Margaret Malloy
Cover Image: UCLA anthropology professor Peter Nabokov's study of the Acoma Pueblo people of New Mexico, "Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo"

Don’t Buy This Book! Acoma Pueblo vs Peter Nabokov: When the Sacred is Made Profane

Alex Jacobs

Peter Nabokov is a tenured professor at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he has taught American Indian Studies and authored several books on Native American history and culture. But his two newest books about Acoma Pueblo (How The World Moves, and, Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo, both on major imprint Penguin Books, 2015) have set off a firestorm of professional and political debate over who owns and who can sanction publication of a tribe’s mythology and sacred stories. Though Edward Proctor Hunt is listed as the author, this is just a logistical tactic by Nabokov who took liberties with historical references made by Hunt to publish his book.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (yes “we” sometimes have to remind people that New Mexico is part of  the United States) has been following a one hundred year old controversy that actually started 400 years earlier with a brutal colonization that forced ancient religious rituals underground. This debate now centers on a modern form of colonization of “intellectual property” that actually affects how a tribe “passes on” sacred information and mythological narratives.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has been covering this issue since it blew it up in September 2015 and just published a well researched new article by Khristaan D. Villela on January 15 that gives details on both sides of the argument.

The author Peter Nabokov actually faced his Acoma critics at book-signing events in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in September 2015. He had promised to meet with Acoma leaders before publication but that never happened and he issued a mild apology to them but his lawyers point to the fact the original book, “The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo and Other Records” had been published in 1946 by Matthew B. Stirling and had been in the public domain.

Stirling was the head of anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) who published “the report” in a small run plus it had been reprinted again in 2008 by Forgotten Books. The book wasn’t much to look at but contained a wealth of information about tribal myths and ritual practices including photos and drawings (which were not included in Nabokov’s new book).

Edward Proctor Hunt and his sons were paid informants to Stirling and the BAE anthropologists back in 1928 but were never given “credit” until Nabokov’s research for the book, How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family. Edward Proctor Hunt was born a boy named Day Break (Gaire) at Acoma in 1861 but was sent to boarding school in Albuquerque with all the terrible ritual of hair cut off, severe discipline, issued spare clothing of a uniform, leather boots and a union cap. He found a name (or one would’ve been “given” to him) in a clothing and bible donation from Ohio, this name was Edward Proctor Hunt.

After boarding school, Hunt had taken up Christianity and started a business as a trading post or shop-keeping and kept modern values, although this was not a deal-breaker his refusal to allow his sons to participate in  tribal religious ceremonies due to their Christian (Mormon) upbringing was.

Acoma Pueblo’s version of the controversy becomes clear when Edward and his son Wilbur Hunt are described in all these various accounts as having been “banished” (or whatever the tribal term). They attempted to live in other pueblo communities but ended up going east and joining a Wild West Show that travelled Europe in 1927.

After that trip, in 1928 the Hunts became “paid tribal informants” to Stirling and the Smithsonian’s BAE. You can see Acoma’s issue with the Hunts and how this information was “illegally” or “unethically” transferred and considering the source being Natives who had in a sense “given up” their tribal identities. But the modern debate now centers on how, from the very beginning, all the non-Natives have done all of this “for the good” of the Natives themselves and for history and posterity.

Native blogger Debbie Reese of Nambe Pueblo initiated an internet campaign against Nabokov right from the start on after the author’s interview with National Geographic in September 2015.

And Acoma Governor Fred S. Vallo released a statement also in September of 2015. “Nabokov agreed to submit the manuscript to the pueblo for review and to appear before the Acoma Tribal Council to discuss possible publication of the book.

Virtually every other modern scholar and professional working with the Pueblo of Acoma has sought this permission when seeking to disclose sensitive cultural information. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Acoma has approved of disclosure in the past. Some examples of published work with permission of the Pueblo of Acoma include publications by Dr. Ward Allan Minge, Dr. Alfred Dittert, Dr. Florence Hawley Ellis, Dr. Kurt Anschuetz and others.”

Brian Vallo who oversaw an expansion of the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum (Acoma is the Spanish misinterpretation of Haak’u) said in an January 27 article by Lucas Ibercio Loziada in the Santa Fe Reporter: “We have language loss, there is separation of community members from their communities, we have intermarriage, all of which impact the sustainability of culture and traditions--we have had to ask ourselves some difficult questions.” Theresa Pasqual as director of Acoma’s Historic Preservation Office, said that the Pueblo has its own protocol of how information is passed down generationally and, “Once that information becomes widely available the Pueblo losses that ability. The traditional religious leadership has always expressed that this information gives us the basis for who we are.” Now the former governor, Fred S. Vallo reiterated those sentiments saying, “It’s tough to protect our cultural patrimony now. Everything’s out there on social media, the Internet. We’re slowly realizing this as we hold on dearly to what’s left.”

As is typical, non-Native “Native Experts” and “friends of the Indian” will say it’s really all legal and ethical according to the system in place but that system is based on colonization and Acoma Pueblo is actually fighting a “decolonization” battle and will get little recourse from the system. Acoma leaders are calling it grave-robbing and comparing the issue to NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.)

This issue will now start to get widespread attention outside of New Mexico and the publishing community which sees little wrong being done and only a greater good for the world of knowledge. Acoma asks that no one purchase Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo and they are seeking to have all sales of the book “legally held” until the issue is resolved.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Okay, I WON'T buy/read this book. I may look up the approved books written by the authors mentioned.

mem's picture
Submitted by mem on
Good luck with the boycott of sales on this book but in a immoral, unethical system and all its working parts that has been developed & set up for a select people; the Acoma will need something stronger. Maybe while you have world-wide attention use it to outline the methodical but brutal way in which this system was set-up and activates in its evil machinations with its evil operators. The legacy of evil, human disrespect & cruelty will catch up at some point - the exposure of their evil should be wherever opportunity is available. Colonization as you've been taught (programmed) to use was nothing short of terrorist genocide of American Natives.

smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Submitted by smartphoenixnavajo on
First, Mr Jacobs should do more research on the academics behind his terms. For one, its the "anthropology" and when the report was made by Sterling for Congress it was the Bureau of Ethnology, just for starters. Such basic research mistakes and bad use of proper english do not lend to your argument, if anything, it looks like a paper written by a high schooler. There has been over a hundred years and ample opportunity for the pueblos to shield their written oral history, if they wanted. The original owner of the manuscript, is their landlord after all, the federal government. I myself have the full report among my library, its been available for a very long time. This regurgitation by Mr Nabokov, another "expert" in Native American affairs, is just pure academic ladder climbing, or positioning. Orthodox academics requires a constant outpouring for such material for their peons to maintain their position or to achieve better position. Its the nature of the game. Sadly, the pueblo(s) and media have given them free publicity, as they always do. One merely has to wear a headless and walk naked for free publicity these days. If there is to be any change, it must come from Native Americans themselves. Write about those who write about us, do some research and do unto them,as they do unto us, or sit back down.

alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
First I admit to typos and dropped words, “Matthew W. Stirling was the head of a team of anthropologists at the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnologists –the BAE”, he was known as an archeologist who studied the Olmec culture, he also “excavated” Arikara villages in Mobridge SD, and sites in Florida and the Gulf Coasts. The Smithsonian assembled teams of "anthropologists" and really this was all rather new and the teams were “professionals, careerists and dilettantes”. In that era there were also playboys with leisure time and parents money to search for adventure, fame, status or treasure. I’m betting Stirling came in because of some attention-grabbing headlines. The Smithsonian may have thought of this as their “A-Team” but to Native peoples they were all assholes, egoists and rude strangers barging in, demanding attention, trying to document religious ceremonies and literally grab up “artifacts and relics”. Stirling doesn’t seem to have gone that far overboard and maybe is deserving of his status as head anthropologist/archeologist/ethnologist, all shifting titles in academia; they printed Origin Myth in 1942/46 due to conditions of WWII and him being famous for his Olmec research. I’m also getting some hate love hate relationship you have with career professionals and/or other Indians. Theres that colonization of a hierarchy and professional behaviors. I did my job to bring people to the discussion and support as they can Acoma, or any Native group under attack…decolonization. I directed people to go to find out more at the well researched sources. We know the playing field is tilted all one way but its a fight against decolonization. Property is colonization for sure. And Thievery is a tool of colonization. As in intellectual property that is being stolen. I don’t care about petty professionalisms or boring careerist behaviors. Some lawyer will talk legalese try to make it lawful but it’s still not any kind of right. If you ever write something we’d all love to read and critique it.