Blast from the Past: Pioneer Museum displays reservation life 50 years ago

Katharine McKenna stands in front of photos she took on the reservation nearly 50 years ago at the opening of her exhibit, “Journey of a Gap Year” at the Pioneer Museum Sept. 8. (Photo/Alexandra Wittenberg)

Katharine McKenna stands in front of photos she took on the reservation nearly 50 years ago at the opening of her exhibit, “Journey of a Gap Year” at the Pioneer Museum Sept. 8. (Photo/Alexandra Wittenberg)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Artist and author Katharine McKenna quit college in New York to run away to the reservations.

During her gap year from school from 1977 to 1978, McKenna interned with the Museum of Northern Arizona, staying on the Navajo and Hopi nations to assist with collecting objects such as woven rugs, pottery, baskets and jewelry for the museum’s Navajo Arts and Crafts Show.

As an intern, she took photographs on film of the people she met and the trading posts she went to never thinking they would be important enough to one day be in a museum.

“I had these negatives for a long time before I really looked at them,” McKenna said at the opening of her exhibit at Flagstaff’s Pioneer Museum Sept. 8. “And then I looked at them and I thought, ‘Wow, look at this.’ I was 19 when I was taking these photos. So I just put them all together and it became something, you know, vintage.”

The late 70s saw many changes for American Indians, and the museum display touches on how Pan-Indianism – Indigenous peoples realizing shared values and experience despite coming from distinct tribal histories and identities – was established, stemming from the Red Power Movement in the 1960s.

It was a time of strong Indian activism against strip mining and other harmful environmental practices. The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed, as well as the Indian Child Welfare Act, which prevented states from breaking up Indigenous families through adoption and foster care to outside communities.

“Back then, there was a lot of contention going on between the old and new,” McKenna said. “They didn’t want so much influence from the Anglo people.”

McKenna said she felt welcomed by the Navajo community despite being an outsider.

“Navajos were very friendly to us. I loved it,” she said. “They were very friendly and very accepting and welcoming, and didn’t have any problem with us up there.”

However, McKenna found at the time the Hopis were not quite as open to outsiders.

“I think at the time the Hopis were sick and tired of Anglo tourists showing up at their homes and ceremonies and watching them like they were on display,” McKenna said. “Especially their sacred ceremonies. They would get really upset when some tourist would take photographs at their dances etc. Can you blame them for being unfriendly to outsiders when a lot of outsiders were disrespectful to their homes and way of life? I don’t know what it is like now, but that was the feeling back then.”

The last trip McKenna made out to the reservation was 10 years ago on a painting expedition for the Museum of Northern Arizona.

“All the trading posts are pretty much gone. I loved the trading posts. They were like old-mercantile style,” McKenna said, painting a picture of the flashy displays on the countertops juxtaposed with rickety, creaky wooden floors and swamp coolers.

She tried to find the old Cameron trading post but initially missed it, because of how much everything had changed.

“All the glass is gone, and sand was inside and outside of the trading post. It was gone, I mean, it was a ruin,” she said.

McKenna also went back to the Shonto trading post, which she says was one of the last ones to stay open in the old-fashioned way. There she met the owner and reminisced with him.

“I started to ask him questions,” McKenna said. “’What happened to Madeline Cameron’s? What happened to the Navajo trading post?’ … all the names came back to me in that one moment, the traders.”

McKenna said the owner of the Shonto post told her most of the traders had moved elsewhere or were gone.

“Finally he stops. He looks at me goes, ‘how do you know all these names?’ because I had told him I was from New York. And I just started laughing, I said I used to collect for the museum.”

Vintage film on display

When former Arizona Historical Society Director James Burns saw McKenna’s vintage images in 2019 he decided he had to have them for the Arizona Heritage Center in Tempe, where they displayed in 2021. They’ve now made their way up to the Pioneer Museum, where they will remain until Sept. 2024.

“It’s a really exciting exhibit for us to have,” curator Vanessa Fajardo said. “We looked at it and we were like, ‘we have to put this up, because it’s showing all these things that are no longer here, or were really popular back in the 70s for shopping and getting different Native-American made goods, things like that.”

McKenna also kept a journal of the trading posts she stopped at and the people she met. The journal is on display at the exhibit and also available through Amazon. Fajardo said AHS used the journal as a guide to match peoples’ names to photos that she took, and it was a great resource for them for the exhibit.

“It’s kind of come full circle as kind of representative as what’s going on today alongside what was happening 50 years ago,” Fajardo said.

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