Imbued with Spirit


“The flute is an expression of one’s essence toward the world. This expression can be joyful. It can be prayerful. It can be life giving. It is a recognition that I am a human being making a connection to the greater world.”  — Phillip Cash Cash, Ph.D., Weyíiletpuu (Cayuse) and Niimíipuu (Nez Perce) tribes


Items made by Indigenous Plateau artists hold the spirit of their maker. Creating and using these items strengthens connections between generations of the people and landscapes of the Columbia Plateau region. At the High Desert Museum, we are changing how we care for and interpret cultural items to honor these connections through ongoing collaborations with Plateau knowledge holders.

Our new exhibition Creations of Spirit, grew from these collaborations. For the exhibition, Indigenous Plateau artists created works of art that will be used outside of the Museum. Joe Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) made a root bag that was used this past spring to gather roots. H’Klumaiyat Roberta Kirk (Wasco, Warm Springs, Diné) created regalia for young women to wear during traditional ceremonies. Natalie Kirk (Warm Springs, Wasco, Seminole, Creek, Creole) wove two baskets and Kelli Palmer (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) made a putlapa (basket hat) to be used for educational purposes. Jefferson Greene (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) constructed a tule reed canoe and paddle to be used by Native youth, and Phillip Cash Cash (Nez Perce, Cayuse) created a flute. By going out into community, these items will help continue cultural traditions for future generations. While at the Museum, they will share stories of this use to increase awareness of contemporary Plateau communities.

In the exhibition, immersive videos, photographs and quotes will convey the stories of this artwork through the voices of Plateau artists. An interactive installation by RYAN! Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation) will offer a chance to create your own design on a large Plateau basket. Alongside these works, the exhibition will feature cultural items from the collection at the High Desert Museum. We are also working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian to bring Plateau cultural items from Washington, D.C. to the Museum for the exhibition.

Ultimately, Creations of Spirit is a celebration of the Plateau people who have always been here and are still here, still creating and still caring for this place for future generations. It invites all of us to consider our responsibility to the world around us and to serve as witnesses to and support contemporary Native communities.

Learn more about the individual cultural items and how you may have the opportunity to borrow one after the exhibition closes.

Creations of Spirit will be on display through October 1, 2023.



Bringing Perspective to Oregon Encounters

A fourth grader works a crosscut saw at the High Desert Museum during Oregon Encounters, a program that shares about what the region was like in the 1840s.

From using a crosscut saw to building a wagon, the High Desert Museum’s popular annual social studies field trip brings Oregon’s history to life for fourth-grade students. For years, the Museum has hosted students from all over the state during a one-week period to explore history through living history characters, hands-on activities and other unique experiences. Known until recently as Frontier Days, this program had mostly told this history from the singular perspective of Anglo-Europeans.

In 2017, we received a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to transform this experience into an opportunity to increase student awareness of the diverse perspectives and cultures that make up Oregon’s history. However, we quickly discovered that this program redesign was not a simple process. It involved challenging questions and internal changes to our approach to education programs.

At the same time as the Oregon Heritage Commission grant, the Museum was invited to participate in the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Cultural Competency Learning Institute. This institute brings together museums from across the nation to advance diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) within their institutions. Through this institute, we learned the value of working internally to build board, staff and volunteer awareness of and investment in DEAI in conjunction with telling diverse stories through our programs. During this process, our Oregon Heritage Commission-funded redesign project served as a concrete example for increasing internal understanding of why telling diverse stories matters.

Behind the scenes at the shoot for the Letitia Carson video that was featured during the revised Oregon Encounters program.

In April 2019, our redesigned program, now called Oregon Encounters, included the stories of American Indians, African Americans, Native Hawaiians and Latinx populations. The response from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive. One student commented: “In movies, it is always white settlers, but at Oregon Encounters, I learned that so much diversity is embedded in Oregon’s history.”

In addition, we are continuing to build on these experiences to re-examine other programs. For example, we recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support Creating Together—a project that is bringing together Native experts to reinterpret our permanent exhibition on Plateau Indians. Alongside this project, we are launching a yearlong training series that will include speakers and group readings to expand staff awareness of Native perspectives. With a more culturally competent staff, we will be able to more meaningfully incorporate Native perspectives throughout our exhibitions and programs and not limit them to a single exhibition.

As museums and heritage centers diversify the stories we tell, it is equally important to build awareness and understanding within our institutions. Although this internal work is challenging and there are no road maps, it is essential to ensuring we move beyond one-time programs and meaningfully commit to DEAI.