Heard Museum

Anyone who has been married for a long time, as my husband and I have been, knows that marriage is about compromise. One of the best ways we personally shine in doing that is when we travel, where we try to trade off on doing something that is of interest to each of us. 

We found ourselves in Phoenix, Arizona one October. We braved the heat and attended the Central Avenue Car Show which put my husband into a very good mood, making him agreeable to my choice of the Heard Museum (museums are not usually his first choice). There was also the added bonus of the museum being an air-conditioned venue – temperatures can range in the 30 to 40 Celsius range, even in October.

The Heard Museum was founded in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Heard. The couple had moved to Phoenix from Chicago in 1895 and went on to become very wealthy from ranching and real estate. They also became avid collectors of Native American art, as well as artifacts created by Indigenous peoples around the world.

Since its founding, the museum has become one of the foremost showcases of Native American art and culture in the United States. It has also been recognized internationally for the quality of its collections, educational programs and festivals. Their annual Hoop Dance Contest attracts competitors from all over North America.

The main focus is on the cultures of the tribes in the southwest region of the United States which are presented through exhibits, demonstrations and live performances. This focus is showcased in one of the Heard’s signature exhibits, “Home: Native People in the Southwest” which tells the stories of Native people in their own words. This amazing collection spans thousands of years, moving from prehistoric times to modern day. I was struck by the very visible transformation of items from those used for everyday purposes, to those sold strictly for tourist consumption. With accompanying tales of how various items were used and how they fit into daily life or ceremonial events, the sense of history and cultural richness is almost overwhelming. Two of the highlights of the exhibit for me were a full-sized Navajo Hogan and the 500 Hopi katsina dolls.

Katsina Dolls

There are two galleries where the works on display are rotated. One gallery is a huge, open space for art works and the second for smaller pieces of arts and crafts. When we were there, the large gallery was given over to the work of one artist, with his pieces ranging in size from small 12-inch square paintings to a self-portrait that was 20-feet tall. Currently, the gallery is hosting an exhibition of contemporary North American Indigenous art titled “Larger than Memory”.

The smaller gallery housed another of the temporary exhibits “Stories Outside the Lines: American Indian Ledger Art”. During the 19th century when Native peoples were being herded into reservations or imprisoned, the traditional materials of animal hides and pigments that they had used to record events became unavailable. In this time period, bookkeeping by settlers was done in paper ledger books using pencils. Government agents and soldiers would give the leftovers of these materials to Natives who used them to record their former lives, such as buffalo hunts and ceremonies.

What struck me was both the fragility and the strength of the pieces. Fragile because these were bits of paper that otherwise would have been trash but were saved by the Natives. The strength was in the deep desire to continue their artistic traditions with this different medium. Amazingly, the tradition has continued through the years as contemporary artists now create stories and scenes inspired by these artists from long ago.

Leaving these galleries, as you wander through the museum, you’ll come across a courtyard where the original museum structure is visible. The hacienda-style building was incorporated into the expansions of the Heard but this courtyard remains an idyllic oasis.

On the second floor is the museum’s other signature exhibit, “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories”. This exhibit documents an often unknown and ugly period of American history.

Awat from home
PHOTOGRAPH BY Shondiin Silversmith/The Republic

In the 19th century, the U.S. government aimed to assimilate Natives into “civilized” society by placing them in boarding schools. These schools were originally started by Christian missionaries, usually on reservations in the west but the government began paying religious orders to operate the schools all over the country where the children were taught trades skills.

Children were forcefully immersed in European-American culture by removing any Indigenous cultural elements, including having their real names replaced with European names and being forbidden to speak their languages. But the first and most traumatic step in this process was forcing the children to have their hair cut into American styles. One of the first things you see as you enter the exhibit is a barber’s chair, with its base surrounded by hair. Behind the chair is a quote from one of the surviving children,

"The next day, the torture began. The first thing they did was cut our hair…While we were bathing our breechclouts were taken, and we were ordered to put on trousers. We’d lost our hair and we’d lost our clothes; with the two, we’d lost our identity as Indians."

Barber's chair
PHOTOGRAPH BY Dream Digital Photography

This tableau struck me speechless. The rest of the exhibit kept me that way. As a Canadian, I had heard about residential schools but I admit to not knowing a lot about them other than they had been places of abuse. Here I learned that children were forcefully taken away from their families by soldiers or government agents, some never so see their families again. This was a very disquieting exhibit to view but I found the whole experience to be so profoundly moving. I came back to Canada determined to learn more about the history of our own country’s Indigenous peoples.

We spent the entire morning at the Heard Museum, and came away impressed by the art and culture, as well as having learned many new things. If you have any questions about the exhibits or need guidance, the docents on duty are more than happy to assist you.

If your knowledge of Indigenous people is only what you have gathered from movies, this museum will truly open your eyes and mind.

Things to know before you go:

Location: The museum is located at 2301 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix AZ. The building is accessible, with elevators available to second floor and ramps in the gallery areas.

To get there: Travelling around Phoenix is best done by car. Parking at the museum is free and plentiful.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm

Admission prices: Adult $20

Seniors $17

Children 6-17 $9

Children under 5 Free

The Heard Museum takes part in the Free First Friday program, offering free admission every month except March, and Native Americans are always admitted for free.

Food and drink: Available in the Courtyard Café, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 2 pm. Featuring salads, sandwiches and entrees, many of which feature American Indian and locally sourced all-natural ingredients. $$-$$$

The Coffee Cantina features grab-and-go lunches, snacks or drinks for take-away or dining on the museum patio. $$

Gift shop: The Heard Museum Shop is as impressive as the museum itself. Keep in mind that the jewellery, baskets and textile items have been handmade and are priced accordingly. Not looking to spend a lot? There are great books on Native history and culture, including for children. Or maybe take home a jar of prickly pear jam!

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Julia Cossitt

Julia Cossitt is retired from the Canada Border Services Agency. She lives in St. Catharines ON with her long-suffering husband and four cats. A life-long resident of the Niagara Region, she enjoys exploring not only local history but the history of wherever she may travel to.