More than 20 years in the making, the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum is just months away from opening. And architect Johnpaul Jones from Seattle is happy with how it’s coming along.
“The arms are reaching out to the east to offer an encircling welcome,” he said as he toured the 52,000-square-foot building for the first time Thursday, then stopped to play a drum in the Welcoming Gallery. “There are things you can’t tell with models and drawings.”
Jones was the overall design consultant for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington – a 12-year project. It was at its grand opening in 2004 that he met Southern Ute Tribal Elder Alden Naranjo. Jones gave Naranjo a tour, and a partnership was formed.
“Throughout the design process for the Utes’ living culture center, we’ve listened closely to tribal elders and other tribal members because they are the ones who really know what their museum should be like,” Jones said.
In fact, this has been one of the most inclusive projects Jones has worked on in his 40-year-plus career.
“It was very democratic,” he said with a smile. “Usually there’s one person who makes decisions, but we needed approval from everyone for this.”
Lynn Brittner, the executive director of the museum, said she wasn’t the decision-maker, just the facilitator.
“I’d call Johnpaul and say, ‘I just have to talk to one more person,’” she said.
Meaning in everything
The main theme of the center and museum is the Circle of Life, a theme that is also the centerpiece of Ute life.
“The circle represents the circular process of life,” said Jones, who descends from the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes. “It connects them to the organic nature of life – it allows them to connect to the natural world, the animal world, the spirit world and our human world much better than a straight line. The circle encourages welcoming, honoring of each other, and the circle allows the Southern Ute people to connect to something larger than themselves.”
Details throughout the museum echo Ute life and symbols. The door handles to the Permanent Gallery, which will lead visitors through both experiential and interpretive exhibits illustrating the tribe’s history, have been etched with the symbolic tribal eagle symbol. Signs identifying each room carry a design that refers to the tribe’s long beading tradition.
“They have a lot of rich color in their regalia going back hundreds of years,” Jones said. “You can do red walls, which we did, but the best way I’ve found is to use colored glass – it really sparkles the space up.”
Designed for flexibility
The building is divided into three parts: the Welcoming Gallery, the education wing and the wing containing exhibit space and offices.
“Our education coordinator is a hunter, and we have one classroom where we can have a demonstration of how to quarter and skin an elk that has a hood to remove odors and is built so we can just hose it down,” Brittner said.
Several spaces open to the outside, where there are fire pits and seating areas, and a plaza at the entrance will provide additional space for dancing.
“There’s a place for fashion shows, cooking classes, gathering and telling grandfather stories,” Jones said. “At powwows, dancers usually have to go into the toilet to change. This building has two changing rooms where they can shower and get ready. It’s much nicer.”
The building has an area for the tribe’s young people, with flat-screen TVs, a large collection of Native American movies and a computer lab funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We want to involve the elders,” Jones said. “They have a lot of stories that are cool and teach important lessons, but they tire easily, so we have a room for them with big cushy chairs and coffee. They’re going to try to keep it so only Ute is spoken in (the elder area).”
Honoring the environment
Floors have radiant heat, and south- and west-facing windows have permanent slats on them that allow the sunlight in during the cold months and screen much of it out in high summer.
“The Ute people can teach us so much about how to get along with one another, with other nations and with the environment,” Jones said.
Sustainable materials were used whenever possible, and two passageways have “green roofs,” which Jones says saves energy and prolongs the life of roofing materials. They already have been planted with sod, with more planting and landscaping to be completed once spring arrives.
“The Ute people were some of this country’s original environmentalists,” Jones said.
Will they come?
A question on the minds of those behind the museum is whether it will succeed in drawing visitors to Ignacio from its better-known neighbor to the west.
“If this wonderful museum won’t do it, I don’t know what will,” said Mary Nowotny, the center’s media coordinator.