Storytellers of Cochiti, Then and Now

By Amber Mustafic, Museum Intern
Map of the Pueblos, today

Cochiti Pueblo is located about twenty miles south of Santa Fe. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the American Southwest, Cochiti is one of the nineteen indigenous Pueblo tribes, which are located in New Mexico today. Before Spanish colonization and the arrival of white settlers, Pueblo land extended into areas that make up Colorado and Arizona today. Each Pueblo is an independent, sovereign nation with its own government, culture, and traditions. There are three language families among the Pueblos: Keresan, Tanoan and Zunian, and five language dialects: Zuni, Keres, Tiwa, Towa and Tewa. Cochiti is a Keres-speaking Pueblo, and their name in Keres is “ko-tyit.”

Keres is considered a language isolate, meaning it has evolved independently from other languages, and does not descend from any other language. It is not a written language. Hence, there is a strong oral tradition of storytelling as means of telling and recording history. I was curious about this tradition, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to meet with Virgil Ortiz, a world-renowned potter and multimedia artist from Cochiti, to talk about it. Virgil is our current artist in residence at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, and his brilliant show — Revolution: Rise Against the Invasion — is on display here through May 19, 2019.

Virgil Ortiz with his Aeronauts: characters from his movie script about the 1680 Pueblo revolt. His Aeronaut costumes are currently on view at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

I had a wonderful conversation with Virgil about Cochiti’s storytelling tradition. He explained, “It’s always like the grandmothers or grandfathers always telling stories, and it’s just like a daily occurrence. Every time we get family get-togethers and all, it’s always the elders that are telling the stories. If it’s a sort of more formal situation, like if you’re in some of the kivas or the meetings and all, everybody sits down and listens to the person that’s telling, giving advice or telling stories of how it used to be.” For the people of Cochiti, having a spoken language, storytelling has been a critical responsibility and a large part of the Cochiti culture. Once a story is told, that memory and piece of history is kept alive, and not forgotten.

Storyteller by Caroline G. Scilar (of Cochiti Pueblo), ca. 1970. Clay, slip, and paint. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

The tradition of oral storytelling transcends into another fundamental aspect of Cochiti culture: pottery. One particularly well-known Cochiti pottery tradition is called the Storyteller, pictured here on the right. These Storytellers feature a large central figure, with anywhere from one to dozens of children clinging to them. They often depict humans, but many Storytellers depict other forms of life, like frogs and owls. Like Virgil described earlier, the Storyteller is a physical representation of an elder telling a story, and the crowding of the curious listeners. Storytellers were some of the first pottery that Virgil made as a child. He learned the tradition from his grandmother, Laurencita, and his mother Seferina, who were both accomplished potters as well. This frog Storyteller below was made by Seferina.

Frog Storyteller by Seferina Ortiz

The Storyteller stems from a centuries-old Cochiti tradition of figurative pottery. Ceramics in the shape of humans and animals can be dated all the way back to 400 A.D. This tradition would go on for centuries until the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The Spanish saw the figurative pottery as idolatry, and denounced Pueblo religion and culture as witchcraft. In an effort to convert the Puebloans to Christianity, the Spanish were fervent in their destruction of these so-called “idols,” and forbid the further creation of figurative pottery. As a result, there is now a gap in the ceramic record of Cochiti figurative pottery. 

“Indian Pottery,” photograph by Ben Wittick, ca. 1878-1881.

Despite these vicious restrictions forced upon them by the Spanish, the Puebloans resisted. In my conversation with Virgil, he mentioned that after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, Puebloans started making ceramics again. They used pottery as a form of social commentary, and reproduced in clay the things they saw with the Spanish arrival. When the railroads were built through New Mexico in the late 1800’s, there was a new Anglo presence in the Southwest, which brought an arrival of novel forms of entertainment like circuses, operas, and carnivals. Cochiti potters produced large-scale (around three feet tall) clay portraits of these bizarre occurrences. These satirical clay portraits depicted conjoined twins, opera singers, dancing bears, and general recreations of the white man: images of priests, cowboys, and businessmen, as shown in this photograph from around the late 1870’s.

Unfortunately, the Anglos eventually caught on that these clay figures were a mockery of them, and again restrictions were placed upon the Pueblo people. However, just as they refused to surrender a few centuries ago, they refused to surrender this time as well. In the early 1900’s, Cochiti potters turned their focus onto themselves, creating depictions of drummers, corn dancers, and women with children. These figures were much smaller than their social commentary pieces, as the tourist boom in the 1900’s introduced a demand for smaller, more transportable pieces that could be easily brought on the train.

This is where the Storyteller was born. Storytellers were immensely popular in the tourist trade, which I think is beautifully ironic. The people who arrived in the Southwest through the means of colonization and Manifest Destiny, through suppression and forced relocation of indigenous people, were eagerly buying Cochiti pottery with a powerful message: we will always be here, and we will never stop. The Storyteller physically represents the Cochiti oral practice of storytelling, and how storytelling gives eternal life to Cochiti culture, hence the many children clinging to the Storyteller, who will tell the stories to the next generation. 

Storyteller by Helen Cordero (of Cochiti Pueblo), ca. 1980. Clay, slip, and paint. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

Virgil is a storyteller himself. Telling the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt is largely what his work revolves around. The Pueblo Revolt, despite technically being the first American revolution, remains a blank space on most timelines of American history. Virgil says, “telling the story of the Pueblo revolt [is] so important to me. It’s not taught in our schools, it’s not in our history books, it has been basically swept under the carpet because of the genocide that happened to our people. The bloodshed, the rapes that went on and all the…getting a bunch of the Natives and making them build churches on all the Pueblos. We had to fight to keep our ceremonies alive, our dances, our traditions.” The Spanish colonizers arrived in Pueblo land around the late-1500’s. Puebloans were violently forced into labor, forced to “convert” to Christianity (although many Puebloans still practiced their own religion in secret), and forced to provide exhaustive resources to the Spanish.

After over a century of religious persecution, repression of cultural traditions, and constant violence and torture, the Pueblo people organized a rebellion. Led by Po’pay, a medicine man from Ohkay Owingeh (previously referred to as San Juan Pueblo by non-Puebloans), and various leaders from other Pueblos, the Puebloans united, transcending language barriers, and amassed an army of about two-thousand men armed with native weapons. They killed around four-hundred Spaniards, and drove the remaining two-thousand out of New Mexico. For over a decade after the revolt, the Pueblos were free of Spanish rule.

Like Virgil said, this is a story that I was never taught in my American history courses. Telling the story of the Pueblo revolt is largely what his work revolves around. In this way, he is carrying on the Pueblo tradition of storytelling through his artwork. One of his major storytelling endeavors is his movie script, which revolves around the Pueblo Revolt. In the script, he tells the story of the 1680 revolt, and a future revolt in 2180. His exhibition here at the FAC (Oct. 6, 2018 – May 19, 2019) features a simulation of characters in the script. The label reads: “It is 2180. The pueblos are in chaos, the invasion of Native land continues and the scourge of war rages everywhere. The time to act is now.” His Aeronaut characters, pictured in the images above and below, travel back in time from 2180 to present day to search for clay artifacts from the battlefields, in a desperate attempt to preserve their culture.

Aeronauts by Virgil Ortiz, on view at Revolution: Rise Against the Invasion exhibition at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Running until May 19, 2019.

In Virgil’s work, the theme of Puebloan resilience is glaring. Like his ancestors who never ceased to create their pottery, Virgil not only carries on his cultural traditions, but also sends a clear message that Cochiti, and the Pueblos, will never surrender their culture.

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