An exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture explores Apache history.
An exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture tackles Apache history.
SANTA FE, NM
For many years, Apaches—and many Native American tribes for that matter—have been associated with war and pillaging. At Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans, a new exhibition at Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, visitors will find nary a tomahawk on view; one can however, expect to discover intricate woven baskets, ceremonial robes and well-loved dolls. On opening night, curator and MIAC’S education director Joyce Begay-foss introduced herself as a member of the Navajo Nation, and said she had a deep curiosity about other tribes; it makes sense then that she found herself at the helm of a show as thought-provoking as Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans. Begay-foss acknowledged the word “Athabaskan” is one most of us are largely unfamiliar with. Athabaskan is something of an umbrella category that includes over 50 dialects, which, though unique, share characteristics stylistically and conceptually. Athabaskan languages are spoken by indigenous people in Oregon, Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, among other areas, but this exhibition focuses primarily on more regional, Southwestern tribes. By exploring these connections, the Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans acts not only as a visual display but also as an educational, anthropological endeavor.
“The most interesting part of this exhibition,” says Begay-foss, “was working with different tribal consultants from Jicarilla, San Carlos and Mescalero. They told me information that I would never have learned even by doing research on certain objects or tribal communities.” Many items on view have never been publicly shown. Particularly striking were a pair of what looked like large, open-sided cloth moccasins. These were horse hoof coverings, which would obscure the clip-clopping giveaway of a stolen horse, muffling tracks and sounds so the theft would go undetected. “The show came about because I was concerned about the lack of information in schools or textbook material
about the Apachean groups,” explains Begay-foss. “In academic and historical documents the Apachean history is portrayed in a very negative context. Most visitors and school groups that come to the museum know maybe a few Pueblos, Navajo and very few know about the Apaches. “
The show is oriented around artifacts, or what Begay-foss calls “material culture” from the 19th century, during a period when the Apache tribe was largely nomadic, hunting and foraging in the harsh environs of the Southwest. Instead of organizing artifacts according to tribe association, Begay-foss grouped things together based on what they were used for and by type. With sensitivity and elegance, Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans deftly demonstrates its subjects’ deep relationship with the natural world. Large-scale, black-and-white photographs serve as dramatic backdrops for a range of objects, from small purses to arrows. Alongside ceremonial attire, elaborately decorated mantels and heavily beaded
leggings are more poignant artifacts, like well-loved dolls and an especially tiny pair of green-beaded moccasins.
Homes were ingeniously designed to be portable or else entirely disposable. Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache used animal hides to make teepees, while the Chiricahua instead constructed tree branch and mud huts called wickiups. Homes were built by women, a somewhat surprising division of labor between the sexes, until you learn that Apache tribes have largely matrilineal family structures—women were hugely important to the weft and weave of the tribe’s dayto-day life. One of the most beguiling aspects of the show was the detail and ornament applied to things we might consider everyday—such as a brightly colored, meticulously beaded knife sheath. Patterning on a man’s work shirt incorporated esoteric symbols: loosely depicted stars and moons and swirled, astral-like forms.
“As the curator,” Begay-foss notes, “I wanted to portray the Apachean groups based on their material culture and call attention to their language and lifeways. I am glad to have been given this opportunity to curate the exhibition, and I hope visitors come away with a better understanding of Apachean peoples.” It’s no small feat to put on a show of this scale and duration; for Begay-foss, the most challenging aspect “comes down to funding and also the type of objects that are in our collections. It also takes a team effort from the other departments within the museum system to come together and make exhibitions happen.”
1. Chiricahua Apache quiver, ca. 1886, brain tanned leather, glass seed beads and flannel wool cloth.
Gift of Mr. Grover B. Minser 44379/12. Photo by Addison Doty. Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
2. Mescalero Apache moccasins, ca. 1860-1900, buckskin, beads, yellow ochre. Courtesy of John and Linda Comstock and the Abigail Van Vleck Charitable Trust 1705/12. Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
3. Dana B. Chase (1848-ca. 1920), Apache runner, New Mexico, ca. 1884-92. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 110506.
6. Mescalero Apache Burden Basket, ca. late 19th or early 20th century, willow and tin tinklers. Courtesy of John and Linda Comstock and the Abigail Van Vleck Charitable Trust 23255/12. Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
5. Jicarilla Apache women’s cape, ca. late 19th or early 20th century, deerskin, bone beads, brass bells, glass seed bead, ochre dye and sinew. Gift of Helen Blumenschein 7461/12. Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
4. Carl Werntz (1874-1944), White River Apache woman dressing young girl’s hair, Arizona. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archive (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 037417.