Simon Ortiz and Petuuche Gilbert by Daniel Flores y Ascencio​

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
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Petuuche Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Petuuche Gilbert.

Displacement, be it political exile or simple transmigration, physical or metaphysical, seems to have taken a vital significance in North America during President Reagan’s term in office in the 1980s. Americans began to have out-of-body experiences, real and unreal, with globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the fall of Communism, to culminate with the five hundred year anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas in 1992!

The end of history and the triumph of democracy was enough to set the triumphalist attitude that led the way to the New World Order…a platitude of Manifest Destiny that’s transporting us to the heights of civilization—the hegemony of power has been defined. The World of Eternal Youth has opened up its two golden arches to the promises and challenges of colonization for centuries to come.

In 1986, a year before Black Monday, in the midst of one of the greatest political turmoils in America’s “backyard,” and the new awakening of Indian nations across the continent, Michael Taussig wrote in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wildman , “with European conquest and colonization the space of death blends into a common pool of key significance binding the transforming culture of the conqueror with that of the conquered.”

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Simon Ortiz. Photo courtesy of Simon Ortiz.

When I met the Acoma brothers Simon Ortiz and later on, Gilbert (who in 1992 adopted his Indian name, Petuuche, as an act of civil disobedience), history, as I had learned it, had already begun to change. In fact, Simon and Petuuche were instrumental in the process of my dewesternization, an immunization shot for the “educated minority syndrome” to which as a native I had no defenses. I had been feeling the effects of mainstream fever on the East Coast. Tokenism, violent convulsions, had already taken its toll. I was starting to feel sick; it was time to relocate my self.

Perhaps history as we know it has ended indeed, and Simon and Petuuche were well aware of this long before I met them. Simon is a respected poet in the Southwest with a clear sense of time. He lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona. Petuuche, at present a councilman of the Acoma tribe, lives and works on the Acoma Reservation in New Mexico. Our sporadic encounters are usually charged with a certain demeanor that comes along with brotherly love, respect and acknowledgment, enough to last for a while, until the next time we meet.

As time went by, I wrote a poem about the two Acoma brothers. How much has meeting Simon and Petuuche brought me closer to home? It’s hard to say. Something is clear, however, the way we take our genetic memory for granted! A complex identity, that convulsive as it is, provides us a vehicle to constantly reconstruct our lives from displacement, genocide, war, exile, and colonization beyond time immemorial.

Daniel Flores y Ascencio Simon, you come from a very strong, intellectual family, a very artistic family of Pueblo Indians. As a writer from that tradition, which stories can you tell and which stories can you not tell?

Simon Ortiz Recently I’ve been thinking about the stories that have to do with identity. How does a person maintain and make one’s identity? Identity is who you are personally, individually. What do the stories that make up your identity have to do with the world around you? There are stories that tell about a people, stories not removed from yourself as an individual, stories that are of a culture—for me, Acoma Pueblo culture—stories that tell why Acoma is. Part of the story (or stories) deals with historical things that took place over a period of time—the circumstance and experience of the Acoma people as a whole. Our spiritual stories are kept within the cultural world of the Acoma people. Other stories such as the historical ones which tell of the Acoma people’s relationship with the outside world are handed down from generation to generation “This is what happened years ago.” Stories of that “years ago” experience are told in terms of eras or epochs, there’s usually not a specific time such as 1492 that’s spoken of. Although older people, someone like my late mother, will remember a point in time in terms of when “we came to McCarty’s from Acoma.” Acoma people used to live on top of the mesa at the old pueblo—my mother’s parents moved down in 1909 or so to McCarty’s to irrigated farming areas along the river which had come to be known as the Rio San Jose, a Spanish name assigned during the Mexican colonial period. Those stories are important to the formation of identity. Our personal identity is based on the social identity, the social history of Acoma.

DFA As a poet and a tribal member, do you work out of that memory? Do you incorporate the oral histories handed down from generation to generation into your writing?

SO In Native culture, the main language, or its method of communication, is oral. Spoken language. Spoken language depends on memory; this memory serves language. In other words, what preceding generations knew and spoke about becomes your own language in the present. For Native American writers, the main impulse for self-expression is tied to cultural identity.

DFA Simon, do you write the experiences of the Acoma? Do you write as an individual outside of the community or from inside the community? How can we, as native American writers, tell about a historical event that happened four or five hundred years ago when the Europeans came to this continent? How can we, as writers, embrace that kind of memory?

SO I don’t think there’s a clear distinction between the historical experience of Acoma and the cultural context-experience-knowledge world of Acoma. What is based on Acoma culture is not exclusive. Sometimes there’s overlapping. There are no real boundaries. Acoma intellectual property is not limited, and not an exclusive body of knowledge. When I speak about myself as an Acoma person, my intellectual being doesn’t necessarily put up a barrier. I can still be an Acoma here in Albuquerque, and can see myself as an Acoma person relating to the world. I can limit myself by choosing not to accept or by refusing to look at some things, or by using a different language. I use the American English language, and so I question myself Does this construct my thinking and awareness of myself in an American way, and leave out my Acoma way? That occurs to me, and I’m sure it occurs to other Native Americans. How can you tell this to the person who is reading or who is listening? When I’m speaking about the Acoma world, I use Acoma names to bring an Acoma awareness. There is an intellectual construct that creates the reality of an Acoma cultural world, not the reality of a Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York.

DFA Simon, as a poet, how do you interpret the Cuatrocentenario, the four hundred year anniversary of the Spanish conquerors coming to Acoma?

SO Realistic experience forces you to face reality. I think colonialism also results in an unreal construction of the world. You may avoid it by isolating or alienating yourself, but not dealing with reality distorts your identity. I think I choose to face reality, but I haven’t always—I’m a recovering alcoholic. A lot of my drinking—and I make this as an observation—a lot of the drinking problems colonized people face come from a refusal to deal with reality. Yes, I do include the recent events and the historical experience of the Acoma people in my work. Yet like many Acoma and other Native American people, I did not grow up knowing historical reality from indigenous sources. People block out information and knowledge about their history. In 1599, Acoma, the most strongly defended of the pueblos, was literally destroyed by Juan de Oñate’s soldiers so that the Spanish conquistador could establish political and religious hegemony. The Spanish felt that if they forced the submission of the Acoma pueblo then the other pueblos would not resist as ably. In one sense, they were successful, but not in any long-range terms—although four hundred years, I suppose, is a pretty long range.

DFA Petuuche, as a Pueblo tribal leader and an Indian activist, you are an expression of modern Indian society today—co-existing with Nuevo Mexicanos and the Americans and confronted by federal and laws. Where is Pueblo sovereignty at this time in history?

Petuuche Gilbert Today, at Acoma and as the original peoples of the Southwest, we are subjects to a foreign government—the United States of America. Our sovereignty is denied, surely suppressed, and we’re forced to live under the rule of the state and its leaders. From the Great White Father, President Clinton, down, we’re all living under their authority.

DFA You have often said that indigenous peoples in North America are prisoners of democracy.

PG Yes, that’s really the case; it’s a tyranny of the majority. The United States of America proclaims its democracy is the model for the world, but they fail to mention that their democracy denies freedom to the indigenous peoples. We’re not able to define our own destiny. We’re strictly bound by US laws and regulations. Citizenship, for example: we had no choice. As the US Government took land from Mexico, a treaty was imposed on indigenous peoples whereby they were subjected to citizenship, or they could leave their homeland and go to Mexico. Then in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act made all Native American citizens of the United States of America—like it or not, take it or leave it.

DFA Over the years you have talked about how Indian Nations in the Southwest were subject to three different colonial powers: the Spanish, the Mexicans and now the North Americans. How do you see the life of indigenous people in post-colonial times?

PG Well, the Europeans, the foreigners, have done an excellent job in dominating indigenous people. We’re very dependent and so intimidated today that we don’t insist on our natural rights to be citizens of our own Nations. Or if we try to do so, we’re educated to believe in the system of American democracy, and to adhere to the system of law imposed on us. We’re good, civilized Indians. We don’t have to be coerced to be American citizens anymore. We willingly raise our hands and pledge allegiance to the United States of America and all it stands for. I think it’s terrible to make you believe you’re a dutiful citizen of the United States who must fight its wars to suppress other nations. Colonizers invade other people’s lands, occupy their territories and impose a different way of life which denies indigenous peoples their rightful nature to be who they are and the right to their own futures. It’s interesting to assess the end of the war between Mexico and the United States: the US took millions of acres from Mexico that’s now the southwestern United States—at least, that’s what historians like to say, as if the land were stolen from Mexico. They never talk about indigenous people’s lands-the Apaches, the Navajos, the ancient Pueblos. What about the lands stolen from them?

DFA Was the Treaty of Guadalupe de Hidalgo an agreement between the US and Mexican/European government to rearrange the geopolitical southwest of North America?

PG Yes. It created the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, an artificial boundary. Its impacts are still felt today, especially with regard to the land of indigenous people. After the treaty was signed in 1848, the United States established a Surveyors General Office, which surveyed the land grants that were issued under Spanish and Mexican law. Today a congressman from New Mexico has a bill in Congress that aims to rectify some of the Hispanic and Native peoples’ complaints that the United States of America did not faithfully survey their lands. And it’s going to cause conflict between indigenous people and their Hispanic neighbors, and even between indigenous people and neighboring tribes.

DFA Indian society is a land-based culture and as such, its political and social organization is an intricate part of that cosmovision. The white man’s arrival, with his concept of land, continues to affect our lives to this very day. How has all this affected the Acoma ways?

PG I see it as almost two separate existences and two separate ways of dealing. One is the written history and its unilateral interpretation of historical events by non-indigenous people. And then there are the indigenous people’s stories, which are unwritten. So we hear both versions—stories of our own historical events and those from the outside world—simultaneously. I’m not sure if we really ever analyze the merging of these two cultures, the foreign culture and the indigenous way of life. We see the result of it, either through the conversion to Catholicism or by the operation of a modern, civil government, but we also see the continuing practice of indigenous religion, and we see people maintaining their stories of how we came to be in our time and place. It’s such a challenge to live in these two worlds.

DFA Simon, who tells about the Acoma resistance against the Spanish, the war four hundred years ago and how the events of 1598 play on the psyche of the Acomas?

SO One of the things that western culture has done in establishing control over the Americas is the construction of a world of so-called success. Call it a nation of Manifest Destiny. Submission or conquest was achieved hand in hand with Christianity, initially by the Catholic church and the military forces. Western culture has achieved a so-called success—a kind of fantasy. It’s like western culture’s stereotypical image of the Native American Indians dressed in feathers, brave warriors, hunters of buffalo, et cetera. It’s a Hollywood image, but it’s not a realistic portrayal of Native Americans who are living on reservations or in cities today. That realistic picture is too hard to face because Native Americans, like many people in the Americas, are poor people. They are victims of western culture and capitalism. So, what do we remember, or what do I remember of those events four hundred years ago? If I were to rely on information from my own elders-teachers, I could not point to any historical information. And I used to wonder why not. This kind of knowledge of reality is very difficult to face, and western culture permits and encourages denial. You’d rather believe in the image of a great warrior civilization. The Pueblos one thousand years ago were much better off—before Columbus in 1492 and before the atomic bomb in 1941—than they are in today’s poverty and oppression. About the present animosity between the Native population and the non-Native population—some of that has to do with linguistics, some to do with religious matters that go back to the time of the colonizers. A lot of the historical relationship was experienced through the Catholic church’s missionization of the Indian community. The Indian people’s identity, could be said to have been determined by the interaction between the Indian people and the conditions brought by the white man, the Spaniards and later the Americanos. But that would not be a full understanding of Indian people because indigenous identity still continues with a sense of the Indian self. For example, my indigenous identity is based on the Acoma Pueblo values, language, thought, behavior, and social structure as it is today within the family and clan even considering and involving the many changes that have taken place. There’s still an indigenous identity that is important for people to respect.

DFA Petuuche, your own mythological existence as a tribal people intact in your daily life, in your ritual practice, despite the overwhelming factors of colonialism and the written history. How do you tell your own communities of events that happened four hundred years ago?

PG Consider this. Perhaps we really don’t know, or we don’t know how, to tell our people the true situation. I described the power of colonialism, what has made us believe in this great beast—the United States of America—its ideology has intimidated us to the point where we don’t emphasize our own being, or we have lost our own political ideology by being pushed down for so long that we naively think we are a sovereign, self-determining people. It’s a question that really needs to be explored in order to empower indigenous people who are determined to be their own selves. An appropriate metaphor describing this freedom from the chains of political imprisonment is “growing up.” We break the chains ourselves as we leave the household of the Great White Father without being kicked out of the house. We become adults, we again become citizens of our own nations. We have had enough of this so-called just treatment. We are our own people and have always been our own people. We intend to be free from this prisonership of democracy. It is our human right to be who we are.

DFA Can you tell us why New Mexicans feel such a strong need to commemorate and celebrate the Cuatrocentenario, a historical event that offends many Indians?

PG New Mexico is commemorating the anniversary of the arrival of Juan de Oñate into this area in 1598. He came up the Rio Grande, all along the way blessing the Indians—can you imagine that? (laughter) —and reading these proclamations of Obedience and Vassalage. Supposedly Indians came forward, got down on their knees and freely allowed themselves to become vassals of the King of Spain…The Spanish baptized them, taught them to be good followers of God and King. What ensued was the permanent invasion of the indigenous people’s land in the Southwest instituting an entirely foreign way of life. Of course, there were fights early on, and one of these was at Acoma Pueblo. Acomas had killed some of Oñate’s soldiers, and in 1599 he pronounced a war of revenge on Acoma. Our village was burned and destroyed. Acoma survivors were taken to Santa Domingo Pueblo and put on trial. What has been popularized by the media is how the men were punished by having one foot cut off and the whole people were enslaved for 20 years. Well, four hundred years later, they’re going to commemorate and celebrate the effects of colonization!

DFA Or the culture of genocide.

PG The message is that if you rebel or revolt against the rule of the colonizers, you will be severely punished. I think the message has been very effective, because we’re still afraid. Today you see huge churches throughout indigenous people’s lands. You and I have talked about how colonizers placed their religious structures on indigenous shrines, how white churches have been built on indigenous holy lands. They made the Indians build the churches and then proselytized them in the process, saying, This is your church now because of the blood, sweat and tears you put into it. Today we are devout Catholics. We have accepted the religion of the colonizers.

DFA Who is celebrating the Cuatrocentenario, the Mexican-Americans or the New Mexicans who claim Spanish ancestry?

PG Both the modern political leaders, average New Mexican citizens, Hispanic people who claim this link to the colonizers…they think it’s a great moment in history. Juan de Orñate was their patriarch and they look at all the benefits of civilized Nuevo Mexico. They somehow still believe it was a peaceful conquest; that’s really what they’re celebrating. And of course, the original people, the indigenous people, are caught in this web, especially with intermarriage. We are at uneasy peace with our neighbors.

DFA Where does the Acoma Pueblo stand? I understand the Acoma tribe has passed a resolution asking the Spanish government to give a formal apology for its crimes against Acoma. Has that resolution been delivered to the Spanish government?

PG Yes it has, and in it we’re asking the Spanish government to deal with us and to remember their relationship to Acoma. It can, I suppose, be taken as reconciliation. However, I think that my people at Acoma have already forgiven the Spanish for that destruction and horrible punishment. But more so, we’re looking to the future because in spite of what three foreign governments have done to Acoma, we still think we should be sovereign over our own nation and people, and we intend to pursue sovereign actions and develop a nation to nation relationship with Spain. But foreign countries hesitate to reciprocate because they don’t consider us nations under international law. They consider the United States the supreme nation, and indigenous peoples are dominated and controlled by its power. Indigenous people cannot make treaties with other nations because we are ruled to be domestic, dependent nations subject to US law.

DFA So the New Mexicans and the Spanish descendants are still celebrating the anniversary throughout 1998?

PG Oh, yes. It’s a year-long celebration. Most of the Pueblo people are not publicly opposing it. That’s the effect of intimidation, they are not willing to be activists and proclaim their own thoughts and actions on it.

DFA Simon, was Acoma ever conquered?

SO As I started to say earlier, western culture creates a fantasy in lieu of real victory or actual conquest, a state of mind which is a distortion of reality. It’s schizophrenic. If, and when you do not win, then you create a world in which something looks like victory! The winning of the West is an illusion.

DFA The Spanish-speaking community feels very strongly about the Cuatrocentenario, and the Indian community is divided about this celebration of the conquest because of past crimes. Can you tell us what you think those crimes are?

SO Crimes against humanity—the crime of Manifest Destiny and all that is involved with colonization, settlement, conquest of indigenous lands and peoples. Call it what you will, it is always the same: lying, cheating, stealing and killing—murder. When it’s a matter of colonizing developing lands and their human inhabitants (not to mention the flora and fauna, animals and vast water and mineral resources!) it appears “normal” and as usual as ordinary real-estate development, urbanization, social and economic progress, and so forth. That’s the way the Nuevo Mexicanos and white people see it: not crimes against humanity, not lies, theft and murder, but as land development, capital improvement, employment, social stability, and progress. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder—in this case history is in the eyes of the victor, the “conquistador,” the New World Order.

DFA Petuuche, as you know, living in the Southwest has always struck me because of its similarities to Central and South America in terms of colonialism. One of the reasons I made my home in the Southwest is because it helps me to clarify the effects of colonialism on our own psyche as well as on our lives, and to understand the dynamics of race relations. In Central America, where the rulers are either mixed blood or white, they still do not recognize indigenous rights. Many see Indian culture as a thing of the past. I think these so-called historical events are very important and should be put into perspective. I wonder if the Acomas are willing to make this resolution with the Spanish government public, or make it known outside of the Pueblo.

PG I doubt it. I really do. Again, it’s the fear of creating trouble for themselves and this great family of American citizens. This belief keeps Indians in their place; that’s the ramification of it all. The native people are afraid to attack the Great White Father in the way that I do as an individual. Tribal leadership doesn’t like that radical approach, they want to be good, civilized Indians. I think we must always create a new awareness and continue to educate the invaders. I want them to accept that they’re still the foreigners, the aliens on native soil. But Americans don’t want to acknowledge that. They assert they were born here and that now we’re all Native Americans.

DFA But doesn’t that say we are all prisoners of democracy? (laughter)

PG Of course. It’s the elitist power structure that dominates all of our lives. Yet we all play a part in it, and though we may not like capitalism or democracy, we don’t rebel against it. We pay our taxes, we turn on our TVs and drive our automobiles. We’re caught up in this way of life and don’t really question it. I think it’s a dual existence for Native people. You know your own history, you say your prayers and you know that you’ll continue to exist as a spiritual and physical people after the demise of this great, white America. We believe that. I think we believe in it so much that we don’t analyze our own coexistence. We don’t question the subtle forces that make us want to be good, patriotic citizens. And therefore, I wonder if we really will survive and still be the same as we are now into the future. Native people who practice tradition and culture so powerfully in their own way feel that we will continue to retain our language and cultural identity five hundred years into the future. Those of us who are western educated see it otherwise. We say, No, these powerful colonial forces are much too strong. They’re going to change us. They’re going to produce new people with a mixture of cross-cultural values. That’s the way I see the reality of our existence today. It’s terrible. Our homeland is invaded, we live in an occupied nation, then the colonizers say, Let’s be peaceful, forget five hundred years of colonization, forget the violent events. We want to live with you on your lands for the next five hundred years in peaceful coexistence. But if you listen to my public talks, I talk in much the same way. I talk about the need for self respect, that we’ll continue to live with you in this peaceful manner because it’s not right to have wars fighting over political identity. But, that’s a burden to the Pueblos. I say, “If these white people were to take away your last bit of land; are you going to take up arms?” And nobody says, Yes, we will. And I say that we won’t. Maybe our women will fight and die for our Indian Nation …Otherwise we sit down at the negotiation table and say, Let’s negotiate. That is very sad for us. Americans should feel very secure on their stolen land.

DFA Is identity negotiable?

PG I believe it is. Maybe it’s not willingly negotiated. It’s not a matter of choice. You sit down with your oppressors to negotiate, let’s say, on language. Let’s find ways that we can speak English and yet still teach our own language to our children. It’s making us use English to do Indian negotiations, making us accept English as the dominant language and ours as a minority language to be practiced in our own places and homes. Negotiations are controlled by the people in power. You see that in all aspects, home rule or democracy. The principle is that if you want to live in this country, you have to speak English, believe in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution—everyone, even the Native people who are denied cultural and sovereign rights. American politicians like to say, We believe that you’re quasi-sovereign. We believe that you control your own people, your land. They still speak with forked tongues.

DFA Well politicians…can say anything!

PG Yeah, they’re very, very creative at it.

DFA …In terms of controlling…

PG …In terms of domination. To be a Native activist is to be a barking dog. I don’t think it’s worth it to be a martyr.

DFA Well, that’s going to be your new Indian name, “Barking Dog!” (laughter)

PG “Barking Dog” oh, yeah—you remember Larry Emerson? He asked me once, “What are you doing nowadays?” And I said, “I’m still attacking the United States and pointing out how we’re oppressed people.” He said, “Oh, you’re just like a barking dog.” (laughter) In order to bite—really to be violent—it’s not worth it. About 10 years ago, during one of the Indian long walks across America, Lehman Brightman said, “If we were to all take up arms, it would just give the United States an excuse to kill us all.” I think the forces are much too powerful to produce a Nelson Mandela, someone who could unite the native peoples to rebel against the authorities. Also, I don’t think it’s possible to sway indigenous people themselves, who are caught in this mesh of materialism and economic dependency.  

Daniel Flores y Ascencio by Carlos B. Córdova
Daniel Flores y Ascencio 01
Ruth Cuthand by Chantal McStay
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Beading images of deadly viruses and bacteria into enticing designs, Cuthand makes visible Indigenous communities’ exposure to disease from first colonial contact to today.

Sit, Scroll and Fume by Sarah Jean Grimm
Tommy Pico 01

Tommy Pico’s IRL searches the catacombs of history and hashtags of today to create what can’t be salvaged.

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña by Anna Johnson
Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña 01

Artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco speak with Anna Johnson on shaking conceptions of ethnicity and identity in their seminal The Year of the White Bear.

Originally published in

BOMB 66, Winter 1999

Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

Read the issue
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