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Home » News » Notes From the Field: Victoria Sunnergren in Arizona

Notes From the Field: Victoria Sunnergren in Arizona

Published June 27, 2014

Victoria Sunnergren[Victoria Sunnergren is an undergraduate student in the Department of Art History. She is interning at the Museum of Northern Arizona and researching Navajo art through the help of a MRCE grant from the office of Undergraduate Research.]

This summer, I am a Heritage Program Intern at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), in Flagstaff, Arizona. I found the internship on one of the email listservs of museum jobs that Ms. Abstein recommended to her Museum Object class last semester. The internship is unpaid, but they are giving me free housing for the whole semester. I used a Mentored Research and Creative Endeavors (MRCE) grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research to pay for my flight and rental cars for the summer, since I am working on a research project on influences in Navajo art while I’m out here. So overall, I’m only paying for food and souvenirs out of pocket, and I’m getting amazing experiences in return.

The point of the internship is to plan the annual Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo Festivals of Art and Culture that MNA hosts each summer. The Hopi Festival, the oldest of the three, is on its 81st year, so these festivals have serious history behind them.  Usually, the Heritage Programs office, which organizes the festivals, has three to four interns, but this year I’m the only one! This just means that I get to hog all the experiences for myself. I’m working under a fantastic supervisor who recently started on the job, having previously worked with similar programs at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The festivals we organize are designed to teach the community about these native cultures and to support native artists. Each festival consists of Heritage Insight programs, performances, artist booths, art demonstrators, and food vendors. The Heritage Insight programs are lectures and panel discussions from prominent members of the community – for the Hopi Festival, we are planning a tour of local fauna with a Hopi botanist, a lecture on recent Hopi art auctions, and a lecture on how eating traditional Hopi foods can improve your health. The performances consist of dance groups and bands – for the Zuni Festival, we had one of only two native marching bands in the country; a traditional family dance group; and Zuni Olla Maidens, women who dance with olla pots on their heads.

Recently, I was invited to attend Hopi Kachina Dances in the villages of Hotevilla and Shungopavi. Dr. Robert Bruenig, the director of the Museum, has close relations with many Hopi families, and was invited to attend the dances. He brought along my supervisor and myself so that we could meet some of the people who would be important to the success of our Hopi Festival of Arts and Culture, which we are in the midst of planning for July 5th and 6th.

There are two parts to a Kachina dance – the Kachinas and the clowns. Kachinas are the spirits or gods of the Hopi. They are mostly good – bringing food and blessings. There are ogre Kachinas that are supposed to scare naughty children but they don’t appear in these Kachina dances (there’s a different type of dance for each month). The dances are done by men dressed as Kachinas, with a mask symbolizing which spirit they are representing. We saw quail Kachina, which haven’t been seen for fifty years, and cornboy Kachina, which are more common. The Kachinas do 8 sets of 3 dances each day, from dawn until dusk, with a long lunch break in between. They emerge from the katsinki (spelled phonetically, not accurately. Hopi spelling is hard) for each set, bringing more and more food each time. Every family contributes as much food as they can and the Kachinas distribute it evenly among the crowd. The entire town sits three or four rows deep on the ground along the plaza and on the roofs of the houses along the plaza to watch the dances and the Kachinas throw food to them – fruit and vegetables and bread and popcorn and potato chips and all sorts of food. I got hit in the head with a nectarine, and the man standing next to me caught a loaf of bread like a football.

The clowns perform in between the Kachina dances. The clowns are men painted white or yellow, wearing only loincloths. They represent all that is wrong and un-Hopi – they spend the day encouraging children to curse out their parents and stealing food and mocking the audience. Near the end of the day, the raider Kachinas come out and beat the clowns with branches and throw water on them to punish them. Later, there’s a forgiveness dance where the Kachina and clowns make up and the clowns start behaving better. In this way, the clowns teach the audience how not to behave, but they also teach forgiveness.