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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.