Cocopah Tribe Museum Aims To Attract More Visitors

Apr 13, 2016

Somerton-A Native American tribe in southwest Arizona is hoping to attract more visitors to its museum as a way to help share its history and culture.

The Cocopah Indian tribe recently hired a new museum director and has expanded its hours.

The Cocopah Museum and Cultural Center which sits on the West Reservation in Yuma County surrounded by a 1.5 acre park landscaped with native trees and plants. Outside the main entrance is a traditional arrow-weed thatched home and ramada.

“This is what the Cocopah would have been living in up until you have the introduction of more refined wood like cut planks," Cocopah Museum and Cultural programs director Kathleen Bartosh said. "Kids love coming in here, and kick up dust. Usually the boys will go yea I’d love to live a day or two. I’d love to live here and camp but then I have to go home to my Xbox."

The 23-year old California native is the youngest person to ever hold this position. Her goal is to create a cultural and education experience for tribal members and visitors.

“There’s a lack of indigenous cultures and lack of indigenous history whenever you go into a classroom," Bartosh said. "That’s something that’s beginning to change but it’s not changing fast enough.”

Vice chairman of the Cocopah Tribe J. Deal Begay, Jr. echoes the same sentiment. 

“Our younger generation is caught up with the technology and all of things that happen around the world," Begay said. "Everything is moving fast and they forget who they are at times and so that’s where we come in as elders or older people that know the language and know the history."

"We like to see our kids understand where you came from it is right here this is where your land is from this is where you’re from this your area where you need to take care of," Begay said.

On average, the museum receives about 500 visitors a month and the tribe hopes to attract more visitors by making a few changes.

"We've been there for thousands of years. I’ve been through the Yuma area talking with officials and people that are non-tribal andwas surprised that they didn’t know about the Cocopah tribe," Begay said.

The museum expanded its hours of operation by opening on Saturdays for people who cannot go during the week because of work or school. Presentations about the Cocopah tribe’s culture and history will be given at Yuma County’s main library and the tribe has also started releasing new advertising about the museum.

When you first step through the museum’s doors, the lights turn on due to a sensor and you hear a recording of Native American bird songs.

The first thing you see is a dominating life size diorama of a domestic life scene along the Colorado River. The diorama takes up the main entrance of the building.

There are four adults and two children. The women are wearing traditional willow bark skirts. They are grinding corn preparing the family’s next meal. The men are wearing loin cloths and are working on a grill net for fishing. Another man is working on a gourd musical instrument.

Begay says exposing younger generations to the culture of the Cocopah is one of her main goals.

“Some of the challenges I would say is that we don’t have our language written down," Begay said. "We're starting to do that now and trying to get some written words because before we just told the story orally, that’s the way it was traditionally.”

On the day of our visit, A group of preschoolers from Chicanos Por La Causa, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for the state’s Hispanic population, were visiting museum for a field trip. 

“It’s all about trying to tie in the exhibition we already have with the groups that we have coming in," Bartosh said. "So if we have kids, we trying to say are you learning gourd? Are you learning from your parents, do they sing? Or are you playing peon? Are you learning about peon? Have you heard about these classes coming up?”

One of the newer exhibits is dedicated to past and present Miss Cocopah winners since 1984. But Bartosh said the women are more than just scholarship pageant winners.

“They were able to be positive role models for the youth because they represented the tribe at different cultural events that they had and the traditional gatherings that they had throughout the southwest," Bartosh said.

Museum guests can also see examples of traditional clothing such as bark skirts and examples of the more modern dress worn by women during ceremonies or cultural events.

Modern-day beadwork, arrow weed-woven baskets, pottery, traditional tattoo designs and musical instruments are also on display.

The museum also maintains a non-circulating archive filled with Cocopah artifacts and information.

"It’s something that we really like to stress here that the Cocopah have 3,000 years of history along the Colorado River but it’s not in the past tense," Bartosh said.

"They’re still teaching their children," she said. "They’re still keeping these traditions alive. It’s inspiring."

Cocopah Museum and Cultural Center has expanded its hours to allow more visitors.
Credit Cocopah Indian Tribe

Beadwork and Gourds made from members of the Cocopah Indian Tribe. Many pieces of jewelry are on display at the Cocopah Museum and Cultural Center.
Credit Cocopah Indian Tribe