Innovation

How Native Americans are using cutting-edge tech to repatriate their ancient artifacts

The Picuris Pueblo nation from New Mexico is 3D scanning their long-displaced cultural heirlooms and bringing them home.

By Barbara Peck — November 17, 2022

It was an unusual sight for the campus of New York City’s Columbia University, even on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As a drumbeat throbbed and voices chanted, 12 members of New Mexico’s Picuris tribal nation, dressed in ceremonial regalia, performed a solemn dance in front of Columbia’s Low Library. The dancers, young and old, wore native dress and turquoise jewelry, and carried baskets and gourd rattles. The female dancers rubbed cottonwood sticks together to represent grinding corn, while the men wore eagle feathers on their heads. They danced not for those watching but for Mother Earth, to celebrate life, health, and the bounty of the harvest.

Before the ceremony, the Picuris (pronounced “picker-EES”) Pueblo delegation, including Picuris governor Craig Quanchello, was officially welcomed by students from Columbia’s Native American Council and Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative, as well as representatives from the Lenape and Kahnawake tribal nations. Also in attendance were Sian Beilock, president of Columbia’s partner college, Barnard, and Barnard provost Linda Bell.

Evelyn Freja

Picuris tribal members wait on the steps of Columbia University's Low Memorial Library before they perform a ceremonial dance, left. Gwendolyn Simbolo, Cecilia Shields, and Theresa Romero (from left to right) in traditional dress, right.

When the dance was over, 20-year-old Picuris Youth Council Governor Jordan Fragua spoke of the tribe’s struggles “ever since the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria landed in 1492. But on this day we celebrate the resiliency of native people. Our ancestors went through so much, but they knew they were making a sacrifice for future generations — for us to be standing here with you all today.”

The Picuris trip to New York had been several years in the making. In 2018, the tribe had started working with Barnard’s Severin Fowles, chair of American Studies and associate professor of anthropology. Having lived in New Mexico for much of his life, Fowles knew that Picuris could offer his students an amazing archaeology opportunity. “The existing village was built on top of an archaeological site that dates back to about 900 AD,” he says. Along with his archaeological colleagues Michael Adler of Southern Methodist University and Lindsay Montgomery of the University of Toronto, Fowles received permission from the Picuris governor to bring his students to do research for the benefit of the tribe on the Picuris reservation. 

A small group of Picuris members had planned a New York visit in 2020, with the main purpose of viewing some long-disappeared Picuris artifacts at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). But the pandemic delayed that excursion, and eventually a more ambitious plan evolved.

Museum in the making

Picuris is a small village in northern New Mexico, some 25 miles from Taos. Once a major regional center, it’s now home to fewer than 200 tribe members. For centuries, the Picuris people have made pottery using mica-rich clay dug from pits outside the village. The nation played a pivotal role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when New Mexico’s Native American people rose up to fight off their Spanish oppressors. In the early 20th century, Picuris lost many historical artifacts when non-Native anthropologists started acquiring Native American goods, and a number of those objects landed in the AMNH, buried deep in its Spinden Collection. The artifacts the tribe does still have were housed in a small museum the Picuris built in the 1960s, but it closed down years ago, and its objects have been stored away ever since. Now the tribe is renovating and expanding the old building into a new Tribal Interpretive Center.

Left: A pot made from clay dug from the pits in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just north of the Picuris Pueblo village is 3D scanned in the lab at Barnard. Right: Hashmarks on the pot are caused by light being emitted from the 3D scanner.

Evelyn Freja

A pot made from clay dug from the pits in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just north of the Picuris Pueblo village is 3D scanned in the lab at Barnard, left. Hashmarks on the pot are caused by light being emitted from the 3D scanner, right.

After Fowles began working with the Picuris people, he hatched a plan to “digitally repatriate” the items in New York for the new museum. Fowles and his Barnard colleague Melanie Hibbert sent HP a grant proposal, which HP awarded, to acquire a 3D Structured Light Scanner Pro S3 that tribal members could use to capture images of the Picuris artifacts held at the AMNH. The 3D scanner will be used to “virtually” display those artifacts in the new center. Cecilia Shields, the center’s director (and the tribe’s interpreter), plans rotating exhibits that will help the Picuris people learn about their powerful history and traditions. “One gallery will have interactive displays focused on natural and cultural history,” says Shields of the new interpretive center. “Our pottery is so fragile, but if we can make 3D prints, then people can interact with a piece. The digital part is expensive, but it will set our museum apart.” 

Barnard's Severin Fowles and Picuris tribal youth member Brianna Fragua look at an Indigenous vessel from South America with designs that bear similarities to Pueblo designs, showing the long-distance exchange of knowledge up and down the Americas during pre-colonial times.

Evelyn Freja

Barnard's Severin Fowles and Picuris tribal youth member Brianna Fragua look at an Indigenous vessel from South America with designs that bear similarities to Pueblo designs, showing the long-distance exchange of knowledge up and down the Americas during pre-colonial times.

Last October, 22 Picuris tribal members — elders, the Youth Council, and a few youngsters tagging along — visited New York to lay the groundwork. (The trip was funded by Barnard but also by Youth Council members, who operated a food truck to raise money.)

Going high-tech

Two days before the dance at Columbia, the delegation’s Youth Council had attended a scanning workshop in Barnard’s archaeology lab, led by Jenny Ni, a Columbia PhD student. Displayed on the lab’s tables were dozens of small fragments of hardened clay that Barnard students had excavated that summer. But they were more than clay fragments — they were the remains of ancient buildings.

“Early residents daubed clay on wooden posts to build their houses, a technique called wattle and daub,” explained Fowles. “When a structure is burned, the daub gets fired like pottery. That preserves it enough for us to find pieces over a thousand years later.” After the daub fragments are studied here, they’ll go back to Picuris.

The youth looked on with interest as Ni did a scanning demo, putting a Picuris pot on a small turntable, setting up a screen behind it, and projecting lines of light onto the pot. “You have to adjust it so the lines are as crisp as possible,” she said. One of the kids pushed the start button and they all watched as lines of light crossed the pot and the turntable shifted. (Dylan Fragua, the Youth Council Ward Chief, was eager to operate the scanner, having already played with a 3D printer.)

Richard Mermejo, former governor and an elder of the Picuris tribe, left. Holding a Kwahe’e Black-on-white pot sherd excavated from Picuris Pueblo lands near Taos, New Mexico.

Evelyn Freja

Richard Mermejo, former governor and an elder of the Picuris tribe, left. Holding a Kwahe’e Black-on-white pot sherd excavated from Picuris Pueblo lands near Taos, New Mexico.

“This project is an extraordinary opportunity to partner with the oldest continuously occupied community in North America, and to educate their next generation of leaders in new technologies,” says Fowles. “There’s a real reparations aspect to this — we all have a responsibility to address historical harms. So it’s a win-win for everybody.” 

Fowles uses the term “collaborative archaeology” to describe his relationship with the Picuris. He and his students aren’t just digging up pot sherds: for example, they’re mapping ancient agricultural features and studying past climatic change to provide documentation that could help the tribe’s century-long struggle to reclaim traditional water rights from their neighbors in nearby Mora Valley. And tribal members have served as key mentors for Barnard students, including Richard Mermejo, the former governor who acts as the archaeological liaison for the Barnard project.  

“Our pottery is so fragile, but if we can make 3D prints, then people can interact with a piece. The digital part is expensive, but it will set our museum apart.”

— Cecilia Shields, tribe interpreter and director of Picuris Pueblo Tribal Interpretive Center

The repatriation issue

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), became the legal mechanism by which objects are returned to tribes. (NAGPRA states that Native American human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony housed in institutions receiving Federal money must be repatriated to lineal descendants and native tribes.) “It’s happening all the time: as cultural heritage objects in museums are being affiliated with decendent communities, they're going back to tribes,” says Fowles. “I’m much in favor of NAGPRA, as it has forced museums and researchers to study collections that have long been ignored, in preparation for them being returned.” 

Sherds of Kwahe’e Black-on-white, a pottery type

Evelyn Freja

Sherds of Kwahe’e Black-on-white, a pottery type made by ancestral Picuris people during the 10th through 12th centuries, were collected during Barnard's 2022 excavations of pre-colonial agricultural features on the Picuris tribal reservation. These pot sherds establish the cultural connections between the Picuris ancestors and the major pre-colonial center based in Chaco Canyon.

However, it’s not as simple as the museum simply relinquishing the objects. The Picuris objects at AMNH were actually purchased at Picuris in 1910, and the museum holds receipts for most of them — which means they’re not subject to NAGPRA. “But Cecilia’s vision is that it might be useful to have these items as a foothold of the tribe in New York, giving the youth an obligation to visit periodically,” says Fowles. “Meanwhile, the museum can provide the time and money and facilities needed to curate the items properly.” While the Tribal Interpretive Center’s new environmentally controlled Collections Unit will mostly house items from the previous museum, they hope to eventually also have the objects at AMNH back in Picuris permanently. “However, the initial conversation has been about bringing them home ‘on loan,’” Shields says.

She believes the process will help tribal youth understand how negotiations must be made and objects cared for in a secure facility. “Just as our ancestors used the tools they had to protect the future for us, now it’s our time to figure out how to prepare for the future. And our future involves technology — which is something our young people can embrace.”

Technology can also further the educational mission through videos and oral histories told by tribal elders. “Our goal is to teach the younger generation to keep the traditional way of life going for generations to come,” says Mermejo.  

Left: Jordan Fragua, Picuris Youth Council Governor. Right: Picuris tribe members in ceremonial dress.

Evelyn Freja

Clockwise from left: Jordan Fragua, Picuris Youth Council Governor, wearing a silver roadrunner pin on his vest; three details of Dominic Simbolo's ceremonial dress; Valerie Fierro with facial markings that represent flowers. The evergreen boughs were collected from mountains outside of New York City, and afterwards were ceremonially deposited into the Hudson River, according to Picuris tradition.

Planning for the future

The day after the dance at Columbia, the group made stops at Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the 911 Memorial. Then came their full-day visit to the American Museum of Natural History. They started with the same basket dance, after which the visitors split into three groups to see the Picuris artifacts in the Spinden Collection. These objects aren’t on public display, but the most important items were specially laid out for viewing. Each group had ample time to handle the objects and discuss the stories they might tell in displays at the tribal museum. Under serious consideration: juniper digging sticks used for farming, and war clubs like those wielded during the Pueblo Revolt. Back at Picuris, the youth council will deliberate over which items to scan on a later visit — or eventually print, if the tribe acquires a 3D printer. 

“With the help of professionals, we’re working to leave a record of our history for our youth,” says Mermejo, “so they’ll know who they are, where they came from, and all the resources that have allowed us to survive for centuries.” 

 

READ MORE: The tech tools helping tribal nations preserve and share their heritage.