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Sun Zia

Time Exposures: Picturing Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century

Through photographs, published accounts and stories, as well as occasional visits, Americans have perhaps a cursory familiarity with the Southwestern Pueblos, especially those like Isleta that are near metropolitan areas and major interstate highways. Outsiders may also know what the Pueblos look like, what crafts they produce and sell, and perhaps visit pueblos to view major feast day dances. Our exhibit, however, reveals the Isleta of the 19th century through the eyes of Isletan traditional leaders. We personalize the storyline whenever possible with the voices of Isletan traditional leaders and their narratives of the historic photographs. By following Isletas calendric cycle and its events, the exhibit will also bring the viewer closer to the inner workings of the Pueblo and to an insider’s view of the Isletan experience in the 19th century.

The Pueblo of Isleta, a Southern Tiwa speaking community established in the fourteenth century, is and long has been one of the largest Eastern Pueblo towns in New Mexico. Isleta, or Shiewipag, was situated on the Rio Grande at the intersection of important north-south and east-west Pueblo roads. The north-south route later became the Spanish Camino Real, or “Royal Road”, making Isleta an important settlement at the crossroads of both Puebloan and Spanish trade routes. As a large town, Isleta was also a central gathering place for the surrounding smaller villages in the area, serving as a cultural capital for other Tiwa communities, as well as the Piro, and Tompiro-speaking villages to the south and east.

Over the last 3,000 years, the Puebloan peoples developed agriculture practices suitable to the American Southwest. In later centuries, Isleta irrigated land along the Rio Grande, raising maize, beans, squash, and cotton. The Spanish colonized New Mexico in 1598 and for nearly 250 years prior to the American occupation, Isleta was under the jurisdiction of Spain and Mexico. With the Spanish, came the introduction of wheat, oats, and fruit trees, such as cherries, apricots, and peaches, wine grapes, as well as domesticated livestock that included horses, sheep, cattle, goats, and chickens. Another effect of Spanish colonial rule was the addition of Catholicism to indigenous religious ceremonies and practices. At Isleta, Saint’s day feasts from the Catholic calendar were added to the traditional year and have become well integrated into the Pueblo ritual cycle.

By the nineteenth century, visitors to Isleta found a prosperous farming community with well-tended agricultural fields, irrigation canals, vineyards, and orchards. Primarily agricultural, the people of Isleta had developed a wide trading network, and regularly engaged in hunting buffalo and other game, as well as gathering plants and minerals over a vast region. During this time, a number of community members became quite affluent.

In the later part of the nineteenth century Isletans experienced the onset of a period of rapid change, an era well represented in the historic photographic record. During these years, Isletan society began perhaps its greatest transition with traditional ways of life being noticeably affected. The railroad arrived in 1881 and forcibly took land right through the center of the Pueblo. At the same time, railroad passengers provided a new outlet for the selling of Isletan pottery and other crafts. An influx of Pueblo immigrants from Laguna also brought changes to Isleta. In addition, the destruction of the buffalo herds, the encroachment by new settlers on hunting and residential areas, the growth of nearby Albuquerque, the introduction of American schools and a new Anglo-American economic system, all created enormous alterations to Isletan ways of life and selfsufficiency. By the early 20th century, a way of life based upon agriculture, buffalo hunting, and trade had come to an end.

The American Southwest became a focus of mainstream media in the late 19th century, propelled by the camera, popular literature, and the development of tourism. Photographic images were immediate and visceral ways explorers and travelers could communicate the remarkable cultures and landscapes of the West to their mass audiences back home. Through photography, the Pueblo of Isleta gained a form of visibility that continues today. These images circulated, whether in private sales or publications, and were instrumental in constructing and sustaining the Euro-American romanticized views of the Pueblos as remote and ancient civilizations with intricate religious cycles untouched by the passage of time. Yet, as we will explore in the exhibit, the photographers who documented life in Isleta, such as Charles Fletcher Lummis, Sumner Matteson, Adam Clark Vroman and John K. Hillers, invested their own points of view to their experiences of Isleta and the photographic images of the Pueblo that they produced. Since that time, the citizens of Isleta have also created their own relationships with these images and with photography itself as an important visual medium. This important interplay between the imaged and the imagemakers, and each party’s culturally structured perceptions of what was going on, will be an important sub-theme of the exhibit.

Over time, the Pueblo of Isleta became a favored destination of many 19th century American travelers, scientists and linguists. As a result, Isletan ritual observances and ways of life were well documented for the time. This was also an era when individuals who were to become the vanguard of the incipient disciplines of anthropology and archaeology began to appear at the Pueblo. Adolph Bandelier, one of the founders of Southwestern archaeology, as well as a precise and avid historian, was a frequent visitor (Bandelier 1892). Another important contributor to the historic record was Charles Fletcher Lummis, an early champion of Native American rights and promoter of the Southwest. Lummis recorded numerous stories and songs, took countless photographs, documented the language and took part in a wide variety of activities at the Pueblo (1893;1925;1976). He arrived at Isleta in 1888, and resided there until 1892. He was also known as an incessant promoter of the Southwest, writing for popular magazines, such as Century, and using Isletan stories, photos, and lithographs to educate the wider public. He eventually became the founder of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, which houses an extensive archive of materials from Isleta collected primarily by Lummis himself.

Today, Isleta is a vital Pueblo Indian town with a resident population of almost 5,000, located 13 miles south of present-day Albuquerque, New Mexico. The people of Isleta continue to use their Native language, Southern Tiwa, as well as English, and adhere to and participate in the yearly cycle of ceremonial events. Although the Pueblo was deeply affected by the colonial regimes of the Spanish, Mexican and the United States government, much of its traditional life has remained intact. A great deal of Puebloan life and belief is linked to the cycles and rhythmic order of the universe. The ceremonial calendar that drives and orders the Puebloan year has emerged from a very old Pan-​​​​​​​Puebloan cosmology that is highlighted and divided by the solstice and equinox, and seasonal renewals. Isletans continue to recognize that their traditional religious organizations guard sacred knowledge and continue to play a prominent role in maintaining the calendar and thus, the rhythms of everyday life.

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