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June 27, 2013

The Toughest Movie Indian

By Paul Chaat Smith

NMAI Associate Curator Paul Chaat Smith was the guest of Washington Post features writer Dan Zak at a press screening for the new movie The Lone Ranger. For Paul's thoughts on the experience, see Dan's excellent essay on American Indians and movies today, "Depp’s Tonto: an upgrade on a stereotype or just an updated stereotype?"

Last year when the studio released the first publicity photos promoting the film, Paul mused at greater length on the portrayal of the fictional Indian character Tonto. The essay below originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Native Peoples

On March 8, 2012, Johnny Depp passed the audition.

That's when producer Jerry Bruckheimer released the first still from his forthcoming movie The Lone Ranger. Android phones lit up across Turtle Island as we stared at the glowing screens and prepared to render judgment.

By lucky coincidence or shrewd planning, it was International Women's Day.

This is what we saw: Johnny Depp as Tonto, wearing angry face paint and a matching glare that said, "I am probably going to kill you." Also, on his head, a bird. Average size, black. A raven, most likely. Tonto wearing the bird like a hat.

And this is what we thought, in rapid succession: outrageous, shocking, wait, is that a bird?, and okay, pretty fabulous.

Jay Silverheels
Jay Silverheels at the Indian Actors Workshop, Echo Park, California, 1969. In addition to his work in film and on television, Silverheels cofounded the workshop to promote American Indian talent in Hollywood. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild. 

Now that Depp (Cherokee?) has the part, and the tentative approval of Indians of America, where does he go from here? The expectations, already sky high by virtue of its being Johnny Depp, are suddenly raised by this genius move of turning a bird into a hat and looking ferocious instead of friendly.

There is a lot at stake. For Hollywood, the usual fortunes to be made or lost, careers rejuvenated or derailed. For the Red Nation, any big movie that involves Indians in any way whatsoever, no matter how major or minor, is important. This one is very important, because an A-list movie star is playing a Native American, and also because last year we got scammed out of appearing in the title of Cowboys & Aliens. Which wasn't that good, and anyway it bombed; however the bombing had implications, namely, further proof that Westerns are dead, and since Westerns often involve Indians, even if they are not always featured in the title, fewer Westerns mean fewer Indians. In fact, The Lone Ranger has already been declared dead at least twice, and it was only because Depp really, really wanted to play Tonto that it came back to life.

As Entertainment Weekly reported, "When the idea came up to do a new movie, Depp saw a way to right what he considered a pop culture wrong. 'I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way to . . . ' he hesitated. '"Eliminate" isn't possible—but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only inThe Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.'"

So that's what Johnny Depp wants from Tonto. What do we want from Johnny Depp? And why do we care so much? Because it leads to questions like this: Is Johnny Depp Native American? How much, and what kind? Hey, and what tribe was Tonto anyway?

Nobody knows. Not really. After all, these are cartoon characters and movie stars, and facts are elastic and mostly irrelevant when it comes to movies and cartoons (although Depp has reportedly said that he has Cherokee heritage).

More importantly: Here's the thing about Tonto. We don't like him! Because he was a quisling and a sellout. Couldn't manage complete sentences. Yet here's the puzzle. Although I've never met an Indian who admired Tonto, I've also never met anyone who had an unkind word for the actor who played him on television. That was Jay Silverheels, the toughest and coolest movie Indian of them all.

In the best Hollywood tradition, he was born somebody else and with another name. Harold J. Smith, from Six Nations, a geographically small but politically vast Indian reserve in Ontario. Everyone who knew Harold J. Smith always believed he was destined for stardom. He was smart, handsome, and the son of a Mohawk chief. He worked hard in school, earned money at every odd job he could find, and excelled in sports. He toured professionally with a lacrosse team and won championships in ice hockey and wrestling. (That's how you got ahead back in the 20th century.) His boxing landed him at New York's Madison Square Garden, where he placed second in the Golden Gloves Tournament.

In 1938 the lacrosse team visited California, and Smith stayed and discovered a new sport. The bit roles where he played characters without names came first, and those turned into bigger roles with names and lines and credits. He was Jay Silverheels now, or sometimes Jay Silversmith. Ten years later he was in Arizona, shooting Broken Arrow with James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, and Debra Paget, when his agent phoned.

Of course he said yes. He said he would be honored to play opposite Clayton Moore in the new television series. The Lone Ranger had been huge on radio and in the comics for years, and if there were any sure things in this new medium called television, this was. It was the best part out there, and Jay Silverheels had figured out the camera the same way he figured out the lacrosse stick and the hockey puck. Talent and commitment and dedication to craft had won Jay Silverheels the role of a lifetime. With that answer Harold J. Smith began a new life as the first Indian superstar of the modern age.

Tonto was a joke, a famous punch line. But Silverheels became a Red Nation hero. What a thing to pull off! He managed this impossible kabuki dance with extraordinary grace and intelligence. Asked to speak some of the most demeaning lines ever committed to script, he somehow managed through superior acting skills, the use of his powerful voice, and sheer star power and presence to achieve equality with the Lone Ranger.

Yet as impressive as this achievement is, didn't it at the same time simply validate the manifest-destiny sensibility of that series and other Westerns of the time? Was Jay Silverheels a double agent who slyly raised questions that undermined those values? Or did his abilities advance the destructive policies of the day? Was he a secret hero or a charming, handsome sellout? What was the emotional cost of achieving the ultimate goal of your profession knowing that your work must cause embarrassment to those you love? Did any of it matter, or was it just show business? Was he a symbol of racial pride, demonstrating that Indians were still here and able to hold their own on the biggest show on the planet's newest technology? Stooge or patriot?

I think Jay Silverheels, dead since 1980, wants us to be asking these questions.

Silverheels is still on the air today, on DVDs, and all the Interwebs, and will probably be around after we're gone and those things have new names. A century has passed since his birth. We're still watching him, and I'm pretty sure he's still watching us watch Johnny Depp. 



Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) is a writer and curator interested in the contemporary landscape of American Indian politics and culture. His work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian includes the museum’s history gallery, Our Peoples; performance artist James Luna’s Emendatio (2005 Venice Biennial); Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian (2008–2009); and Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort (2009). With Robert Warrior, Paul is the author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a standard text in Native studies and American history. His latest book is Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong (University of Minnesota, 2009). Photo by Cynthia Frankenburg, NMAI. 

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My Name is Lori Hurt,my Great-Grandmother was Maude Tocsi Chaat. Was just wondering who you folks were. Thank You.

I hope a native american will run for president! I'd work on the campaign free!

John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Iswkwist say’ ay’. My name is John Sirois. My title is chairman of the Colville Business Council, informally called the tribal council.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

My Indian name is say’ ay’, given to me by my maternal grandmother. say’ ay’ is one of those names that do not translate well into English. However, it describes my eyes and the vision that comes with my eyes.

Jsirois 06-27-13
John Sirois, chairman of the Colville Business Council, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Photo courtesy of John Sirois; used with permission.  
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

First and foremost, walk a good road. Listen with a good heart, no matter if you agree or disagree. Participate in traditional customs and speak your language; it grounds you in the history and land of your people. I have to be able to be available to the membership as much as possible.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribes?

My experience is my walk along this road that the Creator provides to every single person. I have been fortunate to have a stable and happy upbringing with great parents and an extended family that has been so supportive and taught me many valuable lessons. I was lucky to have a grandmother who encouraged my interest in our Native culture/ways. I grew up learning how to gather our traditional foods and the relationships we have with those “chiefs”—foods—that sacrifice their lives for us to live healthy lives.

I was fortunate to have a solid education in the Native way and in the higher education of America’s college system. Through my jobs in education, planning, energy, and other fields, I learned other valuable lessons that have helped me incorporate systems and program development into my vision and direction in life.

All of these experiences, recognized by my people, have prepared me to represent my people. I fully believe the trust and relationships that I have had with my community centered my desire to represent them in a respectful and honorable way. I feel lucky and honored by this role and take it very seriously with a good heart.

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

Mel Tonasket, former chairman of Colville Business Council, and Bruce Duthu, former Dartmouth professor, are two of my many mentors. I count so many of my elders who shared information with me as my mentors, so I tried to list a few, but I have many more!

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I am not a direct descendant of a historical leader, but within my family there have been many heredity chiefs.

Where are your tribes located?

We are located in North Central Washington State, bordered by the Columbia River and the Okanogan River.

Where were your tribes originally from?

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation inhabit portions of our aboriginal homelands. Of the twelve tribes—Wenatchee (Wenatchi), Nespelem, Moses–Columbia, Methow, Colville, Okanogan, Palus, Sanpoil, Entiat, Chelan, Nez Perce, and Lakes (Arrow Lakes)—we inhabit the Okanogan, Nespelem, Lakes, and Sanpoil regions. Essentially, the Colville Reservation is in our indigenous homelands we have occupied from time immemorial. We are unique and very blessed in that way of having our own lands to live upon.

Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes, our traditional systems play a significant role within our leadership and the families that consult to choose the candidate they want to represent them.

What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?

There are many significant points in our history—the formation of the reservation, the 1930s when the federal government built the hydroelectric dams that destroyed our salmon runs and our way of life, the termination era. However, the significant moment I would like to highlight was the first return of salmon to our homelands through the efforts of our Fish and Wildlife Department and the First Salmon Ceremony that our traditional people carried out in the spring of 2008.

Approximately how many members are in your tribes?

We are approximately 9,700 citizens strong on a 1.4 million acre reservation.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribes?

A person must be a descendant from the 1937 roles of at least one-quarter blood, maintain tribal relations, and participate in tribal affairs.

Are your languages still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The languages (three major groups and dialects within) are still spoken on our homelands, but they are severely endangered! We are working hard to restore our languages through immersion and other teaching efforts.

What economic enterprises do your tribes own?

Forest products, gas stations, gaming facilities, and an electrical contracting firm.

What annual events do your tribes sponsor?

The Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, Nespelem Celebration Days, and many other powwows, rodeos, sports tournaments, and cultural gatherings.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Outdoor recreation—fishing, camping, birding—and sporting and cultural events.

How is your tribal government set up?

A fourteen-member elected council representing four artificially determined districts in the Indian Reorganization Act form of government.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Each year half of the fourteen are up for election, and it can make things difficult for a governing body for consistent membership and decisions.

How often does your tribal council meet?

The council meets four days a week in official committee structure, and then every two weeks we meet as the full Colville Business Council to pass recommendation sheets from each of the committees into a resolution.

How do your tribes deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?

Because our homelands are along the US/Canada Border, we deal with both federal entities. We deal with them on a government-to-government basis and constantly remind them of their responsibilities to us as a sovereign nation and how we need to interact with each other.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribes?

To the younger generation and the generation yet to come, I would like to share this message: n?ilscutx, which means be courageous, keep going, take heart and have positive feelings. In life you will encounter many negative experiences from outside and inside your community; carry on with a good heart despite those setbacks. You are blessed with this life, an opportunity to walk this wonderful Earth that the Creator has provided; take care of it and it will take care of you. Finally, fill your heart with goodness and share that goodness with all living things you encounter.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Learn and speak your languages, because your homelands yearn to hear you address them in that manner. Your language tells you how to treat one another, how to survive from Mother Earth, and how to help one another. It will give you the purpose in your life of who you are, what you are, where you are, and why you are. Once you have that, you will know where you are going and how to work with people/everything to get there. Way’ ixi put .— That is all I have to say. 

Other interviews in this series: 
Ben Shelley, president of the Navajo Nation 
Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) 
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman 


Series banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission. 

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Excellent words to live by. Thank you.

She'Koli: Iswkwist say’ ay: Chairman Sirois; From my Longhouse to your Longhouse, I extend with a 'good heart' and the power of a 'good mind', my heartfelt greetings, gratitude and acknowledgement to your words and leadership. As a member of the Board of Trustees of NMAI, as Bear Clan Representative to my Oneida Nation Council and as President of U.S.E.T. - Your message resonates deeply, in fact it could have been spoken by one of my great Iroquois leaders (lol).

Scan^- In Peace & goodwill to you, your family, and the People of Collville Confederated Tribes,

Brian Patterson

June 22, 2013

"See it as we see it." Choctaw historian Olin Williams talks about stickball

Stickball table

Olin Williams meets with visitors during Choctaw Days 2013 at the museum. Mr. Williams, who was born into the Mississippi Choctaw and moved to Oklahoma when he married an Oklahoma Choctaw woman, brings together knowledge of both groups' stickball traditions. In the foreground are three pairs of stickball sticks and a ball.

Historian Olin WIlliams is one of the people taking part in the Native festival Choctaw Days: A Cultural Awakening this weekend at the museum. Hosted by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the festival offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Choctaw history and culture from people who are helping sustain and revitalize Choctaw language, music and dance, basketry, and other cultural traditions through research, writing, teaching, practice, and outreach.

Williams' particular interest is in studying objects of cultural patrimony. "I want to know how people thought in the past. These things can tell us," he says. At the festival, he's focusing on stickball, one of the oldest sports played in the Americas and one of many success stories of Native American cutural survival and awakening. Played in some form by the Native peoples of eastern North America from what is now southern Canada to Mississippi, stickball is described in European accounts dating to the early 18th century. 


George Catlin (1796–1872), Ball-play of the Choctaw—Ball Up, 1846–50. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 in (65.4 x 81.4 cm). 1985.66.428A, Smithsonian American Art Museum. "I have made it a uniform rule while in the Indian country to attend every ball play I could hear of—if I could do it by riding a distance of twenty or thirty miles," Catlin wrote in 1834Note that one of the keywords used to tag Catlin's account at the link is ruffianism

"We know what the Europeans saw—what they thought they saw,"  Williams says. "I'd like people to know, 'What do the Choctaw see?' It wasn't undisciplined. There was a sense of civility to it. Instead of going to war, people could play a severe game of stickball to settle disputes.

"To us, stickball is telling a story. My grandmother told me that each clan has its own perspective on what the game is about. For our clan, it is a symbol of a family's struggle. The two sticks are husband and wife, father and mother. They work together. The ball is posterity. All of life is the family's struggle for its posterity." 

If you can't go to the museum today to meet Olin Williams, or visit the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Capitol Museum in Durant someday, the Choctaw Department of Cultural Services has a wonderful collection of essays about the nation's history and culture online. Start anywhere and browse, and when you read the article on stickball, think of Mr. Williams's wish that we all could see stickball as the Choctaw see it.

Note: Iti Fabטssa—the name of the archive and the column in the Choctaw Nation newspaper that is its source—honors the sacred pole that guided the Choctaw on their original journey; fabטssa is also the word for the goal post in stickball.

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June 20, 2013

Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Councilman Jonathan Perry.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

My traditional name means “Laughing One.”

MNA Jonathan Perry 06-20-13
Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry; used with permission.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader? 

As a tribal councilman, I am responsible for working with our tribal chairperson, fellow council members, and traditional leaders to create a balanced, honest, and traditionally rooted government that promotes sovereignty, strength, and unity for all our tribal citizens and our future generations. As a representative of our tribal nation, and the northeastern Native community, I work hard to ensure that our eastern people are well respected, understood, and acknowledged in our homelands and abroad. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I spent a lot of time in my community and other Native communities, participating in gatherings, celebrations, and ceremonies. It gave me the opportunity to learn from elders and knowledge keepers. It instilled in me a great appreciation for our societies, and therefore encouraged me to gain an understanding and work towards strengthening our tribal nation. I have extensively studied our traditional government structure and leadership roles, and try to impart that quality into my own leadership position.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I have been inspired by many people who have represented our Wampanoag Nation and eastern Native people in a strong, positive light. Some of those people have crossed over, and it is now our responsibility to be the inspirations and the mentors. I never had just one mentor, I had a community of them. The ones who immediately come to mind are the late Chief Donald Malonson, from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Nation; the late Tony Pollard, widely known as Nanepashemet, an author, artist, historian and relative; and the late Alice Lopez, from the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, a greatly respected woman who valued community strength and traditions. The list goes on.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I am descended from numerous respected tribal leaders. Perhaps one of the best known would be Mittark [?–1683, sachem of the Wampanoag people of Aquinnah].

Where is your tribe located?

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is currently located on the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) off of the south coast of Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ocean.

Where was your tribe originally from?

Although our tribal lands are located within the town of Aquinnah today, our traditional territory covered Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands; the region of Cape Cod; the South Shore of Massachusetts; the East Bay of Rhode Island, including Aquidneck Island; and following the Blackstone River Valley to the North River in Massachusetts.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes. We have a traditional sôtyum (chief) whose position is decided by the former sôtyum, supported by the community, and confirmed by the elder women. Our medicine person is chosen by the former medicine person and is supported and confirmed in the same fashion as the sôtyum.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In our history, there have been many significant events. These span from pre-Contact to current events. In my opinion, the most important event was when the glaciers receded and our people were led to the place where we reside now by our great leader, Moshup; this is evidenced in our oral traditions.

A well-known event was King Phillip’s War (1675–78), the largest war—in the percentage of people directly affected—fought on American soil in history. This war demonstrated our efforts to enforce our right to self-determination of our borders, our government, and our own people.

Federal recognition, granted in 1987, and the achievement of self-governance were also highlights for our nation. In between these events, our people participated in the whaling and mercantile industries, as well as each military campaign that helped to shape America’s economy and standing from the global perspective.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

We have approximately 1,200 enrolled tribal members, but there are many more individuals and families that are enrolled in other nations, and even live in other societies around the world due to our involvement in numerous industries, such as the whaling industry, which spanned from the late 18th century into the early 20th century.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

To become enrolled in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Nation, one must be a direct descendant from individuals counted on the 1870 Census of Aquinnah Indians.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Due to numerous colonizing efforts, few speakers were still practicing our language into the early 20th century. The Wampanoag language is the most recorded American Indian language throughout history. In the past 20 years, there has been a very strong effort through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project to revitalize our language and produce fluent speakers. This project involves the Wampanoag communities of Aquinnah, Assonet, Herring Pond, and Mashpee. Many members within our communities, including myself, have taken and are currently taking classes.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Our tribe promotes the success of small businesses owned by our individual tribal members. We have a number of properties that we rent to tribal members for their business locations; these include restaurants, coffee shops, clothing and retail stores, an education center, and a water-quality laboratory. We also support and promote the Aquinnah Cultural Center.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

Each April, we host the Spring Social. All members of the Native community and their families are invited to feast, sing, dance, and enjoy the celebration to welcome the spring season.

In September, we host our annual powwow overlooking the massive clay cliffs of Aquinnah. Each night of the powwow, we host a feast, and Native people throughout Turtle Island are always welcome.

In October, we celebrate Cranberry Day, when our children are excused from school and we harvest wild cranberries as a community. We have been celebrating this harvest for thousands of years, and it is well recorded in the town history.

Recently, through the efforts of our tribal Historic Preservation Office, we have hosted monthly thanksgivings, for our community members and their families to come together to acknowledge the lunar phases, and each monthly bounty they bring. We encourage our tribal members to bring the foods of that season to be incorporated into a healthy dish.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

If you come to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, you must visit the beautiful clay cliffs of Aquinnah, which are part of our tribal lands. For thousands of years, our ancestors have respected this natural—and now national—landmark, which is featured prominently in our oral traditions. The clay has been used in our artwork and is considered sacred amongst our people. Some of our tribal members have gift and cultural shops and restaurants at the top of the clay cliffs; these businesses sell the artwork of tribal members and some of our traditional foods.

Right near the shops is the Aquinnah Cultural Center, a small museum that holds collections from some of our tribal families. There are exhibits dedicated to oral histories from our elders, as well as items pertaining to our seafaring and whaling history.

How is your tribal government set up?

We have a tribal council of seven, including four elected officials: a chair, vice-chair, treasurer, and secretary. Our sôtyum, and medicine person both have permanent seats on the council. Our chairperson’s position is much like that of a full-time employee for the tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

All councilmembers, including the officers and the chairperson, are on a three-year staggered term. There is an election each November when one-third of the council members are up for election.

How often does your tribal council meet?

The tribal council meets twice monthly and as needed for additional meetings. There are four general membership meetings each year, when the entire tribal body is encouraged to attend.

How does your tribe deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?

Our tribe has a very strong government-to-government relationship with the United States. We are always striving for a stronger government-to-government relationship with the State of Massachusetts. We feel that our sovereign rights are of the utmost importance, and we feel that we have the right to exercise them in a careful, well thought out manner.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribecommunity? 

Serving on the Tribal Council, and representing our tribe, I try to spend time with our youth to show them the significance of giving back to their community. It’s important to spend time embracing our culture, knowledge, and history. It’s even more important to pass that knowledge down to the future youth.

I encourage our tribal youth to take pride in learning as much about our traditions and culture as possible, as I feel that this is their responsibility to the tribe, and it will soon be their turn to gain respect  and support not only within our own nation, but amongst other nations. It’s imperative for elected tribal leaders to spend time with their tribal youth, as those youth need to be encouraged to be the future leaders.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing that I haven’t touched upon is the importance of our kinship ties with other tribal nations. For instance, we are very closely related to many of the Eastern Algonkian tribal nations, including the Pennacook, Penobscot, and Mi’kmaq; those who are now based in other parts of the country, such as the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Lenape people; as well as many Canadian First Nations.

It is important to acknowledge and recognize the relationships that we have with these people, as they are our relatives and they supported and sometimes protected our people during King Phillip’s War and other times of conflict. I feel that our nation is grateful to these sister nations for their support and sacrifice. Moving forward, I feel that we as Native nations need to maintain and further strengthen not only our governmental ties, but more importantly, our cultural and kinship ties with one another. 

Other interviews in this series: 
Ben Shelley, president of the Navajo Nation 
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation 
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman


Series banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et. al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission. 

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Is he married?

June 19, 2013

Written In Rock: Reflections on Our Time in New Mexico


Reflections 003
Written in Rock, a conservation and cultural exchange project, has brought together people from Azerbaijan; Hopi and the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Santo Domingo ; and the Smithsonian. Abo, New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

By John Fryar

I am an enrolled tribal member of the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico and a retired criminal investigator. For many years I’ve specialized in and dedicated myself to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites, Native American burials and human remains, items of cultural patrimony, and other artifacts left by our ancestors.

Earlier this spring a group of people from Azerbaijan made their first trip to the United States to visit the Pueblo communities of New Mexico, which like their own communities, have a unique relationship with the ancient rock carvings of their country. These lasting footprints of our ancestors are better known among conservationists as petroglyphs. The Azerbaijani participants in Written in Rock included Elvin Abdullayev, Diana Farajova, Humay Mammadzada, Namil Mammadov, Nurana Shahbazova, and Novruz Pashayev. Here they met with their counterparts Ann Brierty of Laguna, Lorraine Caté of Santo Domingo, Lee Francis of Laguna, Harold Joseph of Hopi, Jonathan Sims of Acoma, and me. In addition meeting in New Mexico were Malahat Farajova, director, and Rehman Abdullayev, staff member, of the Gobustan National Preserve, Azerbaijan; Larry Loendorf and Laurie White, of the non-profit organization Sacred Sites; and Claire Eckert, of the Smithsonian's Office of Policy and Analysis, and Carolyn McClellan, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 

The focus of the Written in Rock program is to bring people together in a cultural exchange program geared towards the protection and preservation of petroglyphs (rock art). As with the Pueblo participants’ trip to Azerbaijan in October 2012, this week was a whirlwind of activity.

Our first meeting was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where Marth Becktell, museum director, gave us a brief overview of the cultural center, the museum, and the exhibits. We were provided with a tour of the exhibit 100 years of State and Federal Policy: The Impact on Pueblo Nations. The tour was led by Written in Rock Pueblo participants Lee Francis and Jonathan Simms who were involved with the creation of the exhibit, and Lorraine Caté, who was recently hired as an educational coordinator at the cultural center. The exhibit was a wonderful learning experience for everyone, and the in-depth commentary and knowledge of the Pueblo guides regarding the displays was powerful. It created a greater understanding of how government policies have impacted and shaped the Pueblo world today.

We had another brief tour of the exhibit A:shiwi A:wan Ulohnanne: The Zuni World, a Zuni Map Art Exhibition, which features a Zuni map-painting that depicts the Colorado Plateau as a cultural and sacred landscape. The exhibit is intended to open the mind to a world where all things are living. We finished our visit with a tour of the permanent exhibit titled, Our Land, Our Culture, Our Story, which provides a brief historical overview of the Pueblo world, along with a contemporary exhibit of original artwork and craftsmanship from each of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. We had experienced a similar exhibit at the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum, where we were shown examples of weaving techniques and materials from various older time periods and the newer contemporary patterns exhibited in Azerbaijani rugs and carpets.

We concluded the day with a trip to the Petroglyph National Monument, which is located within Albuquerque's city limits and illustrates the impact that an urban environment can have upon a cultural landscape. We discussed the delicate balance of trying to preserve and protect these ancient markings and sacred areas from the encroachment of today’s urban dwellers. Sometimes the attention paid to an area, such as the Petroglyph Monument, has unintended consequences, such as being loved too much by overuse. This is in stark contrast to the petroglyphs we saw at Gobustan, which aren't threatened by the encroachment of urban sprawl (yet).

The following day would find us experiencing places such as Gran Quivira and Abo, research sites within the Salinas National Monument. We were provided a tour of Gran Quivira where we learned of the Spanish Colonial quest for dominance over the original inhabitants of the area. Today the Spanish mission still stands tall over the rubble mounds of the original pueblo. At Abo, we experienced rock paintings that for many members of the group were very spiritual. The majority of these drawings and paintings were associated with salt. Unbeknownst to most members of the group prior to viewing the paintings, there are areas a relatively short distance away where salt was traditionally gathered. Unfortunately, these salt lakes are now located on private land and are inaccessible for gathering salt. In Azerbaijan we had also learned of salt gathering and trade routes. In 2010 archaeologists published research showing that the Duzdagi salt deposits, located in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, hold the oldest known salt mine in the world. Intensive salt production was carried out at this site at least as early as 3500 B.C. 

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Listening to a guide at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our trip to Acoma was surely a cultural experience for our Azerbaijan guests. Here we visited Acoma Pueblo, purported to be the oldest continually inhabited village in the United States. (Of course our Hopi brother would respectfully disagree. <Smile.>) Acoma is located in west central New Mexico on a mesa 365 feet above the valley floor. The name Acoma is from the Acoma and Spanish word acoma, or acú, which means "the place that always was" or "People of the White Rock."

In 1598, during the Spanish conquest of what is now the southwestern United States, Juan de Oñate took revenge on Acoma for the killing of his nephew and 11 of his men. Oñate burned most of the village and killed more than 600 people and imprisoned approximately 500 others. The prisoners were forced into slavery, and men over 25 years old had their right foot amputated. Today holes in the cemetery wall on the south side can still be seen. These holes were placed in the wall for the Acoma slaves who were taken south into what is now Mexico and did not return.

While at Acoma we were treated by the family of Jonathan Simms to a traditional Pueblo feast. This consisted in part of roast lamb, lamb stew, roast squash, squash stew, homemade tamales, red and green chilis, oven bread, and Indian tea. Interestingly, the meal was somewhat similar to the meal we were provided when we visited the sheep herders’ camp in Azerbaijan. Both were such treats! It was great to see our Azerbaijan brothers and sisters enjoying chili from the Southwest. During this meal our Azerbaijan guests provided everyone with a sampling of dried fruits and nuts in an arrangement of candles and newly planted grass. They had brought these gifts to share with us as a celebration of Novruz, the Azerbaijan spring holiday that takes place in March of each year. This was a true blending of cultures by the sharing of food and traditions from different parts of the world. 

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Hiking the Tsankawi in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our last day in the field found us at Tsankawi, part of the Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. We walked trails that were cut and worn deep into the rock by their continued use from ancient times. We climbed wooden ladders to the top of the mesa, where we could stand and witness the beauty of the surrounding area and cultural landscape. We watched as the pollen from the juniper trees would “pop” in the breeze, making it appear like a puff of smoke rising from the valley floor. We watched as the crows and a hawk watched us from above. This was a spiritual place to many within the group.


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"Graduation Day" for participants of the conservation and cultural exchange project Written in Rock. Photo by John Fryar.

Our hike on the loop trail through the Ancestral Pueblo site provided an opportunity for our Azerbaijan guests to see what a plaza looks like in ruins. The previous day we had been able to show them a plaza at Acoma still in use today. They could visualize what Tsankawi might have looked like had the buildings still been standing at this ancient place. We were able to show them many examples of pottery shards and pieces of broken arrowheads and stone tools that were still on site. They were able to witness sacred areas and participate in prayers and the offering of corn meal at this place. We also witnessed the many examples of rock writings, some telling of migration, some of settlement, and some of spirituality. For many of us, the day could have all been spent at this place.

As in Azerbaijan, we had an opportunity to make a presentation as a group. This time it was at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Pueblo participant Lorraine Caté, who is also student at the school, made the arrangements for the presentation. We had a warm reception from students and staff, and the presentation provided our Azerbaijan colleagues an opportunity to showcase their country and Pueblo participants a chance to reflect on the Written in Rock program.

We ended the week with a wonderful presentation by Nancy Olson, a rock art specialist, who had recorded petroglyphs over much of Pajarito Mesa, in the area where Tsankawi is located. Over many years she has compiled drawings and documentation that will benefit researchers for years to come.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the future and what we wish to accomplish with the knowledge we all gained from the Written in Rock project. All participants greatly benefited from the program because of this knowledge, the cultural aspects of the project, and our greater understanding of the similarities and differences of our respective cultures. 

Written in Rock is a partnership of the Gobustan Preserve, the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, and the National Museum of the American Indian, and is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums. 

Comments (3)

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What a great project. Native diplomacy at its best.

This is a bold project. Nice!

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