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Collaboration and representation: the High Desert Museum

Natural history museums are not known for their authentic or accurate representations of Indigenous communities. The High Desert Museum in Bend is committed to changing this.

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This series, “Indigenous Resilience in Oregon,” focuses on different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary Tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued forward throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. This collection of writings and interviews showcases the history and resiliency of Oregon’s First Peoples. The first installment of the series, “Steph Littlebird: ‘Am I honoring those who have come before me?’,” is here. This article focuses on the High Desert Museum, a natural history-centered institution that is making space for unique cultural exhibitions.

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If you’re ever in central Oregon and find yourself near Bend, make sure you set aside time to visit the High Desert Museum. Located off Highway 97, the museum has served the surrounding community since 1982. The museum started with a strong focus on the high desert landscape, particularly the natural history and science side. As the museum nears its 40th anniversary, it has expanded focus to include the stories of marginalized groups as well as the landscape and wildlife.

The museum was founded by Donald M. Kerr, a wildlife biologist and conservationist. When Kerr conceived the idea, there were only about 20,000 residents in Bend and people doubted whether an institution like that could survive in a relatively remote area with strong ties to the timber industry. Today, Bend is home to around 100,000 people and the museum is creating exciting and culturally relevant exhibitions that encompass the unique history and diversity of Oregon’s high desert region. 

Exterior of the High Desert Museum in Bend. Image courtesy of the High Desert Museum.

One of the things that sets this natural history museum apart from others is its commitment to telling stories of the underrepresented. Natural history museums have a legacy of problematic practices, such as reductive dioramas of Indigenous lifeways. Most natural history museums present a view of Indigenous culture that erases the colonial impacts on the cultures displayed. Anthropology as an academic discipline also has its own underlying biases that are rooted in affirming white supremacy. Those biases play out in different ways but have led to the categorical exclusion of Indigenous knowledge from mainstream anthropological methodologies. Indigenous people are not generally considered a “reliable source” when it comes to earth science or historical record. Today, increasingly but still belatedly, Indigenous knowledge is being affirmed by science.


INDIGENOUS RESILIENCE IN OREGON: An ArtsWatch Series


Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the High Desert Museum’s executive director Dana Whitelaw. As she explains, “pretty early on Kerr realized that you can’t talk about conservation and taking care of the land, if you don’t talk about people and the interplay of humans with the landscape and all sorts of different ways.”

Whitelaw views informal spaces like museums as a place to make real impact on people: “I have lots of respect for higher education, but where I see eyes light up and wonder being found is in these informal learning settings, like museums, and we can bring passion, rigor, and discoveries that happen oftentimes in the academic world—to a broader audience.” Dana sees museums as “this perfect place to bring that kind of passion and knowledge and learning in unexpected ways to a broader community.” and sees the value in approaching the museum experience in new and exciting ways.  

Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director of the High Desert Museum. Image courtesy of the High Desert Museum.

The High Desert Museum sits on 135 acres and boasts over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space. The museum also holds a collection of nearly 30,000 objects from the Great Basin, Plateau, and the Pacific Northwest region. This collection includes a diverse range of Native artifacts such as clothing, regalia, basketry, art and photographs, along with non-Native pioneer-era artifacts. What is unusual about the museum is how exhibits intertwine information about the natural world and significant cultural histories, emphasizing how many generations of people have leveraged the High Desert’s resources to live and thrive off the land.

Dana started at the museum in 2008 under the previous director and at a time when it was really challenging economically for a lot of organizations, including the museum. “We needed to focus on driving attendance and that’s when we started working on partnerships that included Indigenous partnerships. We started working with Indigenous partners, particularly with the Museum at Warm Springs, when the High Desert received a massive collection of artifacts known as the Doris Swayze Bounds collection. Its a humongous collection that came from Western, Oregon. They worked with elders from the Tribes of Warm Springs elders to review materials for them. And I think they actually paid them to do it also. And of course I was really glad that it had passed their muster.”

Years later, staff at the High Desert Museum were trying to find ways to deepen their partnership with the Tribes. Dana explains, “a couple of individuals helped us pull together a grant proposal to work with Warm Springs. And we didn’t really know what that would look like. They have an incredible staff so we started envisioning what a collaboration between a Tribal museum and then non-Tribal museum with no native staff got together and started learning together, what would that look like?” This proposal and subsequent four-year project was transformational for the High Desert Museum: “Learning together, what that looked like and how it shaped our work together. And, that really cemented a lot of our work and connection to Indigenous people of the plateau.”

Each of the museums brings different strengths to the table, and as the director of the Warm Springs Museum, Elizabeth Woody, explains, those collaborations can open new opportunities to access funding and support for each institution: “It was an opportunity for both groups to work together on a bunch of different things, not just the work that was happening in the High Desert Museum or just the work that was happening here…but also our staff was able to go there and see how well-rounded, creative, as well as cooperative staff that they had at High Desert.”

Whitelaw acknowledges that there is no clear roadmap for building this kind of dual institution partnership or community. Where does an institution even begin? It’s not easy, but Dana explains it as straightforward: “you just start doing it and showing up authentically. One of the things that is a catalyst for relationships and community is learning together. And that’s what museums do really well. And with our colleagues and friends at Warm Springs, we decided, let’s bring in speakers. Somebody we wanted to learn from together. And then we were able to travel a few times together. We went to the canoe journey at Lummi in 2019, and then to British Columbia where we visited several museums and went on tours together. These learning experiences cultivate community and relationships just by itself. To be sharing this incredibly enriching content and experiences like canoe journey, is one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever seen.”

In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, staff from each of the museums traveled to Washington D.C. to visit the National Museum of the American Indian. Dana recalls, “we were able to go out to their collection space in Maryland, and really started looking at how to tell difficult stories and challenging history in powerful ways. How do you create visitor experiences that stop you in your tracks? Those moments, they can be moments of joy, moments of profound sadness, but they showed how our museums could work together to tell that kind of powerful story for our visitors.”

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A second guiding tenet of Whitelaw’s approach is, as she explains it, “making sure people see themselves in the museum. That’s a key part of being relevant. And I am white, my background is in science and anthropology—I always see myself in the museum. My story is always told and elevated, but not everybody’s is. And so we want to make sure that we’re telling the stories that aren’t necessarily told. I think one exhibit in particular that comes to mind as an example, was a traveling exhibition, a photography exhibit about the gay rodeo. That was an example of a story that is unexpected; growing up in the West, you don’t hear about the gay rodeo circuit, and those were individuals that weren’t welcome on the main rodeo circuit. I think it became an example of how you can tell diverse, powerful stories and get people to think about this landscape differently and community differently.”

Sometimes these institutional goals complement one another in interesting ways. The current exhibition, Carrying Messages: Native Runners, Ancestral Homelands and Awakening, takes running, an activity now popularly associated with fitness buffs, and shows its historical and cultural significance to Native life. Through photography and individual stories, viewers see how running can be a means of claiming personal sovereignty and empowering others. Carrying Messages helps create awareness and opens a discussion about the value of Indigenous knowledge as it relates to the land and conservation.

Photo of Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel by Devin Whetstone. Image courtesy of the High Desert Museum.

In February of 2021, the High Desert Museum received a record donation of $6 million  from the Roundhouse Foundation in Sisters, Oregon. This gift will support the museum’s long-term vision, which includes more collaboration with Tribal partners and an update of the permanent exhibition about the Indigenous tribes of the Columbia Plateau, By Hand Through Memory

Later in August 2021, the museum also received a special grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights initiative. This $95,000 award will be dedicated to commissioning Native artists “to create living, utilitarian artworks” that will become part of the museum’s collection but also will be used in tribal communities. The Creative Heights Initiative grants up to $1 million every year “to increase Oregon’s cultural visibility and vitality while supporting unique opportunities for citizens to experience innovative arts and culture.”

As the High Desert Museum continues to pursue hidden histories, it is also building authentic relationships with its community and tribal counterparts. This intentional approach to collaboration makes this museum a unique site for storytelling and learning. It is through these authentic, non-transactional relationships, that institutions like natural science and fine art museums can return some authority to those groups that have been historically excluded from conversations about Indigenous history, land management and conservation. 

Steph Littlebird is a Kalapuyan visual artist, professional writer, and curator from Portland, Oregon. She is the 2020 AICAD-NOAA National Fellowship recipient, ‘20 Caldera Artist in Residence, 2019 Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) project grant awardee, and a three-time Art + Sci Initiative recipient. Fogel’s work revolves around her Indigenous heritage and contemporary native issues. She has been featured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Oregon Bee Project, and at World Environment Day.

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