojoaque, New Mexico, Photo © Phil Karshis

Preserving the diversity of traditions, lifeways and cultural values is a core concern in New Mexico’s rural and tribal communities. Tribal cultural centers and museums are important places for cultural learning, employment, and a source of cultural pride—as well as places for the public to participate and interact with tribal communities.

One primary benefit of tourism is the stimulus for developing a museum, interpretive or cultural center. As a place to communicate about culture and ecosystem knowledge, a center may become the focal point for interpreting local history and traditions, as well as a hub supporting cultural revitalization and language retention. With in-depth community participation, these centers can not only enhance the visitors’ experience—they can also provide direct benefits for a community beyond just jobs and economic support.

Meeting Cultural Needs

Cultural retention, more than an idealistic notion, is a practical necessity for sustainability. Mainstream, urban museums tend to focus on exhibits, collections and archives. As an alternative approach, a living museum may serve other community-based uses such as classrooms for cultural teaching and a conference room for gatherings and meetings. Housing a teaching collection—items that are replaceable, yet are excellent examples of traditional art for students to study in classes—is one important way that a museum can serve traditional communities. 

Immediate action to provide urgently needed cultural teaching is the primary way to prevent cultural loss. Following tradition is a path seen by most cultures as the best solution for nurturing youth toward positive community involvement, good health, caring for family, caring for the sacred environment, and life away from negative influences. These approaches are basic for cultural retention in rural and reservation areas today. In most traditional communities, teaching the culture within the community depends upon involvement by the elders, the keepers of the traditions. Regarding the teachings in a respectful way empowers elders willing to teach. In relation to tourism—involving elders in defining the types of information appropriate to share and deciding who is allowed to learn certain types of restricted information is a guiding process.

Living Museums

In traditional communities, living museums are learning places for the community, as well as visitors. With a focus on the community in the present, exhibits and educational programs incorporate information about the past, when relevant to understanding a contemporary people and living cultures. This differs from a common mainstream museum focus on objects, their history and a public-at-large audience. For example, in the Indigenous setting, time may be portrayed as cyclical rather than linear, by showing the link to traditional activities in the seasons.

Museums planned to support cultural continuance are attractive to the general public. A “museum with life,” or living museum, shows not only history, but also the learning programs in the present plus an anticipated cultural future for the community. Changing exhibits showing student work and interactive exhibits are two features appreciated by the public. In turn, when the public becomes involved, support for a center is likely to follow.

White Buffalo dancers at the Poeh Center Photo © Phil Karshis

New Mexico Examples

Art sales, tours and other services of cultural entrepreneurs support the retention of cultural traditions. Two New Mexico examples of tribal museums known internationally as models for cultural continuance are Pojoaque Pueblo’s Poeh Center and Acoma Pueblo’s Haak’u Museum.

The Poeh Cultural Center and Museum (www.poehmuseum.com), located at the Pueblo of Pojoaque, 15 miles north of Santa Fe, trains over 100 Native artists each year through a curriculum merging the cultural arts with business skills. By identifying the arts at-risk of being lost, the initial phase of the cultural center focused on teaching those arts, intergenerational involvement and use of Native languages. The uniqueness of this model is reflected in a living museum concept, with changing exhibits reflecting the ongoing progress in renewing Native artistic traditions.

Integrating value-based business skills into the arts curriculum and assisting cultural entrepreneurs with employment linkages are other unique features of the Poeh Center. My book, Planning for Balanced Development, documents this successful cultural revitalization effort. 

Many American Indian tribes and Indigenous people internationally are learning from the Poeh Center. In one collaborative interchange, the Guaraní Paraty Indians (Indigenous Association of AWA Ropedju) in the State of Río de Janeiro, Brazil visited the Poeh Center. The renowned Pueblo potter Roxanne Swentzell then traveled to Brazil and taught pottery-making methods to Guaraní tribal members, assisting in revitalizing their tradition. The renewal of weaving traditions is also a focus of the Guaraní. Their center provides for the preservation of their culture through workshops, traditional crafts, music and dance, legends, medicinal herbs and stories—inspiring quality-of-life through the expansion of international markets.

Subsequent volunteer coaching on cultural center development by Poeh Center staff traveling to Brazil and through internet communications, as well as assistance from the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC)—supported the Guaraní in developing their cultural center. Exhibits there explain the revitalized Indigenous basket and pottery traditions. They also feature an exhibit on the Poeh Center as a “sister” cultural center. The sharing of cultural methods for the regeneration of culture has contributed to the development of both centers. Mentoring is a central factor in success among Indigenous communities.

Sky City Cultural Center at Acoma Pueblo, Photo © Jennifer Esperanza

The Sky City Cultural Center at Acoma Pueblo offers a full range of culturally based activities to visitors, while managing tourism in a way that protects the ancient Pueblo village. Located atop a 367-foot sandstone bluff, Acoma Pueblo (est. 1150 AD) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America.

The Haak’u Museum serves as an education and research institute focusing on the preservation of Acoma history, with exhibits interpreting history and present-day lifeways for the public. Activities for revitalizing art forms at risk of being lost and the retention of traditional language are also a focus of the museum. Food service at the Y’aak’a Café includes traditional foods, and the Gaits’i Gift Shop features handmade Pueblo arts, such as pottery and jewelry, as well as books on Indigenous culture.

Access to the ancient village is by tour only, with minivan transportation and village interpretation provided by step-on-guides. Managing access protects the road to the mesa as well as impacts to the ancient dwellings still used for traditional activities.

Success factors include: a strong management structure, financial monitoring, effective marketing, unifying tribal offerings, linking past and present, visitor education fostering appreciation of the cultural arts, an informative website (www.acomaskycity.org), annual events that inspire visitors to return, posting a clear schedule of tours, and information on visitor etiquette available in six languages.

Who Can Visit?

The general public is invited to visit, and special events are often scheduled. Often public support keeps a tribal museum or cultural center’s doors open. Other tribal museums to visit in New Mexico include the Ashiwi Awan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni (www.ashiwi-museum.org), the Walatowa Visitor Center, an interpretive center at Jémez Pueblo (www.Jémezpueblo.com), the Jicarilla Apache Culture Center (www.jicarillaonline.com) and the Mescalero Apache Museum (www.mescaleroapache.com/area/cultural_museum).

As cultures worldwide are faced with having to adapt to challenging economic and ecological conditions, opportunities to present culturally based solutions increase in importance. Community-determined messages to share in relation to sustainability can stimulate innovative intercultural solutions. Global resilience in the future depends upon the cumulative, bio-cultural knowledge base developed over the past thousands of years. For this reason, retaining cultural diversity is of far-reaching importance. 

Susan Guyette, Ph.D. is Métis (Micmac Indian and Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development: A Guide for Native American and Rural Communities; co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature and the author of several texts for Native American Studies. www.susanguyette.com

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