The curation of discovery: Part 1


Cache/Artifact/Element: Romero’s Shovel

The Mahaffy Cache is a collection of 86 supposedly 13,000-year-old stone artifacts that were discovered by a landscaper, Romero, who worked on a crew led by Brant Turney and included Juan Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez. They were unearthed in the front yard of biopharmaceutical business owner Patrick Mahaffy on the banks of Gregory Creek just blocks north of Chautauqua Park on 6th Street in the spring of 2008. They are presently on display at the CU Museum of Natural History as an exhibit titled, Unearthed: Ancient Life in the Boulder Valley.

I was drawn to this story, as breath is drawn from air. I was struck by the absence of Romero’s name — the person whose shovel — a modern tool — first knocked the ancient tool as one knocks a door. Romero’s name is absent from all news accounts, museum exhibits and memories of those whose faces shine most brightly in the national spotlight of the cache’s discovery. I was drawn by the yet unspoken meaning of Romero’s discovery.


Rico Moore

It was only when I interviewed the landscaping company owner, Brant Turney, that I learned Romero’s name. The name, Romero, holds — as an ancient stone tool holds fluttering and ephemeral notes on a table — the significance of the Mahaffy Cache. Speaking his name unearths stories spoken by the descendants of the ancient Native Americans who buried the stone elements in such a way. Romero is of the yet unspoken underlying causes of the Mahaffy Cache’s significance. Without Romero, the Mahaffy Cache is naught.

Romero’s name did not appear in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, alongside that of the landowner, exhibit and research funder, Mahaffy; and the principal investigator of the cache, Douglas Bamforth; and the CU Museum of Natural History. Romero wasn’t invited to participate in the re-enactment in which the former landowner, Patrick Mahaffy, strolls down the terrace on the PBS television show NOVA to demonstrate how “his” find occurred. I can imagine it if Romero had been included: hands wielding a shovel in a reconstructed excavation site. Clink, clink, then snap to an interview with him: “What was it like to have your shovel come into contact with the most ancient of tools?” “How does it feel to be the discoverer of the Mahaffy Cache?”

In the narrative and story on offer, we have nothing but silence because sadly, there has been no answer, as finding Romero has proven impossible. After being told by Brant Turney that he’d help arrange an interview, I never heard back. The snows fell many times, and none of my calls were returned.

At the media briefing for the opening of the University of Colorado Museum exhibit for the Mahaffy cache, I publicly asked Douglas Bamforth, the anthropologist who studied the cache, who discovered the tools. Several museum employees spoke up in chorus:

“Brant Turney! Brant Turney!”

“No,” Bamforth said, “it was one of the workers.”

It seemed there were two different responses. I wonder how it would have shifted the marketing and branding plan if Romero, and not Brant Turney was the one publicly acknowledged by CU to have discovered the cache. I’ve yet to speak to Romero, or even see his face. I can imagine, however, that he would feel honored to be recognized.

Further, in the acknowledgments section of a chapter published in a book entitled, Clovis Caches, Bamforth acknowledges, “The landscaping crew who found the artifacts, and especially Juan Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez, provided important information on the discovery and helped to find stray items from the cache.”

Bamforth didn’t have their contact information.

The discovery would also furnish the name of Patrick Mahaffy’s biopharmaceutical company, Clovis Oncology. Though as he told me in an interview, the significance of the name choice, “Ends with the name.”

I was given Romero’s name by Brant Turney while sitting on the porch of Mahaffy’s new home. I asked whose shovel hit the first tool.

“Romero,” he said.

The Romero Cache feels to be a more appropriate name for the collection, I thought.
After much searching, neither Romero, Juan Gonzalez nor Jose Ramirez could be found for interview. The absence of their names in the narrative and story of the cache, and the fact that their names are unknown to the world signals something. Why would the curators of the discovery of the Mahaffy cache not see fit to feature at the very least, the name of the discoverer himself, Romero?

CU archeologist Douglass Banforth sits in front of the Mahaffy Cache exhibit at the CU Museum of Natural History. Banforth has extensively studied the artifacts in question. Rico Moore


Cache/Artifact/Element: To Discover Discovery

The word discover as other words we use but neglect to consider bears witness to the Mahaffy Cache. In this context, the origins and histories of the word enlighten and shade the story at once. The English-language origin — not the only origin, or interpretation of such a concept — of the word is:

• • • •
“ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [make known]): from Old French descovrir, from late Latin discooperire, from Latin dis- (expressing reversal) + cooperire ‘cover completely.’ ”
• • • •

Note how the word origin appears in all capital letters, as if an acronym or a shout of threat; as if to suggest that the only origin from which language is meaningful is the Latin, the European. Thus, in a European-based sense, to discover means to uncover, which is reminiscent of the University’s museum exhibit of the so-called Mahaffy Cache.

There, discovery is enacted by un-earthing. However, as we’ve seen and will see, to discover is also to bury. With this pen, I unearth Romero, whose shovel hit the first artifact. Native American interpretations of the cache have yet been left voiceless in the narrative and story.

These words articulate threads from within the lacunaë of history. These threads become pathways. They link us. They bind us. And with them, we hear deeper into the history of the beating heart being here. Together, we form a more diverse, cohesive and unified society based in the equitable conversation comprised of these vibrant strains of voice.

Erasure is at work here. It is the erasure of emptiness so that all may be full. May we all be full voiced.

Cache/Artifact/Element: Ava Hamilton, Arapaho, Relative of Little Raven, Left Hand, amongst many others

I was fortunate to have a conversation with Ava Hamilton, a relative of Arapaho Peace Chiefs, Niwot and Little Raven. We met at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse on a misty gray morning.

“What kind of people are you?” Ava asked from across the table.

“I’m Mexican and Irish,” I replied. “My birth father walked from Mexico. His parents descend from Mexican indigenous people in Guanajuato and Jalisco, as well as from Spain. My parents, who raised me, descend mostly from England, Wales and France, by way of Rhode Island and Michigan. My birth mother is of Irish descent, in part I believe.”
“Me,” Ava says, “I’m Arapaho, but I’m also Cheyenne.”

She tells me of her Native American relatives who come from many tribes. She mentions a Mexican Indigenous relative. She tells me of her child and grandchildren, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, more distant relations and friends. Ava is connected to all of them, and through her, they are all connected to each other. In essence, her relatives speak with her, together. This is the basis for our conversation.

Ava Hamilton, Arapaho, understands the destructive Doctrine of Discovery all too well. Courtesy of Ava Hamilton

Ava’s ancestral roots run deep in the Boulder Valley. She is a relative of the Southern Arapahos, Little Raven and Niwot, who lived with the land as a relative and worked without end for peace with the people who would attempt to destroy their culture and lives. She is featured in an exhibit at the Boulder Museum called, Chief Niwot: Legend & Legacy. May this exhibit exist in perpetuity.

Outside, rain falls through cool air. In the center of the room, the fountain of Seven Beauties circulates water through itself, creating an undercurrent to our conversation. We sit at a table in the front corner of the Teahouse. Morning light, dimmed by clouds, glows through windows that stretch to the ceiling. Colorful and decorative lines, ornately carved into plaster by Kodir Rhakimov of Tajikistan, emanate designs framing differently shaded hues. All the walls are etched with a vibrant and diverse panoply. The space in the room is a coalescence of reflections and traditional designs intertwining with light pouring in from the sky.

Our talk meanders towards the roots of the genocide committed and still acting upon Indigenous people of this continent by European-based cultures. I sense that the way forward for us together includes all. The way forward includes those who have a long-term relationship with the land we live on along with those who are integral but remain nameless in the cultural narrative and story.

“Indigenous knowledge,” Ava says.

“Study the Doctrine of Discovery,” she continues, “Because it’s the base of how Christian countries came to lay claim to our lands. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, they had the right to come into all lands that were occupied or held by Indigenous people; the Aboriginal peoples. Because we were not Christian, we had no right to own land; to hold title.”

Indeed, one of Colorado’s founding fathers, John Evans, Colorado Territorial Governor at the time, said, “The idea that this country belonged to [the Indians] gets its most ridiculous aspect from the proposition … that we had to buy it off them by treaty or purchase, instead of teaching them what was the proper doctrine.”

In the era of the Doctrine of Discovery, not only were Indigenous people violently and forcibly displaced from their homes, and their land taken, but also their views of the world — the cultural narratives by which they made meaning of life — were also erased from the cultural narrative and story. The worldviews that sustained them for millennia were concealed from the budding culture’s eyes. This cultural genocide persists.

As I spoke with Ava, I beheld more clearly what sailed in the heart of Columbus and his soldiers; indeed, with Hernan Cortés. In their hearts they bore the origin of discovery. In their mouths, they carried its utterance into the yet to be spoken English-American language. I speak this language. This language speaks the stories of our culture. In the hearts of the conquistadores sailed the roots of institutionally sponsored genocide.

The Doctrine of Discovery finds a point of origin in 1452, with Catholic Pope Nicholas V. In the Boulder History Museum’s exhibit, Chief Niwot: Legend & Legacy, it appears:

“In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the decree, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave Christian explorers the right to claim the lands they ‘discovered’ for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed and exploited. If the pagan inhabitants agreed to be converted, their lives might be spared — if not, they would be enslaved or killed.”

And the exhibit confirms discovery continues today:

“The Discovery Doctrine is a concept of public international law used by the U.S. Supreme Court in decisions regarding ownership of native lands. In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall used the doctrine to justify the way in which colonial powers laid claim to newly ‘discovered’ lands in North America. Under it, title to these lands lay with the government whose subjects discovered the ‘new’ territory, not with the Indigenous people.”

Thus, at its European-based root, tendriled as it is across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, “to discover,” evolved over hundreds of years as the theft of property and possessions belonging to Native American and other Indigenous peoples at any cost, including their cultures and lives. Thus, the act of “discovery,” as enforced by various political forces throughout history has in its course legitimized the genocide of Native Americans, African Americans and many other Indigenous and Aboriginal people of the world. Entire histories of people, and so the places of their oral literature, at once, withdrew into apparent non-existence. These people and their places are speaking still.

Discovery continues to sail on the ocean of cultural narrative and story. When the Mahaffy Cache was “discovered,” the history of discovery’s destruction unearthed itself into our hearts and minds. I merely happened to be listening for them in the laws of America.

In the aforementioned Boulder Museum exhibit of Chief Niwot, Ava Hamilton is quoted as saying, “I am often asked, ‘Where are the Arapahos?’ or ‘What happened to the Arapaho People?’ The immediate answer is that they are everywhere today, but they are mainly in Oklahoma and Wyoming. Understanding what happened to not only my people — the Arapaho — but to all the Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere requires intense scrutiny of what came to be American history and the laws of the land. It very much requires a discussion of The Doctrine of Christian Discovery and the power of interpretation of words.”

“It was no discovery,” Ava tells me of the invasion of the Americas by Europeans. “But, in the non-Indian world, it was a ‘great discovery.’ And it’s still going on — that so-called ‘discovery;’ recognition and credit for the interpretation of this discovery.”

“I’m interested in your interpretation of the Mahaffy Cache,” I say.

“I’ll tell you a bit about what I know about that site. I started about eight or 10 years ago, when the Sand Creek Monument started coming to fruition, getting really connected because I’m a member of the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes of Oklahoma. I’m Arapaho. I grew up Arapaho, but in Wyoming with the Northern Arapaho. All of my knowledge, culturally, could be considered Northern Arapaho because all of my participation, knowledge and ways of being come from the North, but it’s the same. Up in Wyoming, the government divided the country into educational areas where these Christian organizations could come in, and in the guise of education, indoctrinate our people with Christianity.”

Ava’s words hearken to the Doctrine of Discovery as aforementioned in the exhibit featuring Chief Niwot at the Boulder Museum. May this exhibit be expanded to include the ancient histories of this place as curated by the scholars of oral literature, ancient historians, along with Ava Hamilton and all of her relatives.

Ava continues to speak towards the Mahaffy Cache. “There’s a difference between having a relationship to the land — being a caretaker — and holding title according to the governments.”

“This Doctrine of Discovery,” she continues, “said that these Christian countries could come in and lay claim to these lands and make the land useful. Those two things are still going on today. The land is still being made useful. They’re trying to kill our planet.

They’re trying to kill the thing that gives us life and that is life. I say, ‘they’ but, ‘the mentality’ is ready to look for water on Mars, and I say, ‘We’ve got water here! This is a wonderful planet and we are going through space — every day we travel through space! Do you not know this? Hey! Scientists!’”

She adds, “I come from a different way of seeing things, that things are not here for profit so that you can consume.

“When I started doing research, I wanted to know about this land — about things that were of this earth; this place, so I read that article, did some research. I re-checked it, re-read it.”

She continues contemplating and adds another strand to her thinking:

“I have a friend and we’re going to try to do something about curriculum on American Indigenous history because there’s nothing in the school systems about the atrocities committed by the United States Government and how our history is the opposite of your history. They’re real uncomfortable with our place, and while they were ‘Westward ho!’ We said, ‘That’s our land, and that’s my Grandma. That’s my home.’”
In the echo of Ava’s words I hear, “That’s my history.”

(Continue to Curation of discovery: Part 2.)


Boulder Weekly is serializing The Curation of Discovery. Over the next several weeks, using a combination of our newspaper and website, we will publish this entire work which raises many critical and emotional questions about our current system of history curation, which too often leaves out the most important voices, namely, those of Indigenous peoples.