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 American governments for decades and later joined the Dutch Reformed Church; or Russell Means, the Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement leader, who got shot and stabbed many times, stood trial for murder, ran briefly for vice-president, became an actor, and delivered a solid performance as the voice of Chief Powhatan in the Disney animated feature film Pocahontas.
Edward Proctor Hunt began life with the name Day Break. Nabokov points out that as a child he lived more or less as his ancestors had for hundreds of years—on the Acoma Pueblo’s almost impregnable mesa, understood as the center of the world, where myth and ritual explained and governed existence, every rock outcropping and alley had its story, and even a small irrigation ditch could claim its own subdeity.
Possessors of Acoma’s sacred knowledge divided and subdivided it and held it close. Thought to be the oldest of all pueblos, Acoma had a reputation for resistance. In 1540 the scribe of the expedition of Francisco de Coronado described it as occupying “the strongest position that ever was seen in the world.” After the pueblo killed eleven Spanish soldiers and two servants in 1598, Don Juan de Oñate, who had tried to make it a Spanish vassal, retaliated by scaling the mesa, destroying the buildings, killing hundreds of inhabitants, and mutilating the surviving men by cutting off a foot. The story formed a part of Day Break’s upbringing.
Day Break’s actual father was unknown, believed to be Hispanic. His stepfather, a medicine man who supported the family on what he received for curing and other ceremonies, wanted Day Break to follow in the calling, especially after the boy survived a kick in the head by a horse that almost killed him. By the time Day Break was a young man he had been instructed in many areas of sacred knowledge. But his sense of estrangement, linked perhaps to his unusual parentage, grew as well. When a chance arrived for him to attend school in Albuquerque, he went, though his family did not want him to go. At the school he was given a Bible donated by Presbyterians from Cleveland, Ohio, and in it he found a note inviting the recipient to take the name of the donor, a man named Edward Proctor Hunt. Thus Day Break assumed what would be the second and most official of his identities.
Returning to the pueblo following years of study and acculturation, which had included learning some English and accepting Christianity, Hunt was beaten by tribal elders for falling away from his religion. Following his stepfather’s deathbed request he joined the pueblo society of the Koshare, or sacred clowns. Not long after, he impregnated Maria Valle, the granddaughter of Martin Valle, one of Acoma’s principal leaders. Her father brought the couple to a church, saw them married, and deposited them at a cave some distance from the pueblo—the first of Hunt’s several exiles. Their first children were born in the cave. He fed the family by snaring birds, smoking beehives, and killing animals with his throwing club.
A sister of his wife had married a man named Solomon Bibo, who ran a local trading post. Evidently Bibo gave his in-law a job, ending the couple’s cave exile. Though Jewish, Bibo became the governor of Acoma Pueblo before moving with his wife to greater horizons in San Francisco. Hunt, who turned out to possess a mercantile gift himself, took over as the first Native American trading post owner in western New Mexico, or probably anywhere in the territory.
For seventeen years he and his ever-increasing family lived at his trading post in Acoma’s satellite village of Acomita. He built up his herds of sheep, farmed, discovered the trending market for southwestern Indian curios, and became the richest man in the area. Inhabitants of Acoma resented his halfhearted participation in religious ceremonies; his wealth probably didn’t help his standing, either. Eventually the family was asked to leave. They found a new place at the Santa Ana Pueblo, a sometime rival of Acoma’s, about a hundred miles away.
Meanwhile the Southwest’s enthusiast popularizers arrived and began to spread the news. In 1917, Mabel Dodge Luhan, a rich “Yearner” (as the writer Oliver La Farge called such pilgrims), spent a winter in Taos and decided to stay. She married a man from the Taos Pueblo and drew many friends to the place, among them John Collier, who was thirty-two and suggestible. A native ceremony he witnessed in the Taos Pueblo’s plaza so affected him that his life was changed. Government policy toward Native Americans soon changed with it.
Collier believed the pueblo Indians “had what the world has lost.” A former community organizer in New York City, he turned his considerable energies to defeating bills that would have sold off Indian lands and weakened tribal authority. Official policy toward Indians had always slewed back and forth between erasing their way of life and grudgingly letting it be. Collier wanted it to be not just tolerated but celebrated and encouraged. As head of what became the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945 he led the biggest swerve ever in the direction of preserving traditional Indian ways. The sweeping Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which shook up tribal structures all over the country, had its origin in his Taos Pueblo vision.
For Hunt, the downside of Collier’s ascendancy was that Hunt and his wife and children had long been “progressives”—had accepted schooling and Christianity and commerce and modern methods of farming, and mostly left traditional ritual practices behind. At Santa Ana Pueblo their prosperity equaled or exceeded what they’d achieved before. And as at Acoma Pueblo, their neighbors soon were agitating to kick them out. The Hunts’ continued lack of enthusiasm for traditional ceremony, plus disputes over communal irrigation duties, served the anti-Hunt cause. The government’s local Indian agent, a man who shared Collier’s cultural preferences, sided with the traditionalists. So again the Hunts were exiled.
This time the family moved not to another pueblo but to Albuquerque. Hunt would never live in a pueblo again. The departure brought on his next, most dramatic identity change, and the one that seems to have fit him most comfortably. Ejected from “real” Indian life, the Hunts became show Indians. In 1927 Edward Proctor Hunt assumed the role of Big Snake, a supposed Plains Indian who wore an eagle-feather war bonnet and other Siouxish accoutrements in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and Wild West Show, a company out of Oklahoma. This transformation occurred when Hunt/Big Snake was sixty-six years old.
The Miller Brothers organization supplied Indians to a German Wild West show, and in that capacity Hunt/Big Snake had a great success touring Europe with his wife, two sons, and an adoptee from Santa Ana named Philip Sanchez. Nabokov writes, “Tall, with broad shoulders and a booming voice, [Big Snake] in his multitribal ensemble came to resemble an Italian opera’s fantasy of a native potentate from the golden West.” For the Hunts, betwixt and between all their lives, this theatrical period must have come as a relief. Nor was dressing up as Plains Indians such a stretch; in traditional Acoma ceremonies, dancers sometimes were costumed as the terrible Comanches, raiders from the Plains who had afflicted the pueblos. Of course many actual Sioux also traveled Europe with Wild West shows. But management appreciated the Hunts’ steadiness and family values; the actual Sioux, a people of much sadder recent history, had a weakness for “despondency and feuerwasser.”
On the family’s return from Europe in 1928 they signed on with a vaudeville company and toured the East Coast from New York to Florida. Then they ended up in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian, where for the next nine weeks Hunt (setting aside his Big Snake role) recited the Acoma Pueblo’s origin myth for transcribers associated with the institution. His son, Henry Wayne Wolf Robe Hunt, translated, and Philip Sanchez sang some of the sacred songs. The result was the document that the Smithsonian would publish fourteen years later.
A Penguin Classics edition of The Origin Myth of the Acoma Pueblo, by Edward Proctor Hunt, came out last year in tandem with How the World Moves. Elucidated by Nabokov’s editing, introduction, and notes, it is intended to provide a definitive version of Hunt’s achievement and restore him to his rightful place as narrator.
The myth tells of two sisters who are born under the ground and emerge, guided by a female spirit. As they are climbing out she gives them language, seeds, and effigies that will become animals. On earth, the sisters begin to create the world. One of them goes away and becomes the progenitor of white people. The Acoma people descend from the other sister. Much of the myth is about the gods called Katsinas, a war between the gods and the people, and the people’s journey to Acoma, the sacred place where they will build their home.
“Yearners” of many stripes—ethnologists and anthropologists, professional and otherwise—tried hard to get the Indians to tell their myths. The religion of the pueblos depended on sacred information being revealed only at certain times or to certain individuals; even among experienced practitioners much was kept hidden. Telling the secrets outraged this system and brought a heavy condemnation, but Hunt, whose background as a medicine man and as a sacred clown gave him a vast store of knowledge, did not fear. After all, he had been exiled three times; what else could they do to him? Edward Curtis, the photographer, described Hunt as “the only Pueblo informant with whom it was not necessary to work in seclusion and under a pledge of secrecy.” The scarcity of accounts like Hunt’s origin myth added moment to his telling of it. A sense of transgression associated with the telling persists today; the tribal government of the Acoma Pueblo has objected to the republication of the myth and asked that it be taken off the shelves.
Nabokov, who has written many books about Indian history, may regard the pueblo’s complaints as just one more headache. He already had plenty to deal with in bringing this project together. Hunt’s life stretched almost from a pre-Columbian past to the day before yesterday, through many vicissitudes in government policy and popular attitudes toward Native Americans. Given how badly the bigger story often ended up, distrust was to be expected. Protectiveness or discretion leaves blank spots in How the World Moves, as if statements have been edited out. In some places Nabokov is explicit about this, as when he says that certain details of Hunt’s initiation to the society of sacred clowns are “best left alone.” He continues:
Besides satisfying a certain prurient curiosity, what possible use would they have to nonparticipants and nonbelievers, what efficacy to the world that most non-Indians occupy today?
Elsewhere omissions are more puzzling, and readers are on their own. Nabokov himself is vexed not to have been able to find out how the family got to the Smithsonian or why Hunt decided to tell his myth. Where did the family live during the nine weeks of his recitation? Nabokov says, “Apparently a rental was found just over the Virginia line.” The footnote supporting this refers to the return address on a letter Marie Hunt wrote during the Smithsonian period. The address is in Richmond, Virginia, which is more than a hundred miles from Washington. Wilbert Hunt, Nabokov’s principal informant, was present at the Smithsonian sessions. What did he remember about how the family got there? A couple of sentences explaining how he happened to draw a blank on the question are needed.
In the 1940s the Smithsonian publications of Native American narratives attracted the awestruck attention of Claude Levi-Straus, a young escapee from the Nazis who came upon them in New York. After returning to France, Levi-Straus assigned his students the job of structural analysis of these texts, and Lucien Sebag, a young Libyan-born ethnographer, produced a 478-page manuscript largely based on Hunt’s creation story. But Nabokov does not tell us what is in Sebag’s book, written in French; a summary of its contents would have been helpful. And when Hunt, the main focus of Nabokov’s story, dies, the event is given only a brief paragraph. Hunt had stopped going to church five years before his death—what funeral ceremonies were performed for this deeply spiritual man? Where was he buried? Did his wife outlive him? It’s odd to have him just slip offstage. Perhaps these details were omitted because of the wishes of the family, but Nabokov does not say.
A slight air of distraction sometimes colors the writing, as if the author is juggling more than any person could handle. Information is told more than once, such as that the old-time Acoma Pueblo had enough supplies in storage to withstand a siege of four years, or that the Hunts were of the pueblo but not really in it, or that the Hunt men slicked back their hair like movie stars while traveling with the Wild West Show, or that Adolf Hitler believed the Sioux tribe to be of Aryan stock. Often the author uses unanswered questions as commentary or for stylistic effect. Here and there entire paragraphs are made up of questions, with no answers to follow. A background feeling of occasional uncertainty is not necessarily unpleasant for the reader, however, or at least it wasn’t for me. Stories about Native Americans often have an uncertain, shimmering quality.
Details glimpsed in passing enliven the book throughout. When enemies tried to climb the cliffs of Acoma’s mesa, its inhabitants dropped clay pots of angry bees on them. In the old pueblo the dwellings had windows of crystallized gypsum. When the railroad first reached Albuquerque, frightened Indians threw sacred cornmeal on the steam engine. Charles Lummis, a leading popularizer of pueblo culture, coined the slogan “See America first.” A Hunt relative who took a German scalp in World War II brought it home to New Mexico and observed ancient tradition by caring for it and feeding it sacred cornmeal. Hunt’s son-in-law, Hugh Davis, proprietor of a roadside zoo, built the huge turquoise-colored whale rising from a lake next to Route 66 in Catoosa, Oklahoma, which became one of the most memorable American travel landmarks.
John Collier’s discovery of the glories of Indian culture coincided with the beginning of a national and international vogue for things Indian. Western movies fed the interest: kids everywhere played cowboys and Indians, commercial products and companies of all kinds used Indians as their brand symbols, sports teams called themselves Indians or Braves or Chiefs. The Boy Scouts of America, then a rapidly growing organization, based much of its program on Indian crafts and lore. The Hunt family, after their experience with the Wild West Show, segued easily into a touring schedule that brought them to schools, churches, and many Boy Scout jamborees. They danced in native costume, drummed, sang, answered questions, told stories, and earned a living.
All this may be, as Nabokov puts it, “mildly racist,” part of an unenlightened past that more recent developments, such as the American Indian Movement, have made look antique. But I was a kid at the tail end of the Indian-lore period, and I loved it. I had Indian-themed birthday parties, I wore my fringed faux buckskins to bed. Northeastern Ohio, where I lived, offered no Indian culture to compare with New Mexico’s or Arizona’s, but a few arrowheads still remained in the plowed fields, and on the rare occasions when I found one I was blissed out, transported with imaginings. No matter how the Hunts’ performances appear today, I am sure that for the kids in attendance they were a huge amount of fun.
In general, the Native American experience could be better characterized as suffering than as fun. For me what emerges in the story of Edward Hunt and his family is how resilient and generous-hearted they were. Here is his son Henry Wolf Robe Hunt’s description of a moment on one of the family’s stage tours:
One day in Memphis a little boy braver than the others, came close and I say, “This sure is a nice day, ain’t it?” to get him friendly, but he get back behind the tree. Pretty soon he peeps out and says, “Are you a wild Injun?” and I says, “No, they made me go to school.” “But how many scalps did you take when you was wild? Do you eat raw meat?” And then I could see he was serious, so I says, “My little friend, do you really want to know these things?” And he says, “Sure, Chief. Will you tell me?” And out he came from behind the tree. Then I says, “Well, you call your little friends and tell them I am not a wild Indian and we will sit down here under this big tree and we will talk.”
Through exile, through stereotyping and misunderstanding, the Hunt family maintained this kind of gallantry. Edward and Marie Hunt’s marriage lasted for fifty-nine years. Their children turned out well. Some Indian biographies decline into alcoholism; in the Hunts’ story the word “alcohol” is barely mentioned. Nabokov does right to emphasize the origin myth that Hunt told, and to cause it to be republished, finally under Hunt’s name. No doubt the myth added to the Hunts’ self-possession, and assisted in their prevailing over the difficulties of life. The ancient story spinning like a gyroscope inside them kept them strong.
Peter Nabokov’s father, the composer Nicolas Nabokov, was the first cousin of the writer Vladimir Nabokov. A review by Edward Mendelson of Vincent Giroud’s biography of his father, Nicolas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music, appeared in these pages, September 24, 2015. ↩