The Ecomuseum Preserves and Teaches an Artful Way of Life


PUBLISHED: Stokrocki, M. (1996). "The ecomuseum preserves an artful way of life." Art Education, 49(4), 35-43.


What is an Ecomuseum?

Usually one thinks of a museum as a storehouse of art things, a temple of goods; and culture in a box. A new museum concept has emerged, however, that the building itself is only a meeting place and the entire environment or community is the ecomuseum. The ecomuseum is a place of integral relationships -- one of organisms living in harmony with their past, present, and future environment. This community learning center mediates transitions in a culture at a time of rapid change (328). Its mission is to protect human dignity and to link generations.

The concept evolved in Europe, where local people turned abandoned factories into thriving museums. In France, Georges Henri Riviere emphasized the importance of place though interdisciplinary collaboration. In 1974, the International Council of Museums defined a museum as "an institution in the service of society and its development." On the French-German border in the Saar region lies absolete coal mines and factories. In the 1980s, the staff of La Maison des Cultures Frontieres began interviewing people door to door in their kitchens. The personnel solicited life stories about the economic decline of the area and its political effects on their lives. Area people began to uncover historical photographs and brought them to the museum for videotaping. La Maison now serves as a documentation center: archival, audiovisual, theatrical, and genealogical. These attempts led to street-theater productions based on the local people's lives. In Holland, the Dutch similarly converted their old textile mills into living, teaching experiences (Ligvoet, 1978, personal correspondence).

In response to the public auctioning of a private collection of objects in Quebec, thirteen small villages cooperatively purchased them and initiated a dialogue on their care and identity in their culture museum, called the Ecomusee de Haute-Beauce" (p. 330). Such museums need not be stationed in one place, but can be postioned in several areas. The role of the ecomuseum is to instigate problem-solving in the community.

In the United States, the Smithsonian created the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum [Washington, D.C.] to respond to the needs of the Afro-American community.


The Ak-Chin Community Ecomuseum

The focus of this article, however, is on a Native American site. In the northern edge of the Sonoran desert about 40 miles south of Phoenix, lies a third example on Ak-Chin Indian Community. The Reservation is one of the smallest with 600 people. These people have cultivated this area for thousands of years. They regard everything -- the people, the land, the buildings (a tribal office, police, fire station, and an elderly center), and the farms in the region as part of their museum. This museum is a living one -- an ecomuseum. The museum consists of some 372,000 acres (Gila River Indian Community Profile). This was the first ecomuseum in the United States (Interview with Charles Carlyle, tribal member and first museum coordinator, 1992).


Agricultural Demographics

Since the entire reservation is the ecomuseum, knowledge and apreciation of its lifeline operations are important. The agriculture of such crops as cotton, wheat, pecans, alfalfa, barley and other vegetables is their main economic life. The community also owns and operates its own chemical fetilizer, cotton gin, and grain storage facilities. The community is proud of its Amerind Agrotech Laboritories, a research facility responsible for the development of under-utilized plants and promoting their value in the marketplace. Such crops as guayule (rubber), tepary beans, and other edible grains are currently being commercialed. Devil's claw, a reed, is used in Pima basket weaving. Recently, however, the reservation is a high growth area due to the new gambling casino and urban sprawl of Phoenix.


A Brief History of the People and their Occupation

The people are a mixture of Pima and Tohono O'oodham tribes whose background was crop growing. Hisotrically, to protect themselves from Apache raiders, the joined forces and intermarried to form a new group called Ak-Chin -- people at the mouth of the wash. [When a river overflows its banks, a wash is formed.] So the ak-chin translates as a place where water spreads out as well as an irrigation technique. In this method, the people grew plants in the depressions formed by the forecful water.

In the 1970's, the Tribe found that technology, economic development, and the pan-Indian movement began to affect them. The Ak-Chin formed their own enterprise in 1961, received water settlement rights to the Colorado River, and began to develop new lands. Ak-Chin Farms Enterprize (1962), specializes in growing wheat and cotton, manages the agricultural activities and led to the fight to get the Water Settlement Act passed. This act guarantees 75,000 acres of water each year beginning in January. Farms cultivate 17,000 acres of crops and the water comes from Central Arizona Project, which manages the water (From a table of one of the photos in the exhibit). The tribe aims to become economically and socially self-sufficient (From the official Him-Dak flyer, 1995).

This meant that any artifacts, discovered from archaelogical excavations had to be stored in a suitable place with a curator. The museum's first director Charles Carlyle explained that tribal members wanted to use the artifacts as teaching tools and the museum itself as a meeting center. He explained that the tribe found some 700 boxes of artifacts from local digs. They discovered 300 pit houses, daily living utensils --over over 700 boxes worth, and 21 Indian, human skeletal remains (p. 338). In 1986, the Tribe opened the Him-Dak, a restoration place and archive.


The Architecture of the Him-Dak

The Pima/Maricopa Indians, who prefer to call themselves by their ancient name of Ak-Chin, operate the Him Dak or gathering place at the center of their reservation. The Him-Dak building or gathering place was built in 1991 primarily as a place to store the tribal artifacts, library, The Tribal newspaper, hold tribal meetings, and socialize. Designed by ASU Professor Kristine Woolsey, the building incorporates Ak-Chin symbols. The multipurpose facility has a large space for glass display cases, folding dividers with changing exhibits, and hanging paintings. This multipurpose room can be converted into a meeting room with large ceremonial doors that open to the outside. Separate areas house a classroom, administration offices, library, an oral history or storyteller room, side rooms for managing the newspaper and photo room, and climate-controlled, preparation and storage rooms for cataloguing and study of artifacts. The building has moving walls and panels, huge steel doors to extend an exhibit outside, and a roof to stage celebrations (Smith, 1992).

The architect invited tribal members to design the decorative panels so that they could have a sense of ownership. The flute-player [Kokopelli] and man-in-the maze are some of the popular symbols incorporated into the panels (Figure__). Others symbols represent the Ak-Chin community and are used on their seal; for example, the arrow (Native Americans), scales (equality and justics, rising sun (for a brighter tomorrow), and lightning (for inspiration and energy to uphold community ideal) [Seal design by W. Carlyle and drawn by S. Smith].

Collaboration, however, occured at all stages, from the training of clients, the brainstorming of ideas, visiting other other Indian museums, choosing and purchasing materials. Mimicking their traditional houses, the structure basically has two rooms, one mud brick side for storage and a shade structure with four posts for living. A painting by Joseph Smith, a 40 year-old, self taught, tribal artist who lives on the reservation, documents the Ak-Chin way of living--their mud storage huts, covered ramada, a man wrapping a feathered arrow, a woman grinding corn in a stone metate, a person carrying water on his head, and childen playing a form of "foot" ball in the distance,

Outside is a small stream with a bridge that visitors cross to enter the gathering place. A desert and a vegetable garden with a ramada for shade are situated to the right. This Garden Project features such native plants as yucca, palo verde trees, and ironwood for thatched roofs. In this garden, the staff grows squash, watermelon, and tepary beans (Figure ).


Functions of the Him-Dak

Besides storing and studying artifacts in their archives, the Him-Dak promotes cultural identity, education, and dialogue between the generations and other tribes. Carlyle explained that the entire reservation is an exhibit--the mountains in the distance, the farmlands, and all the local trees (Figure ). The gathering place iself shows the socio-cultural evolution of the people.

Another Him-Dak function is photographing artifacts and communal events. After the Smithsonian heard about this exciting musem, the Smithsonian sent a photographer to train the Ak-Chin staff in archival photography. The Tribal newspaper which operates here, features local stories; such as The Spiritual Run for Peace and Dignity that commemorates 500 years of strength and survival (Ak-Chin Oodham Runner, Sept, 1992).

A third function is documenting oral history of the local people. On display were photographs of the "Elders in the Community," an oral history project grant obtained through the division of parks and recreation. Elaine Peters, the new Director, pointed to photographs of her godmother and uncle (Figure ) (Personal Interview with Elaine Peters, 2/3/95).


Educational Activities

Teaching, however, is a major function. At the higher education level, six people started part-time to consult with different responsibilities and created a unique staff development model with educational institutions, government agencies, arts organizations, and the museum/archive profession. At the nearby Central Arizona Community College, some people studied museum education; others, records management; one studied archaelogy, and another, history in a flexible and non-traditional Associates of Arts degree that still allows them to work full time. Their programs incorporate individual and tribal goals, state certification mandates, professional standards, and the contemporary theory and practice of adult education. Some of the staff memebers are pursuing advanced degrees.

The staff's responsibilities are to identify, collect, and preserve to run public programs, reserach, produce exhbitions, and document programs. The community educational program is a combination of apprenticeships, field experiences, classrom skill building, site visits, and personal growth opeortunities (Handout on Museum/Archive Technician Education Program, 1995).


Cultural Exhibitions:

A tour upon request is arranged for visitors, in this case by Elain Peters, but the staff insists that they don't cater to the public. The docent explains some of the displayed artifacts: stone jewelry, spindle wheels, a blown awl, carved animal bones, water jars, and old pots with water designs. One showcase entirely consisted of butterfly and man-in the-maze designed baskets by Tille Carlyle. Raw cats claw and yucca fibers for basket weaving are also included. Another display featured photographs of saguaro cactus wine-making. Elaine Peters demonstrated how a wooden cross-shaped pole is used to harvest the fruit of the Saguaro, used in the June wine making ritual (Figure ___). Other displays featured items from the community, donated by the post master general, including a quilt made from shoulder pads.


Educational Assessment

In order to assess the impact of their program, the staff encourages children to complete a questionnire (pre-post test). Sample questions include: Name one item made of shell, what does pisaltakud mean (balance)?, What is archeology the study of? How old is the Hohokam water jar? Who painted the Apache ceremonial figure on the quilt display? and What material is used for the black design on the basket display (devils claw), Some of the educational art activities include a handout for children to "Draw a picture to represent:" 1) your family, 2) your tribe, 3) your tribe, and 4) why you are proud to be an Indian. The worksheet takes the form of a circular shield with three dangling arrows (Figure ).


Cultural Exchange Programs

The museum has a cultural exchange program with the Inuit people in _____ (where)? and one with Mexico City and Baha? One showcase featured Inuit tribal boots, instruments, and _______for comparison.


Other Programs

The staff provide other services to the community: a Head Start Program in the mornings, a language class, a storytelling and reading program, a summer photo course for high school students, and a basketry class.


The Basketry Tradition

Originally the Ak-Chin used baskets for storage and currently make them for decorative purposes. Although no basketry examples remain, the tradition survives with several local people. The Ecomuseum also sponsors a six-week basketry class, taught by Sally Antone, who lives in tribal housing with her husband and children. Sally demonstrates basket weaving to visitors in the Spring. During one hour-long visit, she explained how to start the coiled basket with a box stitch. She shredded a yucca reed with her teeth and wrapped it around a coiled bear grass. She identified the various straws: bear grass is the green one, wild banana root is the red, and devil's claw is the brown. She used an awl to poke the reed through the tight coil (Figure ). Later, she used a hammer to flatten the shape.

She explained, "I use different shades of yucca for this star design. I picked the yellow green yucca when it was fresh and when it dries out, it gets this mustard color." The star-shaped design (Figure ) "just happened and my designs have no particular meaning," (Personal interview, 2/27/95). Other examples of traditional basketry symbols are the chain spiral, the turtle, and the saguaro harvesting pole in the painting by a local artist (Figure ___).

Sally attended a public grade school in Maricopa and later attended St. John's Boarding School in Lavine. She learned beading techniques from Leona Zastrow at the school. Later she attended junior collage and the Academy of Fashion in California with hopes of becoming a seamstress (King, 1992). She related how she began her training:

I used to watch my mother and grandmother make baskets, but I didn't start

until after high school...when I had kids. Both of my daughters know how to

do it, but have no time now. She makes baskets to perpetuate traditional skills

but not for economic reasons (Antone, Personal interview, 2/27/95).


Changing Traditions -- Painting

Traditions, like culture, is dynamic -- not static. Cultures borrow and influence each other, enriching their experiences (Highwater, 1981). They are meant to boost one to new ideas and ways. Her eldest son attended the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe. His acrylic painting hangs in the Him-dak to teach visitors about tribal ways. A painting by Dwayne Antone entitled "Man in the Maze," symbolically represents the life of all the Sonoran (Papago, Ak Chin, Tohono Oodham) peoples. In the painting are saguaro cacti, the barren desert, assorted grasses, and mountains and colds in the distance (Figure ). Elaine related, "The man-in-the-maze symbol demonstrates the people's choices in determining the paths leading to our dreams and ultimate goals." Dwayne wishes that the museum whould show some of his more contemporary paintings, according to his mother.


Relations with Local Art Teacher

In the past, Ak-chin students attended boarding schools based on teacher direction. Now students attend public school. Some of the negative attitudes of earlier schooling and dated skills hinders education. High school art teacher Cecilia Schall, who has been teaching at the local Maricopa High School for 18 years, was thrilled to hear of the new museum showing and explaining its Ak-Chin pottery pieces for students to appreciate (October 12, 1992). She felt that is was a wonderful place to paint with all the local plants and the mountains in the distance.

She related some of the problems teaching art to Ak-Chin students in the beginning. When she first offered pottery classes, she asked students to bring in and share local pottery examples. They refused to do this because it was a local and secret tradition. Later, she discovered that students didn't know much about their pottery tradition, but she decided to teach it differently. Most of her students then only knew of the "K-Mart "type of crafts and pottery and preferred to recreate them. In harmony with the school's voactional emphasis, she taught pottery as career awareness; for example, in one of her worksheets, entitled "What do you need to study to become a craftsman?" she listed: 1) craft technique - how to use media and tools to make crafts, 2) craft history - what kinds of crafts have been done in the past? Who were the craftsmen? 3) aesthetics - What do crafts mean? Why do people do them? 4) criticism - how to judge a crafts work to tell if it is good or not?; and 5) careers in crafts - What art jobs are available in the working world today?

She also spoke of her involvement with the Smithsonian photographer who came to teach tribal members about photography for museum purposes. Since the Him-Dak then had no photo lab, they used the one at The Maricopa High School. Mrs. Schall also offered a college-level photography course for students to work on the yearbook. She hopes that this fine-art training may help the Him-Dak as well. Unfortunately, she can't offer photography anymore because it's too expensive.

With a Masters Degree in Adult Education, her art teaching is more interdisciplary now and she accepted an additional responsibility teaching the Humanities Academic Decathelon, which featured the theme of "biogenics" this part year (Personal Interview, 2/27/95).


Religious Arts

Many of the Ak-Chin people are Catholic. Nearby, St. Francis Church, that was built in 1920's by the Franciscans who brought the ironwood trees. Elaine mentioned that traveling Jesuit priests now serve Sunday Mass. Inside is a large room with windows to the right and left, a ceiling of painted cactus ribs, a main altar table, a side altar, and two large frescos (Figure ___). The Fresco of St. Francis of Assisi is peeling from behind the adobe wall. Around the fresoces are wainscot patterns, painted directly on the wall. The ceiling is made of painted cactus ribs. The statues are from Mexico. Katari is a Mohawk patron saint we honor. We sing and pray in our own language (mishmah?). It means "going to church or the table." Each year, St. Francis and Mary Magdelana are honored with feasts and a festival for the Day of the Dead in October.


The New Gambling Casino

The new gambling casino featured stained glass windows [one example is a woman making pottery in Figure __] and large wall murals on tribal life in the dessert. Many tribal members regard the new Harrah Casino as economically promising. They now have a partnership with the casino and many local tribal members work there. The Ak-Chin hope to become self-sufficient in five years. Some people think that this establishment is degrading; some find that it does't represent the Tribe; others ignore it.


The Effects and Future of the Ecomuseum on the Ak-Chin

Several Ak-Chin people in the past felt isolated and torn between their two tribes of origin. Bart Smith, a printmaker who lives off the reservation, commented that the museum connects him to the land and he hopes to move back (King, 1992). Artist Mary Gray enjoyed living in this peaceful place that is about an hour drive far to the University. She planned to open a gallery on the reservation. For the local teachers, such as art teacher, Cecilia Schall, it opened new teaching resources.



1. A special thank you to Elaine Peters, Director of the Him-Dak, Suzanne Antone, local weaver, and Celicia Schall, local art teacher. If you would like more information on the ecomuseum, write to Elaine Peters, Director; Ak-Chin Him-Dak; P.O. Box 897; Maricopa, AZ 85239

2. Another example operates at Zuni Pueblo in which the building itself is the tribal archives and preserves the Zuni heritage at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center not far from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here Zuni students construct their own exhibition on Zuni history and tend the traditional waffle-pattern garden so as to perpetuate the horticulture heritage alive. The museum functions "as a mediator between the pueblo and outside tourists... to see its historic multi-storied adobe center and mission church with its wall paintings of Zuni ceremonial figures, and life work of Zuni artist Alex Seowtewa" (Garfield, 1993, p. 39).



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Ak-Chino Indian Community. (Sept, 1992). Ak-Chin Oodham Runner VI (16), p. 1.

Fuller, N. (1994). The museum as a vehicle for community empowerment: The Ak-Chin Indian community ecomuseum project. In (I. Karp, Ed.). Museums and communities: The politics of public culture (p. 327-365). Washington,D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Garfield, D. (1993). Mesas and Muses. Museum News, 72 (6), 28-61.

Gila River Indian Community Profile. (1995). Phoenix, AZ: Arizona Department of Commerce.

Smith, J. (1992, Aug. 24). EcoMuseum encompasses Ak-Chin way of life. ASU Insight, 13 (8), p. 1 & p. 5.