A Wedding at the Museum? Tohono O’odham Cultural Center Does it All

There's a museum in the south of Arizona that hosts storytelling, artifacts, and even brides and grooms.

There’s a little-known museum nestled among the mountains of the Sonoran Desert in Southwestern Arizona, and this is no ordinary museum. Tribally-owned and operated by the Tohono O’odham Nation, this museum goes the extra mile.

“The community uses the facility for many things,” said Bernard Siquieros, tribal member Curator of Education and Acting Museum Administrator. “We’ve had events held there, weddings, reunions, graduations. It’s a facility that’s there for the community.”

Known as Himdag Ki: Hekihu, Hemu, Im B I-Ha’ap, the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum, funded by casino revenues, has spent the last decade documenting and preserving Tohono O’odham history, culture, and language. And they recently celebrated that decade with speakers, vendors, cultural demonstrations, and sorry, folks, no wedding – this time. Though the day did open with ceremonial runners leaving Baboquivari Mountain, a sacred mountain to the O’odham.

Maya Bernadett/Waila band South Image performs at the tenth anniversary celebration of the Tohono O’odham Nation Museum and Cultural Center in Topowa, Arizona.

Maya Bernadett/Participants sing traditional songs and dance at the 10th Anniversary of the Tohono O’odham Nation Museum and Cultural Center in Topowa, Arizona.

More than 300 souls partook in the celebration, which culminated with traditional singing and dancing, and waila band South Image performed. What is Waila? It’s known as “chicken scratch,” a type of Tohono O’odham music that incorporates accordions, saxophones, electric string, bass guitar and drums. The melodies sound like polka or Norteño music, but with a unique O’odham flavor.

Tribal member Beverly Harris, who participated in the event, said her favorite part of the good times was a panel on the O’odham Women’s Community Art project. “It was incredible,” she said. Harris enjoyed hearing the women’s stories on overcoming obstacles. The art project consisted of life size panels of O’odham women dressed in traditional wear, each one telling a story about what it means to be an O’odham woman. When asked how the O’odham museum is different from other museums in the area, Harris said that “it’s done a lot for the people – I didn’t realize how many people come here.” She says it allows O’odham to express their creativity and get involved in the community in a way that they couldn’t at any of the mainstream museums.

Maya Bernadett/An art panel from the O’odham Women’s Community Art Project. This panel depicts an O’odham woman in traditional dress carrying a pot on her head, historically a common method of transporting materials.

Tribal member Bernard Siquieros, the curator of education and acting museum administrator, said he hopes to expand attendance to museum events to all of Arizona, and beyond.

“I think we were happy that we got more people than we anticipated,” he said. Siquieros estimated that about 80-percent of the ten-year celebration were O’odham and 20-percent were friends of the museum and others who had heard about the event. When asked about the significance of the museum, Siquieros noted that unlike other museums in Arizona that showcase O’odham, the Nation’s museum is community-based.

Indeed, the museum is a place for culture, community, say the O’odham people, and even a place and space for glorious indigenous matrimony.

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