They were lonely. They longed for home. For more than a century, they waited patiently for their return to native soil.
Now, the 100 pottery pieces representing six northern New Mexico pueblos are home at last, cherished and protected, at the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, N.M.
Their return is due to a historic two-year collaboration between leaders at the Poeh and representatives of the Smithsonian Institution, which has housed the pieces in its National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York since the early 20th century.
During a recent trip to my hometown of Albuquerque, I took the easy drive 20 minutes north of Santa Fe through a red-rock landscape to Pojoaque to see the exhibit, Di Wae Powa — Tewa for “They came back.”
The pots — jars, pitchers, bowls, wedding vases, even a teapot — showcase designs from 1850 to 1930 from the pueblos of Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, Tesuque and Nambe. With their ancient designs and muted colors, formed from nearby water and earth, seeing them gave me a deeper longing for the region where I was raised.
To enter this exhibit is to enter a sacred space. All 100 pieces are housed in a single room, displayed in five glass cases, some stacked six levels high. The day we arrived was a sunny Monday with a boundless blue sky, a light breeze and few other visitors. I wished for a chair so I could sit, feeling figuratively weighed down by the collective history housed in this intimate setting.
Karl Duncan, the elegant adobe center’s executive director, kindly validated my emotional reaction.
“From the beginning, a lot of our advisers didn’t want to call it an exhibit,” he said. “It’s the pots’ room. It’s their sitting place.”
While outsiders might look at this collection and see fragile, precious objets d’art, their descendants are quick to remind us that the pieces were, first and foremost, utilitarian: This pot carried water, that one burst with flowers from the fields, this one was used to knead dough.
They left New Mexico originally when a man named George Gustav Heye began collecting them from across North America in the early 20th century. Duncan explained that at the time, Heye was concerned about the idea of the “vanishing Indian. He was trying to preserve a glimpse of something that, in his eyes, would be gone.”
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to the pieces he collected. The pots ended up tucked away in the Smithsonian and personal collections.
Throughout the reclamation process, artists and elders representing the six pueblos visited the NMAI, facing the difficult task of narrowing down their inventory to just 100 of the 400 pots in storage.
They spoke to the pots in Tewa, telling them they were coming home. They comforted those left behind, reassuring them that they, too, would return to New Mexico at the earliest opportunity.
The exhibit, which opened in October, is complemented by a permanent exhibition portraying Pueblo history. Visitors are invited to walk through six rooms, getting a glimpse of how the Tewa people lived, worked and celebrated for thousands of years.
Beginning in 2020, 23 of the 100 pottery pieces will be offered in private sessions to school groups, researchers and select visitors, who will be able to touch and hold them, learning their stories in the adjoining education center.
“We’re hoping to gather more cultural knowledge from them,” Duncan said, “teaching, learning the stories of why ancestors might have made them, and inspiring our elders today to come share with the younger generations their stories of making pottery, the reasons behind certain designs and shapes.”
Though the 100 pots are designated as on “long-term loan” from the NMAI, a short accompanying film featuring descendants of the original potters hints at how unlikely it is that they will ever travel again.
“The pots will be happy to come back home,” one contemporary artist says. “Back to Tewa Country.
“Back to where they belong.”