Like most elementary age children in the United States, I remember learning about my state’s history, main agriculture, state bird and numerous facts about how the state was established. As I grew up, my memory changed when I made my way to Colorado and all that remained of my Utah knowledge was of beehives, seagulls and pioneers. All of that changed when I paid a visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah, and began to relive the memories beyond those of my middle school classroom. Walking outside of the popular and current Gecko exhibit, past the displays of gems and minerals and beyond the exhibits of Utah’s weather, one place in particular called my attention. A gallery of Native American art, crafts and history welcomed me in and before I knew it I was taken back to my childhood where my dad had taken me to Pow-wows and numerous activities with local tribes in southern Utah. Many times I had asked my dad, “What happened to the Native Americans after the settlers came in? Where are they now?” It’s a difficult question, but this section at the Natural History Museum of Utah gave me a few answers.
What first catches my attention about Native Americans in current-day America is how dedicated Native Americans are to the U.S. military. Since the War of 1812, Native Americans have served in the military and are the highest record of service per capita among ethnic groups. One of the reasons for this is because of their warrior traditions and cultural values, a statistic I resonated with seeing that this is an ethnic group that values its heritage and past. Another fact that caught my eye was how some tribes, specifically the Goshutes, struggle to make a living in remote lands. Although family ties are resilient and babies are still carried in traditional cradleboards, in the Goshute reservation, most people end up moving away to make a living. It seems that although Native Americans remain dedicated to their traditions, there is still a struggle to maintain their identity and culture in the modern-day world.
Although I’m left wondering if it’s still possible to preserve Native American culture, a few quotes along the wall reflecting on merging Native American past with the United States future seems hopeful:
“My kids and grandkids know what our culture and traditions are. Our language, we do speak it. The reason I never moved off the reservation is because I wanted them to know who they are as indigenous people and to hold on to the history . . . We are blessed in a lot of ways. Even though we don’t have material-wise richness, we are rich in our cultures.”
-Margene Bullcreek, Skull Valley Goshute
“I’ve made the choice to stay here and work with Utah and surrounding tribes. If I empower, if I educate, if I give them a voice, they make the change. It is within our spirit to talk about cancer, to understand diabetes . . . Helping develop the tools that will empower people to make healthy choices makes all the difference in the world.”
-Phyllis Pettit Nassi, Otoe-Missouria/Cherokee, Manager, Native American Outreach, Huntsman Cancer Institute
Reading these thoughts and others makes me hopeful that there can be a preservation and respect for past cultures as well as empowering them to be a part of our future. It’s refreshing to see some people making a difference in Native American culture and seeing how to merge the past with the present without destroying cultural heritage. During my visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah, I hope this is an attitude adopted not just in Utah and the United States but throughout the world.