The Professor and the Pueblo

Was the disclosure of Acoma traditions exploitation or scholarship?

From the moment he picked his way through the crowd and took the stage at Collected Works this fall, it was clear that Peter Nabokov was prepared to face public criticism.

Typically, at these events at the go-to local bookstore in a town full of eager writers, the author takes the stage, reads for a few minutes, answers a few softball questions, signs books, shakes hands and says good night. But the air in the store that evening was heavy with tension. Nabokov, a tenured professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures, had prepared two books about Acoma Pueblo with the publishing behemoth Penguin—and members of Acoma, who made up roughly half the crowd, were not happy about it.

How the World Moves, a sprawling hardcover, is a biography of Edward Proctor Hunt, an Acoma man who collaborated closely with some of the founding members of the field of anthropology in the first half of the 20th century. The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo, packaged as a paperback "Penguin Classic," is a re-edited version of the Acoma origin myth that Hunt had shared with researchers in the late 1920s and which Nabokov had dug up from a government archive.

That morning, the Santa Fe New Mexican had published a letter by the governor of Acoma that criticized Nabokov for writing about Acoma without having consulted the tribe first—and the daily newspaper for having given him free publicity by reviewing his books. Then-Governor Fred S Vallo explained that Hunt "never had the permission of the pueblo to impart any Acoma sacred information to anyone, much less to the Bureau of Ethnology for publication. The pueblo has always considered this publication ... to be a fundamental breach of trust by the United States."

Current and former members of Acoma's tribal government spoke eloquently and at length about what they felt was a violation by Nabokov, comparing his work to that of grave robbers who sell Native artifacts illegally. "This story belongs to us. It is our intellectual property," said Brian Vallo, a former director of historic preservation for Acoma (and Governor Vallo's son). He turned to face the audience. "I would ask you all to not buy this book."

In the weeks and months that followed, I set out to understand the root of the conflict between Nabokov and Acoma. How had a well-respected scholar of Native American history and anthropology ended up on the receiving end of such harsh criticism from the very people he had set out to honor?

Acoma (a Spanish bastardization of Haak'u) occupies some 430,000 acres of land in Cibola County in western New Mexico. South of today's Interstate 40 and some 60 miles west of Albuquerque, the old Pueblo sits atop a sandstone mesa that rises 367 feet above the valley floor. Its height affords sweeping views of Mt. Taylor to the north and the Malpaís "badlands" to the west. Today, most enrolled members of Acoma live in satellite villages that surround the base of the mesa.

I visited Acoma on an uncharacteristically wet Sunday. Jay, my tour guide for the afternoon, delivered his spiel inside the San Estevan del Rey Mission Church, the enormous adobe structure on the southern end of the mesa that is both a proud landmark of Acoma's longevity and a stark reminder of Spanish brutality—it was built with forced labor after a skirmish in which the Spanish massacred some 800 Acoma and enslaved many more in 1599. The Spanish were briefly supplanted by the Mexicans, who were in turn ousted by the Americans in the 1840s.

In 1861, an Acoma boy named Gaire (or "Day Break") was born on the mesa. At the time, US federal policy was geared towards complete cultural assimilation of young Native men; at 19, Gaire left the Pueblo in order to begin his "civilized" schooling in Albuquerque. Nabokov describes in How the World Moves the radical makeover this entailed for the young Acoma man and his peers:

"Day Break's headband, homemade cotton pants, baggy tunic, deerhide moccasins, and Navajo blanket were incinerated. His pageboy-style hair was scissored to the head. Buckets of cold water doused his body, and he was scrubbed with chunks of laundry soap. He was measured for a uniform, then heavy leather shoes and a Union soldier-like cap."

He also received a new name: Edward Proctor Hunt. As Nabokov tells it, Gaire's return to Acoma as Hunt three years later was uneasy. The things he had learned in Albuquerque put him at odds with the secretive religious societies that govern social and political life on the mesa.

Acoma, like the other Puebloan tribes traditionally devoted to farming and husbandry, has a clan-based social and religious structure. Membership is passed down the mother's side and determined at birth. Each Acoma boy and girl is expected to learn the rituals and tales unique to their clan over the course of their lives. Additionally, they are often initiated into special religious societies distinct from the clans.

I met with Brian Vallo, the director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research, to learn more about the unique set of stories that explain how each clan came to be part of Acoma. "Those stories are life guides: They are very sacred. Different clan groups and societies have their own version, so the stories differ as a result. So, you know ... you don't share that information with anyone else. Even internally some things are secret until you reach a certain age."

After completing his schooling in Albuquerque, Hunt returned to Acoma's religious and social society, became a shopkeeper and married the daughter of an important political family. But what Nabokov describes as growing "commitments to Christianity, capitalism and individual liberty" meant that Hunt refused to allow his children to participate in the Pueblo's religious ceremonies—a decision that led to a break with Acoma in 1918. After a failed attempt to start over in a different Pueblo, the Hunts left New Mexico and joined a traveling circus as "show Indians."

Offered the chance to return to Acoma in the early 1930s, Hunt refused, and he died in Albuquerque in 1948.

But Hunt had an additional life besides that of a wandering minstrel. It would be another 60 years before his watershed contribution to the anthropology of the Southwest would be recognized.

The federal Bureau of American Ethnology was founded in 1879 as an outgrowth of the US military's exploratory campaigns. Its mission to catalog the cultural artifacts of Native peoples often ran in uncomfortable parallel with the federal government's official policy toward those cultures—vacillating between annihilation and assimilation. As one contemporary researcher I spoke to explained, the first generation of anthropologists stood in opposition to the government's idea of assimilation. Instead, they scoured the Southwest in hopes of preserving the "ancient" cultures that lined the tracks of the newly built Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad.

As Nabokov writes in How the World Moves, these "professional anthropologists ... did not come to make friends and refused to take no for an answer. Their fervor for esoteric information would often become an intellectual combat between aggressive scientists and increasingly withholding Indians."

For anthropologists eager to make their mark in a new field, a source as well-informed and skeptical of tribal secrecy as Hunt was a godsend. As Hunt would later explain to the anthropologists interested in his stories, his induction into the Koshare society meant that he was exposed to the ur-rituals that undergird Acoma culture—making him the perfect informant on a people that keep their stories secret even from one another.

Nabokov, who nurtured a childhood fascination with Native Americans into a successful career as an anthropologist and historian, marveled at the obscurity—and great power—of the BAE's Bulletin 135, "Origin Myth of Acoma and Other Records." "Printed on cheap paper ... with a drab gray cover and a thirty-five-hundred-copy press run" in 1942, Nabokov writes in the Penguin version of the Origin Myth, it contained the "most complete examples from Native America of the most important narrative that any society can tell itself about itself," the story of its founding.

The document listed no Acoma authors on its title page; indeed, the "Origin Myth's" sole author is Matthew W Stirling, an archaeologist who was at the time the lead researcher at the BAE. But the preface to the text alludes to a group of "Pueblo Indians from Acoma and Santa Ana" who met with Stirling and his staff in Washington in September and October of 1928. Nabokov was curious about these anonymous Puebloans who had willingly divulged so many details to outsiders, and, enlisting the help of an archivist at the Smithsonian, was able to establish the Hunt family as the source. Then he tracked down Wilbert "Blue Sky Eagle" Hunt, the last surviving member of the family who had been on the fateful trip to Europe and Washington.

Nabokov conducted a series of interviews with Wilbert Hunt beginning in 1993 that only stopped upon Wilbert's death in 2007. Nabokov, as he notes in the acknowledgements section of How the World Moves, his biography of Hunt, is deeply indebted to Edward's son, "who entrusted me with this story, and to whom I pledged I would make it into a book."

On numerous occasions, Nabokov has written that he had two goals in re-editing and republishing the "Origin Myth." The first was to give an Indian man erased from the historical record his due recognition for an enormous contribution to anthropology. The second was to place the story into the upper echelons of religious texts read the world over, believing it equivalent to "the Old Testament, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Upanishads, or the Koran."

But unlike the ancient Israelites, Akkadians, or Hindus and Muslims, Acoma has no written language, much less a single canonical text revered by its people. As Vallo and others explained, since Acoma still exclusively maintains its traditions orally, its religious societies and its lifetime tribal councilors are, essentially, the curators of the traditions that are transferred to younger generations of Acoma people carefully, in metered doses and at the right time.

Theresa Pasqual became the director of Acoma's Historic Preservation Office in early 2007—around the time the Pueblo learned that Nabokov was planning to republish the "Origin Myth." That June, she and her team met with attorneys from the Chestnut Law Offices, the Pueblo's general counsel. In a strongly worded letter to Nabokov, Ann Berkley Rodgers, an attorney at Chestnut, wrote: "The fact that one member of the Pueblo at one time may have transmitted this story to persons calling themselves anthropologists without the consent of the whole Pueblo does not matter. His violation does not sanitize your action."

In a reply, Nabokov apologized and agreed to meet with Acoma's tribal council, "comply with Acoma law," and submit a manuscript of his work to the tribe by the end of that year.

As Pasqual explained to me, the Pueblo feared a loss of control over its social-religious apparatus. "The Pueblo has its own internal mechanisms for when and with whom information gets passed down from generation to generation," she said. "Once that information becomes publicly available, the Pueblo loses that ability. The traditional religious leadership has always expressed that this information gives us the basis for who we are."

Indeed, what for Nabokov was an act of overdue recognition for an overlooked Native man is, for the tribe, a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the community preserves and maintains knowledge. In February 2008, Nabokov wrote Rodgers to say that work on his project had been delayed; in April, he sent another letter that he was now aiming for September of that year. And then, nothing.

Vallo, Pasqual and others often refer to these stories as the tribe's intellectual property—a formulation which would suggest the tribe as a whole legally owns the stories, and that therefore any unsanctioned publication of the stories would be tantamount to theft.

In November, I drove to Albuquerque to meet with Rodgers and Aaron Sims, an enrolled Acoma member who joined Chestnut in 2014. They explained that since the original "Origin Myth" was a government publication, it lies firmly within the public domain—making any threat of a lawsuit on intellectual property grounds toothless. Nabokov reiterated this point when defending his publication at the contentious Q-and-A at Collected Works.

Shortly after meeting with Rodgers and Sims, I called Eileen Maxwell, public affairs director at the Smithsonian's National Museum for the American Indian. Maxwell told me that if the papers were held in her archives—rather than in the Smithsonian's Anthropological Archives—they would "never" have been shared with Nabokov without first consulting the tribe. On Jan. 14, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, backed Acoma in their fight to protect the "Origin Myth," asking that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution "manage these archives with respect for their sensitive nature and in consultation with affected tribes."

But the attorneys aren't out of options.

When someone from the tribe saw the book available for pre-order on last March, the Pueblo immediately reached out to Sims, who fired off a letter demanding that Nabokov respect the agreement made in 2007.

"This painstaking restoration," Nabokov explained in a lengthy response, "has sought to enhance the narrative, eliminate some sensitive material, and delete specialized linguistic clarifications so as to make a publication that would at last stand alongside the world' [sic] great volumes of religious literature."

"It was like arguing, 'Even though these people have done wrong by you, I'm going to do it as well,'" Sims said.

Nabokov did eventually send the Pueblo a copy of the manuscript in May 2015, just a few months before publication. The tribal council held a meeting to review the manuscript two weeks before the book was released, by which time it was too late to halt publication. It was then that they planned a public condemnation of Nabokov, filling seats at his Albuquerque and Santa Fe readings, using the Q-and-A section of the night to make their case, and held a press conference in Santa Fe to further explain their position.

A day after the Santa Fe book event, Nabokov did appear before the tribal council, alongside his lawyer, James Kawahara. According to a handful of people who were present, he made a plea for the tribe to "go easy" on the descendants of the Hunt family who remain on the Pueblo.

When I reached out to ask for an interview, Nabokov politely declined, writing in an email that "out of respect for the privacy of those on-going conversations ... I have been advised not to comment further at this time." I tried reaching Eddie Hunt, Wilbert's nephew, but multiple calls and messages to his caretaker went unanswered.

Sims and Rodgers explained that while they believe they have strong grounds on which to sue Nabokov—breach of contract, based on the 2007 and 2008 letters—his fate, ultimately, lies with the tribal council. "Part of me would like to bring a lawsuit," Rodgers said, "but you're talking about years of litigation, and I don't know that that's best for the Pueblo." Many Pueblo leaders, she added, "would love for this to molder in the corner and die."

In How the World Moves, Nabokov draws on Hunt's past as a shopkeeper and trader to argue that he served as a conduit between Hispano settlers, Anglo lawmakers and his own people, and frames his collaboration with anthropologists as the exchange of ideas crucial to cross-cultural understanding.

But Acoma Pueblo's leaders don't see Hunt as a maverick interested in preserving his people's dying traditions. Instead, many see him as a sellout, a traitor who turned his back on his people in exchange for money and the respect of outsiders, and take umbrage that Nabokov glamorized the act.

Brian Vallo, who oversaw an expansion of the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum in the early 2000s, enumerated the complications attached to maintaining Acoma's unique cultural traditions in the age of the smartphone. "We have language loss, there is separation of community members from their communities, we have intermarriage, [all of which] impact the sustainability of culture and traditions—we have had to ask ourselves some difficult questions. So when a book like Nabokov's comes out, it's like, 'Damn it.'" He laughs. "It's just another thing that we have to deal with."

I asked Jay, my tour guide on the mesa, how he and the rest of the guides decide what they're allowed to tell outsiders about Acoma. His reply surprised me in its simplicity: "I can give a tour and teach people about anything I've read about in books because it's already out there." He said he hadn't heard of Nabokov or his books, and didn't seem particularly concerned about the possibility that an outsider was broadcasting tribal secrets into the world for anyone to see.

I found the resignation implicit in his answer perplexing. It seemed to crystallize the fear expressed by Vallo, Pasqual and others that the ready availability of The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo would transform a powerful religious and cultural tool into one story among many, prepackaged for outsiders with a desire to learn about the continent's original inhabitants.

In fairness to Nabokov, this is largely already the case, thanks to the digitization of government archives. And as he points out, the original publication includes color illustrations of ritual vestments—as sacred, if not more so, than the stories: Eliminating these illustrations from his updated version was a no-brainer for the academic.

But his decision to publish without consulting the Pueblo—even after promising he would do so—raises the question of an ethical or professional failure on his part. It's unusual to find a work written about Native history or anthropology by an outsider these days that doesn't explicitly confront the obligation that academics owe to their subjects.

The world we live in is a literal one. This is as true for young Acoma people as for their non-Native counterparts, former Acoma Governor Fred S Vallo, a kindly retired civil servant, conceded to me when we met in late November. "It's so tough to protect our cultural patrimony now. Everything's out there on social media, the Internet. We're slowly realizing this as we hold on dearly to what's left," he said quietly. "Once we lose our ability to maintain our customs, our uniqueness as Acoma people goes too."

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