Cultural richness showcased at Arizona’s Heard Museum

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PHOENIX – Unimaginable riches.

That’s the impression visitors take away from the Heard Museum’s new permanent exhibit called “HOME: Native People in the Southwest.”

The richness of the cultures and spirits of the tribes of the American Southwest permeates the exhibit, three years in the making. In fact, so much is packed into the compact rooms of the Heard that it is impossible to take in the essence of so many peoples that have lived in the area for so many centuries. It is positively overwhelming.

A good strategy is to pick and choose among old favorites remembered from previous visits, like the Goldwater katsina figures and the Yaqui masks, and hope to find a few new treasures.

One new feature bound to catch the eye is an installation by Tony Jojola, Isleta, and Rosemary Lonewolf, Santa Clara/Tewa. A long artistic rendering of an ocotillo desert fence, spanning the arc of Native building materials from clay to glass and hued in sequential colors of the day from the dark of pre-sunrise to the glittering of sunset, it starts off the “HOME” exhibit by literally staking out Native ground.

The world-class pottery of the New Mexico pueblos is just a few feet from Sen. Barry Goldwater’s world-renowned collection of katsina carvings. This juxtaposition defies explanation: perhaps a Babe Ruth exhibit next to one on Joe Montana. Or perhaps Michelangelo and Raphael a few feet apart at the Vatican. Unimaginable riches.

Although the katsinas are hard to overshadow, there’s an exhibit next to it on Hopi jewelry that stands right up to it (with examples from the genius of modern master Charles Loloma). There are a few stunning examples of Yaqui masks, some of the best art objects in the world, every bit as fine and evocative as the justly famous Yup’ik masks of the Arctic. (It may be that the Yaquis’ divided political status, straddling both the United States and Mexico, keeps these spectacular artifacts from achieving their full due.)

Throw in Navajo weaving and jewelry, and one’s head may spin at the richness of the cultures of the Native peoples of the Southwest. Be sure to save a few moments to admire Apache clothing and its beautiful utility to desert life.

Individual Native artists are also woven into the mix, like Allan Houser’s evocative Apache “Night Guard” sculpture or the threading poems of Ofelia Zepeda, Tohono O’odham, that help tie these magnificent traditions together. But “HOME” also takes the time to observe the vibrant cultures of these tribes, the Apache Coming of Age Ceremony, for instance, where a young woman is united spiritually with White Painted Woman.

The tribes’ lifeways can themselves approach an art-like beauty of ingenuity. Consider the Tohono O’odham, those miraculous desert farmers who cultivated tens of thousands of acres of desert farms using only irrigation ditches and the thunderstorms of summer desert afternoons. “HOME” describes their brilliant engagement with surviving in the desert by gathering wild food, an incredible 375 varieties of it – including cholla buds, mesquite seeds and saguaro fruit.

And what about those desert architects, the Hohokam, who were building sophisticated canals in the desert 2,000 years ago – some 10 miles long, 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep – in Arizona’s Salt Valley?

“HOME” recreates some of these tribes’ homes: a Navajo hogan, a Hopi piki room (for processing blue corn) and a meditative Yaqui ramada, complete with an inviting water jar for shade and respite from the hot desert sun.

There, one can think about a Yaqui fiesta, with the leader, the pascola, dancing behind one of those incredible masks to the music of flute and drum or, after Spanish contact, harp and violin.

The Heard has done well with this permanent exhibit. Of course, there will be four or five other Native-related exhibitions there at any one time, such as “Beautiful Resistance,” which features traditional paintings presented in a sympathetic setting of cultural persistence, and even a couple of early and almost traditional paintings by that most compelling of chameleons, Helen Hardin of Santa Clara Pueblo.

Nearly 25 years after her untimely passing, Tsa-sah-wee-eh retains her beautiful, melancholy melding of ancient and modern, sand painting and Cubist form. She seems destined for permanence as much as anything else in the museum.