High Desert Museum

Entrance to the High Desert Museum south of Bend, Oregon. The statue is Lift Off, by K. Kampbell.

My Cherokee friend, Richard York, is an artist. To be accurate, multiple Cherokee friends of mine are artists, which makes me lucky to be friends with so many Cherokees. This is Richard’s second year participating in Art In The West, an art show and auction at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. A reception was planned for October 3, the final day of the show, and the date the winning bidders would be announced. Richard planned to be there, and since I missed last year’s reception, I planned to be there too. I marked my calendar early, and reserved a hotel room.

I checked in periodically during the summer, concerned the reception would be canceled…and eventually, it was.

Richard let me know. He also contacted Corporate Engagement Manager at the museum, Gail Hodge, and told her that he had friends who had hoped to attend. Hodge graciously offered to set up a personal tour. I still wanted to see the art show and the museum, and had already been looking forward to a road trip to Bend. I was soon put in touch with Heather Vihstadt, Associate Director of Philanthropy. Vihstadt asked for my questions and interests before I arrived and was ready to tell me everything I wanted to know once I arrived.

Walls at the High Desert Museum, displaying some of the pieces up for auction.

Vihstadt met me at the door and shared some background on this annual museum fundraising event. Artists represent “high desert” in a way that is meaningful to them, and the contributed pieces are placed up for auction. Most artists split the winning bids 50/50 with the museum, and some artists are able to donate the entire amount. This year was the first time that bidding was available online, and I was able to place a bid on one of Richard’s contributions, a painted drum that I have admired for a year.

Art In The West has been a tradition for more than a decade. In the early days, the museum staff – including Vihstadt – used their contacts with people in the art world to solicit work for the exhibit. These days more artists wish to contribute than the museum can accommodate, and administrators must choose which artists and how many pieces to include. It must be a tough job because everything I saw was exceptional, so I assume all of the contributions are quality. A variety of media was represented, including – like Richard’s drums – a section reserved for three-dimensional work.

A hallway at the High Desert Museum, displaying work from their 2020 Art In the West show.

I appreciated that Vihstadt explained to me the efforts of the museum to include Native topics and Native work in a sensitive way. Importantly, they include work from American Indian artists in the exhibit. At one point there was a decision to no longer accept works from non-Native artists of what was understood to be Native subjects. For example, a white artist portraying a tipi. She said there was pushback from some of the artists, but the museum held firm on their decision. I let her know how important it was to me to hear about that sensitivity and commitment from the museum. I said what she obviously already knew: even if a non-Native artist goes to great lengths to portray a subject accurately, it’s still not the Native voice. American Indians need to have platforms to use our own voices, and not have anyone else step in and speak for us.

The selection of work in the show impressed me. As I walked through, I imagined different pieces on the walls in my own home.

We walked the halls while Vihstadt shared stories of artists in the shows, past year’s receptions, hopes for the future shows. She also told me about the museum’s permanent and transitional displays, their goals for community education and connection, and how the Art In The West show helps them meet their goals. I asked if there was a reduction in interest in the show this year, since it was almost entirely virtual, and I was happy to hear that as of the evening of my tour, the silent online auction this year had almost reached the previous year’s level of bids. She said there was usually a flurry of activity right before the end of the auction (which would be in two hours), and she thought there was a chance that 2020 might actually be a record year for fundraising. Vihstadt said goodbye and encouraged me to take my time with the art, and then to take a look at the rest of the museum.

Stay a Wingspan Apart
Fox was not quite napping, and half-opened an eye to watch me for signs of trouble, and then the eyes closed again.

It was my first visit to the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, and I wanted to make the most of my time there. I did take my time and engage with every piece of artwork, since that was the reason for my visit. Then I explored the museum itself. I had fun with the desert animals first of all.

Near the walls covered in art there were owls and lizards and spiders. There were tortoises, a scorpion and a fox, porcupines, snakes and newts and frogs and more. Many of them obligingly posed for me.

At the entrance to the Hall of Plateau Indians, I looked at a traditional home covered in tule reed mats with great interest, since I hadn’t seen one up close before. I recently posted on the use of tule reeds in home building by the Modoc Indians. Best of all was that inside the tule home was a plastic cooler, an aluminum folding chair, and a Gore-Tex jacket, interspersed with what might be imagined as more appropriate, like Native blankets, beaded leathers, and traditional instruments. As I like to remind people, we Indians are still here, and we live in the 21st century. I love it that the museum is myth-busting.

I could see out the windows that it was a spectacular warm, sunny day, and the museum was due to close in an hour. Though I knew I was missing entire sections of the museum (like the Burning Man exhibit, which I know Curt and Peggy would not have skipped!) I could not stand to be indoors any longer. I went outside to explore the grounds of the museum.

Masks and distancing were encouraged at all parts of the campus.
Rose hips decorate this bush in Autumn finery.

The grounds include 135 acres and thus much of it is out of doors. There are paths through the forest, past marshy areas and ponds, with placards and signs educating visitors about ponds, forests, and wildfires. I also had fun discovering the many bronze statues of wild animals. I’m crazy about raptors, so of course I headed for the Birds of Prey section first. In that area visitors are able to meet some rescued birds, and can attend a live demonstration with the birds. I met a golden eagle and a bald eagle. The birds here cannot be released into the wild safely, and must be cared for by humans.

This handsome Bald Eagle was on the ground when I first spotted it.
With practiced precision, it flew up to perch on this post, but not so high as to whack its wings on the cage roof.

Next I wandered through the 1904 Miller Family Ranch and Sawmill. Earlier in the day I had seen volunteers dressed in period clothing who play the roles of the Miller family during the warmer seasons. I wasn’t able to see anything in action, but there is a smithy, a woodshop, and a sawmill that all appear to be set up for demonstrations. There is a big barn. I went inside to check for signs of authenticity, and I was pleased to find some worn tack hanging from posts. Beside the barn is a beautiful little log cabin.

Back of the cabin, with a cute little display of firewood, that would last two weeks in the winter, ha ha. Hanging on the wall is a familiar metal tub used as a bathtub when I was a kid, which is filled with icy well water at bath time.

I looked in the window at the little one-room cabin and gasped. It was THE cabin. Our home when I was a kid, when five of us lived in a one-room cabin with no electricity and no plumbing. I leaned far in and it even smelled like our cabin. I suppose cabins must have a common smell, combining scents from the wood stove or the wood walls or old wool blankets, who knows? Here was my childhood home and standing there, inhaling it, I had a rush of memories. There was the wood stove I learned to cook on (verrry tricky), and there was the flat iron I used. There were the inevitable metal pails, useful in so many ways. The oil lamp, and cast iron pans hanging from hooks, and tin cans and jars of canned goods always stockpiled. The plain wood floor, the multiple wood shelves, nailed right to the walls, the darling wood windows with Mom’s curtains. This cabin even had a single piece of china, on display above the window, just like Mom had a couple of precious items, set high and away from us kids, and not for use. There was a tiny, cabin-sized table, used sometimes as a table for breakfast cereal, and sometimes as a desk for homework, and sometimes as a table for cutting out patterns for sewing. The only difference was that we could not fit a bed into the one room, and instead, we all slept on blankets in the attic. There was a ladder nailed to the wall that we climbed right up through a hole in the evenings.

Almost exactly what my home looked like when I was a teenager.

After a couple years, my step dad built an addition onto the home, making it a two-room cabin. That became the master bedroom/TV room/sewing room/nursery (once our new brother was born)/living room, and the original room reverted to mostly kitchen, and we installed a counter with a sink (a bucket underneath to catch water poured in). Later we ran water from the well to the kitchen faucets, but still had to catch the draining water in buckets. When I turned about 12, Mom decided I didn’t need to sleep in the same room with my brothers anymore, so my step dad walled up the front porch (again, the porch was exactly like the one on this museum cabin). Three room cabin! That tiny room became pantry/coat room/refrigerator room/my bedroom. Don’t forget that it was originally the porch, so yes, all entries and exits to the house were through my bedroom.

Yes! Refrigerator room! Little by little, my parents saved and made improvements. It cost a lot to get electricity to the property, so for a time our source of power was an electric pole out in the yard with an electrical outlet on it. We built a tiny platform off the pole, and we began having ultimate luxuries like waffles or real toast, when Mom set an appliance on the platform and plugged it into the pole, or when she hauled the ironing board out there and plugged in a new electric iron. We even acquired an old ringer-washer, and ran an extension cord from the pole to the washer behind the house. I was unfortunate enough to get my hand caught between the rollers, while being foolish and trying to see if I could get one of my brother’s baby socks through it. I wonder how many people today can tell a story about getting their hand caught in a ringer-washer?! Luckily my screams raised not only the dead, but also my step dad, who came running and, unable to pull my hand free, reversed the spin and rolled my poor squished hand back out. It hurt for hours, but I was fine. Anyway, one day we finally were able to bring power all the way to the house, and then we could install a refrigerator in my bedroom.

I also have lots of outhouse stories to tell. But I’ll spare you. Walking around the cabin at the museum, I overheard a mother talking to her son, who had asked about the tiny hut with a door. “That’s an outhouse,” Mom said, and pointed to the buildings. “A long, long time ago, people’s bathrooms were like that. And they had to live in houses like this.” I shook my head and laughed to myself. A long, long time ago, when I was a teenager.

A chipmunk came tearing across the forest floor and hopped up onto this rock beside me and began chowing down on this thing. It looked like a fungus or mushroom of some kind. Or else a giant, seasoned peanut from a tourist? I mean, not to body shame, but she’s not exactly emaciated.

I checked my watch and saw that I was almost out of time. The museum was about to close. There was one last exhibit I wanted to see: the otters! I had heard they are a particularly beloved part of the High Desert Museum. As I approached, a man told me that in his experience, the otters were hams for the camera and would perform for me. He told me to get up close and let them see the camera in my hands. I followed his advice and got a neverending show. I can’t say the otters wouldn’t have engaged in the same antics without cameras on them, but I’m willing to believe they are actually hams. They chased the humans around, going to the closest location and goofing around for them; either on land or in the water. When the otters spotted humans heading for the door leading underground, all three dashed to the water and dove deep, doing tricks in front of the viewing window. They were irresistible and I stayed there with one other couple until there was a call over the loudspeaker that the museum was closing and we had to leave.

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The video is better if you play it in higher resolution. These three goofball otters seem oblivious to my presence, and it’s almost convincing, until right there right before the clip ends, one of them looks directly up at me. Oh don’t you worry, my friend, I got it all on tape. You look mahhvelous.

That evening I received a text from the museum that I had won the art piece I bid on. When I get it I’ll post some pics and tell you why I love it so.

4 thoughts on “High Desert Museum

  1. Very neat reading about your house. I have somewhat similar memories of the house we lived in, in Italy . . . Very different from the way people live now, that’s for sure.

    And, yes, outhouse stories . . . also best left in the past.

    1. Ha ha ha! I’m glad someone can relate to outhouse stories. They are often good stories, and best appreciated by someone who can relate. For some silly reason, I have been drawn to outhouses ever since. I was in Myanmar a couple years ago, and in the rural areas they use a lot of outhouses, so I got to experience it all over again. 🙂 My memories from childhood are rare, as yours must be as well. In Italy and the US, living like this just doesn’t happen much anymore. I’m only 50, so I don’t remember coming across a person in my life who shared these kind of memories.

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