Celebrating 3 Decades

Oregon’s first tribal museum shares history, preserves culture

By Drew Myron

Liz Woody’s favorite place at The Museum at Warm Springs is not the display of colorful ceremonial clothing, the exhibit of family heirlooms or the collection of historic photographs. The executive director prefers the lobby, where light and shadow move across slate and stone and where hefty columns hold a fortress of history.

The operation opened 30 years ago, breaking ground as Oregon’s first tribal museum. It serves as both preservation of the past and celebration of a culture that continues to evolve.

Designed to resemble the shape of a drum, The Museum at Warm Springs’ rock wall entry welcomes visitors to a place of preservation and celebration. Photo by Drew Myron

“It’s a space that shapes how you think and feel,” says Liz, the first tribal member to lead the museum and its fifth director.

In every detail, from architecture to artifacts, the museum shapes visitors’ experiences.

There are 236 tribal museums in the United States, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Oregon has 3. They are in Grand Ronde, Pendleton and Warm Springs. The Museum at Warm Springs led the way.

Sharing the arts and culture of the reservation is essential, says Lillian Pitt, a Warm Springs artist. Lillian was on the committee that worked for years to collect nearly 3,000 artifacts at risk of being sold to private collectors and becoming permanently lost.

“By letting people know our culture, it lets them know we’re still here,” she says.

Warm Springs Reservation is home to the Warm Springs, Wasco and Northern Paiute tribes. Roughly 3,500 people live on the reservation, bordered by the slopes of the Cascade Mountains on the west and the Deschutes River to the east. The museum features 3 centuries of three distinct peoples.

The one-story, 25,000-square-foot museum was designed by Portland architects Donald Stastny and Bryan Burke, who aimed to create a monument to the three tribal cultures. Design concepts were rendered through a series of tribal meetings and talks filled with storytelling and tales.

With attention and intention, symbolism abounds. Stone walls at the entry suggest the shape of a drum. Brick design creates a basketweave pattern. A pyramid above a gallery is crowned with a skylight to represent a tipi. Walls are tinted in a tawny basalt hue. The administrative wing resembles a longhouse. The tiles on the floor meander like a river.

At the museum entrance, inscribed in large letters is the word “twanat,” which means “to follow, as in ancestral teachings, cultural lifeways.” The entrance doors require a hefty pull as visitors cross a threshold into history’s heavy toll.

A group of schoolchildren watches a dance performance at the museum. Photo courtesy of the Museum at Warm Springs

The collection includes family heirlooms, gifts and keepsakes that have been passed on from generation to generation, as well as Pacific Northwest paintings, sculpture, masks, ceremonial clothing and beadwork. The museum’s archives include 5,000 photographs dating from the 1850s.

The artifacts “illustrate our history, demonstrate our sovereignty and honor our tenure on the land,” Liz says. “They are part of our culture’s woven tapestry.”

Gathering these items began years before breaking ground on the museum. Recognizing that private collectors and off reservation institutions were buying much of their wares, tribal leaders allocated $50,000 a year for the purchase of artifacts from individual members and families of the Warm Springs community. More than $1.5 million has been allocated to date.

Their effort represents perhaps the most aggressive acquisition program ever undertaken by an American Indian group, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

After 3 decades, the museum is showing wear. Liz says the building needs maintenance. Recent improvements have included critical upgrades to the security system and the heating and cooling system.

Still, the walls need fresh paint. Wood needs to be shined, floors need to be waxed, and the landscape needs more care.

Bigger needs loom, and the list is long: improved lighting in exhibit areas, an off-site area for storage that would meet conservancy standards, and the addition of a commercial kitchen, classroom space and outdoor space.

These big projects require more funds at a time of economic challenge.

Fundraising efforts are ongoing and focused on private donations, foundations and grants. Liz says federal grants could yield more substantial rewards but would require the museum to meet more rigorous standards, a difficult effort with limited staff, time and money.

Once boasting a staff of 20, The Museum at Warm Springs is down to 5 employees.

The pandemic, declines in tourism and a wobbly economy have affected operations,
attendance and funding streams at tribal museums and cultural centers across the nation. The Museum at Warm Springs feels the same strain. Liz says it’s a time of both operational challenges and a chance for renewal. We need to think of a new business model,” she says. “We bring the stories of the tribes to the public. It’s not just a living room for the public. It’s preservation of our culture.”

Museum Celebrates Anniversary With Special Events

30 Museum Retrospective

  • Opens Thursday, June 22

A display of designs and artwork of Donald J. Stastny, representing museum architects Stastny & Burke Architecture.

Architect Talk & Book Signing

  • Wednesday, July 26
  • Time to be announced

Donald J. Stastny, representing museum architects Stastny and Burke Architecture, revisits the origins and progress of the design process that created the museum. He will sign copies of his book, “Portals: Seeking Transcendence.”

30th Annual Warm Springs Tribal Member & Youth Art Exhibition

  • Fall/winter 2023
  • Dates to be announced

Annual Museum Gala Fundraiser

  • October 14 in Bend
  • Time and location to be announced