Penitente "crucifying" one of their own: person on huge wooden cross, which is held up by ropes, with men watching, 1888.
Penitente "crucifying" one of their own: person on huge wooden cross, which is held up by ropes, with men watching, 1888.

A timely documentary explores the life and influence of Charles Fletcher Lummis in Los Angeles and beyond.

Travel back to pre-industrial Los Angeles with KCET to explore one of the city’s key and most controversial figures. A writer and editor of the L.A. Times, avid collector and preservationist, an Indian rights activist, and founder of L.A.’s first museum — the Southwest Museum — Charles Fletcher Lummis is famed for his genius and accomplishments as well as his idiosyncratic personality. C&I talked with Juan Devis, KCETLink Chief Creative Officer, about Lummis’ influence and the documentary that captures both the man and the ethos of the era and region.

Cowboys & Indians: What made you want to do this documentary?

Juan Devis: There were a couple of reasons. Los Angeles is now the creative capital of the world. Last year we saw the opening of The Broad — that became big news. Also, we witnessed the restructuring of MOCA. A multitude of events are taking place in L.A. and there’s a lot of talk about how the region is reinventing itself and finding its artistic voice. We thought it was really important to make a gesture and a comment that L.A. has been a cultural center for a very long time.

Sometimes in L.A. we tend to have a little bit of amnesia when it comes to understanding our history and where we come from. We thought it was important to document the first museum — the Southwest Museum — which was founded by Charles Lummis 100 years ago. We have new cultural institutions in L.A., but the Southwest Museum was the first impetus. It’s also important to shine a light on what kind of a museum it is — the collection celebrates arts and culture in the Southwest.

The second reason the documentary was realized was because we felt it was particularly significant for 21st century L.A. to reckon with its indigenous past. This includes Native cultures in the Southwest but also the region’s Mexican and Spanish heritage. We thought it was critical to bring awareness to this right now, to have a read of the museum and of Lummis, considering the social times we are living.

Why did he found a museum 100 years ago that had that focus? With the current demographic rise of the Latino voice and power in the Southwest, it was important for us to recognize that this has been a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time. We use the documentary to talk about those issues and how L.A. can see itself as part of the Southwest and a historical center of people of indigenous and Hispanic/Mexican descent.

The documentary loops around to look at contemporary life. We play one of the old wax cylinder recordings that Lummis made in an effort to preserve early Spanish and Mexican folk songs — fandangos — that were slowly disappearing. In his eyes, that culture needed to be protected. In the documentary, we connect what Lummis was thinking about and doing 100 years ago to the L.A. of today and the future.


C&I: So one of the many hats Lummis wore was ethnologist or musicologist. It’s fascinating how many different things he delved into — a sort of Southwestern Renaissance man. ...

Devis: Charles Lummis’ idiosyncratic personality makes him hard to pinpoint and box into one particular place. That’s one of the reasons why so many types of people intersected with his life and his work — historians, curators, musicologists, architects. He was such a bundle of curiosity and interest. He was a writer, preservationist, the founder of a museum, one of the first people in California that made us realize the historical importance of the missions. He was also a great photographer; one of the sections of the film concentrates on his photography.

It’s still the case that he represents many things to a lot of people. When you talk to the head librarian at Brown Research Library, you discover that people from all walks of life and intellectuals from many disciplines visit the library to look at his archives.

The fact that Lummis was so curious and idiosyncratic made us curious, but it also presents a problem in defining him and his legacy in L.A. and the U.S. We believe he’s a key figure —100 years ago and now — in understanding our heritage and future.

C&I: You have referred to him as a controversial figure. What made him controversial?

Devis: Lummis made a cross-country journey by foot, which he documented in his journal [and eventual book, A Tramp Across the Continent]. He writes in it “these dirty Mexicans” to describe the people that inhabit this part of the U.S. As the journey continues, he starts to get rid of his preconceptions and stereotypes. I don’t think Lummis was ever able to completely get rid of his preconceptions, but he found an appreciation for the Southwest and became a Western-minded multiculturalist in Los Angeles who sought to preserve the culture here.

He was a Harvard-educated intellectual. He came here and tried to push forward the notion that Native communities and Mexican Americans were important, but he still saw them through that [prejudiced] lens. That’s where he is controversial. A lot of people are disturbed that Lummis didn’t give them agency to define themselves. He offered a lot of spaces to discuss and talk about issues, but always from the vantage point of a man conditioned by the time he lived in.

I thought it was important for us to talk openly about that contradiction. We could easily disregard him as nativist or racist. It would be a mistake to do so. What he left and what he was trying to do are important.

C&I: And some of that legacy is on view today at the Southwest Museum, now part of the Autry Museum of the American West. ...

Devis: Lummis founded it and did so by fundraising and convincing people that it was important to house the culture and history of the Southwest. One of the things that he really recognized early on was a critical piece of L.A.’s destiny as a city of the future. Here was a city of freeways, Hollywood, a place of reinvention, a place where you could find yourself, the edge of the West. It was a city that proposed a future for America. Lummis was not content with that idea. He believed L.A. — as much as it wanted to be model of the future — had a cultural backbone that was important to preserve.

That makes the legacy of the Southwest Museum important. The museum had fallen into disarray. There were not enough funds to keep it going properly. Did it have to do with “Who cares about a museum full of baskets and Mexican charro stuff” — when we were embracing an idea of L.A. as a modernist city that didn’t care about that heritage? Fast-forward to the Autry Museum. Under the Autry, the museum has gone through an interesting transformation. As much as the Autry is about the culture of the cowboy, it also has to be about the Southwest and Native indigenous peoples.

There is an amazing new president, Rick West, who ran the Native Museum in D.C. When the Autry decided to be caretakers of the Southwest Museum, they took on a lot in terms of the amount of care and money the building and collections would require. The Autry just redid the entire first floor galleries with intention of looking at the collections of the Southwest Museum and presenting them in a different way.

Now the first floor has the Native garden, and Mabel McKay Gallery — an extremely beautiful show. And there’s a gallery called Human Nature. We partnered with them on Tending the Wild, a six–part series that explores the environmental knowledge of California’s indigenous peoples and how they’ve actively shaped and tended the land for millennia, developing a deep understanding of plant and animal life in the process.

In this and other projects, we keep asking — as Charles Fletcher Lummis himself might have — What is the role of Native culture and history then and today? Mexican and Spanish, too.

Read more about and watch episodes from Charles Lummis: Reimaging the American West. Read about and watch Tending the Wild. Visit the Southwest Museum online.