Audio: Tito Naranjo on the Pueblo world view

A Native American explores the underlying tension with archaeology


Tito Naranjo, a lifelong member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, is a writer, hunting guide, sculptor, social worker, community activist and college teacher. He holds a bachelor's degree from New Mexico Highlands University in sociology and psychology, a master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah, and has served on the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Native American Advisory Group. You can listen to an excerpt from the audio interview, and read a transcript of the full interview.


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NewTowncarShare News: When did you first become aware of archaeology?

Tito Naranjo: I grew up in Santa Clara Pueblo until my late teen years. We were dry-farming behind Puje Pueblo and the Pajarito Plateau, about seven miles north of Los Alamos as the crow flies. Santa Clara claims all the ruins around Puje, including Garcia Canyon, across from Santa Clara on the plateau, across the creek, and so I was always aware that was where our people lived. The planting fields were passed on from generation to generation, ever since our ancestors lived at Puje Pueblo. … I was always aware that those were the ruins of our grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers, the people who came before us. The whole landscape on the Pajarito Plateau is still known by the names that were given by the people who preceded us. …. I didn’t call it archaeology, but I knew that the whole place belonged to us. Because I knew the names of the mountains, the names of the landscape and canyons and so on, before I knew the word “archaeology.” The spirits of our ancestors still dwell there, even to this day. After I got an education, I learned about archaeology, and I was able to use both. I was able to use the Tewa perception of those places, including places clear up and down the Rio Grande, up to Mesa Verde and the Four Corners area. Because the stories of where we came from go right up there to the Four Corners area, I was aware we came from that place before we arrived on the Pajarito Plateau.

HCN: You chose to live outside the boundaries of tribal land. Why?

TN: The tribe, when I was growing up, had no economy, except for tribal jobs. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs during that time was funding all the tribal programs, and it was so limited that one couldn’t get a job on the reservation. So we were eligible for jobs off the reservation. … And so, you know, it was a natural pull. There was always a pull off the reservation because of the wage economy, and always a pull to go back to the reservation. So I was doing both – I was working off the reservation for the money it brought in to support a family, and also able to go back and participate in the life of the Pueblo, ceremonies and religious activities and so on.

HCN: About four years ago, you wrote an essay about the Taos Pueblo deer dance, and as a result you were banned from Taos Pueblo – they felt you had exposed private, sacred rites. What happened with that? Are you still banned?

TN: Well, I was there last Thursday; I drove into Taos Pueblo. Since I was banned in December of 2003, administrations have changed, and younger people have taken over. Many of the elders have died who initiated the action – they don’t have the same feelings toward me as those people about my age had when they banished me.

HCN: How do you walk that line between honoring what’s sacred to your people and illuminating that art and culture for other people?

TN: Taos Pueblo has a different viewpoint than my own pueblo. I lived in Taos Pueblo, I lived around Taos Pueblo and spent some 54 years in Taos Pueblo, on the reservation, back in their mountains. I participated in their ceremonies, and I was accepted by the people there until I wrote the story of the Taos Pueblo deer dance. … And what I wrote about was what hundreds of thousands of people have seen happening in the Taos Pueblo deer dance, except that I understand it much deeper than outsiders do. What I wrote about was primarily secular, it wasn’t of a sacred nature. There’s very much more to the Taos Pueblo deer dance than what I wrote. ... I do realize that those people who believe in the power of the word, the power of the song and the power of the ceremony, are correct in their belief, because that’s how it’s been for hundreds and thousands of years. So I respect the people for their beliefs. … My father-in-law was the leader of one of the kivas, and so I understood from him that they considered everything that was written -- the written word -- killed the power of the spoken word. It relegates it to death. … The Bureau of Indian Affairs forbid Taos Pueblo people to practice their ceremonies, just like the Spaniards did to all of the pueblos along the Rio Grande. In 1921, the commissioner strode into Taos Pueblo and said, you can’t do a dance until we let you, until you ask permission and we give that permission. Well, that doesn’t work when you’re practicing religion. So that was one of the turning points in history, when people began to hide everything. Prior to that, the Deer Dance was painted and drawn, and numbers of sculptures done of the Deer Dance.

HCN: How do you think this will play out ultimately? Do you think the tribe will open up further, or do you think white people can ever understand the culture and history and appreciate it?

TN: Non-Indian, non-natives of a particular pueblo are not able to understand the rules and integrated culture and the history of any particular pueblo. That is impossible, because they don’t speak the language fluently, and they were also never raised from childhood in the pueblos. In order to know the worldview of a pueblo, you have to have lived within the context of (it). And each of the pueblos have different dialects. … Archaeologists and anthropologists cannot understand the worldview unless they grew up in the context of the pueblo. That’s absolutely clear in my mind.

HCN: How do you think the tensions between Native Americans and archaeologists and anthropologists will play out?

TN: In some cases, there’s no tension. I’ve visited Mesa Verde, and especially when the tour leaders are Native Americans, they allow Native Americans into the kiva, to pray in the kiva, because there’s a belief that the spirits of the people are still there in that particular place. And so we give them thanks for allowing us to visit that place. Some Navajo tour guides are also sensitive to that. Pueblo tour guides are very sensitive to that. Non-Indians aren’t so sensitive, and they won’t let you go to places that give the whole place meaning. So sometimes there’s tension and sometimes there’s no tension. I served on the board of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and Crow Canyon has a Native American Advisory Board, and Canyons of the Ancients advisory group, which has now done its work, were also good about inviting Native Americans onto the advisory board. When one knows about the methods they are using, it’s clear that there’s an underlying tension. … They never consider those places that are sacred to us, and bones on the surface of the ground that they never take care of -- they have no respect for that. I’ve seen it. All they want to know is, what’s the meaning of this? What’s the meaning of that? Native Americans have a lot to offer to both anthropologists and archaeologists, and archaeologists and anthropologists seemingly -- some do -- think that they always know better, because they’re literate in the anthropological and archaeological method, and they consider that research, while we don’t think in the same terms. There’s always that tension there, the underlying tension. For example, the Native American Advisory Board at Crow Canyon does not want sacred places to be excavated. But archaeology is coming up with new means (such as) radiology, that they can draw the outlines of a pueblo or outlines of an arroyo, whatever it might be. Noninvasive methods are quite acceptable.

HCN: So maybe that’s finally how it will be resolved, through new technologies that will allow noninvasive ways of discovery.

TN: If archaeologists and anthropologists give up their high-and-mighty status of doing scientific research and begin to understand that we’re not dead, you know? We haven’t gone away, we’re still here. I talk the same language. I could talk to my ancestors, although I’m sure the language has changed over the years -- many hundreds of thousands of years -- basically, the language is still the same. That’s very clear, in the example of the Hopi Tewa, when they come to visit their original homeland, over here in what they call the White Striped Place, where they lived, their sacred homeland. Well, now it’s owned by non-Indians. All the villages throughout the area belong to BLM.
Americans sometimes are just totally impervious to the knowledge of the Pueblo people, who still know of the history of their people, because they’ve kept their beliefs and their stories alive over the centuries. A lot of anthropologists and archaeologists disregard the knowledge of Pueblo people.

HCN: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

This transcript of the audio interview with Tito Naranjo was slightly edited for clarity.

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