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Thu, Feb. 20

Hoosier humanities: Anticipating Indianapolis

"Polis" means city in Greek, and never having been to Indianapolis, am I to expect a city of Indians, a Native American metropolis? It is a basketball town and a basketball state, and native writers like Sherman Alexie will tell you how much the game means on "the rez," yet I doubt there is a reservation, or a major Indian population, anywhere near the City of Indians.

There is a conference I'll be attending, catching Southwest nonstop as soon as I finish this column. I look forward to inspecting the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art downtown, the only major museum east of the Mississippi that focuses on Western states and Western tribes. "Googling" that museum on the Internet search engine reveals a staff loaded with administrative personnel, but short on curator. Is this the future? Maybe I can find the museum director, and quiz her/him on the Eiteljorg organizational chart. Curators provide content. Will I find a museum heavy on stuff but light on stories?

I am on the board of the Arizona Humanities Council, and am part of a small delegation from this state attending the National Humanities Conference's "2001 – Humanities Odyssey." Gail Leftwich, a Massachusetts attorney who is the executive director of the National Humanities Federation (all 50 state councils plus places like the Virgin Islands and Guam), and who has a great story of sharing a taxi in Boston with Tip O'Neill, has organized a stimulation program for the four-day event. My fellow conferees from Arizona include this state's Humanities Council director, Dan Shilling, who also serves as this museum's adjunct curator of the humanities; Laura Stone, program officer and astute assessor of grant applications; and Marion Elliot, a long-time servant and supporter of the arts and humanities, from Flagstaff to Yuma to Prescott.

Assuming my first evening is spent locating my colleagues, and the second searching for a large-screen TV to watch the D'Backs (a pox on the House of Brenly for pulling Schilling Wednesday night), I scan the conference program to see what's up, to see where I might introduce some new learning into this jaded, cynical gray matter during Friday, Saturday, and Sunday sessions.

There are several items of interest. Connor Prairie, which can be likened to Colonial Williamsburg as a living history museum (and generously funded by the Eli Lilly Endowment), offers an experience called "Follow the North Star." You learn first-hand about the Underground Railroad that shuttled slaves to freedom. In fact, you become a slave. Their brochure states, "Participants walk about one mile over rough terrain. The emotional impact is strong. You are treated as slaves and are told to keep your eyes down and not speak unless spoken to." The Indiana Civil Rights Commission gave this experimental program a major award. We have an active Living History program at the Sharlot Hall Museum, but I don't know if this staff, or our visitors, is ready for such deeply psychological territory.

One conference presentation, "The Future of Philanthropy," was no doubt planned before Sept. 11. I will hear from the director of the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, and from presidents of two major foundations, on the trends that will ensue during this, frankly, wartime economy. Another session explores the initiative of the Indiana Humanities Council, "Habits of the Heart," which takes its title from a phrase of Alexis de Tocqueville in his "Democracy in America," a classic book since 1835. "Habits" targets youth philanthropy, and focuses on serving, giving, and caring in the high school population. Does that worthy organization, the Yavapai County Community Foundation, want to learn more about this? I'll take good notes.

Another session whose theme is close to home is "Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West." The Arizona Humanities Council is the project director for this important project, which examines historical and contemporary issues of a river that moves through or impacts seven states, which are Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. Communities all along this critical waterway are involved in discussion groups, video productions, reports, and publications. An interesting Arizona issue is the unallocated water from the Central Arizona Project. As goes water, so goes the West. Can the rural communities win the argument for more water, or do the water-consuming regimes of Phoenix and Tucson prevail?

As I fly home Sunday from the City of Indians, I'll no doubt be offered one of those airline sack lunches: the hard-as-a-hardhat curiosity that passes for a sandwich, the humble little cookie from some phony "Kitchens of…," and the mini-bag of pretzels, which I actually counted once, having nothing to read and no window to look out of (19, one broken). I think I would prefer one of those food packets we are righteously raining on the hungry Afghani refugees.

(Richard S. Sims is director of Sharlot Hall Museum. Write to him at

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