Who would expect to find wonderful art in the middle of nowhere? There I was on a ranch in Northern New Mexico. We had passed through the town of Los Vegas, New Mexico and gone along roads that seemed like they hadn’t been repaved in way too long and then arrived at the 3,300 acre spread known as the Pritzlaff Ranch.
Richard Pritzlaff died in 1997 and left the ranch to the Nature Conservancy. When they decided to sell it Pritzlaff’s grand nephew, also named Richard bought it and passed it on to the Biophilia Foundation, which is devoted to the protection of natural resources and especially wildlife habitat. This organization now wants to donate the ranch to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a second unit of the new Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. Herein lies the rub: Fish and Wildlife does not have the mandate for art preservation and the situation is complicated by the culturally sensitive nature of murals on the property.
The ranch, like many had been stitched together between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. As an Easterner I can remember just waiting until our neighbors moved so we could put two apartments together! For reasons that we do not know in 1942 a Native American artist born at the Zia Pueblo, Velino Shije Herrera (1902-1973) whose Indian name was Ma Pe Wi showed up at the ranch. Quite possibly he went from ranch to ranch looking for work or since Richard Pritzlaff (1902-1997) was known as a collector of Chinese and Native American art he may have been invited. He painted murals there, not in the large main house but in one of the outlying buildings where the ranch hands lived consisting of two large rooms suitable for 3 or 4 beds on each side and the bathroom in between.
Herrera was born at Zia Pueblo and studied at the Indian School in Santa Fe with the legendary teacher Elizabeth De Huff. Herrera was then taken under the wing of Edgar Lee Hewitt, an archeologist and founder of the Museum of New Mexico, who had him paint the walls of the kiva reconstructed in 1938 at the Coronado Historic Site. Herrera went on to depict Native imagery in murals in the U.S. Department of the Interior in D.C. and the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. He won numerous awards including the Caldecott Award for his illustrations of children’s books and the French Ordre de Palmes d’Academiques, but his work was not always appreciated by his Native brethren because he sometimes depicted sacred ceremonies. As the factionalism got worse Herrera decided to leave the Pueblo in the 1930’s.
The meeting to which I was invited as an observer was called to address the question of how the ranch could pass to Fish and Wildlife and preserve the Herrera murals. It began with typical Western hospitality with a lunch including a home grown Elk stew made by the ranch manager, Manuel Jauregui. Included were Sharon Franklet, the program director of the Ranch, who acted as liaison in this case between the owner and Fish and Wildlife; Rob Larranaga, a representative from Fish and Wildlife; Jeff Pappas, State Historical Preservation Officer; Deborah Jojola, curator of the Exhibitions at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Bruce Bernstein, Cultural Preservation Officer at Pojoaque and curator at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation, who brought me and two representatives from the Native communities. It was quickly agreed that the room Herrera painted with a buffalo hunt was not a problem, nor was the bathroom which appeared to be by another, lesser, hand. That left the room painted with representations of Katsinim of the Navajo, Zuni and other Rio Grande pueblos. (The Katsina is best defined as a deified ancestral spirit in Native religions).
The issue was quite different from those I had dealt with when I served on the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington D.C. It’s objective was to protect cultural property from being looted from foreign countries and brought into the United States (a laudable objective seriously flawed by its politicized execution). Here we are dealing with two different cultures living within the same borders. For lack of a better name we will call one of the constituencies the Anglos (alternatively the new comers) and the other the Native Americans, aka Indians. The Indians who are of many different tribes (think Nationalities in other parts of the world) have their own rituals and religions which they feel are proprietary and not for public dissemination. Therefore, when you go onto an Indian Reservation there is usually a sign “No Photography”. In some cases dances that are not of a social but rather a religious nature are closed to outsiders.
The possibly culturally sensitive material had bumped the Pritlzaff Ranch case to Washington and federal regulations require consultation with all those who might have an interest in a transaction. The Native Americans at the meeting explained how to notify the tribes so that they might designate representatives. Everyone in the room wanted to find a solution and the State Historical Preservation Officer even expressed an interest in consulting with the representative from Fish and Wildlife and go to Washington if necessary. No one wanted to see the expedient solution of painting over the murals for it would be a loss to the art and heritage of this part of the world.
Out of respect for the sensitive issues involved here I have not illustrated the Katsinim but the images shown are all from the buffalo hunt.