Ocotillo Omen

Ocotillo Omen

By Lois Foyt and Jon Foyt

She stared for a long time at the ocotillo plant in the protected courtyard garden of the Palace of the Governors, New Mexico’s flagship museum of Southwestern treasure. The multiple unbranched stems of the thorny cactus-like tree were sprouting their tiny green leaves of spring, yet the time was midwinter in Santa Fe; the courtyard’s spreading old cottonwood centerpiece was bare, and snow covered its branches. Museum Director Lee Roberts shivered at the thought of her own barrenness, having devoted her life to her career instead of mothering a child. Yes, the ocotillo plant was reminding her of Running Deer’s special baby, born on the very day she had opened her museum’s exhibition of magnificent tenth and eleventh century Mimbres and Anasazi pottery—the pièce de résistance of last August’s Indian Market Week—beautiful pottery with designs so precise, so imaginative, so ingenious as to rival any metropolitan museum’s artwork.

Lee thought back on her participation in the modern evolution of a museum’s role in cultural society and how, in addition to expanding permanent collections and hosting the occasional traveling exhibit, museums had to initiate super shows focusing on a single subject of artistic achievement in order to compete for super money from super donors—foundations, corporations and wealthy individual benefactors. She and her staff, in a culmination of five years of meticulous work, had inaugurated on that portentous night the super bowl of priceless prehistoric Native American artwork. And for the first time in the museum’s opening night history, they had collected one thousand dollars from each person who craved to see the splendor.

The sheltering tent outside the museum’s entrance had bubbled with caterers, benefactors, and dignitaries clinking glasses of champagne. The strolling mariachi band serenaded thousands of the wealthy-privileged from New York, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles, who were dressed in the tuxedos and evening finery of those metropolitan cities, not the bluejeans and cowboy boots of New Mexico. Even the parking valets wore formal attire this night.

Lee remembered how, in her strapless evening gown, the warm summer breeze caressed her shoulders. Was her Dallas-designer creation passé, reminiscent of the 1960s instead of a statement for the twenty-first century? No, for a museum director, the dress was perfect, complemented as it was with the delicate Zuni turquoise necklace. She had accepted a kiss on her cheek from the governor and returned one to the mayor, welcomed each of the benefactors, exhibiting the correct degree of sensuality to male Manhattan moneyed while smiling into the television cameras.

Yes, those moments had promised a springboard to exciting opportunities to advance her career. Oh, to re-live those moments, to stop the clock, to not have had those dreadful next moments crash down upon her. She chided herself for having turned a blind eye to the country’s recent pertinent federal legislation and thereby inviting dire consequences, but who would have anticipated how cataclysmic the night would turn out to be.

Seventeen blue vans careened from all directions into the historic plaza in front of the Palace of the Governors. Five times as many agents wearing blue jackets, each displaying those authoritative three yellow capital letters, FBI, charged through the tent and into the museum carrying packing crates and packaging materials, their weapons in plain view. Their field commander spoke into his bullhorn, bellowing for everyone to stand perfectly still, not to leave, and not to obstruct the raid. “Under the provisions of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the FBI believes this entire collection of pots has been stolen from sovereign Indian nations and, if our experts so agree, the whole lot will be returned to their rightful owners.”

Infuriated, Lee stepped up to the FBI field commander and demanded that he and his goons leave immediately. He had dismissed her with, “Stand aside, honey, we’ve got an eighteen-wheeler outside waiting to load up these dishes.”

Bristling, she shouted back at him, “Why are you singling us out—what about the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Peabody—are they next on your hit list? No? Are we a political target, then?”

“We’re just doin’ our job, lady.”

The governor and the mayor had tiptoed away into the dark night. At the edge of the plaza, she saw the Indians. They were no doubt gathering in celebration of bursting the balloons of Anglo domination. Having come from the twenty modern-day pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona, they were hoisting hand-lettered placards written in their native languages of Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Nahuatl, Penutian, and Keresan; and Lee translated the phrase “return our sacred art” on each sign. She realized that they had known about the raid in advance—probably had been the ones to tip off the FBI.

And then, as word spread among them of Running Deer’s delivery of her milky-skinned albino baby, they cheered that news as being a sacred sign as momentous as the birth of a white buffalo, an event signifying great change for Native Americans everywhere. Drummers began to beat the seminal message for all to hear. Their ominous repeated thumps added to the night’s tension.

Running Deer’s husband, gallery owner Paul Zimmerman, was as angry as Lee with the raid. “Who the hell does the Federal Bureau of Investigation think they are, coming in here and ripping off these treasures? Is it for their own gain?”

Lee tried to recall the sequence of events. It was only hours later that a grief-stricken Paul told her that his baby had been kidnapped from the hospital. In his bewilderment he said he suspected that the ransom note demanding three million dollars was from his black market pothunters who hadn’t been paid. He told her he couldn’t go to the police or the FBI knowing he, too, was guilty of accepting illegally-acquired loot. She panicked because he had loaned these prized pots to the museum’s exhibition, and at that very moment his “collection,” along with all the other priceless pottery, was being packed into FBI crates to be carried off to who knows where.

A clumsy FBI agent dropping the classic Mimbres bowl, the shattering crash breaking into a thousand shards the black on white scene of a rabbit, a star, and the A.D. 1054 supernova, and the cries of the aghast onlookers caused Lee to grab a gun from the first holster she could reach; to everyone’s shock, the weapon discharged toward the ceiling before she leveled the barrel directly at the field commander. “I’ll shoot this G-man if anyone as much as looks at another pot,” she screamed. “Do any of you FBI agents realize the significance of the Mimbres bowl you just demolished?” Struggling to regain her composure, Lee continued, “These prehistoric people, who had no written language, communicated this rare celestial event to us through their art. We have written proof of this extraordinary explosion in the heavens from an ancient royal Chinese astrologer who wrote about it in court journals. And now,” Lee choked up, “you...you’ve destroyed America’s only register of this eleventh century cosmic phenomenon!”

Lee remembered how the lone Indian potter from Acoma calmed her and the crowd with his carefully-chosen words. “Many moons ago, our potters deftly coiled their ropes of palm-rolled clay to form these hand-crafted vessels. They painted, fired, and polished these cooking and storage utensils for use in their daily lives. What would these early potters say to us now in this summer of our disputes? They would counsel reflection on all sides.”

He was right, Lee reflected. It was time to question every museum’s mission. Beginning in the late 19th century those early archaeologists dispatched to the Southwest by the National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and the Peabody, as well as those archaeologists who came later, rationalized that only learned Anglo scholars could interpret Native American values through their analysis of collected artifacts. Hundreds of academic careers and museum collections had been built around illegally acquired pottery ware from one field expedition after another—the treasure hunts of their times. 

But what if these professional and amateur archaeologists hadn’t excavated the ancient ruins? What if the 1990 Graves Repatriation Act had been passed along with the Antiquities Act back in 1906 and the pottery left undisturbed, would the Indians have built museums to display their “sacred” art? Would they have educated the world’s children about their heritage? No, she had told herself in justifying the actions of the archaeologists. The lore of New Mexico, the lure of tourism, the grist for the academic mill, and the inspiration for the art world would still be buried in remote sites in the high deserts of the Southwest. 

Lee reflected on how a lot of her male museum colleagues had fabricated false provenances for each piece in their collections, circumventing the new law in order to protect their museums’ reputations, as well as their own personal reputations. So why shouldn’t she have done so? Instead, she wanted to be honest about the ownership history for each pot, which meant slow, deliberate documentary research—a task she hadn’t yet been able to complete under the pressure of time to open the exhibit.

She wanted to explain museum economics to the FBI field commander, tell him that institutions such as hers couldn’t spend all their time and money documenting gifts and acquisitions—they had to put on exhibitions for the public, for school children. Money to hire qualified research staff and outside experts was scarce, and without super shows, there’d be inadequate financial resources to create these jobs. Yet she knew this clod wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t give up his police powers, wouldn’t back off and end his raid, no matter what she said.

As the Acoma potter took the gun from her and handed the weapon back to the agent, he whispered to her, “I fear our sacred pots will disappear again, this time into the maze of FBI bureaucracy...who knows what happens to confiscated art. But at least we’ve made our point...now the world will understand that our ancestors’ pots are sacred to us, and that we never gave Anglos the right to commercialize Native American heritage.”

The museum’s chairman of the board of regents had been the next person to speak to her. “You have to do something, Ms. Roberts, or this seizure will cause problems when our museum undergoes its re-accreditation process next month. If we don’t get that stamp of approval, we’ll lose our foundation grants as well as our federal funding.” And, Lee anguished, she could kiss her career goodbye, too.

Lee sighed as she remembered the looming presence of the FBI’s eighteen-wheeler parked in the plaza outside her catering tent. Like a giant coffin, the huge truck was about to bury the last five years of her career life. The chairman was right. She had to do something. And quick. Before she could think of what to do, Paul Zimmerman had come to her with word of the kidnapping of Running Deer’s precious new-born baby.

“Oh, Paul, I’m so sorry,” she had said as she grasped his hand. “What happened?”

“They took the baby right out of the hospital nursery—from under the noses of the pediatric nurses. Our baby...and now our pots, too.”

His statement had confused her. “What do you mean?” she had asked. “Is there a connection? Your wife is Pima Indian, isn’t she? Why would the Indians take your baby?”

“No, it’s not the Indians. It’s...ah...my guys...you know.”

She did know. She had turned another blind eye to his last-minute addition to her exhibition. “Didn’t you pay them?”

“I was going to...the bank was set to make my loan tomorrow...after your opening, but now...my pots—my three million dollars worth of collateral...I’ve no money to pay for the pots or to pay the ransom for Running Deer’s baby, and I dare not go to the police...or the FBI.” 

All she could say was, “I’m ever so sorry, Paul.”

The days grew shorter as Paul and Running Deer searched desperately and tirelessly for their baby. An early September snowfall hadn’t discouraged them. Paul said if only the kidnappers would take him and bring the baby back to Running Deer, he’d be their slave forever. Lee felt responsible. If she hadn’t encouraged Paul to loan his pots to her exhibition, he wouldn’t have agreed to purchase them from the thieves, and the baby wouldn’t have been kidnapped.

Now, sitting in her museum office and staring out into the snowy courtyard, she asked herself how could she make amends to this couple, to the Native Americans, and to museums everywhere? Finally she decided on her course of action. With her own money, she bought a full page ad in USA Today to express her feelings:

An Open Letter of Apology to the People of the Following

Pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico:

Taos, Picuris, San Juan, Santa Clara, Pojaque, Nambé, San Illdelfonso, Tesuque, Cochiti, Jemez, Zia, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Sandia, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Isleta, and the descendants of the Pecos Pueblo living at Jemez:

On behalf of the Palace of the Governors and myself personally, I wish to apologize to each of you. I confess that throughout the last four hundred years of recorded Southwestern history there have been outright thefts of sacred Native American belongings, unlawful acts, which unfortunately continue right up to the present day. Whether bartered for or stolen outright, whether kept in trust or simply confiscated—these acts all carry the same meaning: theft with premeditation; theft by coercion; theft with malice; in other words, unforgivable theft!

And now, all our museums and art galleries may well be shut down because of these treasure hunting capers; there will be no more exhibits of Native American artwork anywhere. Worse, there will be no air-conditioned place in which to authenticate, endorse, and show the world your contemporary works of art crafted by today’s gifted artists, and you will be forced to go back to the days of hot, dusty roadside vending. None of us want this to happen.

I am reminded of the Pima Indian legend, which tells of their good judgment. May I have your permission to share their story with the readers of this newspaper?

In forgotten times, in the days of the ancients, a great river overflowed its banks and threatened to flood the village. No one, not the shaman, not even the village chief, was able to persuade the waters to stop rising.

High up on a sacred mesa there lived a wise old matriarch, whose advice was sought in times of impending disaster. “To end your ordeal,” she told the Pima, “you must sacrifice what is most valuable to you. Throw it down into the sipapu, the place of our emergence from the dark underworlds within Mother Earth into this, our present world of mountains, rain, and sunlight, and you will satisfy the water spirit’s thirst for treasure. Your forfeiture is necessary to bring your people a better world.”

For days, the Pima debated as to what was their most valuable and prized possession. Everyone came to agree that Spring Robin’s baby was most dear to all. Everyone except the village potter, who spirited the baby away in the middle of the night deep into the nearby ocotillo forest. When he returned to the village he was prepared to offer his most prized pot for the sacrifice. The Pima were happy that he would give up his most cherished pot to save Spring Robin’s baby. The shaman accepted the potter’s gift and delivered it down into the sipapu, and the flood waters receded.

Rejoicing, the villagers and Spring Robin went to get her baby, but when they arrived in the ocotillo forest the baby was nowhere in sight. Oh, despair! But wait. Among the dull gray stems of the midwinter forest, one ocotillo plant projected twenty-five straight unbranched stems ten to twelve feet in length in a fanned-out arrangement, each displaying a new crop of small green leaves. One stem, twenty feet in length, bore an orange-red flower on its upper portion. And there, by the plant’s crown base, they found the baby.

It was thus in the days of the ancients. Therefore the ancients, no less than ourselves, hold humanness above materialism. And thus shortens my story.

Most Sincerely,

Lee Roberts, Executive Director and Curator of the Palace of the Governors

Days later, Running Deer brought her baby, Spring Blossom, to introduce her to Lee and to express thanks for bringing harmony to all. Their conversation was interrupted by streaks of blue lights revolving around the courtyard, Lee’s office, and the museum’s empty galleries. Outside in the plaza, Lee heard the loud distinctive braking belch from the compression release of a giant truck engine. She and Running Deer, who carried her papoose, rushed to see what all the commotion was about. Twenty different pueblo police cars, their official pueblo emblems emblazoned on their doors, had escorted the FBI’s eighteen wheeler on its return engagement to the Palace of the Governors.

The lone potter from Acoma said it best in his decree. “We of all the present-day pueblos wish to assert that where we’ve been is not as important as where we’re going. So we entrust to your stewardship our ancestral pots, to have and to hold from this day forward.”

After the museum staff had uncrated and set up the exhibition once again, Lee went back to her office and discovered that the ocotillo plant in the courtyard bore a bright orange-red flower atop each leafy stem.

The End

This short story was published originally in The Italian (Genoa) Literary Magazine. The editor and publisher of this multicultural and multilingual journal, Mauro Salvi, reached out to the Foyts to write this 3,000 word story for his inaugural edition.

Ocotillo Omen tells the human tale of the unintended consequences from the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The fictional resolution mirrors a Pima Indian legend.