A cultural crossroads: Cortez center is a museum, a gallery, an entertainmnet hub and much more


It’s a little bit of a lot of things.

Part museum, part art gallery, part natural and cultural resources preserve, and part gift shop featuring work by local crafters, the Cortez Cultural Center draws people from all over the world to its facility at 25 N. Market Street in downtown Cortez.

“Our mission is to provide a forum for the community’s educational, cultural artistic. and scientific interest,” says Shawn Collins, the center’s executive director.

Collins wants more local people coming through the doors. “I have to help them realize what a great resource we have,” she says.

On the job just two months, she has already formulated an idea of how to attract locals, even in these tough economic times. An anthropologist and archaeologist by training, she believes that culture defines who people are, regardless of financial situations.

Her voice becomes animated. “Maybe it’s time to see who we are, (and) then look at other people and see who they are. Try to find some of that cultural continuity, rather than (thinking) us versus them.”

She hopes to start the search in the center’s modest museum, which features Ute, Navajo, Hispanic, and Anglo American cultural exhibits, and information concerning the Hawkins Preserve, 122 acres south of town, which the Cortez Cultural Center manages.

Like the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, she wants an interactive museum. Right now, kids can design their own petroglyphs or weave on Navajo looms, but adults need similar activities. “It gives us a chance to step back and see what it was like to live in one of these cultures,” she states.

Some of the Cultural Center’s exhibits have been on display since 1988 when the facility opened. Cases need repair, and she would like to redefine the relationship between the displays.

Currently, each stands alone, without acknowledging the cultural interaction that takes place in the Four Corners. She would love to show things like the influence of European trade beads on Ute clothing construction. “And there was cultural interaction going from the Ute to the Euro Americans as well,” she asserts.

She also wants to emphasize that cultures evolve, citing the Native American dances the center presents Monday through Thursday evenings each summer. One dancer, Norman Roach, wears traditionally styled costumes, but in the neon colors of the 21st Century. Some dance groups present Navajo and Ute dances. One ensemble offers a mix of Navajo and Lakota pow wow dances.

In addition, storyteller Sharon French tells the saga of Black Shawl, her Navajo great-great-great-grandmother, who married Mormon missionary Ira Hatch. Collins wants people to see examples like hers and understand how they molded the Four Corners for both good and bad.

The Cortez Center was started on July 8, 1988, by University of Colorado alumni; it was known as the CU Center, a term still used by many locals. Eventually the college affiliation was dropped and area residents took over the center.

The Cultural Center has a gallery as well as a museum, and Collins plans to expand the concept of cultural dynamism to art classes and presentations. She hopes to open classes to teens as well as adults, and to show more work by area artists. She has drawn upon the Aspen Guard Station artists- in-residence program for people to offer programs at the Cultural Center.

Artist Jane Pederson has led journaling workshops for teens. This month, puppeteer and storyteller Don Kirk performs “Stories Worth Telling Stories Worth Hearing” for adults.

In September, the Cortez Cultural Center holds its 4th Traders Rendezvous. Descendants of trading-post families will share their ancestors’ stories with the public.

That same weekend, the center will kick up the celebration of Cortez’s 125th anniversary. Three authors, Violet Schwindt, Dale Davis, and Janet Weese, will sign their book, “Cortez: The Little Town that Could.”

As part of the festivities, Collins hopes to invite people to bring antiques that their great-grandmothers stored in attics and through them, learn Cortez’s history.

She works with antiquities through another Cultural Center program. Ancient pueblos and archaeological sites dot the Hawkins Preserve, which the center oversees.

Donated to Cortez by builder Jack Hawkins with the provision that the area offer recreation as well as cultural and natural resources, Hawkins includes the city bike path, hiking trails, and roads for mountain-bikers. Cliff climbing is allowed with a permit.

Part of McElmo Canyon, according to the reserve’s manager, Linda Raczek, Hawkins boasts habitats for foxes, skunks, deer, badgers, the occasional mountain lion, and birds.

Monthly programs, such as August’s Star Party, help the whole family better understand their Hawkins experience.

Immediate Hawkins projects focus on ruins stabilization, but like Collins, Raczek hopes to expand Hawkins’ offerings. “I’d like to see a teen intern each summer,“ she says, “And eventually build a classroom at the edge of the parking lot to better serve the children of Montezuma County.” She would like kids and adults to learn that the Hawkins Preserve is dedicated to nurturing plants and animals native to Cortez.

She wants visitors to learn to look at animals and not feed or touch them; and to not disturb plants. She wishes that they learn to leave artifacts in place for archaeological purity and out of respect for the descendants of people who lived on the Hawkins Preserve.

Above all, she would like people to understand how great a resource Hawkins is.

So would Collins. “It’s a little bit of wilderness without having to leave town,” she says.

She hopes people will help her realize her vision for the Hawkins Preserve and the Cultural Center. “I look forward to hearing their ideas,” she says.

From Arts & Entertainment, August 2011.