An exhibit thousands of years in the making finally opened last month at Sharlot Hall Museum.

The Yavpé Ethnobotany Garden at the Museum is an organic, living exhibit that showcases the resourcefulness of indigenous peoples literally living off-the-land that became Arizona.

For centuries, the Yavpé (people of the sun) relied on native plants, flora and fauna for their necessities… for their survival.  This new garden and exhibit honors their creativity and survival methods, and continues to be a work-in-progress that will take decades to fully re-create its flourishing finish.

The dedication event held December 18, marked the initial phase for a march through time sponsored by the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe.  The goal is to transform much of the Museum grounds to a drought-based re-creation of pre-incursion native plants, shrubbery and habitat. 

At the garden dedication, Dr. Sandy Lynch, emeritus curator of archaeology at the Museum, described the history of this garden, and the painstaking detail that went into the descriptive panels – literally more than a decade of interviewing the tribe elders for documenting both content and usage of native plants, and the indigenous names for each.

The Garden’s entrance is where the Corn Mother sculpture greets the masonry rock walls between the Governor’s Mansion and the Lawler Exhibit Center.  Its boundaries, however, will continue to expand throughout the four-acre campus, marked by the plantings and colorful identification placards.

Large exhibit panels near the Center and along the paths identify much of the ethnobotany – ‘ethno’ meaning about people, and ‘botany’ the study of plants – that will continue to flow beyond “Sandy’s Hill” of petroglyph boulders and into the open spaces around and beyond the stone structure known as the Sharlot M. Hall Building.  Over time this area will resemble (and recreate) the ancient groundscape of the native peoples.

Long before the incursion of Conquistadors from New Spain or adventure-seekers from the Eastern Colonies, the native peoples of Arizona literally lived off the land.  Ancestors of the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe shared their seasonal survival techniques, passed verbally from generation to generation, that supplied the People’s needs for food, traditional medicines and remedies, housing and shade, tools and hunting gear, bedding, bassinets and baskets, and the artistic inspiration to design them.

From trees and bushes Yavpé weavers produced bowls, burden baskets, and storage ollas with expressive designs emerging by entwining short strips of Devil’s claw into the light-colored rows of split cottonwood or willow branches.

Durable trees and shrubs, like greasewood, mesquit, scrub oak and juniper, provided the framing for Yavpé homes. Foliage from these provided the thatching for walls and roofs – insulation and protection from the blazing summer heat and bitter winter cold.  It also provided the fuel for flames to heat the shelters or cook the meals.

Besides water, a critical factor for survival in arid lands remains food. According to the elders (during interviews dating to 1994), the Yavpé moved among seasonal camps across their vast territory that featured extermes in altitutde and climate that, taken together, provided a year-round grocery store.

Season by season, families harvested food from known, reliable localities throughout the Yavpé territory that stretches from the Mogollon Rim to the banks of the Colorado River – some 20,000 square miles spanning the current Central Highlands of Arizona.

The sequence of collecting would be subject to the conditions of the season.  Family groups would travel to different locations where wild foods were ripening led by a leader who watched for signs based on knowledge handed down from many generations.  Some plants were eaten on site, but many had to be processed, carried back to base camp to be stored for use during the “starving time” (December through March).

The Yavpé Ethnobotany Garden becomes the first permanent outdoor exhibit at the Museum, according to Fred Veil, retiring executive director, and will continue to be a work-in-process for decades as it transforms a significant part of the campus into a herbalogic heritage (and historic) site.