Monday, May 7, 2012


"Where are you headed?" asked the LA Sheriff's Deputy as he pulled me over for a burnt out brake light. "The Antelope Valley Indian Museum," I replied. "Where's that?" he asked. "Right here in Lancaster," I told him.

Lucky for Mr. Deputy, there is still time to become acquain-ted with this unique museum. A descendant of one of the previous museum owners (Grace Oliver) recently passed away, leaving a third of her estate to this State Historic Park. Although the hours will remain limited to Saturdays and Sundays, it is now funded to stay open through 2015.

Not allowing the minor incon-venience of a "fixit ticket" to ruin my day, I drove to the outskirts of town where a brightly colored Swiss Chalet stood, surrounded by desert rocks and Joshua Trees.

The museum was originally built by Howard Arden Edwards. His primary occupation was that of a scenic designer for Los Angeles area theatres and opera houses, as well as teaching set design for southern California high schools and colleges. Additionally, he was a self-taught artist, poet, playwright and architect. He fell in love with the beauty of the Antelope Valley and homsteaded ten acres at Piute Butte.

In 1928 he built his Chalet, which included his home and his Antelope Valley Indian Research Museum, which he opened to the public in 1932.

Edwards began collecting artifacts in the 1920s. Al-though not a professionally trained archaeologist, he was recognized as a specialist in the identification of shell tools. He created storage contain-ers and labels for the collec-tions, painted posters adver-tising museum events, and identified objects in the shell tool collection.

The majority of the museum's collections emphasizes the Southwestern, California and Great Basin Indians. The Antelope Valley was occu-pied by at least four distinct groups of Shoshonean speakers including Serrano, Kitanemuk, Tataviam and Kawaiisu.

Edwards enjoyed presenting his collection in ways that he thought would be both instructive and entertaining. In summer he produced elaborate pageants to raise funds for the museum. The living room of the house is filled from head to toe not only with artifacts, but with brightly painted images on the ceilings and walls.

The original research museum was behind the living room. The entire chalet is built around the exisitng rock formation of Piute Butte and it is especially evident in the old museum. A narrow rocky stairway takes you up to the old museum area where many of Howard's original exhibits are on display.

A few of his exhibits were mixes of research and cultural stereotypes of the time about the American Indian. A few of the articifacts are fictional and invented specifically for this exhibit, based on notions that romanticized American Indians and their culture.

He also creatively labeled some objects. Effigies became manicure items and a pipe became a cigarrette holder. His mix of real and imagined history sometimes presented an inaccurate picture of Indian culture. Such items remain today as part of the original exhibit, but are clearly labeled as such. Since 1990, detailed research and computer logging has been undertaken to identify every object as accuaretly as possible. One of the more dramatic displays is a set of whale rib-bones in a model that shows how the Canalino Indians used them to build their grass huts.

Outside is a short nature walk through sacred rock formations and Joshua Trees. Hikers are asked to stay on the trail and off of the rocks. The rocks are still used today in Native American rituals.

There are no formal reser-vations in the Antelope Valley. In 1990 its Indian population was estimated to be approxi-mately 16,000. Several inter-tribal groups have established councils in Antelope Valley. Local cultural events, such as gatherings and powwows, highlight the continuing effort by the American Indian residents of Antelope Valley to preserve and revitalize their cultural identity.

In the early 1940s, anthro-pologist Grace Wilcox Oliver, purchased the property. She reinforced the main building, and added her own artifacts, converting the entire Edwards' home into the museum. As she added to the collections, she also intermittently ran the museum for the next 30 years.

In 1979, Grace Oliver donated both her and Edwards collection of artifacts and the museum became a State Park.

True, the park is bit out of the way for most Californians, sitting on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. But it's truly worth the trip and I have several friends who will gladly join me on a another visit.

If you're a hiker, you can easily make a full day of it by hiking to the top of Saddleback Butte in the morning. Saddleback can be seen from the museum and is about a three minute drive away.

For awhile there it looked like I may be making a return visit sooner than planned. The deputy who wrote my "fixit" citation at the beginning of the day forgot to check the box that indicated it was a correction and not a moving violation, making my fine significantly higher. It looked like a court appearance was the only remedy. I was willing to go, but happily, it has all been resolved.

I hope to see you at the State Parks.



  1. Saw this on Huell Howser's show and was amazed by it. Glad you did this post to remind me of its existence because I definitely want to see it.

    1. Yes a lot of folks have seen it on Huell Howser. It's a great place!

  2. nice pictures and overview of what State Parks have to offer.

  3. We visited the museum!! So worth the trip!!


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