December 2015

A Quiet, Fierce Intelligence


Chris Wilson


When Rina Swentzell spoke to a large audience, her voice was often so soft that you had to lean forward to hear. And as everyone did, she enthralled us with her quiet, fierce vision. Through her eloquent essays, books, lectures and media appearances, she brought a Tewa Pueblo world view to life for a wider audience and, thereby, made an invaluable contribution to the deepening of American cultural pluralism.

Rina Swentzell grew up speaking Tewa in her grandmother’s house on the Santa Clara plaza in the 1940s. People looked forward in those days to spring when they could again sleep on the rooftops. From there they also viewed the ceremonial dances. And there, in the fall, they gathered corn, squash and chiles to dry. A photo from the 1910s shows produce covering her grandmother’s roof and clustered on other houses around the plaza—each cluster indicating the home of a Gia, the nurturing “mother” of an extended family.

The short walk north, across Santa Clara Creek to the cement-stuccoed, hipped-roofed BIA school, set on a raised foundation inside a barbed-wire fence, initiated her to Euro-American culture. After completing a bachelor’s degree from Highlands University and after her four children had grown sufficiently, she continued her education at the University of New Mexico, completing a master’s degree in architecture and then a Ph.D. in American studies.

Like her Española High School classmate, Ohkay Owingeh–born anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz, Rina became an important interpreter of the interrelation of Pueblo world view with architecture and landscape. In such essays as “Remembering Tewa Houses and Spaces”—reproduced in this issue—she made a Tewa view of the sacred balance within nature accessible, believable and potentially useful to all of us who love, feel grounded in and seek to conserve this arid land.

Starting in her 1977 architecture master’s thesis, through a series of scattered, poetic and perceptive essays, she described a Pueblo world encompassed by an earth bowl and a sky basket. People perceive this encompassing sphere at various scales in the landscape, from the surrounding four sacred mountains at the edge of the earth bowl, to intermediate sacred mesas, to the earthen buildings of the pueblo and, finally, to the kiva. The symmetry of the earth bowl is perhaps clearest at the Tewa villages of the Española Valley, centered as they are along the Río Grande and contained by the Sangre de Cristo and Jémez mountains to the east and west.

Rina translated a few key concepts from Tewa into English in each essay. Po-wa-ha, for instance, is the life force, literally, the water-wind-breath, while nan-si-pu is a sacred center, or earth-belly-root. These earth navels occur especially where the underworld of the earth bowl connects through the ground to the sky bowl at springs, caves, mountaintops and within plazas and kivas. The po-wa-ha breathes in and out of each nan-si-pu, just as it does through each of our mouths. And when the afternoon thunderclouds of July and August form, seemingly off the tops of the Sangres and the Jémez and roll across the valley, they manifest the living weave of the sky basket.

Her master’s thesis and later writings likewise contrast this seamless unification of the human and natural world with the aloof, compartmentalized Euro-American world that she first encountered in the BIA school. Her equally penetrating analysis of Euro-American cultural assumptions made her a pioneer in elaborating on the mismatch between federal government policies and the contrasting values of Native peoples. In this, she influenced succeeding generations of intellectuals and activists—Native and non-Native alike—working in education, architecture and tribal sovereignty.

When Rina and anthropologist Jerry Brody began writing To Touch the Past: the Painted Pottery of the Mimbres People, they struggled to find a common interpretation. But once they decided to alternate passages, each addressing topics in turn (Jerry in regular type, Rina in italics), they set up a vibrant, illuminating contrast between Pueblo and Euro-American world views—a solution that pleased her. As a person raised in the Tewa world, who had also acquired the tools of a Western analytical education, Rina embodied this cultural contrast within herself. She chose to reflect this when she again employed a dual-narrative strategy in her recent essay in the book, The Plazas of New Mexico, alternating visionary dreams and childhood memories of the Santa Clara plaza, set in italics, with her more scholarly interpretation.

In the late 1970s, Rina designed and built a house with her family, a little down-river from Santa Fe. It reconciles the contrasting vision of Pueblo architecture with the Modernism and passive-solar design she learned in architecture school. On the Pueblo side, it is built of adobe and terraced into a south-facing hillside for passive solar gain. Its earthen floors provide a direct grounding in the land. Its outdoor terraces are as important as the interior living spaces. On the Modernist side are its open, flowing interior spaces and glass curtain walls that provide a direct visual connection from inside out to the terraces. The flat roof and walls form Modernist compositional planes, although the curves of the walls express the organic nature of the adobe. The southern orientation, thermal mass of the earthen floors and walls, glass curtain walls and clerestory windows above the north rooms make it a classic solar-adobe home, one of the finest designs of that important regional movement.

Rina Swentzell contained, expressed, mediated between and, on occasion, reconciled Pueblo and Euro-American worlds. Her death is a profound loss for all of us whose minds she touched with her quiet, fierce eloquence.


Chris Wilson is the J. B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies at the UNM School of Architecture and Planning, author of The Myth of Santa Fe and Facing Southwest and editor of The Plazas of New Mexico and the just-released Drawn to Landscape: The Pioneering Work of J. B. Jackson.



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