Published: June 1, 2011 By

shelbyShelby Tisdale (Anth’80) has her dream job.

“Every day when I walk through the galleries I feel surrounded by so much beauty,” she says. “Everything is handmade. I have such deep respect for the Native American ancestors and their descendents.”

As director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, N.M., Shelby oversees 11,500 years of Native American history. The broad collection contains almost 10 million archaeological artifacts and about 75,000 ethnographic materials and fine arts.

Access to the native communities means this museum and its educational programs function differently than most. Members of the neighboring pueblos are asked for input to ensure historical accuracy of the collections documentation. Shelby says incorporating their voices in these exhibits and programs is critical. Furthermore, educational kits help children and youth learn about their cultural traditions.

“We are working with the pueblos and youth to create gardens of traditional food — beans, corn and squash — and its preparation,” Shelby says of the two-year-old project headed by her Navajo staff.

Her career path was shaped by a blend of anthropology, archaeology and museum studies led by anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven and CU Museum of Natural History curator, the late Joe Ben Wheat.

“CU laid the foundation for where I am today,” she says. “I like to look at archaeological history and make it current by viewing living people in terms of their land, water rights and health issues such as diabetes.”

She has seen expanded dialogue among museums and Native Americans while serving on the Smithsonian Institution Repatriation Committee.

“It’s the most important collaboration I’ve seen in the museum where we play an active role,” she says. “It’s really important to me as an anthropologist/archaeologist to follow the law and have open communication.”

Whether working as a curator, director or collections manager, Shelby’s 32-year career has taken her to museums in Seattle, Palm Springs, Calif., Tulsa, Okla., Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico — all focused on Native Americans. She has captured their art and culture as director of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos with its jewelry collection and through her writing and editing of a book on Dine [Navajo] textiles.

“I love my work but I’d love to be a full-time writer,” she says. Her most recent book, Spider Woman’s Gift: Nineteenth-Century Dine Textiles (University of New Mexico Press), is scheduled for release in June.