Reimagined exhibit showcases the lasting legacy of Southwestern Indigenous art

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Native Americans have long called the Southwest home. Yet the true significance of their rich history and culture has often been overlooked. Now, the updated permanent exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe features historic and contemporary Indigenous artwork.

“Here, Now, and Always” is the museum’s newest reimagined exhibit dedicated to giving Native Americans control over their own stories.

In a preview this week, curator Tony Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo, who focused on cycle themes in the exhibit, said that when the museum’s main exhibit opened in 1997 , she was one of the first in the region to incorporate Indigenous perspectives. This new iteration continues that mission.

“[We want] to give a voice to the indigenous peoples of the Southwest and essentially offer a new perspective, a new era,” Chavarria said. “It is therefore important to give this voice to this growing generation. Native people don’t want to be stuck in time like the 1880s.”

Diné weaver Kevin Aspaas talks about his strong connection to his culture through his love for his community and his determination to continue the practices in a video by Charine Gonzales in the new exhibit.

“I’m a weaver and a fiber artist,” Aspaas said in the video. “I started weaving when I was 10, it was mainly to continue a legacy that my maternal grandmother passed on. And since then being involved in my community, both in Shiprock and in the communities around, learning from different elders and master weavers and shepherds. And then little by little, I think as I got older, I started to realize that it’s so much more than an inheritance. It’s the way of life.

Chavarria said the Conservatives work to represent the entire Southwest.

“We tried to include all of the tribes in New Mexico, as well as those around us, as well as those in Arizona and even parts of northern Mexico.”

Diane Bird from Santo Domingo Pueblo organized the themes of survival and resilience. She said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, donated the turquoise ceremonial dress she wore when she was sworn in in 2021. Haaland was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.

“So she knows how to get her hands dirty,” Bird said. “So it’s like anyone who’s willing to do that. I respect them. And I really admire them and the path they’ve come.”

Among Bird’s favorite plays are those by Tonita Peña of the Cochiti and San Ildefonso pueblos and Allan Houser who was a Chiricahua Apache. Both attended Santa Fe Indian Residential School.

“I’d be hard pressed to say which one I prefer because to me they’re both great not because of the artists who paint them but because of the subject matter they contain.”

Peña’s “Green Corn Dance” is a 1940s painting showing Cochiti men and women dancing traditionally. This is significant given that the US government sought to suppress Native American practices just 10 years before this piece was made.

Houser’s “Ghan Dancers” was made in 1934 and depicts five Chiricahua Apache dancers against a black background with hooded masks, painted crowns, and wands. The Ghan dance is meant to be a ceremony of healing and renewal to protect Apaches from disease and their enemies.

“The Apaches always have that as vibrant people to keep their communities alive,” Bird said. “Pueblo people, we still have that for our dances, whether it’s winter or summer, and we carry it on, and it hasn’t gone away.”

Chavarria hopes this opportunity will give Native American artists the space to share their history and stories and give others a better understanding.

“I hope visitors when they come here will get a sense of the Indigenous culture here in the South West which has incredibly deep roots. But it’s also still very vibrant and alive today, and their work and their cultures are important and complex.”

“Here, Now and Always” opens July 2, 2022 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.

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