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Heard Museum Hires James Pepper Henry to Be its First Native Director

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James Pepper Henry will soon be trading in icy Arctic winters for sweltering desert summers as he departs Anchorage, Alaska for Phoenix, Arizona to become the newly-named Director and CEO of the famed Heard Museum.

Currently holding the same titles at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Pepper Henry will depart Alaska on July 5th to resume duties at his new desk on August 5 and in the process will become the first enrolled Indian to ever lead the Heard.

In a departure message from his current facility, which welcomes a quarter of a million visitors annually, he noted: “I consider myself fortunate to have been involved with such an outstanding organization that has achieved many milestones over the past six years.” Susan Knowles, chairwoman of the Anchorage Museum Association Board, added: “He did a wonderful job leading the museum during a period of enormous growth and challenge.”

His challenges in Alaska included overseeing completion of a $110 million expansion, an annual budget of $10 million and the supervision of 75 employees who handled over 500,000 historic photographs, art and artifacts, and archival records. His new job puts an emphasis on the art, culture, and history of American Indians in the Southwest through more than 40,000 artworks and cultural artifacts in permanent collections and a dozen changing long-term gallery exhibits. Heard Museum bills itself as “a place of learning, discovery, and unforgettable experiences.”

"Turquoise necklace was passed down to me through my family."

A veteran with 20 years of experience at both Native and non-Indian museums, Pepper Henry, enrolled in the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, has collected many accolades since he began curating Native American art in Portland, Oregon where the trained sculptor received his fine arts degree from Portland State University in 1992.

He is quoted in the Kaw Nation Kanza Newsletter as saying, “Like many starving artists trying to subsidize my art, I needed an income, but wanted to stay close to the field. I ended up working part-time in museums and eventually the museum part took over.”

It was a wise decision on his part, and he soon found himself climbing the career ladder as Director of the Kanza Museum and later an Associate Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, where he spent ten years and played a pivotal role in the 2004 establishment and launch of NMAI. 

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Pepper Henry, son of a Kaw and Muscogee Creek mother and a father of European descent, Identifies himself as “half Viking and half Indian.” His Native heritage is clearly important to him, as he is an active traditional dancer as well as co-founder and president of the Kanza Iloshka Society, which is dedicated to the perpetuation of the cultural life-ways and traditions of the Kaw peoples.

In fact, as a traditional dancer, Pepper Henry still dances at special occasions and said he’d consider dancing at some kind of welcoming event at the Heard, which in itself, would be historic. “That would be fantastic,” said the 46-year-old.

“I’ve admired the Heard for my entire adult life after visiting there some 25 years ago," he added. "As a Native artist myself, I fell in love with the place and quite honestly, Heard is one of only a few museums in the country that I’d consider leaving Anchorage for.”

"Turquoise necklace was passed down to me through my family."

While it’s too early to make a call on any changes he might want to consider, Pepper Henry says he’d like to bring his portfolio of other museum experiences to the Heard for consideration in the areas of programming, outreach, and exhibitions. “My initial move will be to sit down with staff and community members to learn operational protocol," he said. "After that, we can talk about options for the museum’s future.”

The new director keeps tabs on worldwide events that impact Native American culture and in discussing the auction of Hopi katsinam in Paris, he brings his years of repatriation work at NAMI into play: “My personal feelings concur with the tribe: That there are certain things not meant to be sold or on display -- items that need to be put back into ceremonial use or be reintroduced in a more proper context.”

Acknowledging another NAMI achievement -- establishment of tribal training programs -- he admits to being in the first wave of those to go through internships that have allowed him to rise through the ranks into such prominent positions as the ones he's leaving and headed to. 

“I’ve always been proud to be a Native American, but to have Natives in positions and in places where traditionally Natives were excluded, is a huge milestone.”