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Pomona’s Native American Collection is a Key Resource for Students and the Community

Detail from a Sioux jacket

Baskets by Cahuilla artists and a Salado vase

"Cradle Sack," by an unknown Sioux artist (Dakotas and Minnesota), late 19th century

Jacket by an unknown Plains Sioux artist, late 19th century

Pomona College offers unique and intimate access to approximately 6,000 original works of Native American art for study and close observation. The vast collection, curated by the Pomona College Museum of Art and housed in a new space in the lower level of Bridges Auditorium, contains an array of artifacts, ranging from baskets to a feather headdress, in a beautiful storage and display space that includes a smart classroom and room to accommodate large groups.

The Native American Collection Study Center (NACSC) is used in college courses such as Environmental Analysis Professor Char Miller’s Water in the West class, a course that deals with the various ways native peoples incorporated water into their lives.

“The Coachella ollas and baskets [we viewed] wonderfully reflect the practical and symbolic role of water in their makers' daily lives—they made it possible to carry water and irrigate crops, but the decorative features reveal too that the artists saw water as a key element in their culture. That's an insight often lost in and to modern society,” says Miller.

An insight that the center powerfully provides, Miller says.

“Holding the objects, touching them, sensing their historic presence—all of this is a way to make the past palpable. And when another time is made so manifest we come to understand how much we can learn from it in the here and now,” says Miller.

The artifacts include embroidered moccasins, ceremonial shirts, rugs and arrowheads. The majority of the objects range in date from 800-1500 AD to the early 20th century, from numerous tribes, including Cahuilla, Pomo, Hohokam, Salado, Sioux, Apache, Cheyenne, Ojibwa and Hopi. Most of the items (previously housed in the basement of the Museum) were donated between 1929 to 1933, culled from the collections of 14 individuals.

Jennifer Elise Schmidt ’14 was in Miller’s class and seeing the irrigation jars, or ollas—unglazed ceramic jars that could be filled with water, which is then released slowly into the soil—made her realize that what’s new is actually quite old.

“Drip irrigation is being marketed as an amazing modern water-conservation strategy—this is what we use at [Pomona’s Organic Farm], for example, to save water—so it was fascinating and humbling to see how local indigenous people were using a different version of this technology centuries before us,” Schmidt says.

Through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center also partners with local elementary schools, and is in the second year of an educational pilot program with the Claremont Unified School District. To date, the Center has welcomed more than 300 first and third-graders from five local schools.

“The children not only learn the value of close observation of original works of cultural importance, they also leave with an understanding of what museums do and why they do it,” says Steve Comba, associate director and registrar of the Museum. “We are looking ahead to more partnerships with more local schools as well and student and tribal groups from within the 5C community.”

Opened in 2012 after two years of planning, moving and inventory, the NACSC accommodates large groups and is a smart classroom and display venue, as well as a storage space, allowing for more visitors and usage than its earlier incarnation. Comba calls it an “unknown treasure.”

Anna Kristina Turner ’15, a computer science major, is an intern at the NASC and works to preserve and display objects—and working in an area completely unrelated to her focus of study is an opportunity only a liberal arts college could support, she says.

“My experience has been wonderful,” says Turner. “I've had the chance to handle very old, very fragile objects and learn about them. I've been able to leave a lasting impression on this particular collection and I know the objects are better off for the work I've done.”

The Center hosts lectures, demonstrations, special events and open houses and is open by appointment only. To contact the NACSC, email scomba@pomona.edu

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