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Excerpt: How museum collectors exploited Zuni poverty and damaged a civilization

In "Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits," author Chip Colwell explores the historical lust for artifacts and the fight to reclaim Native American culture

At the end of the dirt road, at the edge of a desolate mesa, we approach the sacred shrine. It looks like a beautiful one- room prison. A windowless building made of heavy burnt-orange sandstone blocks. Sharp steel spikes shoot vertically from the roof, threaded with jagged barbed wire.

We park the car and step into the New Mexico summer. There is no one around, just a hawk circling high in the far distance gazing down on the Zuni Indian Reservation. I have worked with Perry Tsadiasi for a decade, but never before had he invited me to visit this shrine dedicated to the twin gods of war. “I want you to see this,” Perry tells me now. “To have it in your mind when you write your book.”

“Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits” author Chip Colwell. (Handout)

As we near the shrine, Perry points out a small mound of thin, delicate flakes of beautiful turquoise covering the ground like emerald snow. These are sacred offerings—along with finely ground cornmeal that has since blown away or been eaten by insects—made by Zunis who regularly visit the shrine. On the structure’s east side is a narrow doorway made from heavy steel and thick rebar. Perry takes the bulky lock into his left hand while removing a key from his pocket. He is the keeper of the only key.

Peering inside, I can see the structure’s walls are lined with flat, neatly trimmed sandstone pieces. Perry explains how a steel cage was constructed offsite, and then lowered into position with a crane. Sandstone was built up around the cage, but it was left roofless—unless you consider the spaced bars and barbed wire a “roof ”—to ensure that the War Gods are protected from theft but left exposed to nature. The building is an architectural contradiction: a conscious

attempt to ensure that the War Gods are safe as they decay.

We enter and stand before an altar surrounded by the War Gods.

“Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits” by Chip Colwell. (Handout)

Dozens of Ahayu:da, as they are called in the Zuni language, are tightly packed together, standing upright, like passengers in a subway car at rush hour. Made from pieces of wood cut about waist high, the Ahayu:da are carved into abstract human form with a pointed cap, heavy brow, deep-set eyes, sharp nose and chin, and a protruding umbilical cord. The feathers and other regalia that once clothed the twin brothers are long gone, lost or rotted away.

“There are 106 Ahayu:da here,” Perry says. “I helped bring all them back home.”

I notice that the statues are ashen gray, in different stages of decomposition, worn down from years of sun and heat, rain and snow.

Some have retained their cylindrical form. Others are little more than fragments. As a museum curator, I’m supposed to be incensed to see these precious artifacts— these gods— disintegrating into literal dust.

Instead I can imagine no better place for them. I see the power of this shrine reflected in Perry’s eyes. This holy site means the world to him. It means the survival of his people.

The theft of the largest number of War Gods to be held by a museum began, in large part, with R. Stewart Culin’s ambitions.With only a high school diploma, Culin ascended the ranks of the museum world, first preparing exhibitions for the hugely successful world fairs in Spain, in 1892, and in Chicago the next year. At just thirty-four years old, Culin entered the Ivy League, appointed director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He took full advantage of the post, laboring to transform the quiet, embryonic museum and bring it to international prominence. Photos made at the height of his power show Culin as dapper in a crisp three-piece suit, with shining eyes and a sly smile.

Culin wanted most to understand “the language of things,” an obsession that fed his acclaimed exhibits of decorative arts. He evangelized that a museum should not display mere relics but, through careful presentation, preserve “the seed of things which may blossom and fruit again.”By the turn of the new century, the amateur academic was accepted as a leading member of the new science of anthropology, the study of humankind.

In 1903 Culin left Philadelphia to become the inaugural curator of the newly established Department of Ethnology at the Brooklyn Museum.When he arrived in New York, Culin was charged with rapidly enlarging the museum’s modest collections. Culin accepted the mission with zeal.

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When he considered the most fertile collecting grounds, Culin was drawn to the unfinished business of his friend Frank H. Cushing, the legendary anthropologist who died suddenly in 1900. Twenty-one years earlier, Cushing had arrived in Zuni and stayed for nearly five years, immersing himself in Zuni culture.He learned the language. He became a clan member and was even initiated as a novice into the Priesthood of the Bow, a secret religious order whose members protect the Zuni people. Cushing documented his controversial metamorphosis into a “White Indian” in thick academic tomes and spellbinding popular articles. Cushing helped invent the science of anthropology by showing what could be learned if a scholar became fully immersed in a different culture.

Just two months after he began his job in Brooklyn, Culin took a train for Albuquerque to follow Cushing’s path. “It led me to leave the East and turn my own steps to the Southwest and try to pick up and recover the broken clue,” Culin declared in the dark months following his friend’s death. “It became the dream of my life to go to Zuni and complete the work.”

When Culin disembarked in western New Mexico at Zuni pueblo, he was troubled to see a culture fast expiring. Much had changed since Cushing’s departure in 1884. The Zuni were now hemmed in by American settlers, their water sources diverted to neighboring farms and ranches. Their traditional culture was under relentless pressure from middling bureaucrats, schoolmasters, and missionaries.

Just five years before Culin arrived, government officials had tried to prevent Bow Priests from carrying out their duties of maintaining order in the pueblo. To intimidate the priests, more than 100 troops from nearby Fort Wingate were dispatched to Zuni.The soldiers set up a camp for a year, flaunting their 12,000 rounds of ammunition and aiming a Hotchkiss gun at the defenseless mud and stone village. Four Bow Priests were arrested and imprisoned. After thirteen months, they were released without charges.

Culin was distressed enough by such events to protest an order by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that prohibited certain Indian traditions, like long hair for men and “face painting” for religious ceremonies. Culin condemned the order as cruel. (Although his main objection seems to have been that the edict would end Zuni customs before “the student of aboriginal customs and religion” could complete his work.) Culin became convinced that the Indian race would vanish in less than a generation.

Such a crisis presented certain opportunities, however. Culin was exceedingly pleased about the collecting prospects at Zuni. During his collecting trips in 1903, 1904, and 1907, he sought to buy just about anything that was old, drawing on New York’s deep pockets. Culin gleefully reported that the Zuni were “crazy to sell” almost everything for just “five cents, the smallest coin.”Culin picked up scores of games, musical instruments, agricultural implements, weapons. In 1903 alone, Culin brought back 4,615 objects to the Brooklyn Museum.

One of Culin’s colleagues, and a competitor, Matilda Coxe Stevenson of the Smithsonian Institution, complained that “Zunis have had their heads turned by those who have more money than we have.” She pointed her finger at the Brooklyn curator. “Mr. Culin,” Stevenson said, “has made the Zuni half crazy over money.”

Because of his obsession with relics, Zunis caustically gave Culin the nickname Inotai— Old Thing.

Fueling Culin’s goal was a series of misfortunes besetting the tribe.A smallpox epidemic had recently killed nearly 300 Zunis, 20 percent of the tribe’s population. Then a severe drought struck and harvests failed. The Zuni had lost more than 80 percent of their traditional lands, limiting their ability to hunt and gather wild foods, long a safety valve for bad farming years.

The people desperately needed money to buy food. In order to ensure their survival, Zunis sold what they could. “Many of the Indians had nothing to eat,” Culin noted, “for my purchases were all presented to buy food each day.”

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Although desperate, the Zunis were reluctant to sell Culin what he desired above all: sacred objects. “The things which the scientific collector most admires,” Culin wrote while at the pueblo, “cannot be legitimately disposed of.”He was warned that sacred items were cared for by individuals but belonged to religious secret societies.

They were not for sale. Even Culin’s closest Zuni assistant made “a point of not selling masks, dolls, prayer sticks, and other sacred things.”

When Bow Priests learned that Culin was trying to buy ceremonial objects, they ordered sentries to stop him. A missionary confided to Culin that in 1903 “men deputized for the purpose were constantly watching my purchases to see that no one sold me masks or ceremonial objects.”He complained that a messenger “was sent through the village who shouted from housetop to housetop cautioning all against disposing of masks to me.” A religious officer later went house to house to ensure that no masks were missing.

At first, Culin seemed to understand the limits of his grand ambitions.

When he first saw a shrine of the War God in 1902, even Culin, the insatiable collector, insisted it be left intact. “He would be an iconoclast indeed,” the Brooklyn curator wrote, “who would disturb this altar.”

“It was only after night fall,” Culin revealed, “when muffled figures would waylay me with whispers and gestures of secrecy, that I could conduct any important negotiations.”

Despite the measures taken against him, Culin found ways to collect sacred objects. Cultural demise and food shortages were good for the collecting business. “With the decline of the old traditions,” Culin claimed, “incidental to the influence of white contact and the Government school, the old shrines had been neglected, and only recently despoiled by Indians and their contents sold to traders. These sacred objects, which for the greater part remained in Zuni, were secured.”In the end, Culin gathered for Brooklyn’s storeroom thirteen War Gods— more than any other museum in the world.

Culin was particularly focused on collecting the War Gods that he believed came from one unguarded shrine on Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain, situated just east of the pueblo.He believed all these Ahayu:da should belong together in one museum. He tracked down all of the Ahayu:da taken from that shrine and purchased them. Eight of the thirteen War Gods came from Andrew Vander Wagen, who arrived at Zuni in 1897 as a missionary but succeeded mainly in converting himself into a trader. Vander Wagen had reputedly taken the entire contents of three shrines and had paid Zunis to manufacture him nearly 100 ceremonial objects. The Brooklyn Museum purchased it all for $1,028.

Culin relished that Zuni leaders were incensed over the contraband collection. Outrage was proof of its value. Culin sent Vander Wagen’s collection thirty miles north to the town of Gallup, under the cover of the night, “when the outcry became so great.”

Rising Sun

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Interview: “Plundered Skulls” author Chip Colwell.

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