NMAI Director Kevin Gover visits the Southern Ute Cultural Center in Colorado
This is Old Spanish Trail country, crossed routinely by traders of the 1800s who may have travelled by horse or mule. They carried blankets and other woolen goods to the west coast and herded fresh horses and mules back to Santa Fe. (Photo by Scott DW Smith, courtesy of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum)
Last month I had the pleasure of attending the public opening of the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, Colorado. Ignacio sits in the Colorado portion of the Four Corners highlands. The Four Corners region is starkly beautiful and one of my favorite places in the United States. And it is Indian Country.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has done a terrific job of developing first-rate facilities for visitors to the area. The Sky Ute Casino Resort is a fine, even elegant facility, with large, well-appointed rooms decorated in earth tones. The museum is a short walk from the resort.
The opening was very well attended, with a strong presence from the surrounding non-Indian communities. NMAI Trustee and former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) and his wife Linda were among the many dignitaries to attend the event. Not even the stormy spring weather in the Four Corners deterred visitors. A brief desert rainstorm greeted us as we arrived. All rain in the high desert is a blessing, however, and though our clothes were dampened, our enthusiasm was not.
Ute basketweavers like Adoline Eyetoo (picture above) from White Mesa, Utah, are considered to be living cultural treasures and represent a long-practiced artistic tradition. (Photo by Scott DW Smith, courtesy of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum)
The tribe’s pride in the museum is evident, and it is a fine accomplishment indeed. The museum has a welcome gallery and a permanent exhibition that highlights the history of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The permanent gallery beautifully and effectively provides visitors with a clear understanding of the history. It uses objects, installations, and media most effectively. There are interactive installations throughout that will interest both young and old. The museum at this point has a small collection, but has assembled an excellent group of objects borrowed from other institutions. The NMAI is proud to have provided over two dozen objects from our collections to the tribal museum. The highlight of the exhibition for me is the orientation film in a central multi-screened theater. Images of the Four Corners landscapes are accompanied by elders speaking of the history and culture of the Tribe. Executive Director Lynn Brittner and her staff have created a first-rate educational and cultural experience for visitors to the museum.
The museum was designed by Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw), one of the primary architects of the NMAI’s museum in Washington, D.C. He worked with tribal members young and old in creating a beautiful design that reflects the cultural values of the Southern Ute people. In addition to the permanent gallery, the museum has a gallery for temporary exhibitions, a large multi-purpose room, a library and archives area, outdoor areas, and a very good gift shop.
The beautiful new 52,000-square-foot facility celebrates the living heritage of Native people who have lived in the area for thousands of years. (Photo by Scott DW Smith, courtesy of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum)
Although the Southern Ute Indian Tribe provided the capital funds for development of the museum, the museum is a 501(c) (3) organization and aspires to self-sufficiency through admissions fees, grants, and charitable gifts. The museum is governed by a board of directors led by members of the tribe. I purchased a museum membership, and I hope others will as well.
I am always moved when I visit tribal museums. Whether large or small, new or old, they can achieve a level of authenticity to which museums like the NMAI can only aspire. The stories of Native people have most often been told by others. Native communities have had to fight hard to have their narratives accepted and presented in educational and cultural institutions. Those narratives are presented most effectively, always, by the tribal people themselves. That is why a primary component of the NMAI’s work is in support of these tribal institutions. I am always pleased to see tribal artifacts in the hands of the tribes that created them. It feels like those objects, instilled with the spirits of the artists who created them, are at last home.
I thank Tribal Chairwoman Pearl E. Casias and the Tribal Council of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe for their hospitality and congratulate them on their achievement. To learn more about the tribe, please visit http://www.southern-ute.nsn.us. For information about the Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center, go to http://www.succm.org/. And if you want to visit the Southern Ute Reservation, you’ll want to stay at the Sky Ute Resort. Make reservations at http://skyutecasino.com.
Here is a link to the Southern Ute travel story that recently appeared in our Summer 2011 issue of American Indian magazine: http://www.jonesandjones.com/news/publications_pdf/Southernutesu11.pdf
Another travel story from National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/13/136931185/colorado-tribe-puts-cultural-riches-on-display