Museum of an Unreal World : Antelope Valley: This ethnocentric showcase of American Indian artifacts displays more artistic license than historical verity.
Howard Arden Edwards, who played a colorful role in Antelope Valley history in the 1930s, had many professions in his life. He was a professional roller-skater, decorator, playwright, semipro wrestler, artist, circus clown, night-school teacher, set builder and whistler.
But Edwards, who died in 1953, would hardly be remembered now, had he not pursued one other endeavor--museum founding.
In 1928, on a lonely stretch of desert land about 20 miles east of downtown Lancaster, Edwards began building a museum to house his American Indian artifact collection. The building, now known as the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, has gone through a few other owners since then. Finally, in 1979, it was bought by the California Parks and Recreation Department, which evaluated the collection of pottery, jewelry, Kachina dolls, pictographs, tools, clothing, rugs and implements. In 1982, the state opened the museum for public tours.
But the building still bears the stamp of its eccentric founder. For starters, where else could you find an American Indian museum built in the style of a Swiss chalet?
“He was an unusual person, to say the least,” said Edra Moore, who is the state’s “museum technician” at the site, a title that she said “means I am everything from janitor to curator.” It is also part of her job to explain to visitors that Edwards’ romantic, ethnocentric notions about Indian village life, as reflected in the way he displayed the items, have long gone out of style.
Standing in front of the building on the rocky desert ground, Moore, who arrived here two years ago, gave the building an affectionate look and started to laugh. “The first time I saw this place,” she said, “I just thought I would die.”
Edwards built his dream museum on the forlorn site because it was available free to homesteaders. He probably gave its exterior a chalet look because he was part Swiss. The interior, however, was pure whimsy. He incorporated the giant granite boulders that he found on the property into the design, letting the rock faces jet into the main downstairs room. He made other walls out of cement, plaster, paint and other materials he mixed together to look like boulders. For the downstairs room, he also installed a small pond.
A gap between the boulders was widened to provide a pathway between the first and second stories. Pottery shards were embedded in the rock walls of the pathway to make it appear to be a cave that had once been inhabited.
The second story, where he built display cases, rested directly on top of the boulders. When the state took over, it filled the small gaps in the rocks with cement to make them easier to walk on.
Edwards enlisted the help of his wife, young son and several friends to help build his dream house-museum. The museum was not, however, his full-time job. He spent most weekdays in Los Angeles, teaching adult art courses at Lincoln High School while his wife and son were left at the site to continue the work. They also had to live at the site full time to fulfill homesteading requirements.
Early in the project, their only protection from the elements was a tent. “It must have been miserable out here for them when the weather was harsh,” Moore said.
Edwards had the ability to get others to help him realize his dreams. His art students would often make the trip back to the site with him on weekends to lend a hand, according to the museum’s historian, Marg Borchers. They painted Indian symbols and murals of scenes of Indian life on the walls and even the ceiling, and they built wooden furniture. They made about 30 display cabinets to hold his collections of sea-grass weavings, bone tools, cooking pots, shell jewelry, carvings and ancient implements, most of which had been found in the Antelope Valley and coastal areas.
These displays on the second floor of the building are the most controversial part of the museum. For several of them, Edwards spun romantic tales about the Indians that he imagined used the items in the collections. For example, he devoted one case to “The Dawn Maid” and filled it with decorative pieces that she supposedly wore and used thousands of years ago.
“These personal belongings,” Edwards wrote on a sign he put in the case, “show us that the Dawn Maid was well-to-do, religious, quite modern for her age and a very fastidious woman.” The Dawn Maid, he wrote, was in love with a warrior of the “Sea-Lion Clan,” who had his own case.
“Any Native American would be offended by the ethnocentricity of these silly stories,” Moore said, “but you have to consider that it was a different time. Back then, private museums were more concerned with collecting than with showing the life ways of a people. Museum people looked at other cultures through their own cultural biases.”
The state, however, decided to keep these display cases intact. “In part, this is a museum of a museum,” Moore said. “It shows how museums used to do things. It’s part of what this place is about.”
Regardless of how they are displayed, some of the pieces are of great value to scholars. Charles Rozaire, now curator emeritus of anthropology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, spent time at the Antelope Valley museum in the 1950s examining fragments of sea-grass weavings in the collection.
“By studying them I could determine the many variations these coastal Indians used,” he said. “Some of these fragments were 800, 900 years old. I was glad to be able to examine them there.”
Some of the pieces in the collection could not be obtained, legally, for a museum today. “A lot of this stuff was collected before the antiquity laws were highly developed,” Moore said. “Now Indian artifacts are highly regulated. In some cases Indians have even asked for the return of some items considered sacred.”
Moore said American Indian groups have not, as yet, asked for the return of anything from the Antelope Valley museum.
Edwards and his family moved back to Los Angeles when the residency requirement had been met, about two years after construction began. They visited the museum mostly on weekends and Edwards let tourists in to see it for a small fee.
In 1939, he sold it to Grace Fear, an anthropologist. She added her own considerable collection of Southwest Indian art to the house and opened it to the public, off and on, until 1948 when a couple bought it and made it into a dude ranch. Two years later the dude ranch failed and Fear, who was now known as Grace Wilcox after a divorce, bought it back. She had it until the 1970s when she became debilitated by illness.
A group of local residents successfully lobbied the state to take over the museum. In 1979, the state paid $268,000 for the house and about 150 acres of land at the site. The state contributes some operating funds and pays Moore’s salary, but much of the work of maintaining the museum displays, promoting the museum and conducting tours is done by the Friends of the Antelope Valley Museum volunteer group. They also hold fund-raisers and membership drives to help support the operation.
Additionally, some money is raised from the small admission fees--$2 for adults, $1 for children--and Moore has been applying for grants for special projects, such as a proposed detailed cataloguing of the museum’s holdings.
Edwards left one other legacy--a bit of theater on a grand scale. In 1933, he wrote and directed a melodrama called “The Flaming Arrow,” which he described as “an Indian romance of the great Mojave Desert before the coming of the white man.”
He convinced his students and local residents to be in the cast, which had about 30 speaking roles and several dozen extras. The play was put on, after several days of rehearsal under the hot sun, at night in his “Theater of the Standing Rocks” on a hill above the museum. Local musicians supplied music and Edwards brought in an electric generator to power colored spotlights. The audience sat out in the open on blankets to watch the 2 1/2-hour show.
The show was enough of a hit that it was presented in 1934 and 1935.
“I wore a white, scanty, rabbit-skin costume,” said Juanita Sawyer with a giggle. Sawyer, who starred in the play in 1935 as the love interest, Nee-wa-ta, is now 79. “My first entrance I was up on a rock about 200 feet up, singing. Mr. Edwards was very proud of me.”
In the same production, Harry Du Bois, now 72 and a docent at the museum, played the role of Kama the Pendant Maker, for which he uttered such lines as, “Ye will be diggers of roots or eaters of the fish, like the people who live beside the big waters.”
Du Bois said Edwards, despite his highly romantic notions about art and American Indians, was a respected figure. “He was an artist and he had an artist’s fire,” Du Bois said. “Sure, he was a little different, but people respected him for doing something that was an expression of his feelings. They didn’t make fun of him.
“He was seen as an asset to the community.”
The Antelope Valley Indian Museum, 15701 E. Avenue M, Lancaster, near the corner of Avenue M and 150th Street East, is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission fee is $2 for adults, $1 for children. Group tours are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information, call (805) 942-0662.