A Look Inside the Reimagined ‘Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau’ Exhibit

Apr 18, 2018

There’s a new exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff—actually, it’s an old exhibit re-imagined. Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau originally opened in 1980. It was an expansive look at many of the region’s tribal cultures including the Havasupai, Navajo and Hopi. The museum recently unveiled a total makeover of the exhibit, nearly a decade in the making. It was put together in close consultation with the tribes. Dr. Robert Breunig curated both versions, and gave KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius a tour.

A Hopi planting stick, gourd canteen and an ear of blue corn—highly symbolic items for the tribes given to them by the Earth Guardian when they emerged on the earth.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

Robert Breunig: Here’s the toys and games section and we have some traditional games and we have a modern-day skateboard—just trying to mix it up a little bit. 

RH: Did all these items come out of the museum’s collection?

RB: This what’s been in storage! Here are some things for Hopis: this is a planting stick, this is a gourd canteen and an ear of blue corn. And when they emerged on the earth, the Earth Guardian gave them those things and said, “Find your center place, find your place in this world, and these are the things I’m going to give you to get started with.” So those have great symbolic importance.

Dr. Robert Breunig at the revamped Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau exhibit at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern Arizona. He curated both the original exhibit in 1980 and the new version that recently opened to the public.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

RB: We have a section in here on what the Navajo call the Long Walk, or Hwéeldi, and it describes that experience and how it affected the Navajo people. But then on the positive side we also talk about the role of the Navajo Code Talkers, and how they contributed to winning World War II. And so we try to maintain a balance there.

RH: One the focuses of this exhibition seems to be portraying these cultures as contemporary cultures, as living and the thriving cultures, correct?

RB: When we sat down with members of the various communities and said, “What do you want people to know about you?” one of the first things that invariably came up were these words: “We want people to know that we’re still here.” So that’s a major theme: We’re here. We’re living in this world, we’re living in this modern world. We’re living in the same digital, fast world that everybody else is. And we’re no different—although we are different in some ways.

Museum staff putting the finishing touches on the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau exhibit.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

RH: Tell me a little bit about the consultation process, about involving these tribes in the process of putting this exhibit together.

RB: We invited members of these various tribal communities to the museum to view the collections that we had, and talked about what might be objects that we’d want to display. And obviously there were things that the staff was interested in displaying because they were beautiful, but there were also things of cultural significance that members of the tribal community said, “We want to see that displayed.” And so we had a lot of really interesting discussions about that, and we really deferred to members of the tribal community.

Carved Navajo figurines on display at the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau exhibit.
Credit Ryan Heinsius

RH: What you ultimately hope to achieve with the new version of this exhibit?

RB: I think cross-cultural communication and respect is for us the most important thing we could do here. My hope is you can’t help but have a new level of respect of something you didn’t know about before. And we’re trying to make it clear that these communities are here, they’re looking to the future and not just to the past; that they are creative, dynamic and beautiful.