On October 10, Barnard/Columbia archaeologists and members of the Picuris Pueblo came together to discuss archaeological research through the lens of collaboration with Native communities.
The Monday of this week, October 10, marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States. On that day, Barnard College’s Archaeological Field Program presented its 2022 findings and hosted a discussion with the Picuris Pueblo tribal delegation.
Director of the archaeology track at Barnard, Severin Fowles, emceed the event and took care not to begin until many of the 22 members of the delegation arrived, dressed in ceremonial garb, following their earlier performance of traditional dance in the center of Columbia’s campus. He welcomed panel participants Governor Craig Quanchello, Former Governor Richard Mermejo, Youth Governor Jordan Fragua, and Tribal Interpreter Cecilia Shields.
The event officially began with an opening prayer led by Former Governor Mermejo, and was followed by a short history of archaeological collaboration at Picuris. Mermejo explained that he has been working with archaeologists for 55 years, beginning when archaeologist Herbert Dick worked with his father and found the largest set of archaeological remains from a living pueblo. Plans to redo the tribal museum and a desire for scientific evidence in future court cases led Mermejo to welcome the Barnard Field Crew to Picuris Pueblo, New Mexico.
Following the prayer, Professor Fowles welcomed up the Barnard Field Crew, elucidating that the primary purpose of their presentation would be to present their findings to the Picuris Nation members. He also elaborated that Mermejo served as the architectural guide for their expeditions and reported back to the Picuris tribe.
First, one Barnard crew presented data asserting Picuris as a regional center from 900–1200 CE. The Eagle Pile site in the pueblo provided evidence for early village occupation, and a surface survey found many artifacts from various cultures, suggesting cultural ties like trade and long-distance travel from the Chacoan system to the Southern Plains. Data collected from dating the charcoal of burnt-down structures as well as observation of impressions and soil stains suggest Picuris was the largest city in the area during the 10th and 11th centuries in the Rio Grande Valley.
The next section of the presentation illuminated Picuris Pueblo’s agricultural revolution from 1350–1680 CE. The expansive landscape of the pueblo is home to intricate field systems that a Barnard crew documented at Mermejo’s request. They conducted a small-scale excavation of stone features making up a mass agricultural terrace and determined that extensive amounts of labor were put into the enhancement of the pueblo’s natural watershed so that the tribe might be better able to grow major regional crops. They used RTK and roving GPS units to make detailed maps of the terrace system and through collaboration with Mermejo were able to understand that the rock alignments were specialized not only for different crops but also for spiritual purposes. Newly received LiDar data shows that the Picuris shaped the entire mountain with hundreds of agricultural terraces in such a way that did not impose on the landscape but assisted it in water retainment.
Lastly, a student presented information from their master’s thesis investigating a set of Picuris items curated for display at the American Museum of Natural History, which served as a contrast to the type of communicative archaeology conducted by the Barnard Field Program.
Professor Fowles ushered the audience into the panel discussion, where Field Program members and Professor Fowles himself asked questions.
Current Picuris Governor Craig Quanchello began by describing his reasoning for allowing archaeological exploration and excavation. He explained how Picuris history is mainly oral—he was looking to dig into Picuris history in scientific ways and also looking into the creation of a Pueblo museum. However, there were very mixed tribal reactions to bringing in outside archaeologists to their home because past excavations had not boded well for the tribe as their culture, artifacts, land, and people were not respected. To him, the most important attributes of archaeological collaboration are compassion and respect. He tells archaeologists: “When you get into this field, always treat it like it’s your house, and it’s your relatives, and it’s your personal space, and then when you come out and you learn, things will go well for you.” Some of his goals with this new archaeological information are to get water that was routed away from the Picuris watershed released, restoring the natural water flow, and to push to get the full breadth of Picuris land back.
Mermejo further elaborated that he would like to be able to walk into a courtroom with all the documentation the team has collected: he learned of the animosity a lack of data can lead to following the complications in the return of human remains to tribes post-NAGPRA.
Tribal Interpreter Cecilia Shields was asked about her experience formulating the Picuris museum. She illustrated how it will be an interpretive center to allow individuals to interact with objects on display in the museum before returning them to the earth. For her, the importance of artifacts is what they can tell you about people: “It’s not just the thing; it’s the people and the culture that continues on.”
Youth Governor Jordan Fragua then expressed his feelings on scientific knowledge. He explained that his generation was raised to be skeptical of archaeology and was taught not to bother the earth because of its special and sacred nature, but understands the opportunity afforded to gain from this scientific information in court. He sees science as simply backing up pre-existing oral knowledge, and expressed frustration at the fact that many do not understand simply how smart the Picuris were and how adept their retention of knowledge is/was. Governor Quanchello knowingly chimed in to warn scientists to be cautious of how they handle and preserve objects, speaking from recollections of previous adverse experiences.
The discussion shifted to the boundaries of collaborative archaeology. Governor Quanchello highlighted them as malleable and the importance of continued dialogue about what is and is not acceptable. Mermejo joked that the limits of archaeology are when one reaches the edge of the reservation, expressing discontent with the Picuris Pueblo reservation boundary lines drawn by the government. Youth Governor Fragua clarified how Dr. Herbert Dick’s work lost the respect of the community and how this current archaeological team is beginning to gain back the community’s respect for archaeology. He explicated Quanchello’s comments by describing how every pueblo and nation should and will set their personal limits on archaeology. Shields spoke on how she believes that much of archaeology is selfish and about recognition rather than improving collective good and the importance of indigenous people being able to take charge of their own stories.
Governor Quanchello summarized that collaborative archaeology “comes down to transparency.”
When asked about the future of archaeology, Youth Governor Fragua believes it to be very bright. Governor Quanchello elaborated that archaeology validates and sets their narratives straight providing both a form of closure and a new-found sense of direction for the Picuris people.
The panel ended as it began, with a prayer, but Mermejo delegated the prayer of closure to Fragua, whom he called the future of the tribe.
Photo via Sophie Askanase