PUEBLO TREASURE From the Silverman Museum
Western History/Genealogy, The Denver Public Library, 2005
Publisher: Silverman Museum, Santa Fe
Softcover, first edition, 142 pages
Titles for American Indian art exhibits are always problematic. If you use Native American terminology in a title, the public’s understanding of that title will be limited or lost. If you use American or European terminology, the title sounds colonial, pedestrian, or inappropriately romantic. So, what is Pueblo Treasure?
Let’s start with the treasure. “Treasure” comes from the Greek thesaurus, “a gold hoard.” In the Old Testament, treasure is associated with hidden wealth, both material and spiritual. Secrets kept in the correct way are treasures.
For me, each time I hear the word treasure I think of childhood tales of Caribbean pirates and wooden chests buried on desert islands. I think of gemstones, precious metals, and hoards of diamonds and gold. But what about objects made of clay, wool, and wood? Compared to gemstones and precious metals, clay, wool, and wood are mundane. Diamonds and gold have intrinsic value. You can remove a diamond from its setting and still sell it as a jewel. You can melt down a gold statue and still sell it as gold. Clay, wool, and wood, on the other hand, have no intrinsic value. Clay, wool, and wood are considered treasures only after someone does something significant with them. Their value as ceramic, wooden, or woolen treasures can be appreciated only in the context of what was done, and of who did it. With this in mind, let’s turn to the word “Pueblo.”
Pueblo is the Spanish word for “village.” In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers used the word to distinguish the agricultural societies that inhabited villages from the dispersed rancheria gardeners and the wandering hunters and gatherers encountered by those explorers in the rest of the Southwest. From AD 1540 until 1600, seven Spanish expeditions explored what we now call Arizona and New Mexico. It wasn’t until 1598 that Spanish colonists arrived. From 1600 until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the number of pueblos in the Southwest shrank from eighty to thirty villages.
During the seventeenth century, the Southwest was known in Europe as “the northwest frontier of New Spain.” For purposes of colonial administration, New Spain was divided into two regions: the north and the south. The line dividing the north from the south was near today’s border between Mexico and the United States. Missionary authority over the north (New Mexico and Arizona) was granted to the Franciscans. Missionary authority over the south (northwest Mexico) was given to the Jesuits, until the Jesuits’ banishment from the New World by the Spanish Crown.
Spanish historical documents show coexistence between New Mexico’s native inhabitants and its foreign colonists was anything but peaceful. If a written record existed for both sides in the struggle, we might have a more balanced perspective of the first hundred years of the Entrada, the Spanish term for Spain’s arrival in the New World. Unfortunately, we have only the Spanish written record. But is that really all we have?
In collecting Pueblo works of art, I concentrated on the art and the history of a single village, Acoma Pueblo. One of my first acquisitions came from the estate of John Gaw Meem, the architect responsible for introducing the Pueblo Style of architecture to Santa Fe. During the 1940s, Meem acquired the decorated wooden beams from the nave and the carved wooden posts from the sanctuary and sacristy of the Church of San Estevan del Rey at Acoma Pueblo. Construction of the Church of San Estevan del Rey occurred between 1619 and 1640. While I appreciated the architectural importance of the beams and the posts, I bought these wooden treasures because I saw them as important documents of seventeenth century life at Acoma Pueblo.
During the 1970s and the 1980s, I assembled a collection of embroidered mantas from Acoma Pueblo. (Manta is the Spanish word for shawl.) Acoma mantas were woven and embroidered between 1825 and 1875. The mantas were worn as shawls by the women of Acoma Pueblo and were also presented to the Spanish as tribute. Although I appreciated their delicate embroidery and fineness of weave, I sought out mantas because I saw them as documents of nineteenth century life at Acoma Pueblo.
Finally, during the 1990s, I collected Acoma painted ollas. (Olla is the Spanish word for storage jar.) At Acoma Pueblo, ollas were used to carry water and to store corn. The ollas in my collection range in date from 1750 to 1920. While I was drawn to the colors, designs, and shapes of the ollas, I sought them out because I saw the ollas as documents of eighteenth and nineteenth century life at Acoma Pueblo.
So here are three Pueblo art forms that gave witness to life at Acoma Pueblo during three colonial eras: Spain (1540-1820), Mexico (1821-1848), and the United States (1849 to the present). The wooden beams can be dated by the science of dendrochronology (tree-ring analysis). The woolen mantas can be dated by their yarns and by their styles of embroidery. The ceramic ollas can be dated by their coiling techniques, by the pigments used for their exterior iconography, and by the evolving styles of that iconography.
For the last one hundred and fifty years, archaeologists and historians have studied the material culture of southwestern Pueblos and have attempted to construct a chronology of Pueblo history. Evidence of those efforts exists on the labels you see next to the objects displayed in Pueblo Treasure. Is that enough information? For me, it’s not. It may be the beginning of enough information, but I know it’s not the middle and it’s certainly not the end. I believe the artistic elements and style changes in the beams, the mantas, and the ollas are a language. That language is a record of the unwritten history of Acoma Pueblo.
Scholars who study southwestern archaeology tend to focus on one traditional art form at a time. As a collector, my goal was to cover as broad a reach as possible. My belief is that a unity of message can be discovered only through the appreciation and study of more than one artistic medium.
Think of the Middle East from the Nile River Delta to the eastern Mediterranean. In that region, for thousands of years, indigenous people (also known as “tribes”) endured colonial oppression from military empires such as Egypt, Rome, and Persia. Biblical archaeology has flourished in the Middle East because of the endurance of written languages. Those languages emerged from prehistory as incised, cuneiform impressions on clay tablets and stone. I believe Acoma Pueblo’s incised wooden beams, embroidered mantas, and painted ollas are inscribed with meanings waiting to be decoded and read by Americanists, just as the legends of the Levant were decoded and read by Biblical scholars.
Before The Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when Spanish colonists, soldiers, and priests were attacked by Pueblo peoples and expelled from New Mexico, there occurred the little known Kiva War of 1661. Spanish records tell us colonial forces captured and destroyed approximately 1600 Pueblo religious objects during the Kiva War, with particular attention paid to the destruction of masks and ritual paraphernalia associated with the Katsina Cult. None of the western Pueblos in New Mexico (Acoma, Laguna, or Zuni) escaped this “search and destroy” campaign. Yet I know of no scholar who has suggested that the designs on Hawikuh polychrome pottery dating circa 1650-1700 memorialized the Kiva War or its consequences. In truth, even most contemporary Pueblo potters are unable to read the symbol systems of their ancestors. But the Kiva War may well have been the 9/11 of that time and place. It’s unthinkable to me that such an event went unrecorded.
Back to the Levant. We know early Christian and Jewish communities were persecuted by military colonialists and that traditional cultural patterns were disrupted by those persecutions. Those disruptions led to the creation of symbol systems which quietly defied and ultimately defeated the occupying tyrants of those times. Biblical scholars use the term pseudepigraph to describe a religious text written under a false name. I believe the symbol systems in Pueblo art produced between AD 1600 and 1900 have similar functions, regardless of whether those symbol systems appear on clay, wood, or wool. I believe their true meanings were messages which simultaneously protected and propagated religious beliefs forbidden by missionaries, soldiers, and colonial administrators. Finally, I believe the cryptological analysis of Pueblo art is still in its earliest stages. Whenever people look at my collections, someone always asks, “Is art a good investment?”
I don’t know enough about relative rates of return to say that art is a good investment for everyone, but I can say this: Owning a great work of art for a long period of time pays dividends to its owner. I've owned some of the works of art in my collections for ten years. I’ve owned others for twenty or even thirty years. When you live with a great work of art, it teaches you lessons, and one of the lessons it teaches is how to appreciate great works of art. This may sound like a chicken-and-egg dilemma but it’s not so much an event as it is an educational process. The more time you spend with a great work of art, the more you see in its details. The more you see in those details, the more you learn from those details. To characterize that educational process as a return on an investment may be accurate on some level but on an experiential level it misses the point. Living with great art for a long period time not only makes the art more valuable, it makes life more valuable, too. No matter how you calculate the return on what great art costs to buy, spending ten years of your life with a great work of art will teach you more about art, about life, and about yourself than any amount of buying and selling can teach you.
The other thing that happens when you live with great works of art is that the art inspires you. This is especially true of art made out of clay, wool, or wood. Being in the presence of masterpieces made from such common materials gives you ideas. Ultimately, it shows you how to make something out of nothing. My own works on paper, borrowing from Pueblo and Navajo art, have been ongoing exercises in decoding Native American cultural meanings. My works on paper are also meditations on historic efforts by indigenous cultures to celebrate life, to protect their secrets, and to survive. In that sense, Pueblo Treasure is a cry for freedom—a cry heard all over the world, at all times, past, present, and future.
Welcome to Pueblo Treasure.
- Jack Silverman