The Magic of the Oldest Pueblo

The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo

by Edward Proctor Hunt, with an introduction by Peter Nabokov, translated from the Keresan by Henry Wayne Wolf Robe Hunt and Wilbert Edward Blue Sky Eagle Hunt
Penguin, 185 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Edward S. Curtis: Feast Day at Acoma, 1904
Northwestern University Library
Edward S. Curtis: Feast Day at Acoma, 1904

About a hundred years ago, footloose men and women of a certain romantic disposition discovered the American Southwest and were blown away. The dramatic landscape, the largely intact Native American culture, the atmosphere of ancient mysteries preserved in dry desert air—all combined to put a powerful charm on their minds. Living pueblos in the Southwest almost a thousand years old survived as the oldest continually occupied communities in the Western Hemisphere. Practitioners of pueblo religion kept outsiders at arm’s length and disdained their enchanted curiosity. That only added to the allure.

“Rarely in the nation’s history would a single region be subjected to such adoration,” Peter Nabokov writes in How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family.* Some of the newcomers quickly succeeded in making others throughout the US excited about the Southwest and eager to go there. That surge of adoration is central to the book’s plot; the region’s new fame lifted the family of his subtitle from their uncertain status in pueblo society and helped open up the rest of the country and even Europe to them. From their ancient, place-centered world it made them centrifugal and picaresque.

The book traces the biography of the family patriarch, Edward Proctor Hunt, a Keresan-speaking Indian born in the Acoma Pueblo—west of Albuquerque—in 1861. Nabokov first learned about Hunt when he was doing research at the Smithsonian Institution and happened to ask an archivist if he knew who had recited the origin myth of the Acoma Pueblo. The myth had been transcribed in 1928, and it came out as a Smithsonian publication in 1942 under the name of the ethnologist who had transcribed it. The archivist offered some leads, and by sleuthing Nabokov determined that Hunt had been the actual source and reciter. Since its publication the myth had been studied, praised by Claude Levi-Strauss, and often cited as among the most significant and complete of all American Indian myths.

Hunt died in 1948, but Nabokov found one of his twelve children: Wilbert Hunt, born in 1907, who became Nabokov’s principal source for this book. At the beginning of the introduction, Nabokov says, “This is the story of a man who told a story.” Later he calls the book “a story of how a premodern village produced a postmodern family.” In fact it is both. The book attempts to include a number of big subjects, like a full suitcase with stuff sticking out.

The lives of famous Native Americans tend to range wide—whether it’s Joseph Brant, the Iroquois from upstate New York who translated the Bible into Mohawk, fought for the British in the Revolution, and, when presented to King George III, refused to kneel; or Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache warrior who battled the Mexican and…

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