Diné Museum Transforms Into Research Institute

May 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-4: Health and Healing, Tribal College News
By Bill Donovan

Back in the 1930s, Norman Arns worked on the Navajo Reservation and became fascinated with the Indian jewelry he saw for sale in trading posts.

Arns took up silversmithing as a hobby and kept adding to his collection of silversmithing equipment even after he moved to New York. After Arn’s death, his widow donated the collection to the museum at Diné College (DC, Tsaile, AZ).

Harry Walters (Diné), now in his 34th year as director of the museum, said the college gladly accepted the collection — recently appraised at $9,600 — because it includes equipment used by Navajo silversmiths in the 1930s and ‘40s. “Some of the pieces are quite old and are no longer used by contemporary silversmiths,” Walters said.

There are old-time silver stamps, early soldering equipment, and a number of other unique items that the museum will someday place on exhibit. Together they show how the early silversmiths created the old-style jewelry.

Some of the items will also be used to train modern-day silversmiths, Walters said, noting that a silversmithing class is offered at the Shiprock branch campus.

This is the latest contribution to the DC museum, which has been praised for its efforts to preserve Navajo culture. Just recently, the college received a donation of an early Ganado rug.

But the biggest contribution by far remains the 2003 donation of 500 sand paintings by Louisville, KY, collector Morton Sachs. His donation has been appraised at $2.4 million. Sachs added to the donation just last month, Walters said. The museum is now awaiting delivery of the new gift.

Private donations to museums have decreasing in recent years as many people choose to pass their collections to their heirs instead. The heirs in turn often sell to private collectors, rather than donating for a tax deduction. In the 1970s, Walters said, the DC collection was helped by the repatriation movement in which some of the nation’s biggest museums returned many Native American artifacts to the tribes of origin.

But in recent years, DC and other tribal museums have emphasized making better use of the collections they now have rather than expansion.. Part of this is due to limited storage space.

As a result, the college has become more selective about what it buys or accepts. While it still acquires non-ceremonial items, the museum has a policy of bypassing items of a ceremonial nature.

It’s not uncommon, Walters said, for Navajo families to come to the museum and offer to donate a medicine bundle that belonged to an elderly member of the family who has passed on.

But Walters said the museum’s policy is to refer these families to the Navajo tribe’s Historical Preservation Office, which has the responsibility of accepting these kinds of items on behalf of the tribe.

Walters said efforts are now being made to mount exhibits featuring parts of the collection, either singly or in conjunction with other museums.

DC is now working with the Salmon Ruins Museum on an exhibit on Dinétah that is expected to open later this year. Other museums throughout the Southwest and the nation also have joined with DC to put on exhibits that spotlight some of the college’s collections.

As the emphasis has shifted away from expanding the collection, Walters said the museum is becoming a research institution, with staff members providing resources for those who want to preserve the tribal culture and keep it alive for future generations of Navajos.

Bill Donovan is a freelance writer who contributes to the Navajo Times. Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times.

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