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SANTA FE, New Mexico — This month, the Poeh Cultural Center at the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico unveiled a collection of 100 pieces of Tewa pottery, newly restored to the land where they were created. The exhibition, titled Di Wae Powa: They Came Back, signals the start of an extended partnership between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and Pueblo communities. Until now, the collection was maintained at the NMAI.
The arrangement materialized after Pojoaque Pueblo’s former governor George Rivera, then-lieutenant governor Joseph Talachy, and the Pueblo’s Historic Preservation Officer Bruce Bernstein first proposed to NMAI in 2015 that the pots be returned to their communities. NMAI agreed to a long-term loan. The agreement does not yet have a timeline, only an understanding that the two organizations will be involved in a co-stewardship of the works, with respect to their history and intended use. NMAI is advising the Poeh about conservation techniques, and Tewa potters are in turn working with NMAI to enhance their understanding of the extensive collection. “Our goal at NMAI is to encourage and increase access to our collections, and one of the ways we do that is through loans,” Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Assistant Director for Collections at NMAI, told Hyperallergic. “We really want to connect native peoples with their ancestral material heritage.”
The exhibition will also double as a research space, in which local potters will be able to examine and work with certain pieces directly. The creation of a “teaching collection” was an important aspect of the agreement, in keeping with the Poeh’s goal to bring Pueblo community members into conversation and interaction with the works of their ancestry. “A lot of our youths have yet to experience what it takes to make these pots,” said Evonne Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo. “It’s important that we teach them … it’s not just a piece of clay, it’s not material. It’s what you put into it from your heart and your mind. It’s the song, it’s the prayer, it’s the conversations that took place when they were being made.”
The six Tewa-speaking Pueblos — Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan), Santa Clara, and Tesuque — line the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe. Tewa pottery became an important method of cultural practice and resistance after the Spanish arrived in New Mexico in the 1600s. The pieces in the collection were acquired by private individuals — primarily George Gustav Heye, who donated the majority of NMAI’s works — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and eventually given to NMAI. The collection at the Poeh was selected by representatives from the six Tewa Pueblos out of NMAI’s 500-plus pieces to represent the various Tewa pottery styles and communities. There have been many pottery methods over the centuries, including polished black Kapo pottery, ogapage polychrome, and black pots colored using cow or horse dung in the firing of the clay. To avoid the influence that the demands of tourism placed on the work, none of the pieces selected was created after the 1930s.
“This is the only collection of its kind in New Mexico,” Jake Viarrial, Tourism Coordinator at the Poeh, told Hyperallergic. “These are all utilitarian pieces that were originally sold, so they don’t have a sensitive origin — there is a lot less of that red tape that comes along with those sensitive pieces.” The Poeh specifically selected pieces that were not subject to NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which requires federal or federally funded institutions return certain items to descendants and their affiliated tribes or organizations. “We want to make sure that the exhibit, this space, felt welcoming and comfortable to Tewa Pueblo visitors,” said executive director Karl Duncan (Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, and San Carlos Apache) to the Santa Fe New Mexican. In keeping with this mission, none of the pieces have been used in ceremonies, or excavated. They are displayed on tiered adobe-style steps, as they might have been in their original Pueblo settings.
For Pojoaque and the other Pueblo communities along the Rio Grande Valley, whose culture was systematically wiped out in the 16th century and where the the burden of that erasure is still born today, the return of these pieces to their home is deeply significant. Of the pottery, Clarence Cruz of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo said, “they are living, they do have a spirit, they are breathing as well. They’re our ancestors.”
The traditional Tewa pottery method involves deep emotional investment — as potters work through the long processes of drying, shaping, and firing, they work their intentions and emotions into the objects. The combination of water and earth is seen as a life-creating act, Duncan said: “all of these pots have the ancestors’ feelings and intentions in them.”
The homecoming of this collection “is the first chapter of reviving our culture, bringing it back and restoring it for us, keeping it alive in our hands and in our traditions,” said Lynda Romero, Collections Manager at the Poeh. One hopes more partnerships like this one continue the trend of restoring art and artifacts to the hands and lands of their origin.