Tribes Veto Southwest Mural; Say Use of Images Offensive at New Mexico University
Byline: Julia Duin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A noted New Mexico artist's portrayal of Indian artifacts was canceled by the University of New Mexico on the grounds it was too politically incorrect for public viewing.
Two years ago, Tom Baker, a Tijeras, N.M., portrait artist known for his oil renditions of prehistoric art, was commissioned to construct a set of gigantic murals for the lobby of a new archaeology building on the university's Albuquerque campus. He had worked a year on the project when members of a local Indian tribe told the university that the murals contained sacred religious images.
The university immediately canceled the project.
This is not the first time one of New Mexico's numerous Indian tribes - also known as pueblos - have tried to block a project on the grounds that it interferes with their religion. The Zia Pueblo, located northwest of Albuquerque, demanded $73 million from the state in 1999 on the grounds the state had misappropriated its "zia" sun symbol for New Mexico's distinctive state flag.
Frank C. Hibben, a renowned archaeologist who died last June at the age of 92, had used his personal fortune to donate the new archaeology building to UNM along with $10 million for a scholarship fund for archaeology students. He asked the university to install and pay for a mural in the new building that would be made up of images from Pottery Mound, an 800-year-old Indian ruin southwest of Albuquerque that he excavated in the 1950s and '60s.
Even though the tribe that protested the mural project admits its ancestors may have had nothing to do with the original artwork, university officials decided last spring to cancel Mr. Baker's $20,000 commission to design four 20-by-48-foot murals to decorate the new building.
Just conceiving the mural project was a daunting task, says the artist, as it encompassed some 4,000 square feet of wall, all to be painted on the inside of a three-story atrium that extended to a huge skylight. The mural was to have been at the second-story level.
Meanwhile, university officials had informed members of the Acoma Indian tribe, whose ancestral home is about 50 miles west of Albuquerque, about the murals. Three members of the tribe told the university that all art images created by their ancestors were sacred, and use of the images was off-limits to non-Indians even though the university owns Pottery Mound.
"These murals depicted some of our cultural icons or images," said Damian Garcia, cultural preservation director for the Acoma Pueblo. "These images were found inside a sacred chamber."
He added he did not know which tribe created the murals 800 years ago. Marilyn Hibben, wife of the deceased archaeologist, said her husband was devastated to learn the murals would not be used.
"There was no proof the Acomas did the art," Mrs. Hibben said. "Why didn't they call the Zunis [another nearby tribe] who may have been closer to Pottery Mound 800 years ago? Dr. Hibben hadn't seen any proof that any particular tribe was related to it.
"He thought the paintings were so beautiful, that people should have been aware of what [Indians at Pottery Mound] did. It was done to honor them, not to degrade their beliefs. Nowadays things get distorted."
Ever since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law in 1990, some archaeologists have complained that Indians are dictating the fate of too many artifacts by claiming them as sacred burial objects. In a November 1994 article for Archeology magazine, Clement Meighan, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, blamed cultural anthropologists.
"Many of them welcome an opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with an allegedly oppressed minority, especially when it means insisting that the latter's native religion be respected," he wrote. …