May I suggest ....

Adrian Jawort
7/29/08

;Mediating Knowledges: Origins of a Tribal Museum,' by Gwyneira Isaac

BILLINGS, Mont. - Gwyneira Isaac's book, ''Mediating Knowledges: Origins of a Tribal Museum,'' chronicles the unique creation process and history of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, N.M.

''The aim of the book is also to provide a case study for other tribal communities who are starting their own museums and are, therefore, interested in understanding the challenges these institutions face and ways of overcoming them,'' said Isaac, who lived in Zuni for a year and spent two summers there doing her research.

The Zuni and 19 other Pueblo tribes have inhabited the same New Mexico and Arizona land for the last millennia. Many well-known anthropologists since the 1870s have wanted to delve into the Zuni cache of seemingly secretive religious knowledge and way of life that has largely remained immune from outside influences.

Enthralled anthropologists and archaeologists studying the Zuni from the 1870s on thought they were doing the Zuni a favor in helping them preserve and document their culture after it was assumed that their way of life would be engulfed by the modern Anglo-American civilization. They hoped that they could obtain knowledge not only of the Pueblo and Zuni people, but also of the North American continent itself.

''Zuni became, in many ways, a fertile training ground that provided sustained intellectual stimulus and therefore sustenance for the research that contributed to the development of American cultural anthropology and field archaeology,'' writes Isaac.

The Zuni believe that their religious knowledge and tribal ways should only be given on a need-to-know basis, and that by no means should any of their religion be commercialized by non-Zunis or even Zunis who, perhaps, would have little respect for it without the requisite and intricate knowledge needed to fully understand the implications of its power.

One of the most famous of these anthropologists, Frank Cushing, actually lived at the Zuni Pueblo 1879 to 1884. Much to the dismay of the Zuni and in a great betrayal of trust, he detailed, recorded, sketched out and reproduced with great accuracy his attained religious knowledge of the Zuni. Many believe that his publishing of this sensitive knowledge caused his premature death at the age of 42 when he choked on a fish bone.

In the 1971, the American Anthropological Association adopted the Principles of Professional Responsibility to combat such unethical practices against communities' consent in its Statement of Ethics. It reads, in part: ''It is a prime responsibility of anthropologists to anticipate these [ethical dilemmas] and to plan to resolve them in such a way as to do damage neither to those whom they study nor, in so far as possible, to their scholarly community. Where these conditions cannot be met, the anthropologist would be well-advised not to pursue the particular piece of research.''

Consent would have to be given to study on Zuni lands, and that would be hard to come by. But although they were leery of anthropologists, the Zuni could at least be informed of studies and approve or disapprove of them, and they could filter and assist with the knowledge that was being conveyed about them by outsiders.

The very concept of a museum, which harbored most of the knowledge about the Zuni, had always been alien and foreign to them. To the Zuni, a museum represented the Anglo-Americans, ironic preservation and enshrinement of the very culture that they helped destroy, as told from an outsider's point of view - a people's entire history reduced to glass exhibits.

Nonetheless, the Zuni acknowledged the need to preserve their remaining heritage as the effects of modernization took its toll on them. A rift grew between the old and the young, as school replaced elders as the primary teachers and modern ''values'' began to eclipse traditional Zuni values.

The Zuni tribal administration, under Gov. Robert Lewis, first thought about creating a museum back in the 1960s. Lewis was intrigued by archaeological and anthropological research dedicated to his ancestors, and in 1965 his administration created a Zuni constitution that would make the pueblo more actively involved in such related civil affairs that had previously relegated to the BIA.

In the early 1970s, high school students with questionnaires set about asking the community what it needed. A museum was deemed priority in order to help maintain the heritage, as fewer and fewer Zunis could speak their own language. The Zuni language is unrelated to other pueblo or any known dialects, and researchers are told not to try to learn it.

But to open a museum, there was the glaring question of how to go about it amid curious tourists who had grown particularly infatuated due to the uniqueness of Zuni Sha'lak'o ceremonies.

It's deemed an educational rite for young Zunis to learn about this ceremony, but tour guides were bringing in busloads of people; and in spite of the photograph ban in select areas, many of those tourists took photographs of sacred ceremonies and kokkos - or sacred gods - of which they had no comprehension. Eventually, the ceremonies became closed to not only tourists, but the very young generations that were supposed to learn about them.

From 1985 to 1995, a great debate arose among the Zuni whether to exclude tourists from even being present during religious ceremonies, or to let them be since tourists brought in money to a tribe whose members were primarily self-employed through the sale of goods like handmade jewelry.

A compromise was eventually made, and there are still arguments as to what levels of restrictions should be imposed on non-Zunis, but it was agreed upon by all that photographs generally should not be taken without explicit permission.

Funded by federal grants, the Zuni Archaeological Conservation Team was founded in 1975 to develop a plan for a museum, and that evolved into the Zuni Archaeology Program in 1978. The next year, the Zuni Museum Study Committee and Robert Lewis's administration worked with consultants to develop exactly what it was they wanted in their museum project.

Those projects would eventually evolve into the Zuni Museum Project, and its first exhibits included ''Zuni Farming Villages,'' ''Zuni Then and Now'' and ''Gifts of Mother Earth: Ceramics in the Zuni Tradition.'' ZMP staff also worked with the Smithsonian Institution cataloguing Zuni photographs throughout the 1980s. In 1989, the institution's Nancy Fuller proposed the idea of an ecomuseum to them, and the Zuni Museum Project finally manifested into the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in 1992.

The ecomuseum concept was something that would involve the whole community as curators. People could scan the Zuni life and environment firsthand along with exhibits, and therefore gain a personal understanding of the inhabitants with their shared knowledge and consent. In that, the younger generations would be inclined, and feel obligated, to want to know about their heritage.

''These specific areas of knowledge, however, are located within a system that discourages access to those who are not participating in the network of social responsibilities,'' Isaac writes.

As current museum director Jim Enote writes about Isaac in the book's forward, ''She has, in the best fashion, stirred critical thinking about what tribal museums are doing and what they can be doing.''

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