Blending into the vast expanses of the Sonoran Desert is a museum that honors the peoples who have cultivated, nurtured, and enhanced this stunning landscape for the whole of human history. The Huhugam Heritage Center is an immersive and interactive experience focusing on the cultures of the Pee Posh (Maricopa) and Akimel O’otham (Pima) tribes. Their legacy and lives are inextricably linked to the land.
The Heritage Center’s exhibitions include master works in jewelry, pottery, basketry from artists and artisans of the Gila River Indian Community. Housed in a stunning building complex designed by StastnyBrun Architects, the Huhugam Heritage Center—just a short drive from Phoenix and Chandler—is a cultural oasis highlighting the history and spirit of a community.
The mission of the Huhugam Heritage Center, built in 2003, is to ensure the cultures of the Akimel O’otham (Pima) and the Pee Posh (Maricopa) who make up the Gila River Indian Community survive and flourish. The museum accomplishes this by bringing under one roof the work of ancestral, historical, and current artists in an atmosphere of celebration and appreciation.
The newly completed exhibit gallery features the exhibition entitled, I:ya mo heg et hihimdag kiap sgevkam him (Here is where our cultures are still going strong)/Ayuu doysh avii nyyuum chuukwer mavaauum (Here is where you will see and hear our way of life) which highlights the story and artistic accomplishments of the cultures that have thrived for generations in the valley beneath the Sierra Estrella mountain range. Displays include examples of O’otham basketry from the Breazeale and Blackwater Store collections, and an extensive display of the red clay pottery for which the Pee Posh are renowned.
Also included are exhibitions that highlight the historical accomplishments of Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh artists of the past—such as the Akimel O’otham jazz trombonist Russell Moore—and collections associated with the arts and crafts traditions of local landmarks, such as the Blackwater Store & Trading Post.
To encourage and showcase the continued development of arts and culture among the O’otham and Pee Posh, the center will feature a new Gila River Indian Community artist every three months.
While the exhibitions contained in the Huhugam Heritage Center are a revelation in themselves, the building and grounds of this cultural landmark tell their own story. Designed with feedback from the Gila River Indian Community and reflective of the local topography, the center’s curvilinear design reflects the ancestral architecture of the peoples who first inhabited the land.
In keeping with the traditions of indigenous architecture, the building is oriented to the east, while the lower floors rising upward from beneath the desert floor root the complex to the land and gesture toward the soaring skies above. The open design of the museum’s interior provides ample space for artifacts and interpretive media, but the exterior is worthy of study and appreciation on its own.