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Themes of the American Southwest

Themes of the American Southwest

Created especially for the Millicent Rogers Museum

The words, “the American Southwest,” immediately trigger a universally recognizable set of images: the massive buttes and spires of Monument Valley, the magnificent vistas of the Grand Canyon, and the stark and barren landscape that is Death Valley. In addition, our mind’s eye envisions the twisted trunks and branches of mesquite trees among the sagebrush and bunch grass, while rattlesnakes, horned toads and gila monsters rest in the shade of cholla, ocotillo and giant saguaro cacti. Above the landscape, an unrelenting sun bakes both land and people. This same sun, however, rewards all present at the end of each day with multi-colored sunsets that provide an array and depth of color not seen elsewhere. When we think of the Southwest’s inhabitants, Spanish-speaking Hispanics first come to mind followed by the Apache, the Comanche, the Pueblo peoples and the Navajo. While each of these images is true enough, this collection of impressions comprise only part of the Southwest. They neither fully nor accurately represent all its facets and nuances. The American Southwest is far too vast and complex for simple constructions or definitions.

The cultural and historical complexity of the Southwest can best be understood through three major themes that recur over time:

  • The nature of Southwestern geography and topography has led to a kind of separatism in which different eras and different cultures exist side-by-side, but remain separate from each other. The past and present are not only more visibly present here, but also remain, ironically, juxtaposed.

  • Extensive “cross-pollination” has occurred among contemporary cultures while neither assimilation nor syncretism has taken hold.

  • The history of the American Southwest is both rich and deep. As part of the overall American experience, the Southwest becomes increasingly important as post-Second World War trends continue and the Hispanic population of the United States grows in both numbers and importance.

With these in mind, let’s take a look at the complex and complicated region that is the American Southwest.