SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN/Associated Press
New Mexico’s pueblos have a history with the federal government unlike any other American Indian tribe.
They never signed treaties, and with that came decades of a dual existence. On one hand, they didn’t fit the mold the government had established for native people. Still, they were Indian enough to be subjected to policies that called for them to trade in their native languages and send their children to boarding school.
For the first time, the pueblos have come together to offer their own historical perspective on the effects of 100 years of state and federal policy as part of an exhibit at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
Simple black-and-white designs meant to represent turkey feathers form the basis of a timeline that runs through the museum. Photographs, letters, pottery and other crafts fill the space, while touch screens and QR codes link to more videos, audio interviews and documents.
“The timeline and the points along the timeline are really elements of challenges our pueblo people have faced and how pueblo people through education and through perseverance have risen through these challenges. It’s important to teach a younger generation the foundation of why certain things are the way they are,” said Travis Suazo, exhibition project manager.
Scattered along the Rio Grande Valley and parts of west-central New Mexico, the pueblos have a storied history that stretches from the conquest of the Spanish to Mexican rule and eventually the westward expansion of the United States. Each decade has brought with it challenges to tribal sovereignty, pueblo leaders say.
The idea of telling the story from the pueblo perspective came from a series of leadership institutes at the Santa Fe Indian School that were established partly by Regis Pecos, a former tribal governor and past director of the state’s Indian Affairs agency. One goal was to start a conversation about public policy issues facing tribal communities. Another was to prepare the next generation so it could effect change.
Aside from pulling together the exhibition, the leadership founders and other experts have been building a curriculum that better tells the pueblo story, said Ron Solimon, executive director of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
“We’re aiming at concentric circles of youth, native people and others,” he said. “A lot of us – and I include myself – suffer from ignorance on the rich history that our pueblo people have been involved in, especially since the U.S. claimed this area as a territory.”
The exhibit starts with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American War in 1848. After that, things began changing for the pueblos.
The Mining Act came in 1872. It was followed by the Religious Crimes Code, New Mexico statehood in 1912 and nearly three dozen other laws that would affect everything from land ownership to education and civil rights.
Suazo summed it up: assimilation, allotment, relocation and removal.
With each law, exhibition organizers summarized the intent and the actual effect on the pueblo’s core values.
On one wall is a photograph of Marine Corps veteran Miguel Trujillo of Isleta Pueblo. He’s in uniform standing with his young daughter.
The image marks a key point on the timeline. Not mentioned often in textbooks, it was Trujillo who made it possible for members of New Mexico’s tribes to vote in state and national elections. Before 1948, a state constitutional provision had put suffrage out of reach.
As the federal government made attempts to assimilate American Indians, families often were forced to send their children away to school. Pueblo children were no exception. Many of them attended the Albuquerque Indian School.
The exhibit includes one student’s diploma along with her academic and cheerleading letters from 1946. The diploma reads “Department of the Interior” in large letters at the top.
On another wall, a statement by Zia Pueblo official Peter Pino mentions the need to learn how to balance old ways with the new.
“If we are not careful, we can finish what the federal government could never accomplish,” he wrote, referring to assimilation.
Even Suazo has a gap in his own life because of government policies. His grandparents went to boarding school and were disciplined harshly for speaking their native language of Keris. As a result, it was never passed down, and his own son is left asking what the words mean when he hears them spoken by others in the community.
Suazo and others at the cultural center said the exhibit is a showcase of what this generation’s great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were able to accomplish in the face of adversity.
“It’s important to teach the next generation,” Suazo said, “so that they, too, going into their own futures, can understand what elements they have the ability to change.”