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Raising her voice: Albuquerque author fulfills her mission to put Native Americans back in history books

Veronica Velarde Tiller, shown in a scene from “A Thousand Voices,” a PBS documentary about Native American women, created a guide to contemporary Indian tribes.

Veronica Velarde Tiller, shown in a scene from “A Thousand Voices,” a PBS documentary about Native American women, created a guide to contemporary Indian tribes.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Historian and researcher Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, a Jicarilla Apache, has taken a long time to tell her story.

She’s told and published the stories of her tribe and the 567 federally recognized tribes across the country, in her encyclopedic “Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country,” a third edition just released this month.

“It always seemed to me that Indian history stopped in the 1890s after the era of the big chiefs – like Chief Seattle, Sitting Bull, Geronimo – but there was no contemporary history,” she says, explaining her mission of creating “Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country.”

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The book, first published in 1996 and updated about every 10 years, provides a profile of each tribe, so that agencies and corporations, including the federal government, will know a little before they negotiate. It has been used by many, including the U.S. Supreme Court and cited in the court’s findings.

“We’re not invisible anymore,” she says. “The Indian economic renaissance is a powerful success story of the resilience of the human spirit and the promise of America itself. Many tribes have lifted themselves out of poverty to develop their diverse businesses.”

National expert LaDonna Harris, a Comanche and president emeritus of Americans for Indian Opportunity, says in the book’s introduction that Tiller has helped the entire country become aware of contemporary Indian tribes.

Harris praises Tiller’s wide-ranging research and writing, saying she has captured the transition of many tribes from relocation and termination to economic success: “Veronica Tiller has virtually singlehandedly stepped forth to provide material to fill that gap in curriculum materials for virtually every corner of America,” she says, adding the guide should be available to governments, schools and libraries.

“All of us, Native and non-Native alike, should take pride in the tribal communities and economies described here because they represent what can happen when this country is willing to recognize mistakes, reverse course and allow the human spirit in each of us to flourish.”

Veronica Velarde Tiller, right, attends the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco earlier this month with her husband, David Harrison, left, and actress Irene Bedard, center. Tiller accepted the Best Documentary Film award for Silver Bullet Productions of Santa Fe for “A Thousand Voices.” Bedard narrated the film.

Veronica Velarde Tiller, right, attends the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco earlier this month with her husband, David Harrison, left, and actress Irene Bedard, center. Tiller accepted the Best Documentary Film award for Silver Bullet Productions of Santa Fe for “A Thousand Voices.” Bedard narrated the film.

Assimilation

Now that Tiller has shepherded a third edition through to publishing, she plans to write her memoir.

“It’s my story of assimilation, my view of the whole assimilation process,” she says during an interview in a coffee shop near her Northeast Heights home. “It’s how we live in two different worlds.”

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She started telling parts of her story in “A Thousand Voices,” an award-winning PBS documentary about Native American women in New Mexico.

Tiller, who went to boarding school in Dulce, N.M., shared some of those memories in the film.

“Today I couldn’t think of the idea of my kids being separated from me when they were only 6 or 7 years old and putting them into an institution known as a boarding school. You might as well put them in prison,” she says.

Tiller, who has two grown daughters, one in California and one in Colorado, survived boarding school and then took a job cleaning and helping an Albuquerque family so she could attend Valley High School. She went straight to the University of New Mexico, with the help of a tribal scholarship, after graduating from Valley in 1966.

Ten years later she became the first Jicarilla Apache to graduate with a doctorate in history. “Education was always a very important part of our lives. We were never told we couldn’t do it, but there were obstacles. Poverty was the biggest one. I think the average American just doesn’t understand how hard it was for us on the reservation. The poverty was so extreme.”

Veronica Velarde Tiller, about 14, wears her ceremonial Jicarilla Apache dress in this 1964 photo.

Veronica Velarde Tiller, about 14, wears her ceremonial Jicarilla Apache dress in this 1964 photo.

Missing history

It was in high school that she began to understand that someone needed to write Native American history. “In my history class at Valley High School, we studied the presidents. I got so sick and tired of hearing about American presidents. There was nothing about New Mexico. There was nothing about the West and nothing at all about the Jicarilla Apaches. It seems to me the path of learning history is to see how you fit in. That’s hard to do, if there’s nothing about you or your people in the history books.”

She remedied some of that ignorance, when her graduate school dissertation was published as a book about the Jicarilla Apache.

She says after New Mexico became a U.S. territory, the Jicarilla were moved around New Mexico, before being resettled in northern New Mexico, near their original lands.

“They tried to put us on Bosque Redondo with the Navajo, but the Jicarilla were so scattered, they could never round us all up,” she says. “They tried to consolidate us with the Mescalero in southern New Mexico, but the Jicarilla didn’t like it there.”

She says her great-grandfather, Huerito Mundo, was one of the leaders who brokered a deal that allowed the Jicarilla to return to the north central part of the state.

She remembers a great-uncle, Garfield Velarde, who lived to return north and helped her family with his wisdom and healing. “I remember meeting him as a young girl. I was in awe of him. We went to see him for spiritual guidance or healing. He was a powerful medicine man.”

She also plans to write a biography of Velarde.

life16_jd_29nov_3tillerPainful memories

She grew up on the reservation and when she was 5 her father died. With eight children, Tiller says her mother had a hard time even though they lived on a ranch. Part of their difficulties stemmed from tribal customs.

“They don’t do this any more, but in the old days when the father, the husband, passes away you have to desert your house, because it belongs to the dead,” she remembers. “According to our customs we abandoned the house in the winter of 1954.”

She remembers the chill of living out of the back of a pickup truck. “We were on our own land, near the windmill. We had blankets, a fire and a little tent.”

By the time all of the children were in boarding school, those winter and summer vacations were the hardest for her mother. “In the summers we didn’t have anything to eat. Maybe if she had traded one of the cattle for a cow, it wouldn’t have been so hard. There are things, that if my mom had known, (life) could have been easier.”

Tiller remembers traveling to China when she was a professor at the University of Utah from 1976 to 1980. She identified with the Chinese woman who was their guide, because the woman was trying so hard to dress like her American guests, but failing in those early days of east-west cultural exchange, wearing mismatched prints and knee-high stockings. “I could identify with the way they lived and the way they dressed. We were like that growing up – thinking we were dressing like the other Americans. I laugh about it now, but it was painful then.”

“In my view, it was sad, but it was also humorous,” she explains of her youth. “In my memoir, I want to tell the good parts.”

Family, home

Despite living in two worlds, she knew the love of her family and the open spaces of her home. “We didn’t have a TV, but we had our animals and our horses. We loved our horses, running and racing. The wonderful thing about that huge family was that we were all friends. My brothers and sisters and I are all still friends.”

She met her husband of 30 years, David Harrison, on a research trip to Washington, D.C., and discovered she was much more suited for research and writing than teaching in Utah.

Harrison, a member of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, says he is proud of the work Tiller has done, because it has helped protect the resources of so many tribes. “We both started working for tribes throughout the West. Our interests converged and it’s been going on like that ever since.”

He says “Tiller’s Guide” is respected around the country. “I’m incredibly proud of her. There is nothing of its kind anywhere to be found.”

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