The story of Sky City
Peter Nabokov reads from How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family
Origin myths can have a deep impact on people’s perceptions of the world. Some believe literally that the world was created in seven days and cannot square this with the theory of evolution. Others read their myths as poetry and focus on the spirit of the myth rather than its letter. The Origin Myth of Acoma
Pueblo (Penguin Classics) can be read in different ways: As a myth, it is startlingly accessible and seemingly whole; as a prose poem, its narrative is muscular and its language is direct and even contemporary.
Today, the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. is a visitor center for tourists, but in 1928, the Bureau of American Ethnology was on the second floor. That year, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, sixty-seven-year-old Edward Proctor Hunt knocked on the door and enriched world mythology by narrating to some greenhorn ethnologists his Pueblo’s creation and migration story. In an introduction to this book, editor Peter Nabokov explains the limitations of this version of the myth. Hunt’s son translated his father’s phrases into English sentences as they went along. Because no transcription was made of the elder Hunt reciting the mythology in his native Keresan, not only was some of the poetry lost, but scholars also don’t have a Keresan version to reference. The staff didn’t notate Hunt’s rhythms or gestures while he was narrating, and so it’s hard to discern where the pauses are in the narrative.
While these are losses, it is some consolation that the language in which the myth is told is clear and it gives us a taste of the oral tradition: At times, it feels as though someone is telling us the story during, say, a camping trip. And there’s still enough flavor in the language to engage the imagination. The Origin Myth
of Acoma Pueblo is a jewel of a book, and Nabokov has edited with sensitivity, intuiting the rhythms of the sections, and thus almost making up for the markers the Smithsonian didn’t transcribe. The book gives us a sharp picture of the mythological worldview of the Acoma people and gives a casual reader a deeper understanding of figures such as the Katsina and the Koshari (sacred clown).
For the Acoma people, two supernatural sisters are the mothers, so to speak, of the world. Iatiku, the elder sister, is a sympathetic figure — she created an orderly and functioning world for her people, with the guidance of a spirit, Thought Woman. Iatiku then devised games and dances for her people so they could also enjoy themselves. Some of the younger people made fun of her and instead devised their own games. She was hurt, and some time later, she vanished. She rightly realized that her legacy would best be preserved as a distant figure. The story of the War Twins illustrates what happens when strength and power run amok. In the end, like Iatiku, the twins also disappear and become the stuff of legend.
The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo is being published alongside a biography of Hunt and his family by Nabokov, who will read at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St.) on Thursday, Sept. 24. How The World
Moves (Viking) is a formidable title for any author to live up to, and what Nabokov gives us is a comprehensively researched biographical epic. There was something unconventional about Hunt right from birth. It’s not clear who his father was — maybe he was a Hispanic man. Hunt was named Day Break and was brought up by a stepfather, a medicine man in Acoma Pueblo. When Day Break was initiated into the Katsina Society and the Koshari Society, he was also told portions of the Pueblo’s origin myth. Though he had a traditional childhood and was ostensibly being trained to follow his father’s vocation, in 1880, a Presbyterian missionary recruited him, among 30 children of the poorest members of the Pueblo, to attend a new Indian boarding school in
Top left, Acoma street with ladders, bread ovens, drying meat, and firewood, circa 1890, photo Ben Wittick; courtesy Palace of the Governors (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 01644 Top right, Acoma symbolic landscape; Shirin Raban Right, Hunt’s store, Acomita; Hunt Family-Peter Nabokov Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico Bottom left, Entrance to Acoma Pueblo, circa 1880, photo Ben Wittick; courtesy Palace of the Governors (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 01644 Left, In full regalia, the Hunts at the Smithsonian, 1928, from left, Philip Sanchez, Wilbert Hunt, Edward Proctor Hunt, Marie Hunt, and Henry “Wolf Robe” Hunt; National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution Albuquerque. Day Break’s parents were reluctant to send him, but apparently he volunteered to go, and the decision changed his life.
Edward Proctor Hunt isn’t an average name for a Pueblo man. From a box of donations sent to his school, Day Break got a coat: In its pocket was a Bible with a note that whoever received this book could take its donor’s name. From then on, Day Break became Edward Proctor Hunt. He studied and also helped build the schools he attended, from the boarding school in Albuquerque to St. Catherine’s in Santa Fe. His time in school irrevocably shaped him. As a child, he’d been initiated into the sacred societies of his Pueblo, but after his school years, he seems to have leaned mainly on the Bible for spiritual guidance.
When he returned to Acoma, he wasn’t the same youth. He was chastised — and beaten — in a kiva by elders, but that only worsened matters. He lost faith in his Pueblo religion. It is easy to see how the policy of educating Pueblo children in the Western tradition tore the fabric of Pueblo life from the inside out, dividing members into conservatives and progressives. As an adult, Hunt would belong to two worlds, and not fully to either one.
Hunt is an interesting enigma. At his heart he seems to have been a practical man. As a young man, he was in the company of pioneers, men like his brother-in-law Solomon Bibo, who opened a trading post that became a community hub. Hunt learned store-keeping from Bibo, and after Bibo left for California, Hunt opened his own trading post near Acomita and became a greeter and storyteller for the outside world, including the legendary photographer Edward S. Curtis. His successful store at the junction of Acoma Pueblo aroused the envy of his cash-poor Pueblo neighbors. That he didn’t participate in kiva ceremonies, or allow his sons to do so, made him an object of suspicion. Eventually, a witch attack— a witch-in-training tried to kill his youngest daughter, Josephine — convinced him it was time to move on. In essence, Hunt and his family were all but kicked out of Acoma Pueblo.
There is some satisfaction in knowing that one son, Wilbert Hunt, was able to return to Acoma Pueblo in his old age. He died there, six weeks shy of turning one hundred. Wilbert was one of Nabokov’s chief sources, so it’s easy to see why the author devotes a generous number of pages to him, but the story meanders when Nabokov begins to follow Hunt’s
sons. How the World Moves is not only Hunt’s story, it is also a history of the time he lived in and the socioeconomic forces that shaped that time. Still, this would have been a more taut narrative if some of the many detours had been edited out.
Hunt found his family a home in Santa Ana Pueblo, but because of his continued reluctance to participate in ceremonial activities, the Santa Ana elders also found excuses to push him out. Eventually, Hunt became an urban Indian and settled in Albuquerque with his family. “Settled” is the wrong word, perhaps, since he toured actively with his family during his later years. The Hunt family joined a Wild West act in Oklahoma, where they learned to play Plains Indians, and in this guise, they toured Europe. Later, they parlayed the know-how and savvy they’d accrued into their own family act, which they took to Boy Scout groups, church groups, and other venues across the country.
After their return from Europe, the Hunts stopped off at the Smithsonian, where Hunt recited the Acoma Pueblo origin myth. Fortunately, his family was with him. Two sons, Henry Wayne “Wolf Robe” and Wilbert, helped with the translation. An adopted son, Philip “Silvertongue” Sanchez, sang the songs, which were recorded on wax cylinders. The real mystery is why Hunt decided to tell his Pueblo’s myth to the outside world, and why at this time. These questions are not tackled as fully in the biography as one might hope, partly because Hunt didn’t leave behind many clues.
We don’t know what went through Hunt’s mind when he decided to recite the origin myth. Journal-writing was not a habit Pueblo people indulged in. Hunt seems to have narrated an 11-page biography to anthropologist Leslie White in 1926. His daughter typed up some memories in 1947 before his death, but those recollections are about the time when he left his Pueblo to go to school. There are the recollections of his sons, but they pertain mainly to Hunt’s life rather than his mind. And then there is the creation story that he recited.
To understand how he put the story together, imagine Hunt as a brilliant film editor. The footage of the story was given to him during his initiations into sacred Pueblo life and also, presumably, when he heard stories from his medicine-man father. But what he made of these stories, how he selected and spliced together different takes and sequences into a coherent narrative, and how he was able to recite the myth whole to strangers over the course of a few days, is an incredible feat. At the time, Hunt may have been worried about displeasing his Pueblo by divulging this myth to the world, but today, this story is undoubtedly a significant offering to world mythology at large, and hopefully, to the younger people of his Pueblo.