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Artist Kelli Palmer, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon, weaves hats, purses and baskets in the Wapus tradition, a delicate weaving technique that uses 100-percent cotton thread. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Artist Kelli Palmer, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon, weaves hats, purses and baskets in the Wapus tradition, a delicate weaving technique that uses 100-percent cotton thread. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Arts & Entertainment Columns Hit the Road

Oregon’s High Desert museums

It’s a glorious October day as I drive north from Bend, Oregon, to the Warm Springs Reservation in the state’s High Desert.

The flat landscape and straight road change dramatically as I get closer. Suddenly I’m weaving through canyon walls as the road parallels the Warm Springs River.

Just as suddenly, Mount Jefferson, a 10,495-foot peak in the Cascade Range appears at 11 o’clock. This panorama begs for a photo, but I’m doing the driving, so I have to leave it at that.

Native American artist and weaver Kelli Palmer meets me at the door of the 25,000-square-foot Museum at Warm Springs. Opened in 1993, the museum is a repository of history, art and culture of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — the Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute.

(An 1855 federal treaty took 10 million acres in Central Oregon from the Wasco and Warm Springs tribes. They and the Paiute now live on 640,000 acres on this eastern slope of the Cascades.)

Two young visitors to the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, dance in the light of “Lair,” an immersive exhibit designed by Stephen Hendee. The artist said he was inspired by the High Desert and that the work explores the area’s environmental issues, changing climate and forest conditions, and the threat of wildfire. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Two young visitors to the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, dance in the light of “Lair,” an immersive exhibit designed by Stephen Hendee. The artist said he was inspired by the High Desert and that the work explores the area’s environmental issues, changing climate and forest conditions, and the threat of wildfire. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Palmer leads me through the semi-circular museum — a visual journey through the tribes’ histories, artifacts, exhibits of masterful beadwork and weaving, and a photo exhibit documenting “the proud spirit and identity of American Indian powwow dancers throughout the United States and Canada.”

We arrive at a mural of a photo taken in the 1920s of a reservation road-repair crew. Palmer points out her maternal grandfather, then about 5 years old and in overalls, the son of a Japanese immigrant.

“(My mother told me) that the kids had to go with their dad to work because there were no babysitters,” Palmer says.

On another day, I’m driving in the opposite direction.

A few minutes south of Downtown Bend is the High Desert Museum, celebrating its 40th anniversary. Today, a unique mix of environmental and history exhibits, trails, 150 animals, outdoor sculptures and avant-garde art acquaints visitors with Central Oregon.

“We tell the story of this region through history, art, cultures and nature,” says Director of Communications Heidi Hagemeier. “The museum is engaging on so many levels for all generations.”

As we walk the grounds, we see adults of all ages and children wandering the 135 acres to explore a 1904 High Desert ranch that features a house, chicken coop, root cellar, barn, sawmill and woodworking shop. At times, there are docents in period dress telling stories and engaging in activities of the era.

“They are fun to talk to because they remain in character,” Hagemeier says.

Wildlife specialist Aaron Rubin works to acculturate a barred owl to visitors at the High Desert Museum. The museum’s animal-residents can’t be returned to nature because of injuries and other reasons. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Wildlife specialist Aaron Rubin works to acculturate a barred owl to visitors at the High Desert Museum. The museum’s animal-residents can’t be returned to nature because of injuries and other reasons. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

There also are interpretive trails where birds of prey, reptiles, fish, mammals, otters and other High Desert animals reside; a life-sized mare and foal sculpture caught in a tender moment but fashioned from sturdy barbed wire; and the gallery featuring “Lair: Light and the Art of Stephen Hendee.” The installation is constructed of corrugated plastic sheets, black tape and 9,000 sequentially programed LED lights. Hendee says that the work explores the High Desert’s environmental issues, changing climate and forest conditions, and the threat of wildfire.

“This is a contemporary, immersive exercise,” says art and experience developer Dustin Cockerham, who worked with Hendee for two weeks to create the colorful, ever-changing exhibit. “You don’t very often see a museum that has both animals and art.”

How to go: Nonstop flights on Alaska Airlines to the Bend/Redmond airport are available from San Diego, Burbank and Palm Springs.

For more photos and discussion, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash and Instagram at elouiseondash.

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