A Community’s Common Heritage at the Heye Center in New York City

At the American Indian Museum in New York City, a new exhibition illustrates the changes at Isleta Pueblo brought by the arrival of the railroad in 1881

An Isleta woman and her children sell goods alongside a train track, circa late 1880s to early 1900s
An Isleta woman and her children sell goods alongside a train track, circa late 1880s to early 1900s Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center

For most curators, designing an exhibit is an exercise in fully educating oneself about a topic of professional interest. For Stephanie Zuni, creating her recent show was an exercise in getting to know her family. Zuni is the scholar behind the recently opened exhibition “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” currently on view at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum’s Heye Center in New York City.

When searching through archives for photographs for the show, Zuni came across pictures of her ancestors. A native of the Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico, Zuni was attempting to select items that emphasized the transition that occurred in the community during the 1880s and 90s, when the tribe began losing land to the arriving railroad companies. “My grandfather was one of the leaders who went to Washington, DC when they were having the land dispute,” she says. “So in the photo, he was there, just camping out.”

Later, coming across another photo of a woman selling pottery at the pueblo train station, she knew something looked familiar. “I didn’t get to know my grandmother, but knowing that she was a potter, I could recognize that pottery in front of the train because we have that pot at home, with the same design,” she says. “Her face wasn’t showing, but I knew that had to be her.”

The new exhibition doesn’t just includes Zuni’s ancestors, but those of many Natives that still live at Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico. “Time Exposures,” a three-part show that focuses on the enormous changes forced on the Isleta lifestyle at the start of the 20th century with the arrival of the railroad, features photography, film clips and artifacts such as kilts and pottery. In designing the exhibition, Zuni and others actively involved the community in the process. “We had a call for photographs, and we wanted people to have a part in this,” she says. “It was really a huge project for us, and it was a first for the Pueblo.”

The show covers both before and after 1881, when life in the community changed dramatically. At that time, the U.S. government allowed railroad companies to take land in the center of the Pueblo. “It really changed the way of life: crossing the railroad, and having to have more precaution over animals and their land,” says Zuni. Over time, the railroad spurred systematic changes in Isleta society. “There’s the encroachment of the new settlers, and the growth of nearby Albuquerque, and the introduction of schools and the Anglo-American economic system,” she says.

During this era, photography at the Pueblo was generally taken by outsiders. “A lot of these photographs were staged, and some of them were inappropriate, just not correct,” Zuni says. Some photos, for example, show traditional stone-throwing games with the wrong amount of stones. Many of the photos were used to convey stereotypical images of Pueblo life to tourists and people living far from New Mexico. “It’s kind of interesting to acknowledge that the photographer wasn’t always right, but that they do depict a huge portion of who we are in their eyes. These are their photographs, but we’re now telling the story,” says Zuni.

“Time Exposures” also explains the traditional cycle of the Isleta year through photography and other artifacts. “The beginning of the year is what we call our Night Fire, in December and January,” Zuni says. “Each of those events are named, and we have it depicted in the photo, and we have an interactive where you can press the button and you’ll hear the song and language and time that it reflects in the season.”

Deciding what information and which artifacts to include in the show was, at times, a sensitive process. Zuni worked with a committee of traditional Isleta leaders to make decisions during the design. “We went through a scanning process of which photographs were appropriate for people to understand who we are, as a people, and how we want those people on the outside to see us,” she says. This sort of community participation, though unusual for curating exhibitions in the Smithsonian, made possible the thorough detail and background that add such depth to the photographs on display. “The cultural committee was very involved, because of their traditional knowledge with this material,” she says.

Zuni and others hope that the traveling exhibition, which will eventually go on exhibition in a location closer to Isleta Pueblo after it closes next year in New York, will be of value to younger members of the community. “Seeing it set up, it is something that we are happy about, and something that I know will be there for future generations, whether its to find their lineage, or their kinship,” she says. “And maybe even finding their own grandparents in the photographs, as I did.”

View photos from the exhibit.

“Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, through Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012.

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