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Modern Indian identity is many-sided, but linked to place

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BOULDER, Colo. – Identity and tradition are “slippery words” but both have to do with customary activities carried out in familiar surroundings, a Zuni philosopher told an audience of mostly non-Natives at the University of Colorado Sept. l7.

Jim Enote, a high-altitude traditional farmer and museum director, said long ago in the intermountain West one group said, “You don’t relate to things the same way we do – we have a different identity,” and the groups separated.

“We didn’t see things in the same way” and moved on, but a lack of room on reservations today “creates a kind of pressure cooker,” Enote said. He spoke as part of the Center of the American West’s Modern Indian Identity series.

He examined the concept of identity from the perspective of a Zuni living among relatives, of traveling away from the reservation, of fulfilling different roles at home, and in other capacities. He described himself as “a museum director, but a guy who drives an old truck with almost 300,000 miles on it and has a goofy dog.”

Living within a mile of his relatives, he said he is also a “family bail bondsman, loan shark, and chauffeur,” but he can readily call on his family to cook or to help out in other ways. “We don’t think about are you Native American, American Indian, or indigenous – it’s just Zuni here.”

Describing a “requirement for conformity,” Enote recalled his internationally-traveled grandmother as someone who, at home on Zuni lands, was “feeding pigs and chickens, doing pottery, cooking” because otherwise “they would have seen her as an outsider” possibly diminishing the fact that her life was “right here and right now.”

Concepts of place and time were interwoven in his remarks, some of which were about map-making in a project involving artists and cultural advisors at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni, N.M., of which he is director. “It’s really hard to get artists to work with a committee,” he said, recalling compromises of various kinds in the map-making process.

A critical first step in the project was a discussion about “what not to map” in order to preserve private material kept by one kiva group or another. “Knowledge is kept by small groups,” he said, describing their secrecy as “a good thing” in order to maintain knowledge accurately over time.

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“Maps are very powerful – they can lie and they can distort,” he said, but they are “also very useful and very persuasive.” He described maps that offer accounts of Zuni emergence and migrations, the journey of Salt Woman, relationships to other tribes, old wells in a Zuni village, Ribbon Falls in the Grand Canyon, and the area of Bandolier National Monument.

Some of the maps show Zuni history and travels distant from present-day New Mexico, including one depicting the relationship to the oceans: “Our stories talk about walking to the ocean and bringing back water in gourds and bringing back shells.” Others show the journey of Zuni people who “followed the macaw” southward long ago.

A map depicting the worldwide flood of antiquity included the image of the plumed serpent, a key figure in the Zuni account of the floodwaters’ receding and a central religious figure among Aztec and Mayan peoples in Mesoamerica.

Enote is about ensuring the identity of Zuni culture is intact at museums, where about 80 percent of catalog descriptions are inaccurate, he said. The inaccuracy can be important, because people may visit the National Museum of the American Indian or Denver Art Museum, for example, and return to Zuni saying, “We are this way,” and he will say, “No, we’re not.”

Creating collaborative catalogs is a way to add knowledge and correct distortions and some museums are receptive; if they are not, “I don’t waste my time with those people,” he said, citing sometimes-rigid, impractical systems or practices.

He said collecting of Native material began among Europeans before Americans began the practice, and as a result at least half of historical and prehistoric collections from this continent are in the Old World.

Repatriation of funerary material and remains here and abroad is difficult for a number of reasons; “it is just sad – it never should have happened in the first place,” he said, noting that some tribes have a burial, but not a reburial, ceremony.

Young Native anthropologists and archaeologists “can understand the context much deeper” than their non-Native counterparts and they have access to information that outsiders cannot have, he said.

Religious knowledge kept by the Zuni priesthood in various kivas is “super super secret” and practitioners must be “deep Zuni.”