Museum of Northern Arizona: 'investing in our cultures'

Museum wins 2015 National Medal for Museum and Library Science for service to community

Jeneda Benally, educator with the Museum of Northern Arizona stands in front of the museum’s front entrance. Ryan Williams/NHO

Jeneda Benally, educator with the Museum of Northern Arizona stands in front of the museum’s front entrance. Ryan Williams/NHO

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) is one of four recipients of the 2015 National Medal for Museum and Library Science, the highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community.

The Museum of Northern Arizona won the award for the ways it impacts the community: offering enriching programs for all children through its Discovery Program, launching a Navajo language summer camp for Diné youth, providing forums that foster dialogue about critical community issues and the future of the region, celebrating the diversity of regional cultures through Heritage Festivals, and by offering a rich variety of exhibitions and public programs.

Jeneda Benally is an educator with the MNA's Diné Discovery Camp. At the camp, Navajo youth connect with their tribe's Native language. She is a presenter at the museum's annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture and a musician with the rock group Sihasin, Her father, Jones Benally, is a champion hoop dancer who also performs with the group each summer along with Benally and her brother at the festival as the Jones Benally Family. She describes the museum as an intertribal community center.

"I am incredibly enthusiastic about the Museum of Northern Arizona winning this prestigious award because our museum deserves it," Benally said. "Our museum, for so long, has been a community ground, an intertribal community ground that is respectful and appreciative of all of the cultures that exist here in the Southwest."

MNA President Dr. Robert Breunig said it is an honor to win a national award for work the museum does at the community level.

"This honor is a tribute to the hard work and resourcefulness of the staff of the museum and their commitment to make MNA a dynamic, forward looking, and welcoming place for our community," he said.

The award will be presented at an event in Washington D.C. on May 18.

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) nominated the museum for the award. She said that people in Flagstaff have always been proud of the museum.

"But today we are extra proud that the rest of the country will know of its exceptional service to our community and state," she said. "I join my fellow Arizonans in celebrating this top honor and sending congratulations to our good friends at the Museum of Northern Arizona."

To celebrate winning the award and as a thank you to the Flagstaff community, the museum will put on events called "Thirsty Thursdays" during the evening in the summer. The programs will vary with partnerships with various community members to highlight cultural programming through music, dance and storytelling.

One of the MNA's strengths is that Native cultures are not on exhibit, instead Native community members are part of the conversation. Benally said this is an important distinction from other museums that also highlight tribal connections.

"There is an interaction, there is participation with visitors and it really is an educational experience," she said. "It's not that you are going to see a performance. It's that you are going to get educated and that you're going to get the opportunity to ask questions. And that is valuable because that is how we break down stereotypes. That's how we work to end racism, and how we build friendships and healthy, respectful communities."

MNA's artist demonstrations at art festivals, like the Navajo Show, give the public a chance to see beyond what is on display to see how much work and time goes into the creation of the artwork and the artwork's value.

"This wool may have come from the sheep that I feed and that I shepherd throughout the day," Benally said. "I sheer them. I dye that wool. And all that time, all that effort goes into this beautiful rug that not only will support a family but carries on this traditional knowledge as well."

Her family - her brother along with her father and daughters - is a three generation legacy of carrying on Dine culture. They all participate in teaching youth how to do traditional arts, songs, dances. They talk about the importance and sacredness of water, of their holy mountains.

"What I see our Museum of Northern Arizona doing is investing in our cultures," Benally said. "This isn't a place that you just see and read history. You get a chance to participate and understand that this is an ancient living culture that will continue to exist because the Museum of Northern Arizona is investing in our youth and in us."

The museum not only showcases traditional Native ancient cultures but also showcases contemporary culture as well.

"[That] is incredibly empowering," Benally said. "Because it shows that the Museum of Northern Arizona values our culture. Not just to who we are in history or whatever history books have written about us but that they value our culture, traditional and contemporary."

She said it's the artists and the traditional knowledge keepers that contribute - the trust the museum's staff and volunteers have built with the tribes that make the museum as fantastic as it is.

"This is one of the rare places where people can come and learn about us, learn about our cultures," Benally said. "People come from all over the world to see the Grand Canyon, people come from all over the world to see these different places that exist and they're so excited about learning about our indigenous cultures that are here in the Southwest. The Museum of Northern Arizona really provides that place. For that I am so thankful."


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