November 08, 2013

Exploring the Education Learning Center at the Museum in New York

By Cody Harjo

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York presents weekly family-friendly programs and annual events such as the Children’s Day Festival in May and the Day of the Dead Celebration in October. Yet, we understand the timing of your visit might not coincide with scheduled programs. There are still plenty of opportunities for visitors with children to enjoy unique, self-guided learning experiences.  

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Object cases in the Education Learning Center at the National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

The Education Learning Center, commonly referred to as the Tipi Room, is located on the first floor of the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan. Indeed there is a tipi in the room, along with animal hides, and objects for study in the glass cases. It is a hands-on learning environment that recreates elements of 19th-century American Indian material culture from the Plains and Plateau regions.

EdBlogTipi“Is this real,” is one the questions we hear most often. The answer is, “Yes! Everything in the room is real.” Many times when people ask, “Is this real?” they are really wondering if an object is a historical item. Regarding the tipi, a more accurate response is, “Yes, it is a modern tipi with a canvas cover. The historical tipi covers were made from buffalo hides.” The tipi liner is also made of canvas and painted by award-winning ledger artist Tom Haukaas (Lakota). The tipi is an excellent example of cultures’ adapting modern materials for the continuation of traditional practices. All items are recent acquisitions, proof that many people still practice their traditional arts!


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Above, from top to bottom: Hands-on objects in the Education Learning Center at the museum in New York include a modern tipi with tipi liner painted by Tom Haukaas (Lakota); buffalo hide; deer hide in rawhide form.

The Education Learning Center also contains a buffalo hide and a stretched deer hide in rawhide form. Both hides are part of the museum’s handling collection. Feel free to touch them! A looped video explains the hide tanning process.

After you watch the video, compare and contrast the thickness of the buffalo hide to that of the deer hide. Buffalo hides are thicker and harder to cut, and thus were not typically used to make clothing. Hides such as deer and elk are more suitable for clothing. Uses for buffalo hides include ornamental robes, bedding, and tipi covers. As demonstrated in the video, rawhide is the form in which the hide exists before it is softened. Rawhide is used to produce many items, such as drums and parfleches.

The Tipi Room is also an excellent place to introduce the concept of culture associated with regions, as tipis are very specific to certain Great Plains cultures, such as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Sioux. The idea of organizing the study of cultures by region is illustrated by the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations, located off the Rotunda on the second floor. Continue to this gallery to study historical objects made from the two types of hides examined in the Education Learning Center.


Ed BlogComanchemocsAbove: Lakota box-and-border robe. Probably South Dakota, ca. 1865. Deer hide, glass beads; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (11/1739). Right: Comanche leggings & moccasins. Oklahoma, ca. 1890. Deer hide, ochre, glass beads, horsehair, feathers, silk, beads, metal cones, pigment. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/1506 & 2/1833). On view at the museum in New York in the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

These are just two examples of museum objects made from buffalo and deer hide. Study the gallery labels to discover the many uses of buffalo, deer, and other types of hides. It is amazing to see how craftsmanship and artistry can transform hide into objects of beauty and function.

Depending on which museum entrance you use, you might immediately find the Tipi Room. It is easily visible from first-floor entrance. The monumental staircase and portico lead to the second-floor entrance. From there you can  proceed to the first floor via elevator or stairs. Enjoy your visit! 

All photos by Cody Harjo, NMAI.

Cody Harjo (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Otoe, and Creek) served as a cultural interpreter at the National Museum of the American in New York from 2008 to 2013. She is a fall 2013 graduate of the New School’s M.A. program in Media Studies.


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I'm yet to visit this museum but definitely intend to do so.

I have friends who have - they say its a fantastic experience for kids.

September 27, 2013

Not the “Last of the Miamis”

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A Myaamia student compares two photos of Kiilhsoohkwa and her son Waapimaankwa at Eewansaapita Summer Educational Experience, 2013. Miami, Oklahoma. Photo by Daryl Baldwin (Miami Tribe of Oklahoma); used with permission.

As part of the Museum’s National Education Initiative, the Partnership and Extension Services team had the pleasure of working with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The Miami—or Myaamia in their language,meaning Downstream People—are originally from the Great Lakes area. Today, Myaamia families are found throughout the United States and are working diligently to revitalize their language and culture through annual educational gatherings and cultural events, and to bring the geographically disparate communities together through the use of technology. One of the most significant annual events is the week-long Eewansaapita(Sunrise) Summer Educational Experience, held in Miami, Oklahoma, where Myaamia youth (ages 10 to 16) participate in cultural experiences. This June, the National Museum of the American Indian was able to bring some of the museum’s Myaamia tribal collections to people at Eewansaapita virtually through the use of simple videoconferencing technology. Despite a thousand miles of physical separation, the sense of the students’ pride in their culture was palpable.

For this year’s theme, mihtohseeniwinki ašiihkionki (living on the land), the Myaamia explored and strengthened their relationship with plants that have been important in their culture, reaffirming those relationships and learning from elders and senior counselors. Cultural and educational activities such as hiking through prairie and wooded areas were grounded in the use of myaamiaataweenki (the Miami language) to reaffirm their Myaamia culture and identity and strengthen community bonds.

During one hike, students learned to identify the pahkohkwaniši (elm tree), handled the bark, and drew the striation of dark and light bark in art journals. Then they recorded their observations in myaamiaataweenki. During my two days at Eewansaapita, many youth proudly shared their personal Myaamia names with me, which were beautiful to hear; those became some of the most memorable moments of our time together. Interestingly, I learned that many Myaamia names refer to trees and plants, an example of the abiding relationship that Myaamia have with the land, which is eloquently carried on through the language.

To build upon their learning experiences, Myaamia Eewansaapita educators collaborated with the NMAI to identify objects in the museum’s collections that connected to the camp’s theme and could be shared with students. On June 26 Myaamia youth explored selected historical objects with the NMAI’s Associate Director for Scholarship, Dr. David Penney. Myaamia youth, along with tribal leaders and other community members, gathered in a classroom to share with Dr. Penney what they had learned of their maple sugaring tradition. In preparation, the students had read, for example, the passage that describes sugaring in the primary source A Mission to the Indians. From the Indian Committee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, to Fort Wayne, in 1804. Then the students posed questions they had formulated from carefully examining a maple sugaring sap bucket made from elm bark in the museum’s collection. 

Myaamia (Miami) sap bucket, ca. 1890–1910. Indiana. Elm bark; 22.6 x 0.8 x 20.5 cm. Collected by Mark Raymond Harrington during 1910 fieldwork. Formerly owned by Kiilhsoohkwa (Kil-so-quah) or her son Waapimaankwa (Anthony Revarre). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/8053)

This bucket, which was also pictured in one of the two historical photographs from the museum’s archives that the students discussed during the videoconference, was tangible evidence that the Myaamia had indeed shared a rich sugaring tradition on their homelands along the Wabash River and in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area. Guided gently by cultural knowledge bearers, students learned that their ancestors were more interested in making blocks of sugar than maple syrup, which was hard to store before glass containers became cheap and widely available.

Some of the most profound learning moments during the videoconference occurred when the students discussed their observations about the historical photograph titled The Last of the Miamis 1810–1910 Kil-so-quah and son (see sidebar). The students posed questions of Dr. Penney that related to cultural and historical inaccuracies they saw in the staged photograph. For instance, a tipi is shown in the background rather than the traditional Miami home, a wiikiami. Other inconsistencies, such as the title, drew considerable laughs from the room when someone pointed out that 40 Miami people sitting together in a classroom, using a smart board, with a live videoconference to Washington, D.C., were direct evidence that Kiilhsoohkwa was not the last of the Miamis!

Dr. Penney used stories and anecdotes to explain that, in the early 1900s, Native people often dressed up in ways that supported other people’s expectations of what “real Indians” should look like, exemplified by the long wig and Plains-style headdress worn by Kiilhsoohkwa’s son Waapimaankwa. During the adolescent years, young adults invariably explore their identity and stereotypes, trying to reconcile popular ideas of what they “should” look like as contemporary American Indians and their daily experiences that may not fit into people’s expectations. 

The Last of the Miamis 1810–1910 Kil-so-quah, 1910. Indiana. Photograph by L. M. Huffman. In this image, Kiilhsoohkwa and her son Waapimaankwa are photographed wearing clothing typical to Myaamia people in 1910, such as his store-bought coat and boots. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P00532)

Both historical photographs were taken in 1910 by L. M. Huffman, who had a studio in Laud, Indiana, and who became well known (according to NMAI’s catalog card) for his photographs of Kiilhsoohkwa and her family members. Kiilhsoohkwa herself was certainly better known than Huffman inside her own community. She was an important midwife in Indiana and carried plant knowledge related to childbirth and labor. In fact some of the youth at the videoconference were related to her, and one counselor explained that his great-grandmother had been delivered by Kiilhsoohkwa, who also gave the baby her Myaamia name after the delivery. 

The Last of the Miamis 1810–1910 Kil-so-quah and son, 1910. Indiana. Photograph by L. M. Huffman. In this staged scene, Waapimaankwa’s leggings and moccasins, with their eye-dazzling ribbonwork, are beautiful examples of Myaamia artistry. Myaamia traditional clothing was probably incorporated into the photograph because it looked “exotic,” especially paired with a long wig and Plains-style headdress used to meet people’s expectations of what an “authentic Indian” should look like in the early 1900s. The display of traditional cooking methods and tools (such as the maple sap bucket at her feet) and Waapimaankwaa’s far-reaching gaze add to romantic ideas of the “vanishing” Indian that were popular at the turn of the 20th century. These features, coupled with the title The Last of the Miamis all reinforce stereotypes of the time. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P00532)

A conversation between Native youth and museum staff about items in the museum’s collection is an engaging way for knowledge of Myaamia history, language, and culture to be practiced and internalized by a younger generation and for the museum to add to its own store of knowledge. Additionally, with a continued focus in America’s classrooms on 21st-century skill building, young people benefit from developing critical thinking skills and using technology in educational formats. The NMAI is proud to have been able to support the Myaamia in nurturing their culture, and honored to have this opportunity to share information, especially given that museums are still resented by some Native communities for the unethical collecting practices of the 19th and 20th centuries.

By using dialogue, listening, respect, and practicing the Myaamia term neepwaantiinki—learning from each other—the National Museum of the American Indian and Native communities can continue to find ways to ensure that cultural objects are seen by youth, and that the stories they contain are preserved.

—Renée Gokey, NMAI

Renée Gokey (Eastern Shawnee/Sac and Fox/Miami) is the student services coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian and is working in the Partnership & Extension Services Group for the National Education Initiative.


To read more about the Myaamia, visit: 

myaamiaki aancihsaaciki: A Cultural Exploration of the Myaamia Removal Route

kiiloona myaamiaki: The Sovereign Miami Tribe of Oklahoma

Aacimotaatiiyankwi | A Miami Community History and Ecology Blog


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July 08, 2013

Native Youth Address Polices that Affect Their Lives

By Patrick Watson  

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Mentor Rebecca Rae introduces Latrell Davis, Tenika Davis, Gabrielle Lucero, Kiley Taptto. The students presented their group research on housing assistance and recommended that the use of traditional building materials, community involvement in planning, and housing assistance for everyone who needs it be incorporated into housing programs.

On Monday, June 24, the National Museum of the American Indian welcomed a group of students from the Summer Policy Academy II, a program of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute. SPA II gives students the opportunity to travel to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to research and write policy papers on issues that affect their Native communities. Students are admitted into the program based on nomination by leaders in their communities. At the end of the program, the students travel to Washington, D.C., to present their research and recommendations to their congressional delegates. This year, they made a stop at NMAI to share their work with some of the museum’s staff.

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Trishana Garcia gives an opening prayer.

The students began with brief, individual presentations in which they explained their core values and what is special to them about their communities. The students chose forms ranging from short essays to poems to pieces of visual art. The common themes in these reflections demonstrated the students’ love for their culture, traditions, families, and homes. With the tone set, four groups of students presented their findings on the four areas of focus selected for this year’s program: health issues, the urbanization of Native communities, the protection of sacred sites, and education for Native students.

The students in the group on health issues were Latrell Davis (Zuni Pueblo), Tenika Toya (Jemez/ San Felipe Pueblo), Gabrielle Lucero (Isleta Pueblo), and Kiley Taptto (San Felipe/ Santa Ana Pueblo), assisted by mentor Rebecca Rae (Jicarilla Apache). The group began by highlighting some of the historic factors that have contributed to the decline in health among their communities, such as the loss of practices through which Pueblo people provided their own sustenance and the introduction of, and resulting dependency upon, nutritionally inferior government rations. The group also addressed government sequestration, explaining that even slight cuts in the Indian Health Service’s funding would significantly set back the health of the Pueblo people. Specifically, they requested that the proposed 5 percent cut in IHS spending be reduced to no more than 1 percent. The group made it clear that the programs dedicated to improving well-being in their communities are vital to the mental, physical, and spiritual health of the Pueblo people. 

Students Jacob Shije (Santa Clara Pueblo), Honey Garcia (Santa Ana Pueblo), Trishana Garcia (Santo Domingo Pueblo), Desiree Quintana (Santo Domingo Pueblo), and staff mentor Christie Abeyta (Santa Clara/Santo Domingo Pueblo) addressed the urbanization of Native communities. Drawing from their own, varied experiences, the group pointed out that the environment of traditional pueblos is conducive to the sense of community that is so vital to Pueblo culture, while government funded, subdivision-style housing creates isolation within the community and is detrimental to Pueblo traditions and core values.

Jacob said exactly how they want to address the issue: “We’re asking for the consideration of changes that would include flexibility for the use of traditional materials and involvement in planning to minimize impacts on cultural and social aspects of Pueblo life.” The group cited the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 as an example of a program that would help the housing situation in their communities. They touched on some issues that are applicable beyond the context of Native communities as well, such as the need for housing assistance for all families with inadequate housing, rather than just those that fall within a certain, low-income bracket, and the need for varied designs and sizes to accommodate families with different sizes and circumstances. Community-oriented housing is important so that the Pueblo people may continue, as Jacob put it, to “maintain [their] living history.”

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Pretty Water Duran, Kaitlyn Coyazo, Teran Villa present their research on the protection of land, natural resources, and sacred sites. Their group recommended revisions to existing laws to further protect sacred sites.

The issues surrounding sacred sites and their protection in the face of industrialization and development were tackled by students Teran Villa (Jemez Pueblo), Pretty Water Duran (Pojoaque Pueblo), and Kaitlyn Coyazo (San Felipe Pueblo), along with mentor Veronique Richardson (Laguna Pueblo). The group explained that sacred sites remain important to the Pueblo people’s way of life. As Kaitlyn said in introducing the issue, “Our ancestors fought to protect their religion and sacred sites. We are here to carry on their legacy.” One of the biggest issues in protecting sacred sites is that the sites themselves can range from a particular point to a collection of sites to an entire landscape.

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Teran Villa speaks on some of the things he loves about his community and some that he hopes to change to keep his community strong.
Teran appealed to the importance of the National Historic Preservation Act as a framework that could be applied to “protect the places where our medicine men go to receive natural remedies and provide guidance to our ways of life.” He added that Provision 106 of the act “provides notification and consultation upon potential harm of our sacred sites, but it does not prevent the harm to our sacred sites.” Pretty Water referenced the Supreme Court decision in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, in which “the United States Supreme Court did not agree with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” Pretty Water also added some personal context: “A sacred site to me is a kiva. A kiva is just like a cathedral, a place where we, as Natives, go and pray and do our ceremonies. Without a kiva, we would lose our language, culture, tradition, and our core values. Even if part of the kiva was destroyed, that is enough to destroy our religious practices.” Teran summed up the group’s recommendations on how to deal with the issue: “It is vital for us Native Americans that the government revisits and amends the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by incorporating the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act that will enforce restrictions and consequences upon harm of our sacred sites.” 

Focusing on educational issues were Autumn Billie (Navajo/Taos and Acoma Pueblo), LaVonna Gachupin (Zia Pueblo), and Eric Jenkins (San Felipe and Santo Domingo Pueblo), along with mentor Preston Sanchez (Navajo and Jemez Pueblo). The group broke the educational issues facing Native students into three categories: access to higher education, transitioning into higher education, and lack of Native history, culture, and language in education. On the subject of transitioning into higher education, Eric stressed the significance of programs like SPA that offer students the opportunity to do serious work on culturally important issues. He said, “SPA gives us the privilege to use our cultural core values to learn about policy.”

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Autumn Billie, assisted by LaVonna Gapuchin, speaks on her transition into womanhood and reads a poem about her family.
On the lack of Native historical and cultural focus, Autumn said, “It’s good to look upon these past 100 years and to think about how we can gain knowledge from history to build stronger communities for future generations.” Addressing the educational barriers that have developed, the group mentioned existing efforts to improve education for Native students, such as the Building upon Unique Indian Learning and Development Act and the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act. Additionally, they proposed their own measure, Building Capacity and Retention to Increase Native American Faculty, which would involve mentorship programs in universities to promote faculty and teaching careers for Native students.

LaVonna shared a personal anecdote about a teacher who suspected she was lying when she needed time to attend to some tribal responsibilities. She said, “[The teacher] came to my house, and she wanted to see if I was actually fulfilling my tribal obligations, and she was shocked that I wasn’t lying.” Having just completed her first year at the University of New Mexico, Autumn said of her experience, “I did not have a single Native American professor,” and that is an apt example of what the group sees as one of the biggest issues with education for Native students.

These students have put in time researching and thinking about the issues that affect their Native communities, but their involvement is much deeper than that. These students do so much more than think about these issues, because they are living them. These are not theoretical matters. They are the realities that American Indians face every day, and it is inspiring to see the commitment to a better reality that drives these students. 

All photos by Maria E. Renteria, NMAI

Patrick Watson is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. He is pursuing a BA in Plan II Honors and English from the University of Texas at Austin and expects to graduate May 2015.

Maria Esmeralda Renteria is an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. She is pursuing an MA in Museum Studies from the San Francisco State University and received her BA in both Latin American Studies and Spanish at UCLA.

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This seems like a wonderful opportunity for those students. I think more people should take pride and ownership of what happens in their communities and the changes they can affect.

I think more people should take pride and ownership of what happens in their communities and the changes they can affect.

I am really inspired by the way of assignments given to students , Its not usual theoretical and conventional assignment where students can copy , and you find 90% of assignments have same answer. Its much more related to their lives , that's why students involvement was much higher.

Meenakshi Garg

Lucky students who avail this opportunity. Thanks for sharing the information.

June 19, 2013

Written In Rock: Reflections on Our Time in New Mexico


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Written in Rock, a conservation and cultural exchange project, has brought together people from Azerbaijan; Hopi and the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Santo Domingo ; and the Smithsonian. Abo, New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

By John Fryar

I am an enrolled tribal member of the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico and a retired criminal investigator. For many years I’ve specialized in and dedicated myself to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites, Native American burials and human remains, items of cultural patrimony, and other artifacts left by our ancestors.

Earlier this spring a group of people from Azerbaijan made their first trip to the United States to visit the Pueblo communities of New Mexico, which like their own communities, have a unique relationship with the ancient rock carvings of their country. These lasting footprints of our ancestors are better known among conservationists as petroglyphs. The Azerbaijani participants in Written in Rock included Elvin Abdullayev, Diana Farajova, Humay Mammadzada, Namil Mammadov, Nurana Shahbazova, and Novruz Pashayev. Here they met with their counterparts Ann Brierty of Laguna, Lorraine Caté of Santo Domingo, Lee Francis of Laguna, Harold Joseph of Hopi, Jonathan Sims of Acoma, and me. In addition meeting in New Mexico were Malahat Farajova, director, and Rehman Abdullayev, staff member, of the Gobustan National Preserve, Azerbaijan; Larry Loendorf and Laurie White, of the non-profit organization Sacred Sites; and Claire Eckert, of the Smithsonian's Office of Policy and Analysis, and Carolyn McClellan, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 

The focus of the Written in Rock program is to bring people together in a cultural exchange program geared towards the protection and preservation of petroglyphs (rock art). As with the Pueblo participants’ trip to Azerbaijan in October 2012, this week was a whirlwind of activity.

Our first meeting was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where Marth Becktell, museum director, gave us a brief overview of the cultural center, the museum, and the exhibits. We were provided with a tour of the exhibit 100 years of State and Federal Policy: The Impact on Pueblo Nations. The tour was led by Written in Rock Pueblo participants Lee Francis and Jonathan Simms who were involved with the creation of the exhibit, and Lorraine Caté, who was recently hired as an educational coordinator at the cultural center. The exhibit was a wonderful learning experience for everyone, and the in-depth commentary and knowledge of the Pueblo guides regarding the displays was powerful. It created a greater understanding of how government policies have impacted and shaped the Pueblo world today.

We had another brief tour of the exhibit A:shiwi A:wan Ulohnanne: The Zuni World, a Zuni Map Art Exhibition, which features a Zuni map-painting that depicts the Colorado Plateau as a cultural and sacred landscape. The exhibit is intended to open the mind to a world where all things are living. We finished our visit with a tour of the permanent exhibit titled, Our Land, Our Culture, Our Story, which provides a brief historical overview of the Pueblo world, along with a contemporary exhibit of original artwork and craftsmanship from each of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. We had experienced a similar exhibit at the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum, where we were shown examples of weaving techniques and materials from various older time periods and the newer contemporary patterns exhibited in Azerbaijani rugs and carpets.

We concluded the day with a trip to the Petroglyph National Monument, which is located within Albuquerque's city limits and illustrates the impact that an urban environment can have upon a cultural landscape. We discussed the delicate balance of trying to preserve and protect these ancient markings and sacred areas from the encroachment of today’s urban dwellers. Sometimes the attention paid to an area, such as the Petroglyph Monument, has unintended consequences, such as being loved too much by overuse. This is in stark contrast to the petroglyphs we saw at Gobustan, which aren't threatened by the encroachment of urban sprawl (yet).

The following day would find us experiencing places such as Gran Quivira and Abo, research sites within the Salinas National Monument. We were provided a tour of Gran Quivira where we learned of the Spanish Colonial quest for dominance over the original inhabitants of the area. Today the Spanish mission still stands tall over the rubble mounds of the original pueblo. At Abo, we experienced rock paintings that for many members of the group were very spiritual. The majority of these drawings and paintings were associated with salt. Unbeknownst to most members of the group prior to viewing the paintings, there are areas a relatively short distance away where salt was traditionally gathered. Unfortunately, these salt lakes are now located on private land and are inaccessible for gathering salt. In Azerbaijan we had also learned of salt gathering and trade routes. In 2010 archaeologists published research showing that the Duzdagi salt deposits, located in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, hold the oldest known salt mine in the world. Intensive salt production was carried out at this site at least as early as 3500 B.C. 

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Listening to a guide at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our trip to Acoma was surely a cultural experience for our Azerbaijan guests. Here we visited Acoma Pueblo, purported to be the oldest continually inhabited village in the United States. (Of course our Hopi brother would respectfully disagree. <Smile.>) Acoma is located in west central New Mexico on a mesa 365 feet above the valley floor. The name Acoma is from the Acoma and Spanish word acoma, or acú, which means "the place that always was" or "People of the White Rock."

In 1598, during the Spanish conquest of what is now the southwestern United States, Juan de Oñate took revenge on Acoma for the killing of his nephew and 11 of his men. Oñate burned most of the village and killed more than 600 people and imprisoned approximately 500 others. The prisoners were forced into slavery, and men over 25 years old had their right foot amputated. Today holes in the cemetery wall on the south side can still be seen. These holes were placed in the wall for the Acoma slaves who were taken south into what is now Mexico and did not return.

While at Acoma we were treated by the family of Jonathan Simms to a traditional Pueblo feast. This consisted in part of roast lamb, lamb stew, roast squash, squash stew, homemade tamales, red and green chilis, oven bread, and Indian tea. Interestingly, the meal was somewhat similar to the meal we were provided when we visited the sheep herders’ camp in Azerbaijan. Both were such treats! It was great to see our Azerbaijan brothers and sisters enjoying chili from the Southwest. During this meal our Azerbaijan guests provided everyone with a sampling of dried fruits and nuts in an arrangement of candles and newly planted grass. They had brought these gifts to share with us as a celebration of Novruz, the Azerbaijan spring holiday that takes place in March of each year. This was a true blending of cultures by the sharing of food and traditions from different parts of the world. 

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Hiking the Tsankawi in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our last day in the field found us at Tsankawi, part of the Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. We walked trails that were cut and worn deep into the rock by their continued use from ancient times. We climbed wooden ladders to the top of the mesa, where we could stand and witness the beauty of the surrounding area and cultural landscape. We watched as the pollen from the juniper trees would “pop” in the breeze, making it appear like a puff of smoke rising from the valley floor. We watched as the crows and a hawk watched us from above. This was a spiritual place to many within the group.


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"Graduation Day" for participants of the conservation and cultural exchange project Written in Rock. Photo by John Fryar.

Our hike on the loop trail through the Ancestral Pueblo site provided an opportunity for our Azerbaijan guests to see what a plaza looks like in ruins. The previous day we had been able to show them a plaza at Acoma still in use today. They could visualize what Tsankawi might have looked like had the buildings still been standing at this ancient place. We were able to show them many examples of pottery shards and pieces of broken arrowheads and stone tools that were still on site. They were able to witness sacred areas and participate in prayers and the offering of corn meal at this place. We also witnessed the many examples of rock writings, some telling of migration, some of settlement, and some of spirituality. For many of us, the day could have all been spent at this place.

As in Azerbaijan, we had an opportunity to make a presentation as a group. This time it was at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Pueblo participant Lorraine Caté, who is also student at the school, made the arrangements for the presentation. We had a warm reception from students and staff, and the presentation provided our Azerbaijan colleagues an opportunity to showcase their country and Pueblo participants a chance to reflect on the Written in Rock program.

We ended the week with a wonderful presentation by Nancy Olson, a rock art specialist, who had recorded petroglyphs over much of Pajarito Mesa, in the area where Tsankawi is located. Over many years she has compiled drawings and documentation that will benefit researchers for years to come.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the future and what we wish to accomplish with the knowledge we all gained from the Written in Rock project. All participants greatly benefited from the program because of this knowledge, the cultural aspects of the project, and our greater understanding of the similarities and differences of our respective cultures. 

Written in Rock is a partnership of the Gobustan Preserve, the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, and the National Museum of the American Indian, and is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums. 

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What a great project. Native diplomacy at its best.

This is a bold project. Nice!

June 13, 2013

Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

In the Diné way of life, we share our Navajo name only with medicine in times of ceremony.

Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, with the Navajo flag and seal. Photo by Erny Zah, Navajo Nation; used with permission.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

I am the elected leader of the largest Indian tribal nation in the United States. Our nation is 27,000 square miles, and we have about 320,000 tribal citizens.

My role is to lead our people and guide our government to become more efficient and focused on fulfilling the needs of the Navajo people.

Government is an ever-evolving entity that can always be bettered. I hope that in my time, I have made improvements so the next generation of leaders can guide our government to become even more efficient. We must always keep in mind our children and grandchildren. Much of what we do today will be what they will benefit from, or what they have to overcome. We must be wise with all our decisions. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?

I have had many different experiences from childhood through becoming president. My grandmother cared for me when I was a child. When I became an adult, I worked in Chicago and eventually came back to my hometown of Thoreau, New Mexico, where I owned an auto repair shop.

I started running for office after my business lost its contract with the Navajo Nation. I started as a county commissioner for McKinley County and would serve 16 years as a Navajo Council delegate. Six years ago, I was asked to serve as vice president and four years later, I was the first sitting vice president to be elected president of the Navajo Nation.

My experience in life and in government has served me with the knowledge to serve the needs of our Navajo people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

When it comes to being a leader, I look at the past chiefs, chairmen, and presidents as inspiration.

Our earliest leaders kept future generations in mind as they negotiated treaties. As our government evolved, each set of leaders had their own ideas, but all had the future in mind.

We can’t lose focus on what is important to us as Navajo people. Our language, our culture, our traditions all make us distinct from every other tribe in the world. Our leaders before me understood that, and I hope the future generations will embrace their Diné teachings.

Where is the Navajo Nation located?

The capital of our nation is Window Rock, Arizona. Our nation spans through Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Where was your nation originally from?

In our traditional stories, we emerged from the third underworld to this world near Dzithlnaodithle, New Mexico. We entered this new world from the third world by rainbow.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

In 2002, the Navajo Nation adopted the Fundamental Laws of the Diné, which formally placed our unwritten Navajo law into Navajo codes. Though the Fundamental Laws can be vague at times, they remind our government of our traditional laws and societal practices.

We also have medicine men associations who will offer advice regarding traditional views of contemporary issues.

What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?

The Navajo Nation is a treaty tribe. The Treaty of 1868 established our reservation and released the Navajo people from captivity in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Our people cried tears of joy upon their return to Dinetah, and here we continue to flourish as a tribal nation.

Approximately how many members are in your nation?

According to our Vital Statistics Office, we have about 320,000 members and about 175,000 live on the Navajo Nation.

What are the criteria to become a member?

Our citizenship is distinguished by blood quantum. A person has to be at least one-quarter Navajo descent to be enrolled as a Navajo citizen.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

We have many communities that still speak our language, though the percentages of fluent speakers have decreased over the years. Nonetheless, about 30 to 40 percent of households speak Navajo fluently. We are actively teaching the Navajo language in classes from preschool through college.

What economic enterprises does your nation own?

We have a few enterprises. We have our Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, which is charged with oil and gas development on the Navajo Nation. We have Navajo Arts and Craft, which helps market and sell our Navajo crafts. We have the Navajo Times, our tribal newspaper.

Our newest possible enterprise, Navajo Transitional Energy Company, is working to acquire a coalmine that is on the Navajo Nation. The acquisition would open many opportunities for the Navajo Nation and put the Navajo Nation in a global market for coal.

What annual events does your nation sponsor?

We have several events that our tribal offices sponsor throughout the year. We have our Navajo Nation Fair in September; we average about 15,000 attendees per day during the five-day fair. And we have a Fourth of July Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in Window Rock.

We also have smaller events and fairs that communities sponsor, including the Northern Agency Navajo Fair. Although it has been recognized as a fair for 103 years, the Northern Agency Navajo Fair has served as a gateway for harvest-time trading and the beginning of the season for one of our most sacred ceremonies—the Ye’ii Bi Cheii Ceremony.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Navajo Nation has been blessed with some of the most scenic lands in the world. Our nation encompasses the most eastern gorges of the Grand Canyon. We have Antelope Canyon Tribal Park, which has some of the most incredible natural sandstone colors anywhere in the world.

We also have Canyon de Chelly, a U.S. National Monument. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, including Navajo families who still use the canyon floors for livestock and crops.

Then we have Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which is our most famous tribal park and has visitors from around the world. Countless westerns have used the backdrop of the park to set majestic, wide-open scenes. And most recently movies like The Lone Ranger and Transformers 4 have filmed scenes at the tribal park.

How is your government set up?

The Navajo Nation has a three-branch government similar to that of the United States. I serve as the president of the Navajo Nation, our legislative branch has 24 council delegates, and our Navajo Nation Supreme Court has a three-member body. We also have local governments called chapters. Each chapter has officers the local voters elect every four years.

How often are national elected leaders chosen?

The Navajo people vote for the president and council delegates every four years.

How often does your national council meet?

The Navajo Nation Council meets at least four times a year, every three months. They may also call special sessions to deal with pertinent issues. We have standing committees that meet throughout the year as well.

How does the Navajo Nation deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?

We are fortunate to have a large land base and a large population. That has set the tone for negotiations, meetings, and agreements with county, state, and federal agencies, including other tribal nations. We understand that we have a government-to-government relationship with other governments, and we meet with them accordingly.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your nation?

To our youth, don’t forget who you are and where you came from. Being Navajo is the gift that the Holy Ones has given us. The Holy People gave us the teachings to live in our surroundings. The mountains, bodies of water, and places throughout our homeland have their own names, songs, and prayers, and those prayers and songs serve as the unrelenting strength of our people. We can’t ever forget who we are. 


Other interviews in this series: 
Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) 
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation 

Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman 


Title banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.  

Comments (3)

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The Navajo Nation is not the largest tribe in the United States. Per, U.S. Census 2010, the Cherokee Nation has the largest enrollment. The Navajo Nation has the largest land-base of any tribal nation, but they are no longer the 'largest tribe.' It is important that we share the facts, especially if one is as esteemed as the NMAI. Thank you.


As so often with statistics, the question of the largest tribe depends on interpretation. The U.S. Census published a brief titled "The American Indian and Alaska
Native Population: 2010"; the table on page 17 ("brief" doesn't mean "short" here) shows 286,731 respondents describing themselves solely as Navajo, 332,129 as Navajo plus at least one other racial, ethnic, or national identity, Native and/or non-Native. The same figures for Cherokees are 284,247 (less than the Navajo) and 819,105 (far more). Enrollment is a third yardstick, and it isn't the term President Shelly used.

Here's the link to the census report:

To the greatest extent possible, the museum wants to publish these interviews in each leader's own words. But we very much welcome your comment and the light it sheds on the complexities of nationality.

so how many native tribes are there in the US of A and what makes them work somehow in perfect or near perfect harmony that make US the powerful Nation and what should my fellow Africans learn from this?