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USD David W. May Gallery's New Pimans Exhibit Now Open

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“Pimans:  A Bountiful Life in a Harsh Environment” is now open in the David W. May American Indian Gallery at the University of San Diego and will run until the end of March 2011. Through a variety of artifacts, photos and a short video (in which Rea interviews River Pima elders talking about their desert ecosystem, singing traditional songs, and discussing Piman lore), the exhibit looks at the Northern Pimans, who lived in the deserts and mountains of Arizona and the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and traces the effects of environmental devastation on their health and implications for current society. Pimans of the American Southwest were once a prosperous group of hunters, fishers, gatherers and desert agriculturalists, but environmental changes set in motion by European contact led to the collapse of their cultural ecosystem.

For centuries, the Pimans had subsisted on a healthy diet. Mesquite pods, a staple, were rich in fiber, complex sugars and proteins. Various wild greens gathered almost year-round supplied vitamins and trace minerals. Animal protein came from abundant fish and wild game. But excessive beaver trapping, timber harvesting and livestock grazing of their lands by both Hispanic and Anglo settlers soon led to devastation. Watersheds were severely compromised, leading to alternating dry and wet periods that led to flooding that ripped out weakened riparian woodlands and widened river channels in the lowlands. By the late 1800s, excessive groundwater pumping dropped the water table, killing mesquite basques (or woodlands) that the Pimans once depended upon for food.

Amadeo Rea, PhD, ethnobiologist and retired adjunct professor of Anthropology at USD, who has worked with the Desert Pimans for more than 45 years, curated this exhibit. When asked the purpose of the exhibit, Rea replied: “The exhibit provides a cautionary tale for the rest of society as it considers how to care for the environment in the future. I hope people get the idea that our health is intimately related to the health of the environment.”  He further explained: “Today the Pimans are recognized for having the highest-known incidence of adult-onset diabetes of any ethnic group in the world. With diabetes came other health problems, including obesity and high blood pressure. But the way in which the Pimans once lived and worked can provide many positive lessons for the future.”

Stressing his positive hopes for the future, Rea says, “People can live comfortably in a sustainable environment. The Pimans, for example, cultivated the tepary, a species of bean that is more drought and alkali tolerant and has a higher protein and mineral content than other bean species. The exhibit also highlights other staples of their diet including the giant saguaro cactus, whose fresh fruit could be dried for future use and whose whole seeds were ground and combined with whole wheat flour for a nutritious breakfast dish.”

The exhibit features four major dietary resources of Piman culture: two wild (mesquite and saguaro) and two which are cultivated (tepary beans and wheat). It also features various tools and utensils with which the Pimans gathered, prepared and stored these foods.

The exhibit is free and open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m., and by appointment. It will be closed on all university holidays.  The exhibit will permanently close on March 25, 2011. For more information, call (619) 260-4238 or visit the May Collection and Gallery

Housed in USD’s Anthropology Department in Serra Hall 214-A, the David W. May American Indian Collection and Gallery includes more than 1660 artifacts from the Southwest, bequeathed to the university in 1994 by the family of David May, who attended USD before his tragic death at age 22.

About the Curator:

The exhibit is curated by ornithologist and ethnobiologist, Amadeo M. Rea, who has worked with the Desert Pimans for over 45 years. From 1977 through 1991, he was curator of birds and mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Since 2001 he has been teaching as an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of San Diego; he retired in 2009. He holds a PhD in zoology and anthropology from the University of Arizona. Rea has worked on the Gila River Indian Reservation to enable the Pima to pass along their knowledge and understanding of the plants and animals of their desert environment. He is the author of Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila (University of Arizona Press, 1983), At the Desert’s Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima (University of Arizona Press, 1997), Folk Mammalogy of the Northern Pimans (University of Arizona Press, 1998), and Wings in the Desert: A Folk Ornithology of the Northern Pimans (University of Arizona Press, 2007).

About the Exhibit Designer:

Juliana Gay graduated from USD in 2002 with a BA in anthropology after switching from fine arts. She started as an intern at the San Diego Museum of Man in 1988, where she was eventually employed for more than 20 years. During her time at the museum she worked in the Education Department, the Physical Anthropology Department, and then in exhibits where she was able to blend her two passions best. As the museum’s exhibit designer, she was responsible for the design, development and installation of many large and small exhibits, exhibit upgrades and their maintenance. Juliana also continued to work for the Archaeological Services Department as a contract faunal analyst. She is now a freelance artist and exhibit designer.

[Excerpts from article by Liz Harman; biographical information from curator and exhibit designer; compiled by M. Wagner]

ContactJoyce Antorietto | joycea@sandiego.edu | (619) 260-4328