Acoma Pueblo: a native drama that never goes away

Once again, a native American tribe has risen in objection to the unauthorized publication of a book purporting to explain its charter myths.

Photo by Edward Curtis. Source www.dennisrhollowayarchitect.com/Acoma.html

The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo was published without a promised consultation, according to a governor of  one of America’s oldest towns, settled atop a New Mexico mesa in the early 1600s by a strand of the millennial Anasazi population.

The book was put together by a relative of Vladimir Nabokov, the famed butterfly expert, author of “Lolita” and “Pale Fire” and scion of a Russian tsarist family that once owned gold mines. The boring 21st century has Peter Nabokov teaching in California, where he has written a slew of well-meaning books about American Indians.

How Origin Myth came to be is a replay of the tome it essentially republishes.

The original renditions of key Acoma Pueblo myths were made in 1927 in Washington D.C. by Edward Proctor Daybreak Chief Big Snake Hunt, who was born in the tribe but later expelled. Daybreak was the name he was given at birth in 1861, but he adopted the Anglicized name written in a bible he used while at a government boarding school where, unbeknownst to his parents, he converted to Christianity. Chief Big Snake was a stage name he used to amuse European elites.

How that ever happened is clad in mystery. Hunt was in fact passing through the U.S. capital after a European tour in which he had dressed as a Plains Indian and entertained German elites, who have long been drawn to the genre – Adolf Hitler later classified the Sioux as an Aryan nation. Hunt had no permission to recite the myths to outside officials, and did so while wearing a feather headdress that no Pueblo would ever don. The scribes, for their part, jotted down a simultaneous translation given by Hunt’s son and made no note of any gestures.

As is known, Navajo Indians were famous for coded radio transmissions which helped the U.S. military tactics in World War II. But efforts to crack the codes of Southwest tribes had proven arduous. Frank Cushing managed to do so inventing the participant-observation method and turning a one-month assignment into a five-year immersion with the nearby Zuni people, who initiated him into some of their ceremonies. He then secretly deposited his inscription of their stories and fetishes to the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. But lo, he choked on a fish bone shortly after that and died at the age of 43.

That was in 1900, and tribes quickly grew suspicious of visiting scholars. They’ve had reason to over and over again, most dramatically when postwar scientists exploited genetic information from Pima and Havasupai groups to benefit white populations afflicted with schizophrenia and Type 1 diabetes.

Perhaps nobly, Nabokov’s sympathetic goal was to improve on the rudimentary version of the Acoma origin myth eventually published in 1942. He reckoned he was able to do so thanks to a lifetime of research – including an acclaimed book on vernacular architecture – and in particular a series of chats with Hunt’s son Wilbur, who recently died at age 99  after having been allowed to return to Acoma territory to live out his final days.

Interestingly, Nabokov has also put out a companion book, modestly titled How the World Moves, which tracks what he rightly calls the “odyssey of an American Indian family.”

And what an odyssey! Not only did Hunt take his family to Europe, and pretend to be a Lakota, but he began life outside his native community by taking an apprenticeship with Solomon Bibo, whose role in history is apparently that of being the first Prussian Jew to become an Indian chieftain. Bibo operated with two brothers a series of trading posts in remote New Mexico, where he won fame for paying reasonable prices for Indian produce he would then deliver to U.S. Army forts. He managed to marry the daughter of the former Acoma governor and eventually take up that title himself.

Hunt, or Daybreak, who it turns out was related to Bibo by marriage, used his stint as a shop clerk to set up a broader culture-brokerage business, serving as a translator and eventually become a globe-trotting impresario of sorts, including sitting in front of his shop and welcoming the legendary photographer Edward S. Curtis. As a cosmopolitan, he refused to have his own children initiated in a kiva, where the esoterica of the origin myths are gradually outlined and tribal members given a deep-rooted user’s guide to how to behave.

As such, the myths have a ritual component, making safeguarding of their efficacy a matter of great concern, as Nabokov duly notes. The author did not allow any pictures of sacred Acoma altars or kachina masks to be republished in the book, reckoning it should stand as simple text like the Koran or other great religious tomes.

Many outsiders are delighted with the book, which doesn’t necessarily help the people living atop the mesa today. Tribal cultural norms require that certain authority figure are always present today in old Acoma, which comes from the indigenous word for “a place always prepared,”  a somewhat more subtle name than nearby John Ford’s Point.

“If feels as though someone is telling us the story during, say, a camping trip,” according to a September 2015 review in the Santa Fe New Mexican written by a local resident, novelist, film maker –Martin Scorsese serve as an actor in one of her films ! – and part-time birtwatcher who hails culturally from the Asian India.

What exactly is the issue, then? Shouldn’t those who invoke the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which allow for countering settler-nation myths with locals’own version of history and truthtelling, be happy? That was surely Peter Nabokov’s intent.

Fred S. Vallo Sr, Acoma Pueblo’s governor, begs to differ – and commendably to point out that the whole affair is rotten from head to toe.

First, Nabokov agreed to appear before the tribal council to discuss its possible publication, but skipping that step “does not exhibit basic respect for tribal beliefs and practices.” Second, Hunt himself obviously never had the pueblo’s impression to impart any sacred information to third parties, and doing so to the Bureau of Ethnology was a replay of Cushing’s treachery, Vallo noted. And on top of that, Hunt left the tribe before completing his initiation, leaving grave questions marks over what he did recite. Lastly, he said, even Kumar didn’t bother to contact the Pueblo for a comment on the veracity of the book she reviewed for the main local newspaper, yet suggested it would be a good tome for pueblo youth to learn about Acoma origin beliefs!

Vallo’s conclusion: The book “is a modern-day example of sensationalized disrespect and disregard of tribal culture, community and sovereignty.”

Readers will now understand why this piece didn’t make any shorthand reference to the actual stories told by the purported Acoma origin myths. Here, to compensate, are some photos of sublime Acoma pottery.

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