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Haunted Landscape

Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance

by Vincent Scully
Viking, 398 pp., $19.95

Two problems are likely to be perplexing in writing about an alien culture: the strangeness of the alien culture, which no member of it ever feels, and pressures, positive and negative, from our own culture. We can’t escape our own categories, which are surely not theirs; it’s just as hard to avoid seeing the new culture as a sort of “answer” to our old one. Detachment and involvement, both necessary, are hard to balance; overcompensation can be as false as insensitivity. And then we have to translate concepts that took shape in one medium—almost wordlessly, among ancient friends long initiated in tribal secrets, and almost without technology—into another medium, of English prose set on a linotype machine and augmented by photolithography. To do all this sympathetically yet accurately, so that the final image is not blurred by reflexes of our own, is a work of the rarest difficulty. Professor Scully has gone boldly and imaginatively at this more than impossible task; the record of his success and failure, if mixed, is never without vital interest.

The culture in question is that of the Pueblo Indians, who live (and have lived more or less under their present identities for up to a thousand years) in small settlements scattered through northwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Altogether, there are fewer than 40,000 of them now; each of their two biggest settlements contains perhaps 5,000 people, but the next-biggest is half that size, and many quite well-known Pueblo communities comprise fewer than 250 persons. They were once more numerous than they are now, perhaps by a factor of five, but drought, disease, and marauding tribes from the plains reduced their numbers sharply, long before white men appeared on the scene.

Professor Scully undertakes to represent their culture through a composite description of their architecture (as it exists today and as it is known from archaeological remains), of their ceremonial dances, and of the landscape to which both are intimately bound. His main argument is that there is a large and deeply felt unity between what we distinguish as culture and nature, and which the Indian hardly distinguishes at all. Coming to Pueblo culture as he does from a provocative study of sacred architecture in ancient Greece, Scully has much to say that is both striking and moving of the Pueblo attitudes toward sacred places, the arrangement of structures in space, the lives of men and beasts, and man’s relation to rain, earth, vegetation. It is a very personal book, a fact for which the author apologizes, though quite unnecessarily; for its central strengths lie in an intense intuitive effort to evoke the heart of a culture which is both more vital and more intricately unified than Anglo observers have commonly taken care to realize. Along with the strengths of this approach go some weaknesses, to be sure; but they are peripheral and almost self-correcting. The book has a generous audacity.

Scully’s concern with the setting of the Pueblo community, with its relation to the landscape and to the natural environment, very strongly affects his description of the architecture itself. He says little or nothing about mundane matters like living space, lighting, heating, cooking arrangements, techniques of food storage, or that great Anglo-Saxon preoccupation, Sanitary Facilities. The floor, the roof, the water supply, the practical and economic considerations don’t much enter in.

Looking at the beautiful dwellings of Frijoles Canyon, Scully finds it hard to imagine why the Indians ever abandoned them: given his exclusively aesthetic approach, this is doubtless right, but the ancient Indians did sometimes have to think practically—and considerations like exhausted fields, dwindling supplies of game, epidemic diseases, and the choking effect of their own accumulated wastes may have led them to clear out. It was not uncommon for early Indians to live in a room till it filled up to the ceiling with trash, bones, and litter, and then to move on. That this may have happened in the paradise of Frijoles Canyon is an unromantic and unaesthetic thought, but it’s one of the possibilities to be considered.

Sometimes the practical matters Scully ignores clearly affected the design of the pueblo itself. Like many other early builders, the ancient Pueblos were sparing of labor and materials, so they tried hard to use both sides of a wall and often strung rooms together like cells, using the outside walls of standing cubicles as inside walls for a new one. The obvious inconvenience here was that an inner chamber had no windows, and could be entered only by climbing through the roof or crawling through three or four other chambers. But the arrangement had advantages, in addition to economy: it saved heat in winter, and protected against enemies, and it survives, though much modified, in the house-block of the modern pueblo. A curious outsider might want to know other historical facts—for example, when fire entered the Pueblo house with its recent appurtenances, the fireplace and chimney. Apart from comfort, this introduction of fire clearly had something to do with the question of public or even communal as against private eating habits.

But Scully enters into none of this because his chosen theme is the architecture in its special relations to the specific landscape within which it is placed. Taos is one spectacular example of this. Two great pyramidal structures with their dividing stream stand directly against the sacred mountain, and seem from the plaza directly to make a comment on it. Many of the other pueblos, notably San Juan, are aligned, though less vividly, with sacred places and with sacred mountains in particular. Our appreciation of these remarkable people is deepened when we can see that their mud houses and dusty squares rest, as it were, in a net of magic influences to which they are aligned.

One does not, however, leave Scully’s book with a clear impression of how far this notion should be pressed. There are a great many mountains in the Pueblo country, and over the course of history many of them have been considered sacred, while many of the villages themselves have changed form. (Adobe is far from a permanent building material.) Whether the plazas and building blocks were originally aligned to accord with the sacred hills, or the hills were declared sacred because they were visibly present to the town, is a question Scully does not clearly pose.

Sometimes one feels the evidence being wrestled toward a desired conclusion. From the plaza of Tesuque Pueblo it is indeed possible to see the sacred mountain Lake Peak, but one has to stand in the plaza’s farthest corner and look diagonally across it; from three other corners of the plaza, the peak is quite invisible. Again, San Ildefonso lies due south of its nearest sacred hill, Black Mesa, but the two plazas, when there were two, ignored that looming figure to run directly east-west. Of course that pointed them toward the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains, which are also sacred. And now that the central range of buildings is gone, uniting the two plazas, it is true, as Scully says, that there is “a clear cross-axis of two landscape directions.” But when you have sacred mountains looming up on three sides of you, it’s hard to avoid pointing at one or other of them, since every line you draw points two ways. It isn’t very convincing to make the “clear cross-axis” depend on the recent abolition of a line of buildings that was always there before.

Finally, so many Christian churches face east for special churchly reasons of their own that it seems abrupt to conclude they are all making dialogue of some sort with the sacred mountains of Indian legend to the east. As a philosophic lady in Santa Clara pointed out to me, outdoor ovens used by the Indians always face east too.

Scully’s descriptions of New Mexico scenery are agitated, animistic, and metaphorical to a degree. Mountains plunge, sail away, lift their arms to the summit, or pour their forces onto plazas, while towns invoke the horns of mountains or dialogue with peaks, and kivas echo plateaus or even clouds—though only, I expect, if it happens to be a cloudy day. There’s a great deal of conscious gusto in these descriptions, at the occasional expense, alas, of plain clarity. Distances in particular are very sketchily indicated, and what sounds on the page like a half-hour saunter from Jemez Pueblo up to Valle Grande and then down to Bandelier turns out, on the road map, to be a matter of some fifty-five miles. Scully is by no means inaccurate. Standing on various of the spots he describes, with a topographic map in one hand, his book and a compass in the other, I’ve sometimes found his descriptions a bit overdrawn, never actually at fault. But a reader who isn’t local, and can’t verify for himself the broad, impressionistic images, may find things hard to visualize; and the maps provided will not help him much. They are the one real flaw in an otherwise admirably produced book.

Impressionism and privacy of immediate response, however, are all to the good in the descriptions of dances and ceremonies at the various pueblos. Scully wants to feel these performances, not as formal patterns, but inwardly, as expressions of triumph, terror, and loss. Here his recurrent comparisons with Greek drama seem appropriate, and convey the strong sense of ceremonial release and wholeness which we can hardly help envying the Pueblos. Occasionally amid these descriptions one gets a rather overpowering whiff of D. H. Lawrence, who tended to describe all ceremonies in the incantatory, percussive prose of nonconformist preachers—his steady diet as a child.

Insistent, pounding rhythms, hammerlike repetitions, and the liberating mysteries of the dark unconscious work better on the plaza or in the kiva than on the printed page; and I shouldn’t recommend anyone to read Scully’s dance descriptions in too close sequence. They are frankly subjective, full of essentially ornamental or emotive comparisons; and the perspective is very close, as if they had been transcribed directly from running notes taken in the course of a performance. Yet individually they are fine and occasionally very moving pieces of writing—not least so when the mood of high seriousness breaks for a moment, and Scully catches an instant of byplay in the audience, a bit of comic incongruity in the dancers. This is very Indian indeed; the playful and deprecatory run right into the sacred and solemn. And in point after point like this, the descriptions ring true. Scully’s account of the dances is relatively free of detailed theses; in responding to moods, movements, and dramatic implications, he’s free to do what he does best—embroider the texture of an action, real or imaginative, with rich and animated coloring.

How accurate are his intuitions about the psychic content of these ceremonies and dances? We note, of course, that he was bound to make a sharp selection among them, for each pueblo performs dozens of dances and ceremonies in the course of a year. Scully’s reactions to the dances are themselves dramatically colored by his Greek experiences, by his reading of Lawrence, by the circumstance that he must spend most of every year in New Haven, Connecticut. Don’t these influences lead him to betray the Indian spirit by overdramatizing and over-emotionalizing it?

When all the reservations are made, I don’t really think so. There are sparse and restrained interpretations of the Pueblo Indians as well as florid and visionary ones, and there’s a measure of truth in both. Professional ethnologists may well be scandalized by the freedom and exuberance of Scully’s projections, especially when they note how much of his writing on the ceremonies depends on his own visual responses, uncontaminated by native informants, folklore materials, or any intimate association with the Indian communities on a day-to-day basis. (We recall that everyday Indian life isn’t just routine worldly business, separate from the ceremonies—it too is impregnated with ritual and myth, which can’t help spilling over into the public ceremonials.) But I see no reason for the general reader to worry about all this. A vision of Indian ceremonials which limited itself to no more than what the social statistician can record would be a dead, dull thing. Scully’s semi-operatic vocabulary might bring a polite smile to the faces of the Indians themselves—as many of the “primitive” peoples on whom Lawrence foisted his wish-fulfillments thought his descriptions absurdly over-drawn—and yet have its element of vital truth after all.

Pueblo has not been written for Pueblos. Their communal rhythms and ancient animistic beliefs, their curious cruel-affectionate relation with animals are bound to seem exotic to American intellectuals. We must plunge into this alien culture, as Scully persuades us to do, and absorb its strangeness, before we can temper our imaginations to sense what it must feel like to be born into it. Every experienced teacher knows that radically inaccurate but vivid overstatements can sometimes be counted on to compose themselves, in a student’s mind, toward a decent simulacrum of the truth. Taken as an experiment in cultural pointillisme, the sometimes gaudy blobs on Scully’s canvas may well do the same thing. A major help in this direction are the many illustrations in the book. The sober eye of the camera does not contradict Scully’s prose, but sometimes gently qualifies it. The pictures are a judicious selection of new and old; there are hundreds of them, and all by themselves they are very nearly worth the price.

Implicit in any modern study of the Pueblos (and in Scully’s warmly partisan study particularly) is a judgment of the Anglo culture that now surrounds them and threatens, if not to overwhelm, then to assimilate or corrupt them. Scully is sick and outraged at the Californication being practiced on this last shrinking enclave of a rich and beautiful culture. On the other hand, the Indian way of life we rightly admire so much carries a hidden price tag, which most of us would be, and some of the Indians themselves are, reluctant to pay. With only a marginal diet, with only folk medicine, and without any sanitary techniques, the old way of life imposed (and imposes where it survives) brutally short life expectancy on the Indians.*

That life was often nasty and brutish as well. Very likely those who dream of preserving the true old ritualistic way of life, and are shocked at the idea of introducing electricity into the pueblos, have never themselves got up of a freezing morning in an unheated room, and then gone via an icy outhouse to lug a pail of (probably contaminated) water from the well. Thirty thousand people cannot be kept in a museum for the edification of the rest of us, especially when it means living in poverty and squalor, disease and ignorance. (I know that “ignorance” is a tricky term, in whose name much evil has been done, but I’m talking about practical matters like sanitation, good farm practices, and the educational role of white traders in helping some Indians to revive their ancient arts and crafts.)

Nobody really wants the Pueblos in a glass cage, though occasionally purists talk as if they did. Compromise of some sort is inevitable. At the moment, it’s a grim truth that the quickest way for an Indian tribe to escape from their sacred, squalid rural ghetto is to sell off their land, or some part of it, to a white developer. Professor Scully abhors these sales, and so do I; so do some Indians. But not all. From our viewpoint of aesthetic superiority we think it deplorable that they sometimes prefer mobile homes to their time-hallowed, spirit-haunted residences; but who are we to pass judgment? There’s a real risk that, with the best intentions in the world, we will crucify the Indians on our own white aesthetic standards of what their culture should be.

I’m not apologizing for the cultural rapists who (with the complicity, alas, of the tribes) concocted Cochiti Lake Town Houses and Colonias de Santa Fe; I’m just saying that the way to prevent such monstrosities in the future is to give the Indians some less desperate way of surviving within our culture, such as it is, with minimum damage to their own. It’s a fearfully difficult problem; for most varieties of white interference with their affairs, even when well meant, have been incredibly clumsy—have done, literally, more harm than good. But time is running out. Some pueblos have disintegrated, others have been swallowed. If we can’t find some useful and sensitive things to do pretty soon, we may have to give the whole business over to the archaeologists. Meanwhile, the first task is to approach the Pueblo people with level as well as open eyes—by which I mean, with respect and dignity and sympathy, without seeking to be healed, redeemed, or reborn through their agency. So far as possible, we must try not to exaggerate, just to understand. In spite of its occasional Lawrentian-Dionysiac eccentricities, Professor Scully’s book is a valiant effort in this direction.

  1. *

    Vital statistics about Indians are extremely hard to come by. The 1970 New Mexico census, though it created a separate category for the state’s 12,000 blacks and another for “Spanish Speaking and Spanish Surnamed” people, lumped the state’s 70,000 Indians (Apaches, Navajos, Pueblos) with “Whites and Others.” Per capita, New Mexico ranks forty-ninth in income among the fifty states, at a figure of $3,853 (outdoing only Mississippi); by common consent, Indians rank at the bottom of all groups in the state. I have a crude average for employed Indians in 1969 of about $2,700, but to get anything remotely comparable to per capita figures that number must be radically reduced, since it excludes the unemployed, housewives, children, etc. The only timid estimate I have heard anybody venture is $1,600 per capita, with an appended warning that it probably errs on the high side.

    Another significant statistic is that over half the Indians in New Mexico were under eighteen years old (37,369 out of 71,582: 1970 figures); this figure, much higher than that for the population at large, probably reflects improved living conditions in the last few years. A purely statistical consequence is that the average age of Indians at death was only 45.7 years as against 66.3 for whites (1967 figures). But the figures for life expectancy, though bad, are less dramatic: an Indian born today can expect to live about seven years less than a white person.

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