An Afternoon at the Tohono O’odham Museum

You can reach Himdag Ki: Hekihu, Hemu, Im B I-Ha’ap (the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum) after a 90-minute drive from Tucson and a slow rumble down a bumpy lane. The museum is a red-roofed, circular structure that sits behind heavy iron gates underneath the shade of mesquite trees. Built in 2007 with direct input from the Tohono O’odham community, the museum is a testament to the community’s enduring presence here in the Sonoran Desert. With no admission fee, you can immerse yourself in exhibits that illustrate how the Tohono O’odham are preserving their past, celebrating their present, and moving their cultural heritage into the future.  

Upon entering, you are greeted by display cases holding clay figures and woven baskets that highlight a recurring theme: “History is preserved in the objects we make.” This phrase appears on one of the entryway’s displays, and objects play a central role in how Himdag Ki introduces visitors to Tohono O’odham culture. As products of patience and a dedication to perfection, the intricately woven baskets inscribed with intricate patterns represent balance, harmony, and a connection to the earth. While baskets are used nowadays more for decoration and as a source of income for local artists, the display shows how the baskets once played a significant role in the everyday life of Tohono O’odham, from carrying food and water to roasting coffee beans and cleaning vegetables.

Beyond the basket display, you can continue walking along an airy, sunlit corridor with tall, windows that look out on to a wide outdoor patio area and surrounding gardens full of desert plants and trees. This corridor features two exhibits on either side of the hallway: The Kaleidoscope (a collection of colorful animal mosaics created by local children) and Our Veterans. Contrasted with Kaleidoscope’s vibrant colors are the black and white photos, uniforms, documents, and military medals of Our Veterans, which documents Tohono O’odham military service from WWI to the Iraq War. The Tohono O’odham have experienced conflicts with Spanish invaders, the Mexican and U.S governments, and Apache warriors, and the installation explains how military service is a way for Tohono O’odham to protect their lands and culture.

 A memorable display is that of Ella Narcho Rumley, who served in the Women’s Army Corps in WWII. It holds a dance shawl she embroidered with her military credentials that hangs above a black and white photo of her—an elegant woman with perfectly coiffed hair and a sly smile. You can easily imagine her performing with the shawl in a stunning fusion of Tohono O’odham culture and military traditions.

The corridor’s tall windows look on to a reading room and an artifact preservation laboratory. The reading room is a perfect place to spend an afternoon perusing archival documents—letters, magazines, books, and brochures—related to Tohono O’odham history and culture. The artifact preservation lab viewing area has a window where visitors can look on as experts care for the cultural artifacts that were loaned to the museum through its stewardship program. According to collections curator Joy Farley, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation can loan precious artifacts to Himdag Ki’s stewardship program for up to five years to ensure their items are preserved with care.

 As you head back towards the entryway, you can enter the main gallery with displays on government, language, culture, farming, and land. Farley explains that this circular exhibit area is inspired by a cross-section of the man in the maze symbol, and it offers in-depth information about the establishment of the Tohono O’odham government, its language preservation efforts, and the many ways Tohono O’odham maintained connections to the land through seasonal migratory patterns, and hunting and farming practices.

Before leaving the gallery, take a moment to admire the Tohono O’odham Nation Youth Council display. Created in 2005, the Council inspires young people to participate in Tohono O’odham politics by taking trips to Washington D.C and volunteering in the community. The exhibit has an original copy of the resolution stating the purposes and goals of the council, and it’s decorated with photographs of smiling, ambitious Youth Council members. By making this your final stop in your visit to Himdag Ki, you can appreciate how the museum upholds its promises to the community: preserving the objects of the past and present while making room for generations of Tohono O’odham who will carry culture and heritage into the future.

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