Indian art reflects "sacred connection" to gospel truths

Passing under a stylized adobe entrance imitating Southwestern Indian architecture, the visitor gets the impression of having moved into a different time and place. Yet, the Latter-day Saint finds much that is familiar in terms of themes and concepts.

The entrance leads to a new exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art, "Sacred Connections: Art and Native American Latter-day Saints in the Southwest."

Culminating 14 years of research, the exhibit is a comprehensive collection of pottery, rugs, sculpture, painting and silver work. It focuses largely on art from Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo Indians. But other tribes are represented also, including Ute, Paiute, Zuni, Pima, Maricopa, Apache, Havasupai and Hualapai.

A common thread-- and the element that will be clear to Church members-- is a celebration of LDS values, particularly as they coincide with and pertain to Southwest Indian tradition and culture. Hence the title, "Sacred Connections."

"I remember reading a statement by someone who was asked what one has to give up to join the Church, " said Richard Oman, senior museum curator. "The answer was, "Nothing that's true." That's the message of this exhibit. Truth, wherever you find it, is part of the gospel."

Viewing gospel truths from the perspective of another culture sometimes can make them more meaningful, he observed.

To illustrate, he pointed out a Navajo Tees Nos Pos rug that had been in the Salt Lake Temple, and more recently, in the Council Room of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Handwoven from wool, the rug is characterized by an energetic, yet balanced and symmetrical design.

"The idea of the Navajos is that one should be active and dynamic, but also very centered, self-controlled and balanced. That's a characteristically LDS idea. It's not enough just to sit and be contemplative; we need to be active. And it's not enough just to be active; we need to be self-controlled and balanced. So in a sense, a rug like that is a diagram of a way of seeing the world, a diagram of how we ought to live our lives."

Brother Oman has visited Indian reservations in southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico many times to research and assemble the exhibit. He has observed that art among native American peoples seems to draw generations together rather than dividing them, as it sometimes does in other cultures.

"I've seen three generations sitting at the same table, making pots together," he remarked.

In such a culture, old people are seen as the "custodians of wisdom," Brother Oman said, as reflected in a dramatic painting, "Grandfather," by Jim Abeita of Crown Point, N.M.

Another common value in LDS and Native American cultures is the idea of home as a sacred place. A dramatic item in the exhibit is a replica of a Navajo hogan, about a third of the size of most hogans.

Visitors may enter the hogan and sit down. Brother Oman pointed out that the hogan always faces east so the sun, representing God, can shine into the entrance.

"The sun's not supposed to catch you in bed in the morning," he noted. "And you're supposed to have the hogan neat and orderly in the morning. Otherwise, the Lord might look down on you and say, `These people aren't taking care of what they already have; why should they get more?' That's not bad advice."

Much of the art reflects gospel and scriptural events and concepts. Characteristically native American, it is another "sacred connection."

"Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life," by Harrison Begay Jr. of Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M., depicts that event in fired clay pottery.

"Three Degrees of Glory" by Wilbert Hunt ("Blue Sky Eagle") is a silver pendant showing the sun, moon and stars representing the degrees of heavenly glory to which people will be assigned after the last judgment. Also on the pendant is a parrot, the symbol of the Acoma Pueblo tribe. According to tribal tradition, the Acomas came from far to the south, from a tropical climate.

Missionaries who carried the gospel to the Native American peoples of the Southwest are also regarded as a sacred connection. That is dramatically illustrated in the story of Tom Polacca, a Hopi who learned about the Church from Chief Tuba, another Hopi converted by Jacob Hamblin. Brother Polacca was probably baptized in the 1870s. The town of Polacca, Ariz., is named for him.

He lost contact with the Church when missionary efforts in the Southwest came to a halt around the turn of the century. When he was old, he called his children together at his ranch and told them someday the missionaries would return, bringing with them the Book of Mormon. He asked his children to promise they would wait for the return of the missionaries who would bring the book.

Years later, stake missionaries from Snowflake, Ariz., did come and met Tom's waiting children, who were subsequently baptized.

"With that event, some of the finest Hopi artists in the world joined the Church," Brother Oman noted.

"The Conversion of Tom Polacca" is a clay pot made by Tom's grandson, Thomas. On it are scenes and figures symbolizing his grandfather's spiritual odyssey.

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