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Emergence Staircase

Thousands of people go up and down the BookStores’ staircase without thinking much about the 48 metal panels that line it. They’d probably be surprised to know that it’s a piece of public art called “Emergence,” designed in 2002 by Gerald Dawavendewa, a Cherokee / Hopi artist and University of Arizona alumnus. “Emergence” uses and celebrates Native American symbolism to tell the story of how our world came to be.

The story begins on the lower level of the staircase, twisting upward in a counter-clockwise direction. Six star symbols represent the six directions and the beginning of the native world. As you step upward, you’ll encounter the prehistoric tribes of the Southwest: Hohokam, Mimbres, Mogollon, and the Hisatsinom. The images gathered from the tribes represent various forms of knowledge: engineering, art, astronomy, agriculture, the animal world, and components of traditional ceremonies followed by these tribes.

The second level of the staircase, coming up from the ground level, represents modern tribes and nations. The first panels on the second level are representative of the Tohono and Akimel O’odham nations, both of whom are native to Arizona – the University of Arizona is built on Tohono O’odham traditional homelands. As the panels continue around the staircase, the rest of Arizona’s many tribes and nations are represented, alongside others from beyond the Southwest. Many of the metal panels are dotted with cutouts of handprints, traced from the hands of Native women connected to our University – alumnae, parents, students, employees.

Next time you use these steps, take some time to take it in – it represents the past, present, and future of Native Americans at The University of Arizona and beyond.


At the beginning of the staircase, depicting prehistoric tribes of the Southwest, we see six stars, representing the six directions and the creation of the cosmos. Hohokam figures follow on one side, representing rituals and ceremonies that are still important parts of Native American culture. Animals are shown on the panel across from them, depicting the interconnection between nature and humans.

Moving up the progression on middle landing, you will see a depiction of a rabbit curled into a crescent-moon shape accompanied by a sunburst with 21 spines – an image that came from the imbres’ record of the 1054 A.D. supernova that created the Crab Nebula. Symbols based on Hisatsinom petroglyphs found in northeastern Arizona follow: stars representing the study of the cosmos, a doorway with a migration symbol intertwined as the sun and moon travel through, indicating the passage of time. More rock imagery depicting the Crab Nebula supernova follows, leading up into textile designs, shields, sunflower plants, and a feathered shield that represents prayers and blessings to all tribes and nations.

A multitude of symbols from contemporary nations are visible as one progresses – a Cocopa shell pendant and a Mojave beaded collar on one side, an Akimel O’odham calendar stick and deer antlers for the Pascua Yaqui on the other. A Havasupai rock pictograph stands across from a Paiute whirlwind that rotates through the four directions, and an Osage ribbonwork blanket, which embodies one’s clan and family, is visible across from a pattern derived from a Navajo “Germantown” wool rug, as well as a basket design.

On the last few panels of the staircase, you can see a phrase written in a language belonging to one of the last native groups that continues to use their own unique alphabet – the Cherokee. It is written, ᎣᏣᎳᏅᎸᎢ, or Otsalanvlvi, meaning “we are all sisters and brothers.” This is followed by depictions of constellations, a Hopi corn plant, and lastly, two girls’ handprints with an uncompleted spiral above them, representing not only their journey through life, but the future of the University.

  • Hohokam
  • Mimbres
  • Hisatsinom
  • Akimel O’odham
  • Tohono O’odham
  • Pascua Yaqui
  • Mogollon
  • Paiute
  • Chemehuevi
  • Navajo
  • Apache
  • Kwakiutl
  • Cheyenne
  • Hualapai
  • Maricopa
  • Quechan
  • Cocopa
  • Mojave
  • Yavapai
  • Havasupai
  • Lakota
  • Crow
  • Osage
  • Cherokee
  • Hopi