Protecting culture in the ancient Sky City

  • Theresa Pasqual

    Laura Paskus

About an hour west of Albuquerque, N.M., a sandstone bluff rises above the high desert floor. For more than 800 years, the people of Acoma Pueblo have lived there, protecting their culture, language and many traditional ways. Archaeologist Theresa Pasqual, the director of the Acoma Pueblo's Historic Preservation Office, works with state and federal agencies to ensure that laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act are followed when archaeological sites and human remains are discovered — as when pipelines, roads, mines, or dams are built on the tribe's ancestral lands in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

Recently, she's also been leading the fight to protect Mount Taylor, which is sacred to the Acoma Pueblo. The 11,301-foot-tall peak — called Kaweshtimi in their language, Keres — dominates the view to the north.  It has long been sacred to others, too, including the Pueblo of Laguna, the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo. With the U.S. Forest Service fielding an increasing number of development proposals — including for uranium mining — the five tribes have set aside their cultural and historical differences and united in support of a sustainable, long-term plan for the mountain. They released an ethnographic report on tribal connections to the mountain -- in order to give the Forest Service and others a better idea of how important the area is to them --and requested that 400,000 acres be designated as a “traditional cultural property.” The state did so in 2009, but mining proponents promptly sued; the suit is currently within the New Mexico Supreme Court.

In early January, HCN contributor Laura Paskus spoke with Pasqual about her tribe’s connections to the landscape, her work to protect Mount Taylor, and her experiences as a Native woman and archaeologist. The interview excerpts that follow have been edited and condensed.

HCN: Can you describe what it’s like to have such deep family ties to the landscape?

Pasqual: Over thousands of generations, this repetition of (the story of) where our people moved from -- not just from place to place, but their interaction with other people on the landscape and their interactions with the mountains and the waters and lakes, which we have traditional names for -- has been continuously passed down, through our reciting of different prayers and songs and stories. There is an active, continual (recounting) of where our people came from, and that happens throughout our traditional season and in our language.

So as a child growing up, there was a connection not only to my immediate family of my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents and who they were, but there was also this much larger connection to ancestors — great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandparents.  You could make that connection back to people you had never met, and never seen –– know where they migrated to, where they stopped to make their homes, and what springs they visited. It was as if one knew them, literally, as grandma and grandpa: This is where grandma and grandpa settled, this is where they emerged from, this is where they were given the connection to the animals, this is where grandma and grandpa farmed.

That connection to the past is really important to the work that I do today, and language plays a critical role in that. Those songs and prayers and stories are only said at special times during the year, and they’re said in our traditional language. Language becomes a critical component (of our connection with the landscape), because without it you can’t make that connection (with the springs, mountains, and rivers).

HCN: It seems like Native people and archaeologists often have a different view of archaeological remains. For some archaeologists, human remains are just “data.” What is it like for you -- as a Native woman and an archaeologist -- to work on these sites?

TP: That’s a question that any Native person who has studied anthropology, and especially archaeology, has struggled with. In my community, we have certain taboos and superstitions about the dead. Those are beliefs that were ingrained in me and that I still believe. But I’ve also come to believe -- and I had to learn this from my father -- that everybody has a gift, a certain responsibility.

When I decided to go into archaeology, and realized that I would have to study and handle human bone, I really had to take some time to think and reflect, “Was this really what I wanted to do?” I was nervous. I never told my family what I was going to study, not until much later, when I applied for this job. Then everybody knew what I was doing. That cat was out of the bag!

(I asked my ancestors, saying), “My intentions are only good, I mean you no harm. But whatever it is I am meant to know in this lifetime, whether it is from handling you, or caring for you, teach me what it is I’m supposed to know, so that I in turn can give back. What is it that I’m supposed to give back?”

I have come to believe -- with my position, with my academic training, with my knowledge of forensics and anatomy — that my purpose is much larger than just being the director of the preservation office. Perhaps my purpose, my gift, is to bridge that connection to those remains. If I can go into a curation facility, or go onto the project site and get into the trench and either identify remains, whether by sex or age, and look at the condition of the remains, and report back to my tribal colleagues, that is my gift. That is what I’m meant to do.

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