Sunday, April 10, 2016

Rina’s Gone! (1939-2015)

“Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo was known as an architect, a potter, a teacher, an author, a historian and a lecturer. She also was an activist for justice who wasn’t afraid to stand up to her own tribal council to argue for the rights of all people.” (Santa Fe New Mexican 10-31-2015)

Rina touched my life so profoundly as she did others and we recently attended a memorial for her at the school of architecture at the University of New Mexico. Filling the auditorium were members of her extended Native family as well as Anglos, academics and friends, who had all been touched by her.


Rina was born into the Naranjo family, an unbelievably talented family of artists many of them potters.  Rina started out similarly but she became inspired in a modeling class where she started to think about doing models of buildings and thus began a journey into the world of architecture.  She went to New Mexico Highlands University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education and went on to The University of New Mexico, earning a Master of Art in architecture in 1976 and a doctorate in American studies in 1982.  Upset by the transformation of Santa Clara by the federal H.U.D. program of cookie cutter houses with no sense of place, she wrote her Master’s thesis on the architectural history of her pueblo.

Rina met her husband Ralph at Highlands and they moved to Santa Fe where Ralph taught at St. John’s College.  They were married for 40 years and lived in the house that they designed  bringing up 4 children, a boy and 3 girls.  When Ralph died in 2006, Rina moved back to the Pueblo where she and her family built her house in the traditional fashion.

I met Rina in 1997.  I had been on what was known as The President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in Washington D.C. which had a very idealistic premise  to stop looting of archeological sights internationally.  Unfortunately, it had been rigged, first by U.S.I.A. and then by the State Department, to come out against the collecting community, which included American museums.  I quit when the CPAC seriously considered the request by Italy that the U.S. ban import of objects from the original Holy Roman Empire, which included most of Europe.  My story on CPAC would be a book in itself but suffice it to say there was a great deal of discontent about the Committee. 

Another former member of CPAC was Eugene Victor Thaw.  He had moved from New York to Santa Fe and felt that more might be accomplished by what was then known as The School for American Research (today, The School for Advanced Research).  He sponsored a 5 day seminar where a diverse group of stake holders in culture would meet and discuss the topic of who owns culture.  There were about 10 of us including, representatives from the World Bank, a a preservationist from the J. Paul Getty Museum, a museum director, an archeologist who had written about subsistence digging, even a philosopher.  I was there representing the art dealing community and a Native American anthropologist by skill if not by trade, Rina Swentzell.  Here is an image of the late Marty Sullivan, then director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, yours truly and Rina.

During the 5 days of the seminar we lived in the very comfortable “dorms” that were on SAR’s beautiful campus so we interacted socially as well as in our day long meetings.  Rina explained that Native Americans did not believe in collecting but rather believed from dust to dust and repeated her oft-told story:  Every day her grandmother walked her to school and they passed a house that was beginning to fall apart.  She told her grandmother that they needed to fix the house and her grandmother replied that when the house fell down they would build a new one.

I countered, that art can act as an ambassador for a culture:  In 1989 we found ourselves at The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff right after their show of Hopi Indian Art and fell in love with what we saw.   We, then, set out on a quest to learn about the Hopi culture, which opened our eyes to a whole new world. 

There was an objective to the seminar and that was to write a book on who owns culture from our various perspectives (because of a change in administration at SAR shortly after the seminar it unfortunately did not happen.)  We were, therefore, all taking notes or at least had note pads at the ready.  Sitting next to Rina I saw that she was making notes but also doing wonderful drawings on her pages, which I believe she referred to as “doodles”.  At one point discussing collecting, I commented that I thought I would love to “collect” her so called “doodles” because I thought they were wonderful.  The conference closed, I went back to New York and two weeks later her “doodles” from that week arrived with a note shown here as well as one of her pages of “doodles”.

Rina spoke often of “World Views” and she certainly changed mine and I believe that maybe I gave her a glimpse of another one.

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