The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo (Penguin Classics)

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9780143106050: The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo (Penguin Classics)

A masterpiece of Pueblo Indian mythology, now in a restored edition

Edward Proctor Hunt, a Pueblo Indian man, was born in 1861 in the mesa-top village of Acoma, New Mexico, and initiated into several secret societies, only to later break with his people’s social and reli­gious codes. In 1928, he recited his version of the origin myth of the Acoma Indians to Smithsonian Institution scholars. Hailed by many as the most accessible of all epic narratives recounting a classic Pueblo Indian story of creation, migration, and ulti­mate residence, the myth offers a unique window into Pueblo Indian cosmology and ancient history, revealing how a premodern society answered key existential questions and formed its customs. In this new edition, Peter Nabokov renders this important document into a clear sequence, adds excerpted material from the original storytelling sessions, and explores the creation and roles of such myths in Pueblo Indian cultures.
 
The remarkable life of Edward Hunt is the subject of Peter Nabokov’s companion volume, How the World Moves, which follows Hunt and his sons on their passage from tradition to modernity as they strike out as native entrepreneurs and travelling interpreters of American Indian lore.

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About the Author:

Peter Nabokov is a professor of World Arts and Cultures and American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. An acclaimed scholar of Native American history, he is the author of Where the Lightning Strikes and edited the volume Native American Testimony.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

This version of the creation and migration story of Acoma Pueblo in western New Mexico was told in Washington, DC, to scholars at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in the fall of 1928. Its narrator was a sixty-seven-year-old Indian man originally from Acoma Pueblo. His native name was Gaire, meaning “Day Break,” but the name he acquired at Albuquerque Indian School was Edward Proctor Hunt. Translating for him was a son, Henry Wayne “Wolf Robe” Hunt, while a younger son, Wilbert Edward “Blue Sky Eagle” Hunt, assisted with translating the songs that were integral to the myth. In addition, there were Mr. Hunt’s wife, Marie “Morning Star” Valle Hunt, and Philip “Silvertongue” Sanchez, originally from Santa Ana Pueblo. Transcribing the myth were archaeologist and recently appointed “chief” of the Bureau of American Ethnology Dr. Matthew W. Stirling and a young visiting British anthropologist, Dr. C. Daryll Forde.

After fourteen years of additional editing by some of the American Southwest’s most respected researchers—Leslie A. White, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Franz Boas—the narrative was published in 1942 by the U.S. Government Printing Office as Bulletin 135 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Origin Myth of Acoma and Other Records. In its preface, the narrator and assistants were not named; Stirling was the author of record.

Over the years, this relatively obscure publication became one of the most cited sources on Pueblo Indian worldview and narrative tradition. Students of mythology, Pueblo culture, and the region quoted from it, wove it into their theories, and incorporated it into anthologies, interpretations of Pueblo history and society, and university courses on myth and oral tradition. A newly edited version that reinserted material that had been excised, offered a biographical profile of its narrator and his assistants, and rendered the text more accessible, seemed overdue.

 · · · 

First and foremost, I am grateful to the late Wilbert Hunt for background on his father, for memories of his family’s travels and their time in Washington, and for his blessing to prepare this edition of his father’s version. Second, I am indebted to the late James Glenn, archivist at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, who showed me the Frances Densmore and Wolf Robe Hunt files that confirmed Edward Hunt as the narrator and began my research into his family. Mary Powell and Marta Weigle of Ancient City Press had published my work on Acoma’s architecture, derived from the 1934 Historic American Buildings Survey Project, and encouraged this republication. For time and resources to research the myth’s background, edit its text, and investigate the family’s background, I thank Princeton University for a fall 2006 Stewart Fellowship, Pasadena’s Huntington Library for a 2007–08 residency Mellon Fellowship, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for a 2008–09 fellowship, UCLA’s Faculty Grants Program, and New Mexico’s State Records Center and Archives grant program.

I am also indebted to the American Philosophical Society, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives, Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan Special Collections Library, Pasadena’s Southwest Museum, and the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections for access to materials directly related to the history behind this publication and the careers of the Hunt family.

Individuals who have been essential to my work on this publication are Susan Bergholz, Alfred Bush, Don Cosentino, Linda Feldman, Karen Finney, Jim Glenn, Louis Hieb, Eddie Hunt, Steve Karr, Paul Kroskrity, Robert Leopold, Jay Miller, Alfonso Ortiz, Mo Palmer, Bill Peace, Patrick Polk, Roy Ritchie, Gregory Schachner, Bill Truettner, Ken Wade, and Kim Walters.

Introduction

THE CREATION OF CREATION MYTHS

Stories about the origins of any community’s universe—its gods, spirits, heroes, and landscapes; its beginnings, wanderings, sufferings, and fulfillments—are the most important accounts any society can tell itself about itself. They are its divine charter, declaration of independence, constitution, and bill of rights all wrapped into one guiding narrative. Like a cosmic compass, they set its course. They provide models for its institutions and remind its people who they are, why they exist, and how they fit into their grand scheme of things. As foundational narratives, these stories are sometimes dramatized, usually for members only and at regular moments on the community’s ceremonial calendar. They are also recalled as scripts or formulas for conducting proper rituals. And they can be revisited whenever their teachings seem most relevant.

Constituting what some call “original instructions,” such myths inform their constituencies how to behave and move forward in order to remain their unique social selves. They are declarations of all that the culture considers primary, true, and essential. Contrary to the popular use of the term as human invention or falsehood, “myths” of this magnitude are usually considered as sacredly revealed, repositories of ultimate truths, and arbiters of existential questions.

Most of the world’s major narratives of cultural genesis have cohered over time out of a cluster of separate and often older narratives. And commonly, those separate stories, focusing on the establishment of this or that constituent group or cultural practice, wind up being told in multiple ways. Sometimes this is because, through the invocation of these myths, individuals, societal divisions, or priestly elites are making some case or claim and hence they might add, subtract, or alter elements in them.

For these reasons it is usually futile to search for a single originating or seminal version of any culture’s creation story. They have grown out of portions told by different people at different times for different reasons. Whenever outsiders study any culture’s origin myth, they generally try to compare the fullest array of what are called a myth’s variant expressions, whether in lengthy or fragmentary forms, in order to identify their most abiding and widespread elements and to understand the various influences that may have weighed on them over time.

Throughout human history, it has been out of such bundles of separate stories that gifted narrators or big-thinking synthesizers, special-interest groups, or nationalizing committees have tried to compose single, dominating accounts of creation, the emergence of human society, and the relationships between gods and humans.

The culture keepers and storytellers behind such master myths have hailed from various backgrounds. Some were men and women of a rare philosophical or historical bent, or they possessed exceptional memories or storytelling gifts. Some suffered a physical impairment that kept them home, so their full-time job became as community historian, memory bank, or renowned bard. Others may have occupied a privileged religious status or played a noteworthy intellectual or political role in their community. And then there are those individuals whose cultural exposure was so broad that they enjoyed access to an unusually wide range of separate accounts. Such seems to have been the case with Edward Hunt, the narrator of this version of the Acoma creation story.

Different motivations have driven storytellers to compile such authoritative accounts. Given the powerful impact of creation myths on how people believe and act, and the likelihood of multiple versions and the contradictions among them, it is inevitable that some have maintained that theirs should be the true or dominating one. Sometimes select groups or scribal specialists authorized a single orthodox or “revised standard” account and attempted to sideline or even outlaw all others. But for an outsider, all versions tell us something about the complicated and unruly strands, stories, and histories that reveal the community’s development and its evolving sense of itself.

In the remote past, the activity of transmitting central stories and their teachings from one generation to another happened orally, in line with the mouth-to-ear origins of human storytelling. These transmissions introduced all manner of additions and changes. Following the oral transmissions and subsequent elaborations and additions of more stories sometimes came their consolidations into single versions. Often their contents were altered even more by their exposure to creation stories from other cultures, whether the changes were adopted by choice or imposed by conquest.

Then or thereafter, these oral narratives were further condensed as they were fixed into some form of writing or print. And following their conversions from oral to written media, origin stories frequently underwent a fourth transformation. They wove their way into distant societies through the error-prone work of translation from one language to another.

Whether these transformative processes were imposed upon the traditions of small-scale, preindustrial, face-to-face cultures or contributed to the sacred texts of complex societies that produced the so-called world religions, the evolution from oral to written forms usually took a while—often hundreds, sometimes a thousand years or more. In the case of this Pueblo Indian myth, however, its summarizing, narrating, translating, and transcription was completed in about eight weeks. Yet the stories that it contained had been accumulating in the mind of its narrator since he was a child at Acoma Pueblo in western New Mexico.

THE WORLD THIS MYTH CREATED

The society that emerged out of this creation-and-migration narrative is found in today’s Valencia County in western New Mexico, about sixty miles west of present-day Albuquerque. As established in the myth’s closing scenes, the village called Ha’ako, commonly referred to today as “Old Acoma” but advertised in tourist campaigns as “Sky City,” sits on the flat summit of a 375-foot-high sandstone mesa. Its earthen-colored buildings and oversize San Estevan church appear to grow out of the rock itself. The seventeen-acre mesa top is surrounded by clusters of immense sandstone monoliths. This rocky ensemble sits in the midst of a flat plain whose backdrop of low cliffs is interrupted by broad valleys. To the east rises Katzimo, or Enchanted Mesa, whose summit was once occupied by Acoma’s ancestors. This panorama makes for one of the most dramatic town sites in the western hemisphere.

Encompassing a 245,672-acre reservation, with its old mesa-top village and two satellite communities, Acoma Pueblo is one of nineteen autonomous Pueblo Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona. Because these towns centered around open plazas and their buildings were multistory, condominium-like structures built of mud and stone, the earliest Spanish visitors in the sixteenth century found them familiar and called them pueblos.

At nearly seven thousand feet above sea level, with an annual rainfall of between only eleven inches and sixteen inches a year, the high arid desert that drops eastward from the Colorado Plateau is a tough place to make a living. The people of Acoma combined dry and irrigation farming techniques, developed individual and collective hunting strategies, and gathered a host of wild foods. Even then, drought, famine, enemy attacks, and European-derived diseases made for a precarious existence.

Today’s pueblos are direct descendants of cultures whose ancient ruins can be visited in the cliffs of Mesa Verde and the creek bottom of Chaco Canyon. Scholars often divide these pueblos into the Western villages—embracing the Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, and Acoma territories—and the Eastern or Rio Grande Pueblos, which extend from Taos Pueblo near the Colorado state line, down to Isleta Pueblo, just south of Albuquerque.

In contrast to “plaza-centered” pueblo villages, which cluster around a communal space, Acoma is a “street-type” pueblo. Facing its three alleylike byways are eight “houseblocks,” with its cross-axial plaza more a widened corridor between two streets. Although much remodeled today, with one-story, single-family houses increasingly crowding the mesa rim, the old-time two- or three-story blocks stepped back with each tier. In the practice of passive solar heating, their southern exposure allowed the sandstone-and-adobe walls to absorb the sun’s warmth by day and radiate it inside during the night. Combined with small, relatively smokeless fires, their cocoonlike sleeping rooms kept families comfortable over the winter. In warmer months, their people dried meat and native fruits in the sun and visited and socialized beneath an open sky, often in the shade of dividing walls on their roof terraces.

Acoma is positioned in the center of a Pueblo Indian world that extends from the Rio Grande River in New Mexico to the Painted Desert in Arizona. Its social and religious institutions reflect the influences of both its eastern and western neighbors. It is one of the seven Indian pueblos that speak dialects of the Keresan language. Like its western neighbors, the Zuni and Hopi, the community features a clan-based society and contains multiple rectangular kivas, or sacred meeting rooms. But Acoma’s medicine-men societies enjoy the kind of prominence usually found among the eastern, or Rio Grande, pueblos. While the pueblo’s farmers practiced the “dry farming” methods of the West—coaxing irregular plots of maize out of apparently waterless, sandy basins—at their satellite “farming villages” they also maintained irrigation ditches, as were more commonly found along the Jemez and Rio Grande river valleys to the east.

Today the people of Acoma have largely relocated off the mesa, occupying housing projects and dispersed homes in and around the colony villages of Acomita and McCartys. Some have resettled in towns like Grants and Albuquerque. Over the winter, a few families are assigned to reside on the summit to maintain a symbolic presence and fulfill ritual duties. But most Acoma families still retain house and room rights on the mesa, where they return for the yearly round of ceremonies and feast days. Some festivities are open to the public, but others are off-limits to outsiders.

A living architectural shrine, Old Acoma remains the spiritual pivot of the tribe’s universe.

 · · · 

While Acoma Pueblo may be, as its tour guides claim, the oldest continuously occupied settlement in North America, archaeologists allow more cautiously that the “Acoma cultural province” has received residents for a very long time. First were stone-and-bone tool-using Paleo-Indians who lived in the region more than ten thousand years ago. Around 5500 BC, the extended residence of Archaic period hunter-gatherers began; they later settled on mesa tops and valleys and adopted gardening as a secondary food source. By AD 400, they were evolving into the culture now referred to as Ancestral Pueblo. Their farming practices, belief system, and fertility and harvest rituals developed in the “great house” ruins of the Four Corners region. But a convergence of factors—drought high among them—cast their inhabitants on various roads toward the south and southeast. ...

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