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Don’t Buy This Book! Acoma Pueblo vs Peter Nabokov: When the Sacred is Made Profane

Peter Nabokov insults the Acoma Pueblo with "Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo"
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Peter Nabokov is a tenured professor at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he has taught American Indian Studies and authored several books on Native American history and culture. But his two newest books about Acoma Pueblo (How The World Moves, and, Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo, both on major imprint Penguin Books, 2015) have set off a firestorm of professional and political debate over who owns and who can sanction publication of a tribe’s mythology and sacred stories. Though Edward Proctor Hunt is listed as the author, this is just a logistical tactic by Nabokov who took liberties with historical references made by Hunt to publish his book.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (yes “we” sometimes have to remind people that New Mexico is part of the United States) has been following a one hundred year old controversy that actually started 400 years earlier with a brutal colonization that forced ancient religious rituals underground. This debate now centers on a modern form of colonization of “intellectual property” that actually affects how a tribe “passes on” sacred information and mythological narratives.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has been covering this issue since it blew it up in September 2015 and just published a well researched new article by Khristaan D. Villela on January 15 that gives details on both sides of the argument.

The author Peter Nabokov actually faced his Acoma critics at book-signing events in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in September 2015. He had promised to meet with Acoma leaders before publication but that never happened and he issued a mild apology to them but his lawyers point to the fact the original book, “The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo and Other Records” had been published in 1946 by Matthew B. Stirling and had been in the public domain.

Stirling was the head of anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) who published “the report” in a small run plus it had been reprinted again in 2008 by Forgotten Books. The book wasn’t much to look at but contained a wealth of information about tribal myths and ritual practices including photos and drawings (which were not included in Nabokov’s new book).

Edward Proctor Hunt and his sons were paid informants to Stirling and the BAE anthropologists back in 1928 but were never given “credit” until Nabokov’s research for the book, How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family. Edward Proctor Hunt was born a boy named Day Break (Gaire) at Acoma in 1861 but was sent to boarding school in Albuquerque with all the terrible ritual of hair cut off, severe discipline, issued spare clothing of a uniform, leather boots and a union cap. He found a name (or one would’ve been “given” to him) in a clothing and bible donation from Ohio, this name was Edward Proctor Hunt.

After boarding school, Hunt had taken up Christianity and started a business as a trading post or shop-keeping and kept modern values, although this was not a deal-breaker his refusal to allow his sons to participate in tribal religious ceremonies due to their Christian (Mormon) upbringing was.

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Acoma Pueblo’s version of the controversy becomes clear when Edward and his son Wilbur Hunt are described in all these various accounts as having been “banished” (or whatever the tribal term). They attempted to live in other pueblo communities but ended up going east and joining a Wild West Show that travelled Europe in 1927.

After that trip, in 1928 the Hunts became “paid tribal informants” to Stirling and the Smithsonian’s BAE. You can see Acoma’s issue with the Hunts and how this information was “illegally” or “unethically” transferred and considering the source being Natives who had in a sense “given up” their tribal identities. But the modern debate now centers on how, from the very beginning, all the non-Natives have done all of this “for the good” of the Natives themselves and for history and posterity.

Native blogger Debbie Reese of Nambe Pueblo initiated an internet campaign against Nabokov right from the start on after the author’s interview with National Geographic in September 2015.

And Acoma Governor Fred S. Vallo released a statement also in September of 2015. “Nabokov agreed to submit the manuscript to the pueblo for review and to appear before the Acoma Tribal Council to discuss possible publication of the book.

Virtually every other modern scholar and professional working with the Pueblo of Acoma has sought this permission when seeking to disclose sensitive cultural information. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Acoma has approved of disclosure in the past. Some examples of published work with permission of the Pueblo of Acoma include publications by Dr. Ward Allan Minge, Dr. Alfred Dittert, Dr. Florence Hawley Ellis, Dr. Kurt Anschuetz and others.”

Brian Vallo who oversaw an expansion of the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum (Acoma is the Spanish misinterpretation of Haak’u) said in an January 27 article by Lucas Ibercio Loziada in the Santa Fe Reporter: “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.” Theresa Pasqual as director of Acoma’s Historic Preservation Office, said that the Pueblo has its own protocol of how information is passed down generationally and, “Once that information becomes widely available the Pueblo losses that ability. The traditional religious leadership has always expressed that this information gives us the basis for who we are.” Now the former governor, Fred S. Vallo reiterated those sentiments saying, “It’s 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.”

As is typical, non-Native “Native Experts” and “friends of the Indian” will say it’s really all legal and ethical according to the system in place but that system is based on colonization and Acoma Pueblo is actually fighting a “decolonization” battle and will get little recourse from the system. Acoma leaders are calling it grave-robbing and comparing the issue to NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.)

This issue will now start to get widespread attention outside of New Mexico and the publishing community which sees little wrong being done and only a greater good for the world of knowledge. Acoma asks that no one purchase Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo and they are seeking to have all sales of the book “legally held” until the issue is resolved.