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Les nouvelles aires culturelles des minorités en paroles : entretiens amérindiens

Interview with Harry Walters, Navajo, Director of the Diné College Museum, Tsaile, AZ, USA, October 29, 2000

Entretien avec Harry Walters, Navajo, directeur, Diné Community College Museum, Tsaile, AZ, États-Unis
Gérard Selbach
p. 85-90

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1Harry Walters was appointed as the museum director and only curator on the opening of the Diné College, Diné meaning “Navajo” in Navajo language. The college was founded in 1973 and is one of a series of 33 community colleges on Native American reservations.

Gérard Selbach (GS): Essentially I am doing research on the reasons why Native Americans have been opening museums, “tribal museums” as they are sometimes called, and on whether Native curators have implemented a specific museology in tune with their beliefs and rites.

Harry Walters (HW): It is true that the idea of a museum is quite new to us. It has never been in our culture and the word does not exist in any of the Indian languages. To my mind, there are different types of Indian museums in the United States depending on who runs the museums. For example, you have Indian museums run by non-Indians, like the Smithsonian museums, or Indian museums run by Indians for Indians, and they are not going very well, like everything else in the country, like education or businesses, because, if you want to know, we are at war with the government. We are a conquered nation, similar to Japan during and after World War Two. They have now acquired some form of freedom. For us it is just like that. The relationship with the government was done to protect Indians from landswindlers. It is still in force and it has worked against us. This college has always had funding problems for the past 27 years. If it were outside the reservation, it would be funded by the State. Local taxes do not exist. We get some funding from the Federal government and different administrations. During the Reagan administration, funding was lowered. The money that we get comes from the land resources: oil, gas and coal. But the price has been low lately. We are allocated between one and two million dollars. As a result, all programs suffered from that. We can refer to the Navajo Nation, but we have a limited sovereignty. The Navajo Council makes laws and now talks of taxes. We do not pay State tax but Federal tax. Consequently the museum does not get any money from the State Arts Council. But we are eligible for Federal aid from the NEA, NEH or IMLS. However the competition is very high. We had some little money once, but we have no local money, no money from tours or groups. So we are not going too well.

GS: What is the mission of your museum?

HW:  We are part of the college, the Center for the Diné or Navajo people. It is an instruction center, teaching Navajo language, culture and history. It is also a teacher-training center in language for the Navajo Nation. It is the only one that Arizona and New Mexico recognize.

GS: Do you have a collection of your own?

HW: The museum has its own collection made up of pottery, baskets, tools, photographs and medicine bundles. It’s a small collection. We have travelling exhibitions from the Smithsonian, but they are hard to fund, and we have no security system, it’s one of the requirements before they loan their collection. That works against us.

GS: Why have so many tribes opened museums?

HW:  It is true that, although it is not part of Indian cultures and languages, various tribes have opened museums. There are several reasons for that. Most tribes thought museums would generate funding. But the reality is first that they haven’t and second that, when there is a little money, the museum is the last one to get any. Instruction is the priority. When there is a shortage of money, people say: “Why do we have a museum? Do we need one?”

GS: How do you plead the cause of your museum?

HW:  One good reason for the existence of the museum is that what is preserved in the museum, like ceremony paraphernalia and records of ceremonies, is still used and practiced. And people do not realize that, but one day that is going to be gone. Perhaps in fifty years, it’s tomorrow. What will our children use? A basket? But you can buy a cheap one in the trading post. Yes, but is it the same? We have yet to realize that, for most Indian tribes, our culture is a living culture. People live, experience and practice this culture on a daily basis. However some don’t. This museum should be a special place to teach this.

GS: How do you resolve the issue of conservation?

HW: The idea of preservation and methodology for preserving are seen as contradictory, a sacrilege to the tradition. This is another issue we have to confront, you are right. Some objects are sacred like the medicine bundles. We cannot exhibit them. They are kept in storage and slowly deteriorate. But the culture is changing. New ideas, new technologies are being accepted. Twenty-seven years ago, when we started collecting, there were lots of objections to collecting medicine bundles, to preserving them without proper knowledge. “It was a disservice”, they said. But some people working here were rejecting that: “Medicine bundles are used in prayers, in ceremonies”. But I don’t hear that very often now.

It is Western thinking that considers separation between religion and science. We don’t have that. It is holistic. We have the sky, the sun, the stars in relation to the earth. There is an interrelation, the way the sun travels across the sky and it introduces changes. The stars tell the time and affect the environment and bring the seasons. And we have the moon. And all creatures live these changes, the cycle. The movement of the astronomical bodies affects what happens on the earth. For the Navajo culture, there is a law of energy that exists. All living things ascribe to that. Navajo ceremonies are related to that. Everything on earth is affected by that. We are part of that order, which is perfect. Our bodies, the sun, the stars are internal organs of the sky, just like the canyons and rivers, lakes are the internal organs of the earth. When it rains, we say that they mate. Our bodies are replicates of that order. When we are ill, we have ceremonies to restore that order. There were Holy Creatures that lived here that created the sky and the earth. When they left they gave us songs, chants, prayers. Follow the protocol and you will heal. Respect the order. That’s “Hózhó.”

GS: How are your culture, traditions and beliefs transferred into the way you exhibit artifacts? Do you implement a specific museology?

HW: We follow the laws of conventional museum practices in exhibits, care of collections. But we also follow our traditions. We don’t exhibit religious paraphernalia, and, of course, we do not have any burial objects or human remains. We have very strict policies. Medicine bundles have powers of healing when used by a qualified medicine man in ceremonies. If we tamper with them, you can be affected negatively. They can release negative powers. You need certain knowledge to be indoctrinated in the ceremonies. We never let our students touch our paraphernalia collection. We have several medicine men that teach them and we have at times ceremonies for the faculty and bring them out.

GS: Has NAGPRA improved the lot of tribal museums?

HW: After the Repatriation Act was voted in 1990, there was a hot issue: “What is sacred? Who can decide? Who has control over the conservation?” It was decided it would be the Navajo Nation and its representatives. Our museum would become a research museum with archives, films and tapes. In 1966, President Johnson had a program called “The Great Society” to get people out of poverty in Southern States. We benefited from it. This college was started then and the Navajo people had a program to build Navajo cultural centers. Peter McDonald was its director. They took a lot of Navajo stories on tapes. So we now have thousands of tapes that are very valuable for instruction.

GS: I have noticed that the museum has the shape of a hogan. Why the choice of design?

HW: The hogan is to represent the universe. It is a living quarter. Ceremonies are done here. We don’t have a separate building for religious purposes. When there is no ceremony, you can walk wherever you want. Before we open an exhibition, we consult the medicine man to know if we do not infringe any sacred rule. Ceremonies bring order and coherence between the earth and the sky. The body replicates that. The left side of the body is male; it represents the sky. The right side is female and represents the earth. And both work together. Ceremonies are called upon to help both sides to work together. When there are illnesses, it is because we transgress against this order. There are many ceremonies for each illness: hearing, headache, etc.. There are some for other blessings: for good fortune, for education, for graduation or birthday. The museum is part of the college, so its mission is educative. Because of who we are, our very being, our physical makeup, our behavior, our attitude to life, it is all part of the culture, it is a specific way of bringing-up a child, it is our language. Now, many of our students do not speak the language, do not know much about our culture. They often come from a society that looks differently at the world, that reflects on who you are and on your behavior differently. If we can teach them the basics of the knowledge, then they will know who they are, where they come from, and they will be proud. They will be better persons. My son is an engineer and he asked me one day: “Who is right? What they teach me at school or what my grandfather taught me?” I answered: “Both are right. Our traditions teach the soul and education teaches you skills that bring bread on your table.” This is the way we see it. There are not two different entities. We integrate them. There is no conflict. At the beginning of the history of our reservation, the Federal government tried to stop our culture. It saw it as an obstacle and tried to lead us to the American mainstream. But it did not work. They made us believe that tradition is the enemy of progress. But now we realize we have been misled. They go well together. We are two people in one. When we have a problem to solve, we turn to the medicine man.

GS: So, this is what you teach your students on this campus.

HW: Yes, and the campus is organized in the Navajo hogan manner. The opening is in the East where dawn is, the light and you have to be up at sunrise. The cafeteria is in the center, it is the fire place in the hogan. On the South side, the classrooms where knowledge is transmitted, where you have computers, tools, farming tools and others. People sleep on the West side. On the North side, we have the medicine bundles to protect us. The ceremonies take place there. It is usually vacant, so students play there and we have the gymnasium.

GS: The museum follows the same plan, it seems.

HW: That’s right. The design of the museum is the same. You enter the gallery from the East. You have small workshops for painting and weaving on the South side, displays on the West side and classrooms for teaching Navajo culture and history on the North side.

At present we have an exhibition of photographs of the 1960s. The sixties were a timeline: it was the last “traditional period”: women were still wearing the traditional Navajo dresses, people would still use horse-drawn wagons and live in hogans without electricity and running water. Life changed dramatically afterwards.

We also have a traditional Navajo rug. It is very important in our culture and spirituality. According to our beliefs, the Spiderwoman taught the Navajos how to weave. Weaving connects Father Sky and Mother Earth and comes from the various elements recognizable in the designs and colors used: rain, rainbow, mist, dawn, night. The spiders know how to use their powers. Nature is perfect, so when you weave, you never weave perfectly so as not to replicate the perfectness of nature. You make a mistake intentionally. There is always a loose thread at corners to suggest continuity, there is no end. Weaving is the only art where designs and colors are at discretion. Weaving has feeling and sensitivity like when you approach a person. If you don’t have that, you are blocked, then you need a blessing to start again.

And on the walls are a dozen sandpaintings lent to us by the Smithsonian. There the designs and colors are preordained, you can’t change them. Every design is a symbol. By looking at them you can say what ceremony they come from. In the old days ceremonies lasted nine nights or days. And now it is only 6 nights or days, sometimes less, down to one day or two. Medicine men or women used to learn sixty designs, sometimes more, now only six. They learned 500 songs or chants, now only a dozen. Education has changed… Everything has changed…

Anyway our main problem is, and has always been, money. It affects us very much. We have gradually been downsized from six to one floor, and the rest of the building has been turned into classrooms. We have to accept that.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Harry Walters, Navajo, Director of the Diné College Museum, Tsaile, AZ, USA, October 29, 2000 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 85-90.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Harry Walters, Navajo, Director of the Diné College Museum, Tsaile, AZ, USA, October 29, 2000 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gérard Selbach

Dr. (Paris V, France)
Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <>

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