BY PENELOPE HUNTER-STIEBEL
Wouldn’t New Mexico Historic Sites always want tantalizing images published to attract visitors? Not necessarily. Coronado Historic Site walks a fine line, because the treasures they hold reach to the very heart of the religious beliefs of the first inhabitants of our state and their current descendants. What faith has no mysteries? And what mystery can be captured in a photograph?
This of course has nothing to do with the historic figure of Coronado, who may not have set up camp at the site in 1540 but would surely have stopped to raid the food storage rooms of the Tiwa village of Kuaua. Conservative estimates of his troop of Europeans and “indios amigos” put the number of mouths to feed at 1,500! None of the villages along the Rio Grande would have been spared his requisitioning of supplies.
Though cultural tourism is now a byword, times have changed since 1935, when Edgar Lee Hewett, pioneer of the concept, succeeded in making this location the first state historic monument (now historic site) in New Mexico. It was to stand for all the Rio Grande pueblos and demonstrate the tricultural diversity of the state. Invoking the name of Coronado for its star power, Hewett planned a large museum and a bridge across the river surmounted by a 40-foot equestrian monument of the conquistador. When he was unable to fund this extravaganza in the Great Depression, he fell back on a simpler building funded by a patchwork of Works Progress Administration (WPA) agencies. He placed it at the very edge of the excavation of Kuaua to serve as the entrance to the ruined village abandoned in the late sixteenth century in the face of a new wave of Spanish intruders.
Today we approach along a small road off busy NM 550 traversing the northern boundary of the city of Bernalillo. Past the gate lies another world, the jagged peaks of the Sandias to the west and below them the river that sustained Tiwa peoples long before the Spanish came. The path from the parking lot leads past piles of mud bricks replicating Hewett’s attempt to evoke the walls of Kuaua.
We come to the visitor center obliquely because it was meant to face the unbuilt bridge of Hewett’s dreams. Beside the entry door at the center of the deep portal is a plaque citing only the 2006 restoration of the building with no mention of the original architect. In fact this classic example of the Santa Fe style was the work of John Gaw Meem. It was rushed to completion for the 1940 celebration of the quadricentennial of Coronado’s entrada. Inside, the modest display fulfills Hewett’s intention of telling the story of the Native people, the conquistadors, and the Anglo archaeologists. Visitors can follow paths through the pueblo site, but the focus of most is the recently restored Painted Kiva, which can only be entered with a ranger or volunteer guide.
The greatest treasure lies, however, behind the door of the north wing of the visitor center. Here, mounted on framed panels, are fourteen fragments of the Painted Kiva’s frescoes, dating between 1475 and 1500. They represent a selection from the 364 individual figures painted on multiple layers of plaster that were laboriously removed to the University of New Mexico for preservation and are now held by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
In the darkened room it takes time for the eye and mind to adjust and piece together the fragmented images into stylized life-sized figures. Some are frontal, stiff, with flared black skirts and tasseled white sashes. Some, with still bright eyes, unflinchingly return your stare. The largest figure sprawls headlong. Only when comparing him with another figure that stands next to a catfish on a rod does it become horribly clear that he is not wearing a huge black headdress: his head has disappeared into the whiskered mouth of a giant catfish. There are yellow figures, naked, with the rounded forms of oversized toddlers. Most haunting of all is a small being unlike any of the rest. He is totally black with just three white circles creating an expressive mouth and pair of eyes. He stands beneath the stepped Pueblo symbol of a rain cloud and holds a water jar in one hand and, in the other, a stick tipped with limp feathers. Moving back and forth between panels, a common element emerges in the cascades of droplets—life-giving liquid, the essence of fertility—and also small disembodied red hands. There have been many interpretations of the images, but, in the end, ours is not to know. This is the one and only place where a visitor can see and ponder such works, whose images remain central to the beliefs of Pueblo peoples. Their guarded privacy could be compared to the secrecy of the rites of Masons or Elks in the secular Anglo world. Over the past decades, awareness of, and a respect for, Native cultural stakeholders has led to the removal of sensitive materials from public view, restricting access to qualified professionals and tribal members.
By agreement with nearby pueblos, only the fresco of the rabbit may be reproduced by Coronado Historic Site. Even this seemingly secular image is filled with suggestions of meaning. The rabbit is shot through with an arrow, and those disembodied red hands grasp at his feet.
How is it, you might wonder, that Hewett could commission for his cultural tourist attraction reproductions of a series of these images on the kiva walls they originally adorned from a Native artist, Valerio Herrera? Clearly standards of intercultural relations have evolved over seventy-five years. Moreover, according to the research of Leslie White (Bureau of Ethnology Report, 1962), Herrera was cast out of his native Zia Pueblo for following his elder brother into an evangelical Pentecostal sect. Both were declared “heretics” by their tribe because they avowed no faith in either Catholicism or traditional tribal religion. Hence, for Valerio, the Kuaua images would have been historic but not sacred.
Passionate but respectful rangers and guides at the site fulfill their stakeholder agreement. They offer no explanations of the images, though, with erudite humor, they can cite chapter and verse of conflicting archaeologists’ attempts. They permit no photography of the original murals or the recreations in the kiva; hence I cannot illustrate what I have described. Kept at a remove from our digital world, these are mysteries, reserved for the awe of direct experience, and most fittingly stored in the mind’s eye.
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum before settling in Santa Fe.