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Museum of Northern AZ in Flagstaff: Unbeatable for Local History

Arizona has its own beauty. With local cacti and a mix of desert, high desert, pine forest and mountains, it's truly splendid.

Entrance to Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, AZ

Entrance to Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, AZ

Flagstaff is unique in its ability to give a picture of the native residents of the area, and the historical impact of lumbering and trains on the local economy. There is an abundance of scholarly work describing Indian activity from prehistoric to the present day, as well as examples of artwork, the Lowell Observatory (which discovered Pluto), Northern Arizona University, the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum, and a host of Flagstaff hotels, eateries, and motels for the weary traveler. But the real must-see is the Museum of Northern Arizona.

They must’ve abbreviated us AZ because we have the entire spectrum of weather extremes: ‘A’blaze in the Phoenix sun to ‘Z’ero-degree snow in Flagstaff.

— Terri Guillemets

Navajo Rug

Navajo Rug

Another Attraction Near the Grand Canyon

For a great place to start a vacation tour, head for 1 E US-66, Flagstaff, AZ 86001-5519. This is the location of the visitor's center, which has copious amounts of brochures highlighting the attractions in Flagstaff, AZ, and also has volunteers and employees eager to help you find what you want.

I was told quickly by a wonderful lady how to get to Walnut Canyon from the Visitor Center. In a split second she had a map and an explanation of how to get to it using Highway 40. My advice is to go to the visitor center, make your plan for what to visit, and if you have any questions, ask the folks that work there. If you do this you will be nearly guaranteed a wonderful stay in Flagstaff. My major goal was to see the famous Museum of Northern Arizona. It is very nice to have a place to call home base when you are in an area that is new to you. My wife and I met people from all over the world and the United States. Summer in Flagstaff is wonderful!

Older Native American jewelry

Older Native American jewelry

Museum of Northern Arizona Art

One of my favorite Flagstaff museums is the Museum of Northern Arizona. This private museum is supported by many in Flagstaff, AZ, and focuses on the archaeology of the Colorado Plateau and its cultural diversity. One must understand that this land is occupied by ancestral tribes of Indians: Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Hopi, and Navajo. All of the exhibits are created with an emphasis on understanding arts, Indian dwelling construction, spiritual background, and the need to understand our ancestors to this land in an attempt to understand our heritage.

The artwork displayed at the Museum of Northern Arizona gives an insight into the development of artistic style within the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Prehistoric pots in their entirety are analyzed with an explanation of their practical use (see photos). The shapes and painting techniques on the pots show the development over time within the tribe and also differentiates between tribes. Some pots are of a terra cotta look, others are a tan earthen color, some have white and black designs, and some have red and black design. You can find fossils at the MNA, too. Dinosaur remains abound.

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Sinagua Life and Hopi Pottery

Though the MNA has exhibits that explain the biology of the entire Grand Canyon area, they have specific relics from Walnut Canyon, just east of Flagstaff, and one of the local attractions. The island walk just beyond the reception center at Walnut Canyon illustrates the wide diversity of native plants and what they were used for by the Sinagua (the Indians, for the most part, living in the Walnut Canyon area prior to 1200 AD). You can find fossils at the MNA, too. Dinosaur remains abound.

There is also a Hopi Iconography Project. This project emphasizes the Hopi ways. Our native American brethren view life in a different way. Examples of all manner of art and craft demonstrate the view that life is a journey, and the ultimate goal is being one with nature. I may have simplified this too much, but this is what I got from the exhibits. Another aspect of the museum is the Ceramic Field Identification Manual - a way of identifying pottery based on the age and to some extent the tribe. This manual shows photographs of pottery and argues for a delineation of ancient Indian pottery up to the present. This aspect of the museum is fascinating. Forget fascination, the pottery is gorgeous and begs the question, how did they create such wonderful objects?

Museum Goals and Displays

  • It is the goal of the museum to make it a living museum. That is, a place where the relevance of the pottery can display habits of the Sinagua so that it can be appreciated by us.
  • According to the museum, it houses over 600,000 artifacts. Its goal is to provide enough information to appreciate the extent to which Native American values were intertwined with nature. I was personally amazed at the depth that the museum had of the area. What I was most attracted to was the art. What struck me was the sensitivity to their surroundings and to nature expressed in their art - both jewelry, pottery, and fetishes.
  • In addition, there is a library filled with information about the Southwest including archaeology, ethnology, geology, biology, geography, history, and art.
  • Interesting displays of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic rock and the field of strewn rocks with examples of the layers of rock beneath provide a great look at the nature of the formations in the area.
  • The breadth of the museum display discussion can be exemplified by the other exhibits including Zions Angled and cross-bedded layers, Sedona Oak Creek Canyon geography of the southern Colorado Plateau and its stratigraphic column formation from its basalt cap to Redwall Limestone.
  • For those who have previously visited Canyon De Chelly, there is a discussion of the Navajo home and prehistoric Indian bones discovered along with ruins, and steep canyon walls.

More About Canyon de Chelly and Kit Carson

Canyon de Chelly is an area where Kit Carson traveled on mules from about 1828 to 1831 and was also a hunter for the military. Around 1863, Carson waged a ruthless war against the Navajo, moving through the center of Navajo country to destroy their orchards, crops, and livestock. Canyon De Chelly was the target. From the 1840s on the United States government had a policy of subduing Indians in the West. Treaties with the Navajo invariably ended up broken by one side or the other. The Navajo raided towns in New Mexico, while the government was strong-handed with the native population and was guilty of attacking Navajo villages.

A Cool Retreat in Flagstaff, Arizona

We once had a delightful break from the heat of the Phoenix valley for a few days in June. The temperatures in Flagstaff averaged 85 degrees Fahrenheit with a wonderful breeze. We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to go to such a place (at an altitude of about 6000 feet!) with such a wide variety of vacation activities. Check out the photos and see for yourself!

Dream a Little!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 John R Wilsdon

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