Hidden less than a half mile away from Interstate traffic in rural southeastern Arizona is a non-profit gallery featuring Native American artifacts — some 25,000 pieces gathered from disparate places that range from Alaska to Argentina — with many relating to the varieties of Native American presence in the state of Arizona.
Unseen from the highway by precariously-balanced giant granite boulders outside the tiny community of Dragoon, the 1,600-acre Amerind Museum & Research Center quietly celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2012.
This is scenic rolling-hill cattle country with a small, but thriving, pistachio nut industry adjacent to archeological dig sites that over the years have given up thousands of historically-significant items. An hours drive from Tucson brings visitors to exit 318, the entrance to the tors of Texas Canyon and a juniper tree playa.
Despite a world-class repository of history, “It’s difficult to attract folks here in part because we kept them away for so many years,” says Executive Director John Ware. “Initially we were a research center and visitors were a distraction from our research work until the late 1980s when we opened our doors to the walk-in public. We’re battling a history where we once kept the public away and it’s hard to overcome that early perception.”
The site now attracts a thousand or more visitors per month with most arriving during the seasonal high point of January through March. “We could handle ten times that number of visitors,” Ware says. “When they do show up, they fall in love with this place…it’s a Little Shangri-la with world-class collections in the middle of spectacular landscape.”
Because the location was once a popular hiding spot for a famous leader of the Bedonkohe Apaches — Geronimo (Mescalero-Chiricahua) — the museum collection includes Apache dolls, pottery, chipped stone tools, and a 13,000-year-old Clovis point found by one of the ranch wranglers. But the displays and exhibits go far beyond Southwestern Indian artifacts.
“We’ve got 10,000 square feet of gallery space and if you want to contrast our experience here with larger museums, our collections are hemispheric,” says Ware. Asked which artifact is the most valuable, he says: “Museums don’t appraise value because we don’t sell things, so we don’t have to know their worth, but gosh, we’ve got so many treasures in this place and some of the things we have are the best examples anywhere — like an Eskimo Aleutian hunters birch bark woven hat. There are probably only half a dozen still in existence and we have the best preserved one in the world.”
It’s been over 30 years since Amerind Foundation dug at archeological sites, so they aren’t receiving new artifacts and any new acquisitions come as gifts or bequests. “But while we don’t dig any more, we still support research by having an advanced seminar program where we invite scholars to visit and we publish their proceedings. So while we don’t dig holes in the ground now, we’re still major players in the research community.”
In addition to its museum, art gallery, and public programs, Amerind’s archaeological and ethnographic collections and scholarly findings are now addressing such issues as global sustainability.
New for 2013 will be the April 13 opening of art gallery space renovated at a cost of 3/4 of a million dollars. First impressions being important, the entryway to the art museum includes church doors from a chapel in Michoacan, Mexico, carved by Tarascan woodcarvers in 1665. The grand re-opening will coincide with an exhibition of Spanish barb horses and a dozen Native American artists conducting demonstrations throughout the facility.
“There’s a crisis in museums across the country,” Ware says, noting that “The average age of our visitors is over 60 and when you consider almost 90% of the support private museums get comes from individuals, what’s going to happen to our base of support when this generation is gone?”
Cognizant of that fact, Amerind Foundation & Museum offers hands-on educational programs for schools, scouts, and other youth groups. “One of the reasons we focus so much on providing children a pleasant experience is the hope it will plant a seed, that they’ll remember the experience and want to return.”
The facility’s anniversary celebration in 2012 brought the biggest crowd they’ve ever seen, over a thousand visitors, so history will repeat itself again next fall. “We’re going to celebrate our birthday every year from now on,” Ware says.
The Amerind Foundation is located at 2100 North Amerind Road, Dragoon, Arizona 85609. www.amerind.org (520) 586 3666