The curation of discovery: Part 2


This week’s serialized installment of The curation of discovery begins with a continuation of the conversation between myself and Ava Hamilton, an Arapaho and relative of Peace Chiefs, Niwot and Little Raven. This particular conversation took place at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. It dealt with not only the discovery and curation of the Mahaffy Cache now on display at the CU Museum of Natural History, but also the history of Native American people and my desire to expand the base of indigeneity to include Indigenous Mexicana/os in that history. Click here to read The curation of discovery: Part 1.

 Cache/Artifact/Element: Ava Hamilton, Continued

“I have a friend in Wyoming who says that at some of the Wyoming archaeological sites, they found Macaw feathers,” I tell her. “I’ve heard about the chocolate bowls they found at Chaco Canyon and it seems to me there’s more knowledge about the long-standing and ancient relationship between Indigenous people of this area and Mesoamericans.”

“We would like to know,” replies Ava Hamilton.

I agree.

“My ancestry and who I am—and if I have children—what is it going to look like for them—are they going to be discriminated against?” I ask. “This country’s not against mass deportations and we all know what goes along with that. And so, this is about the connection to that journey—those people from Latin America, coming northward. This is as old as a lot of things and the way that those same people are often treated — aren’t even noted at all — is difficult for me to see considering the context. The story these facts make is similar and linked to the story of your people, I believe.”

Ava agrees

“And so,” I continue, “I’m trying to find a way to bring them together.”

“Well,” she says, “That battle has never ceased. We have people now who speak English pretty well and if I don’t understand a word I can look it up because I can read and write, but our people didn’t, so through translators, we lost a lot of things because our people didn’t speak that language.

“In the sixties, a lot of young Indians went to Law school and became attorneys. Some founded the Native American Rights Fund [in Boulder], where some of those early young attorneys still are. John Echohawk is the main one. They started to advocate for Indian rights according to the agreements that the government made with our peoples. There are five hundred and sixty-six tribes in this country who have a relationship with the United States Government. But we’re still losing because of the things that happened throughout the years. We’re still losing our languages and that’s really sad to me.”

She pauses as her thoughts resonate.

Ava Hamilton Courtesy of Native American Rights Fund

“I grew up hearing it every day but don’t speak it. We were encouraged to speak English because all of our older people have been punished for speaking our language. The schools wouldn’t let us speak it, though we didn’t know that. We weren’t punished. We were just encouraged to speak English. And so, I’ve taken some classes in the Arapaho language and some words come to me. I have an advantage in that I have a good accent and having a good accent is really important in how a word flows and how you feel about how you use it. I know phrases like, ‘It’s windy, it’s cold’ and all those kinds of things. I know the names of animals. I found this little notebook of Arapaho phrases and I look through it every now and again. I know those phrases but I don’t speak Arapaho to other Arapaho people. We all speak English to each other, and I think that’s because the old population—it’s like a pyramid—the older you are the fewer and fewer you are and it just keeps getting wider down at the base with young people who are not interested in our history, who we are, or in speaking our language.

“As the tribes moved across the land,” Ava continues, “My people, the Arapahos and Cheyennes, used to be in Northern Minnesota and they were gardeners. They weren’t plains People, but as western expansion moved the tribes, the tribes moved as well, out from Northern Minnesota and probably Canada. The farthest back I can go is the seventeen hundreds with other people’s observations from Arapaho peoples, but not from our people because they weren’t writing, researching or recording. Some tribes still have that.

“What is done if one were to find something like the stone tool [Mahaffy] Cache?” I ask. “What is the traditional way of dealing with artifacts like that as you understand it?”

“Well, you know, Kirsten Wilson with Motus Theatre, who put on Rocks, Arrows and Karma? Ava asks. I affirm.

“It’s about Chief Left Hand,” she continues. “The story she uses in that play, about the forward motion of an arrow is based on a story I told her that I heard from one of my relatives. They were in Wyoming and were going where there was nothing — no vegetation — way out in nowhere and they had a flat tire. They didn’t have a spare, so they were waiting for somebody to come by to help them. My relative went out walking and found an arrowhead — a lance head — which was pretty long. He picked it up and kept it. After they got home, he showed it to his dad who said, ‘Oh no, you have to take it back.’ So he took it back to where they found it. His dad said, ‘Put it back in the same way you found it, facing the same direction because it’s still in motion. It’s still on its way, even though it’s laying there. It’s still on its way to where it’s going.’

“So, when you find things like that,” she says, “Like a cache, the common practice, which by now we’re all used to is that scientists interpret what they see and what they’ve collected. They feel they have a right to touch it and to interpret it as to what they see as going on. I don’t think they have that right. I think it was buried there for a purpose and they should leave it there. Maybe there’s some way to study it. But, to lay claim for the people who left their items there — to lay claim to their lives — that they have a right to take something like that cache — is real disturbing to me. But that’s common practice everywhere. Academia thinks they have a right to interpret, collect, touch and disturb any element of our worlds.

“One of the most disturbing things I think about is, ‘Who was it, ISIL — destroying all those cultural elements?’ she says. “Well, that’s still happening here to us. It’s very much happening all over to us.

“I went down to the University of Arkansas and they took me for a drive out in the country. They said, ‘This is part of the Trail of Tears and this used to be a boarding school for Cherokee girls’ — way out there in Arkansas. They took me out to a museum where there was pottery and all kinds of elements — ‘figures,’ are what they call them, ‘art’ and ‘figurines.’ They said that the farmers saw these mounds and ploughed them up for farming. In that way, a lot of our history is gone because of the approach of Manifest Destiny that comes from the Doctrine of Discovery. This country is still doing that. An example is of Senator McCain giving away land that holds Apache sacred sites.”

“Relative to property ownership,” I say, “it seems that one of the most important things to talk about is the difference between seeing the Earth as a living thing and seeing the earth as a non-living thing.”

“Seeing the earth as a relative,” Ava says, “because we are all related. All things are all related. It doesn’t mean related like brother and sister, but that we have a symbiotic relationship to water and food — and other people. It’s not that way out there — not in the way that’s being taught at this university [CU]. If you read most magazines, they say things like, ‘Get a good education, buy a lot of things and own things.’ There’s nothing in these slick magazines about humanity and how to be a good relative to everything living — to the gift of life. I’m in there too. I’m a consumer. I grew up learning how to be a good consumer.”

Listening to her speak, it seems Ava was encouraged to consume the English language and its requisite worldviews and realities possible within the borders of our socioeconomic linguistic context.

“Why is consumerism such a big deal in America?” I ask. “Maybe because of brand identity — because no one has an identity that is permanent. That’s to say they think they can buy or manufacture one. They think that their purchase will give them a sense of wholeness. I feel like a lot of people feel like they can buy a sense of wholeness. It is often sad, seemingly desperate. I don’t know if you agree with that, or not.”

“It’s sad and could bring about the end of our world,” she answers. “I’m talking about the world as we know it, the makeup of who we are — consumers buying more products that they don’t need and driving globalization — is changing. We lived all these years without it.

“There are things we should have, however,” she continues. “Women and children should be safe. Drinking water should be available for everybody. Food and housing should be available for everybody. We need to work on so much, but we don’t need to work on becoming bigger consumers. Consumerism should not be above human rights.”

It seems clear to me, in retrospect, that perhaps a reason why Indigenous voices are left out of the cultural narrative is that voices like Ava’s don’t reify the hegemonic, consumer driven narrative, nor do they re-enforce the present, tenuous power structure that legitimizes, perpetuates and protects such systems. People like Ava disrupt the notion that the interpretations of the Ancient people of this continent belong only to the hegemonic class and only as long as the hegemonic narrative is reified. The stories that are told in our culture, again and again, and are enforced to the culture at large, implicitly leave out and exclude the tremendously complex ancient histories of Native American peoples, as well as the atrocities and genocide committed upon them by the United States Government, pioneers, and conquistadores. It is by doing this that the architects of such narratives ensure that we remain unaware that these atrocities persist.

Without those atrocities, there would be no Colorado. The story—the true and whole story—is that the body of history—a historical identity and sense of belonging to a place—does not reside only with the conquerors, the conquistadors or the biggest earners, producers or consumers; nor does it belong to the academics, but also to the Indigenous people who are made of and carry strands of identity from the people who first inhabited this place.

Perhaps this place means to teach us a lesson by having unearthed the Mahaffy Cache. It is this lesson we work so hard to suppress that would free us into a deeper state of belonging to place.

We must deal with our complicated history in an honest and sophisticated way — not only articulating it and acknowledging its presence, but also, taking actions to correct it and so heal our relationships with the people, and history of this place. We must tell the wholeness of history. We must integrate the hegemonic historical narrative with the reality of genocide. We must tell the whole story to our selves and our children, again and again, until those stories are ingrained in us to the point that we stop re-enacting the atrocities of the past through direct action, and ignorance. Let us not be afraid of that as if it meant some sort of loss for us, but rather that it means greater gain for all through equality. To work toward telling a whole story we must become more connected to, and aware of, each other and thereby more wholly akin to this sacred Earth. It is by telling this story that we will fall in love with this place because we are no longer denying an aspect of its character, its history.

There’s a place in New Zealand where they gave personhood to a river. The Whanganui River, after a century-long fight by the incredible people there, the Whanganui iwi established legal personhood for their River. Similar to how we have personhood for corporations, they now have personhood for a River.

I think a lot of environmentalists consider the environment to be very important, if not essential, but approach it from a scientific or economic perspective. For example, they ask, “How much is it worth, in terms of environmental services?”

I read an op-ed in the New York Times describing how a certain part of the brain lights up when a person is asked to value a consumer product, it said all such products light up the same part of the brain. But when researchers mentioned a nearby River and asked, ‘How valuable is the River’s health?’ a totally different part of the brain lit up.

It reflects a different type of value — one that acknowledges there are elements that are valuable in a different way than consumer products. They are valuable in a primordial way. This is to say, these sorts of things are still relatively unknown in the realm of science, and my concern is that a lot of scientists who are in the place of protecting the Earth at this point, can see only through the lens of science and economics. When they sit to argue a lawsuit, raise money or win a political argument, they can’t say that the Earth is alive because they have no data.

In the realm of science, there’s no data that the earth is alive. So how can we talk about the Earth’s life? In my mind, science in this way has become a dogma, almost like a religion, for a lot of people who consider themselves to be environmentalists. When I ask do you think the earth’s alive? They say, “No, there’s no data for that.” And I think that fundamentally, until we accept the sentience of Earth, rivers and everything, we’ll continue to destroy what we need to live until we’re all gone.”

When I share these thoughts with Ava, she says, “I totally agree with that anti-sentiment that they don’t know that the Earth’s alive. I saw something recently that said that water has memory and I thought, ‘What, they don’t know that?’

“You said something really important, something I really agree with, which is how scientists and their research believe that it’s — and I’m interpreting — that theirs is the only proof that there is. They’re not the only scientists. It’s not the only proof. Who made them that authority? I didn’t. The scientists need education about knowing and respecting.

“Someone asked me,” she continues, “if I feel isolated being the only Arapaho — not having a big Indian community here. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I never feel that because I am from here, and belong here.’ And these other people, who live here now, don’t act like they love it here. This is my relative. This is my relative all around here — not these buildings or disturbing things — things that disturb the Earth — but this place. It’s an old, old place, very old. I’m glad to be part of that. Even though I’m here today, I’m a very old person. We all are.

“I made this documentary years ago,” she continues, “called Everything Has a Spirit. I used to think that everything had a spirit but rocks. I’m not like that anymore. They have a memory as well. Everything has a spirit.

“I’m still learning and I’ll be happy to learn more. I wish there were more people who were learning too; younger people. When I did public speaking, people would ask, ‘Well, what can we do?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, how about giving us some land so we can have our own facility here in Boulder: The Indigenous Knowledge Center.’

“There are museums everywhere where they collect our stuff but what about if we have our own building, we have our own people run it and we interpret our own stuff. But, such a thing doesn’t exist anywhere. Some tribes have their own facilities that their governments funded. But to have our own facility, something out in public where people could come and learn; we could show our videos, write books, offer fellowships and be together in a place where we could learn, together, in a facility in which we protect and pass on what we know. I would love that.”

Ava’s words echoed for days after our meeting. As I write, I imagine that Land, as a person, cannot be owned because to do so would be to enslave. The living Earth is a relative with whom we share our lives; who provides us life. It’s voice and ours are ineluctably intertwined. What intertwines us is the life of relationship itself. That relationship has a voice. Its expression is our connection with the gift of life.

Something that Ava said strikes me in reflection. ‘All things are all related.’ I try to think exactly what she meant by considering literally what she said to discover anew an ancient relation, who generously offers a co-creative way forward. Beyond saying, ‘We are all related,’ which she also said and I believe to be true, Ava says, ‘All things are all related.’ In so doing, she says that all things are an expression of the relationships between all things and therefore, relationship itself has personhood in natural law.

Relationship is alive — passing from deep time to now. I imagine that her relatives speak with her. I imagine our common ancestor and relative, the Earth, speaking with her. As I write now, my ancestors speak with me. Their speech flows beneath language directly into your heart and speaks with your own ancestors. We embrace. Speaking in this way breaks a spell.

Ava’s voice and my voice join with the memory of reflections of colorful light from designs on the ceilings and walls of the teahouse. Our voices join with the song of the fountain and mist casting light through the windows. Our voices join with the story’s future.

The passion of Ava’s knowledge, directed in her words, moves with her relatives through the course of history into now. She points out a mentality, or ideology, not any unchanging genetic trait or group of people as bringing about Earth’s/humanity’s destruction. Implicit in her words and her life is the fact that minds can change. We can change our minds. Our minds have changed.

(Click here to go The curation of discovery: Part 3)

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.

Return to The curation of discovery: Part 1