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Exhibitions link pueblo elders’ wisdom to modern relationship with earth

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The black sky glitters with stars sprinkled like diamond dust behind a reddened petroglyph of spiral galaxies.

Most pueblo stories open with “Long ago …” The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is displaying that rich tradition by opening two temporary exhibitions.

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's new exhibit hall.

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s new exhibit hall.

IPCC project specialist Leo Vicenti (Jicarilla Apache) gathered stories from each of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos reflecting both their differences and collective wisdom. He then translated these stories into colorful, larger-than-life illustrations across curved walls, with text passages.

“The various pueblos have a tradition,” Vicenti said, “especially at Laguna; they would say, ‘A long time ago’ as a signifier to start a story. Storytelling is evident throughout pueblo culture.”

The people brought those tales to life with the help of petroglyphs and pictographs, figurines and effigies, many of them on display in the new exhibits.

“The clay reminds us who we are, who we became and what we believe,” Vicenti said. “Each piece has a different vein of clay.”

The wisdom of pueblo elders comes alive through wall text. Visitors can share their own stories through iPads.

Vicenti spent nearly a year researching the exhibit, interviewing pueblo members and combing through the Native American History Collection at the University of New Mexico.

Research into pueblo animal stories often unearthed sad endings à la Grimm’s Fairy Tales, museum Director Monique Fragua said.

They said, “And the animal ate the children.”

Organizers decided to focus on the Laguna Pueblo story of a mother’s warning to 10 little prairie dogs. Vicenti painted the 10 animals banging a drum on a single side of a curved wall; the opposite side reveals a bald eagle swooping in above them.

“They continued to play in the belly of the eagle and the eagle dies,” Fragua said. “The basic moral is, ‘Listen to your mother.’ ”

A section titled “Family Life Lessons” displays quotes passed through generations. Famed pueblo painter Pablita Velerade’s reads, “I remember the stories I heard every winter when I was a girl, told by my grandfather or grandmother, my uncle or my father. They are not legends to me. They are real.”

“Long Ago …” leads guests into the second exhibit, “Pueblo People & Our Modern Environment,” exploring the people’s direct relationship with Mother Earth through agriculture. The display looks through a child’s eyes at everything from greeting the sun at dawn to respecting the resources of the earth.