Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part V, Southwest Museum of the American Indian

The terminus of Mulholland Drive there at the 101 freeway brought me nearer to my first planned destination of the day in the Mount Washington neighborhood. Saturday is the only day of the week the Southwest Museum of the American Indian is open. Supposedly the oldest museum in Los Angeles, built in 1914, it had fallen on hard times at the end of the 20th century. The Autry Museum of the American West purchased the collection and museum in 2003.

Most Americans have an odd relationship with Native American history. They are both fascinated and impressed by the seeming independent and egalitarian nature of these cultures, but yet want to turn away as soon as the superficial historical anachronisms are seen through, and the genocidal habits of the dominant white culture in the encounter between the two are, if not made plain, at least suspected to even the most unsophisticated understanding of this history.

Attendance at the museum had been dropping. Then there is the sometimes dubious practices in which these institutions acquire artifacts of another culture’s ancestors – a theme that repeats in this travelogue, in a previous post – and is almost unavoidable when discussing any institution that collects historical art or artifacts of any nature. I once worked with a special collections librarian who had previously worked at the Southwest. He witnessed firsthand some nebulous accounting and acquisition methods that went on there.

Whatever the reason for its financial challenges, the Autry had acquired it and was storing most of the collection elsewhere. The only attendant I saw was a security guard manning the front desk. He told me they were not sure what would happen to the building. He mentioned something about it not being earthquake retrofitted. For sure it has been declared a National Treasure with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its location on a live oak dappled slope overlooking the lower lands of the Mt. Washington neighborhood make it a prominent and intriguing building. Designed in a Spanish and Moorish style, the Caracol Tower and vanilla white exterior give it an Andalusian fortress quality. The only exhibit, other than some murals in the lobby depicting Pueblo dances by Native American artists of the Santa Fe Indian School, was a room full of Pueblo pottery. That and a lower level of the lobby gave a history of the museum and its founding.

The museum was the brainchild of a Harvard educated eastern journalist named Charles Fletcher Lummis, who opted to travel as a ‘rucksack wanderer’ when he was offered a newspaper job in Los Angeles. Making his way by foot he gave special interest to New Mexico, when he passed through that state. Later, in an effort to recuperate from a stroke that struck him in Los Angeles and avoid enemies he made as a journalist in Santa Fe, he found himself living with the Pueblo Tiwa people of Isleta, along the Rio Grande. Through this experience he became an advocate for the preservation of Puebloan cultural ways, often clashing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their forced assimilation policies. Eventually he ended up back in Los Angeles as the head of the L.A. Public Library for a short time, but spent most of his time raising funds and promoting the establishment of the Southwest Museum.

After reading this history I peered through glass panels of doors into curator labs and caged storage shelves. A bit of office detritus littered the rooms with the feel of a hasty evacuation of all artifacts and their accompanying scholarship. But the Pueblo pottery exhibit was a room full of treasured artifacts that made the museum well worth the visit. It was a rich collection of old pottery, as well as contemporary, with descriptions of the different styles from various Pueblos. I took my time to read it all as I viewed the simple or elaborate designs and colors. Mono tones, two tones, and multicolored bowls and canteens of utility, as well as figurines and highly decorative designs intended only for display. Stories of the skilled artisans behind the works were plentiful when they could be identified.   The pottery was mostly made by women, but sometimes painted by men. Male potters were sometimes “two-spirit” people. Men who dressed and took on the traditional roles of women. With the arrival and use of metal and modern utensils the skill slowly declined for a while before anthropologists and traders began to promote the craft again amongst the Pueblos. Mainly for tourist’s consumption the little figurines and small pieces the tourists could take home with them, became the bulk of the potter’s output. Little rain gods, a tourist trade derived invention, packed barrels at Santa Fe trader’s shops at the turn of the 20th century. As the craft evolved and changed, the artisans gained recognition. Nampeyo, Tonita and Juan Cruz Roybal, Maria and Julian Martinez, Susana Aguilar, the artist’s names and their stories gave a fuller human dimension to the artifacts. To me it was all a nice change from the ostentatious luxury arts of the Golden Kingdoms I’d viewed the night before. But this was still exquisite art made by people of modest means. The pottery was ornamented with birds of prey and other fowl, serpents, Kachina figures, and various abstract patterns in the Southwest Indian style. Despite the false reports of a Coronado expedition padre, the Pueblos were not the fabled, gold-laden, Seven Cities of Cibola. The bowls were crafted from humble clay, and plant and mineral derived tints; all of it decidedly friendlier on my eyes than flashy gold and silver loot from fabled cities.

Despite the precarious future of the museum the exhibit put me in an easy state of mind. Admittedly this wasn’t the turn away history. I walked around the grounds of the museum situated on the hillside, as it is. Indigenous themed wrought iron sculptures dotted the courtyard. Contemporary renditions of Kachina-like figures danced against a wall. A tomol manned by four paddlers strove against a current of grey oval stones. A real wooden totem pole with an upside-down figure sporting an oversized phallus supported a colorfully masked face, a bear, and a seahawk’s head with its fiercely downturned beak. The grounds were a bit unkempt in that quaint decay I often enjoy encountering on my travels. Well groomed places don’t reflect as well a more intriguing history as do places with a hint of melancholy. I think it’s part of the reason people like ancient ruins. California fan palms floated around the red tiled roof; agave and toyon grew among the palm trunks.   A ubiquitous bleached and decayed cattle skull with broken horns lay beneath the deep red ‘hollywood’ berries of a toyon. There were concrete steps that led down to a light rail station along the Arroyo Seco Parkway. But they were busted up a short way down the incline with yellow caution tape barring the way. Some gardening utensils and a water hose were haphazardly strewn across the neglected gardens.

I believe the thing that attracts me to places like this is its obvious display of impermanence. Impermanence is often felt through the melancholy filter of decay, but the idea is part of that Noble Path called Right View. The understanding that, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “there is only a constantly disintegrating flux which, when clung to in the desire for permanence, brings a plunge into suffering.” And it is, when truly grasped, Right Wisdom. In the sangha to which I belong we occasionally sing, accompanied by a lovely man playing a guitar, a Pali chant that goes ‘All things are impermanent. They arise and they pass away. To live in harmony with this truth, brings great happiness.’ Of course, the impermanence of an orderly garden is an easy acceptance. It is a much harder challenge to live in harmony with the impermanence of a lost home and valuables that so many were encountering back in the ashes of that fire I was fleeing. Or the loss of loved ones that the mudflow would bring only a few days hence. But if we can recognize and get accustomed to impermanence even in the mundane passings of our lives, maybe we can endure it with more equanimity when it is an unavoidable reality that hits us straight on.

There is an organization called the Friends of the Southwest Museum that have been advocating a return to the full operation of the museum by the Autry. If it happens, this quaint setting of impermanence will itself be impermanent. The garden will be revitalized and maintained, the steps repaired, the empty rooms and shelves scattered with remnants of a hasty abandonment will all be reoccupied and organized for efficient research and curation. But then again the neglect could go on until more than likely it becomes the residents of some other institution, or even less ideal corporate offices. But that’s the thing about impermanence. Everything is in a transitory state. And though this quaint vision of neglect may go on for a while here, the chance that I will see this place again while it’s in this condition is close to nil. That’s the thing about passing through. Your chance to be intimate with a place is fleeting and very temporary. It is truly an experience of impermanence.