Of Fire and Memory

Elizabeth Archuleta
January 01, 2001

"We'll show them we're just as good as they are!"

As a child, I heard these words flow from my grandmother's mouth many times. Her words and the tone of her voice, remembered now, make me wonder if she ever escaped the past she ran away from so many years ago. My grandmother was born a poor, mixed-race (Mexican-American/Pueblo) woman in a small mountain village in northern New Mexico. As soon as she was old enough to leave home, she ran away to Tooele, Utah, and worked at her godmother's boarding house, a lodging for soldiers stationed at Tooele Army Depot. Her father, my great-grandfather, traveled to Tooele twice to drag her back home, "where she belonged!" but she always returned. "There's nothing in New Mexico!" she would wail. "I don't know why you like that place, or why you want to live there!" Her aversion eventually led her to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was born and raised.

cliff next to blue sky with clouds

Utah, better known for its Mormons, made me want to run away to some place like New Mexico, filled with people who looked like me. Instead, I was raised in a land of strangers, without a language, without a culture, and without memories of a land and a people that are part of my heritage. Well, not entirely. Despite my grandmother's feelings about New Mexico, Mexicans, and Indians, my mother constantly reminded me of who I was: "Don't forget that you have the blood of two people flowing inside you," she would tell me. "You should be proud of both your Spanish and your Indian blood, no matter what people call you or how they make you feel. At least you know who your people are!" My mother's efforts to calm my often-wounded soul competed with my grandmother's warnings: "Don't let her play in the sun too much; she'll look like a little Indian!" At the time, I couldn't know how much my heritage would come to affect the direction my life would take.

Until I return to the southwest desert's familiar terrain, central Pennsylvania's green rolling hills make me forget how New Mexico's color and landscape present themselves as a study in contrasts. Red, yellow, and orange sandstone buttress green outcroppings of sagebrush, cottonwood, and pine. In turn, the colors and shapes of arroyos, mesas, and cliffs contrast with the blue and purple hues of the White, Jémez, Sandia, or Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance. All add to the region's transcendent beauty. If desert and mountain evoke such strong feelings in me, how or why did I end up in Pennsylvania?

For starters, I am the first in my family to earn even a bachelor's degree. Coming from a blue-collar home, and having barely graduated high school myself, I knew nothing about college, not even how to apply. The men in my family all worked for Kennecott Copper Mine, and my dad thought little of college students: ("What?! Are they afraid to get their hands dirty?") Now he's a Penn State football fan and brags about his Ph.D. daughter.

Conversely, my mom had advised me, "get a good education, so you don't have to depend on any man to take care of you!" She and my dad divorced when I was five, and she struggled to raise three girls who would be strong and independent. She knew the value of an education and made sure we always lived near good schools. Still, I hated school as a child. My mom rented, and we moved every year until I reached seventh grade, so my sisters and I were always the new kids. Unlike my lighter-skinned sisters, I always struggled to find a niche for myself. My mom worked to instill me with pride and self-confidence, and thanks to her efforts, and mine, I managed to graduate from Westminster College in Salt Lake City with top honors, and to be awarded a four-year fellowship to the Big Ten school of my choice. Although it was far from home, I chose Penn State.

Ilaugh when people ask why someone who specializes in American Indian literature attends Penn State. I tell them that when I applied to graduate schools, I didn't know I had to specialize; I didn't know I should have chosen a school with professors who taught in my area. I stumbled into American Indian literature as if by chance. I never knew I could make a career out of teaching it. I never knew there were more American Indian authors than N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich, the ones I read in college. As I searched for a dissertation topic, I gradually discovered Pueblo writers beyond Silko, including Paula Gunn Allen, Nora Naranjo-Morse, Harold Littlebird, Carol Sanchez, and Simon Ortiz. I found their work in long-forgotten Native American literature anthologies, out-of-print texts, and bibliographies. I even discovered many Pueblo scholars, including Tito Naranjo, Rina Swentzell, Alfonso Ortiz, Edward Dozier, and Ted Jojola. I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that I could write a dissertation based solely on Pueblo authors.

Pueblo narratives about poverty, racism, and injustice helped me to embrace the memories that my grandmother ran away from. I saw myself in narratives like Paula Gunn Allen's poem, "Dear World," which reveals her mother's belief that her lupus resulted from her mixed-blood heritage—her white and Indian blood attacking itself: "There are historical reasons/for this./I know you can't make peace/being Indian and white./They cancel each other out." I, too, had difficulty finding peace within myself, but discovering voices like Allen's was a homecoming. I had discovered a history and a heritage. These narratives carried me home—where I belong.

My research at Penn State traces the narrative journey that Pueblo peoples have made over the last century in order to celebrate their strength and persistence in the face of many obstacles. During this period, Pueblo narrative traditions them-selves have experienced changes, which mirror changes in Pueblo life. While the traditional stories reveal a people comfortable with migrations, for instance, 20th-century stories show that some modern migrations have been painful and damaging, such as those that removed Indian children from their homes and sent them to schools far away, like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian School.

Narrative transformations, including the shift from oral to written storytelling, have raised questions among those who believe that Pueblo traditions must remain time-less in order to remain "authentic," or that "authentic" traditions are threatened by intrusions from the modern world. Such beliefs tend to contradict the stories them-selves, many of which teach that, without growth and change, things die. In fact, change has renewed and revitalized Pueblo peoples over the centuries, and, at the same time, Pueblos have always managed to retain cultural characteristics that distinguish them.

In May, I traveled to New Mexico to uncover Pueblo materials that went beyond the published literature. I had hoped to find primary evidence related to legal and political issues that have appeared in many Pueblo narratives: letters from boarding schools, for example. I also hoped to interview Acoma Pueblo writer Simon Ortiz, best known for his poetry and short stories.

My trip was not without its own obstacles. Soon after my arrival, the state seemed to go up in flames. The Cerro Grande fire consumed some 40,000 acres and forced thousands of Los Alamos and White Rock residents to abandon their homes. Later, fires consumed 2,000 acres of Santa Clara Pueblo land, and, at one point, even threatened the Puyé cliff dwellings and sacred sites on San Ildefonso Pueblo land. Evacuees were everywhere. Some headed to Albuquerque to look for rooms; my hotel was booked solid.

A University of New Mexico professor had provided me with the introduction I needed to meet some Santa Clara Pueblo potters, and I also had plans to visit Taos Pueblo. As fires raged near both villages, however, flames put a stop to my plans. I did, however, manage to meet with Simon Ortiz. He told me stories of the many journeys he has taken during his lifetime, of his struggles growing up, and the struggles his children now go through, stories that echo through the lives of Paul Gunn Allen's mother, my own grandmother, and myself.

While the fires interrupted part of my research, they made me appreciate, as I hadn't before, the strength and indestructability of Pueblo oral traditions. These stories have endured centuries of change and threat, and, like the Pueblo themselves, they have survived. While fires can quickly consume the objects of material culture, they cannot destroy what has been passed down: the traumatic and celebratory record of a people on a journey toward their future.

I also saw, more clearly than before, that these stories are my own, even though I was not born in New Mexico. In a letter I received after my trip, Simon Ortiz reminded me that I am part of Pueblo history, just as much as those children who were taken to Carlisle, and who eventually found their way back. He reminded me that one of those children was his uncle, Kaahskqushatah, who "used to talk about how much he missed his Acoma home." Simon remembered my own expressed longing to return, and he wrote, "Elizabeth, you'll have quite a story to tell when you finish your Ph.D. … Maybe even a story that people will remember just like they remember Kaahskqushatah." In a sense, then, I am following in the footsteps of my ancestors.

Elizabeth Archuleta is a graduate student in English, the College of the Liberal Arts, 116 Burrowes Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; exa10@psu.edu. She received a CIC Pre-Doctoral Fellowship and a University Graduate Fellowship; her work was awarded the University's Interdisciplinary Dissertation and Creative Projects Award and won first place in the 2000 Graduate Exhibition, Arts and Humanities division. Her adviser is Carla Mulford, Ph.D., associate professor of English, 36 Burrowes Bldg.; 865-2082; cjm5@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2001