Sunday, November 6, 2016

Coming Home Again

No I am not going back to New York but rather I am referring to a group of 9 ceramic pots, which are currently being shown at the Poeh Cultural Center at the Pojoaque Pueblo in an exhibition entitled “IN T’OWA VI SAE’WE” (The People’s Pottery).  Here is an image of the installation an the resulting case.

I do not need to go into the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the white man (Anglo for the purposes of this Missive) even when the latter thought they were doing the right thing… nothing has changed politically speaking.

This, however, is a benign story regarding the Indians and the clay vessels they made for use as in storage of grain and water.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century the Anglo believed the Indians to be a dying race.  This was not just because of the Indian wars but also due to disease and assimilation.  I still remember in the 1950’s as a teenager and even into the 60’s believing that someday the whole world would be united thanks to faster communication, travel and intermarriage.  Ah, the idealism of youth.   

Most of my readers probably know about The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act known as NAGPRA.   Simply put it is legislation whereby the Indians could repatriate the religious artifacts and bones of their peoples, which the Anglos had absconded with.  Not everything was stolen, however, objects were also bought or excavated.  As the Indians continue to seek their identity, culture and history, which was traditionally oral, they wish to see, touch and smell objects from their past.

The Tewa are a group of Indians from pueblos within an hour’s drive both north and south of Santa Fe.  They are joined by the Tewa language and share the Pueblo culture.  There is also a Tewa village on First Mesa at Hopi in Arizona who had migrated north.  The Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque represents the culture of all the Tewa peoples.

Bruce Bernstein is a scholar of Indian art and culture and has written several books and many articles on the subject.  His current positions are as Executive Director and Curator of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation (where I am on the board) and more importantly for this Missive is Cultural Preservation Officer for the Pueblo of Pojoaque.

Bruce Bernstein and his wife, Landis Smith at Bandolier National Monument

The idea of returning pots for long-term loan to the Poeh Cultural Center museum started with a 1903 photograph Bruce found of three men posing in front of 12 pots. They included the then Governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, Antonio Tapia Montoya and anthropologist, George Pepper who had been sent out by The American Museum of Natural History in New York to collect artifacts.  Bruce went to New York to look for the pots at the Natural History Museum but did not find them so he turned to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which has some 20,000 pieces of pottery from the pueblos of New Mexico in hopes of finding similar pieces.  Experience is everything and from 1997 to 2007 working as Assistant Director for Collections and Research at NMAI he had been responsible for moving the collection from the George Heye Museum in New York to Washington and their storage facility in Maryland.  In effect he had overseen the entire collection.

Such pots are not eligible for repatriation under NAGPRA as they were utilitarian, not sacred but Bruce knew it would be important if these pots could be brought back home, particularly the water jars as water is a vital life force in the southwest.  He achieved their return using the established museum practice of long-term loan. 

He brought the past Governor of Pojoaque George Rivera as well as the current Governor, Joe Talachy and various members of the staff from the Poeh Cultural Center, as well as a number of potters to view 1200 pots at NMAI.   Groups were also convened to look at slides so that they would have the people’s representatives choose the ones that would mean the most to the Tewa communities.  They decided that they would request pieces dating before 1920, when they were for home use before there was a market.  They were made for family and friends and therefore, unsigned, leaving their creators unknown.  Here is a photo of tribal members examining pots at NMAI  as well as a single pot, dating circa 1850, which is  now in the display at the Poe Center. (Image of members of Pojoaque tribe examining the pots and a single pot)

Speaking with Bruce Bernstein he made it quite clear that he sees the vehicle of extended loan. as a means of normalization of the relationship between the Anglo and Native American Museums. He hopes to stimulate this kind of loan to the benefit of all.  There will eventually be a total of 100 pots delivered to the Poeh and the 9 that are here represent the first homecoming. In Bruce’s words “These pots have been in Washington D.C. as a delegation representing Tewa people. But now they’re coming back to refortify Tewa people’s culture.”

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