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NMSU museum exhibition explores human prehistory in southern New Mexico

Release Date: 02 Sep 2022
NMSU museum exhibition explores human prehistory in southern New Mexico

Thousands of years ago, the first inhabitants of this region left behind evidence of who they were, how they lived and what they believed in.

Today, researchers at New Mexico State University are wrapping these ancient artifacts in the knowledge and understanding of Native Americans to share with the community through an upcoming exhibition called "Humanhood in the Organ Mountains: Prehistory."

Members of the public are invited to see these artifacts and hear Zuni tribal members explain their meaning. The exhibition opens with a reception from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16 at the University Museum in Kent Hall at NMSU. The event is free and open to the public.

Fumi Arakawa, museum director and NMSU anthropology professor, has been thinking of the idea of this exhibition since he became the director in 2015.

"To be relevant and meaningful to the public regarding the prehistory of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, there are two important concepts – inclusiveness and multivocality," Arakawa said.

"Humanhood" aims to reveal the rich prehistory of southern New Mexico, emphasizing both of these concepts. Museum staff invited the Zuni Cultural Resources Advisory Team to visit two cave sites within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, as well as to review hundreds of items from one of the cave sites – Chavez Cave.

"Inclusive means that history/prehistory matters to all people so that understanding and reconstructing the past needs to be integrated not only with one group of people but also others," Arakawa said. "Multivocality means that diverse perspectives and narratives are crucial for us to understand and reconstruct the past human behaviors. To explore the concept of multivocality in the upcoming exhibit, our museum staff attempt to integrate both scientific and humanistic perspectives. "

One aspect of the exhibition showcases narratives by six Zuni elders pertaining to the cultural landscape of Chavez Cave as well as strong feelings toward tangible objects recovered from the cave. Another part of the exhibit displays the current scientific research on ancient maize studies.

Arakawa, Rani Alexander and Kelly Jenks, anthropology professors, and Sarah Fuentes-Soriano, a professor in animal and range sciences, along with Donovan Baily, a biology professor, have been involved in the project and some of their findings are also shared and displayed in the exhibition.

"Humanhood" is funded through two Southwest Border Cultures Insitute grants to Arakawa and graduate student Aimee Oliver-Bozeman as well as a Devasthali grant for the exhibition preparation and workshop.

The Southwest and Border Cultures Institute was founded in November 1998 with a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was matched to create a permanent endowment of $1.8 million. The purpose of the SBCI is to enable acquisitions by NMSU's University Library and University Museum, to fund faculty and graduate student research on Southwestern and US-Mexico Border issues in the humanities and to fund public programs that relate to humanities issues in the Southwest and US–Mexico border region.

As Arakawa's team reviewed the artifacts from Chavez Cave and learned more about them from tribal elders, it was clear not every piece could be put on display because some objects are exceptionally sacred and these are culturally sensitive materials.

 

“Octavius Seowtewa, one of the Zuni elders, actually discussed that when he walked in, he felt a different feeling, a different aura or vibe in that cave,” said Robin Christofani, a senior anthropology student who is part of Arakawa's team.

One of the major lessons from this exercise was that approximately 70-80% of perishable objects reviewed by the Zuni elders were originally misclassified by archaeologists and/or museum people. The Zuni elders correctly identified these items as well as provided meaningful interpretations of each object based on their oral histories.

"These Zuni elders are interested in reconnecting or connecting the people who inhabited in southern New Mexico with their oral traditions," Arakawa said. "Octavius (Seowtewa) also said that they wanted to 'rewrite' some inaccurate information provided by Euroamerican scholars in the past as well."

Arakawa's team also includes Nathan Craig, interim museum curator, along with Sarah Harper and Carly Johnston, graduate museum assistants, working together to gather information and record videos of tribal elders discussing and interpreting the artifacts.

“There was a piece that I really liked in the collection that was mislabeled as the fishing weight. It was two small pebbles that were fused together, and Octavius Seowtewa is in one of the videos talking about how it was like a good luck charm, like a four-leaf clover," Christofani said. "When you find multiple rocks put together, it's supposed to mean good luck for you and happiness for your family in the future.”

Certain objects from Chavez Cave will be accurately documented in the museum's database for scholarly research, but will not be put on display.  

"We are grateful for the knowledge our Zuni partners have shared in this project and respect their guidance as to how these artifacts may be shared publicly," Arakawa said. "Misinformation is sometimes carried forward with some artifacts because less was known at the time they were unearthed. We feel it's important to consult with today's tribal elders to thoroughly explore and preserve the meanings associated with these artifacts. It is a way these stories about the early human inhabitants of this region can more faithfully record the history of the Native people whose lives they reflect."

In another University Museum project next year, Arakawa will oversee a collaboration with the National Park Service, through a grant from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Arakawa has been in consultation over the last year with Native American tribal groups pertaining to this NAGPRA-related project.

"Humanhood" will run through August 2023. The University Museum is open from 12 to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The museum is located in NMSU's Kent Hall, at University Avenue and Solano Drive. Visitors may enter the museum from the courtyard side of the building closest to the parking lot off 1168 E. University Avenue. Please review instructions for visitor parking when on campus before 4:30 p.m.

The University Museum is a center for object-based learning and a resource for students and scholars as well as the greater community. The museum preserves collections from the Southwest and around the world, develops original exhibitions, conducts research, and uses the museum space and collections as teaching tools and as training for future museum professionals. 

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