Cooper at Arizona State Museum

Exploring Arizona State Museum

In old downtown Tucson, there is a fabulous museum at Arizona State University, Arizona State Museum As part of the anthropology department, it is a laboratory for the students as well as a wonderful museum for the rest of us.  The museum is divided into three or four sections, one dedicated to examples of pottery from the various tribes of the southwest and another called The Paths of Life featuring the 10 indigenous tribes of the area and two more with temporary exhibits that change more often.  We only explored the first two this time.

Cooper - Arizona State Museum

Cooper – Arizona State Museum

When we checked in at the museum front desk, Cooper and I were lucky enough to be there on a slow day.  Being slow, there was a docent just looking for something to do.  She offered to give us a personal tour of the museum.  If you ever get a chance to have your own docent, take it.  Our docent first led us to the pottery exhibit.

Wall of Pottery - Arizona State Museum

Wall of Pottery – Arizona State Museum

Shown above is a VERY SMALL example of the various types of pottery.  AZ State has the most extensive collection of complete pottery, pottery shards and partially reconstructed pots anywhere.  The docent was able to explain to us the differences in the clay (yellow, white, grey, red) used by different tribes, different techniques (coiling, turning, shaping around a gourd) and kinds of decorations (paint, basketry, tooling), and whether a pot (or effigy, talisman, or tablet) was to be a utilitarian piece or just made as art.  There were examples of ancient pots and new contemporary pots.  We could have spent all afternoon just looking at this one room

But we didn’t.  The other, much larger half of the museum is dedicated to an exhibit called the Paths of Life.

Path of Life - 10 tribes of the Southwest - AZ State Museum

Paths of Life – 10 tribes of the Southwest – Arizona State Museum

The Paths of Life exhibit is extremely well done.  Differences between the various tribes (peaceful, raiders, horsemen, warriors, nomads) are explained, and shown through vignettes or displays, or examples of tools or living areas, or farming practices.  The docent took us pretty quickly (much less time than we would have spent reading all the identifying cards) through the exhibit, but still enough time to get the idea of the differences between the tribes.  It would have been too difficult to take pictures and keep up with her, so we just kept moving.  Obviously we will have to go back because we know there is so much more to absorb.  What I really want to do is go back and get the book, Paths of Life,  I found in the museum bookstore, which was the basis for the exhibit.  Although I don’t know for sure, I am guessing it is a text book for a class here at the university.

Paths of Life book

Paths of Life book


I have always been fascinated by the different cultures of the native American tribes.  Over the years I have learned a little bit about native Americans, much less that I thought I had learned.  Having grown up in Minnesota, most of what I had learned about “Indians” was connected to Columbus, Pilgrims and the settling of the Northeast.  I also knew a little about the Indians that plagued the expansion of the country, those the Lewis and Clark party encountered and the removal of the Nez Perce from Washington.  There was a quote in the museum that said (paraphrased), Columbus did not land in a country totally devoid of people.  AHA!  I guess I had never really thought about all the native Americans who had lived in the entire country for centuries.  History was never my strong suit (although I am totally fascinated by it now).  What we were taught in school was about the founding of America by Europeans coming across the Atlantic.  What I never learned about was the discovery of America from the Pacific side, with the Spanish, and the founding of Mexico and the influence of the Spanish on the Native Americans living in that region of the Americas.  I never learned about why the various tribes moved north and spread across the southwest.  I feel like I need to make up for lost time and information.  There is so much new to learn!


When we headed out to this museum, I thought we were going to see a museum about the state of Arizona.  I had an aha moment, when we got there, that this is the Arizona State (university) Museum.  I guess it all depends on which word you put the emphasis on.  Arizona STATE Museum  or Arizona State MUSEUM.  I chuckled over that one.

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