December 2015

Heritage, Adobe Architecture and Grief: Learning from Rina Swentzell


Tom Guthrie


Rina Swentzell was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. Her life story is fascinating, her family remarkable. I first met Rina in 2003, and over the years she became my teacher and my friend. I am grateful that, this past summer, Rina, my wife and I were able to go on a hike at Tsankawi. We found shade and ate a picnic lunch under a juniper, near the edge of the mesa. Together, we marveled at the landscape.

Rina was an accomplished scholar and writer, and I first encountered her through her writing. She opened my imagination and made it possible for me to radically rethink the research I was doing on heritage preservation in northern New Mexico. I had always been ambivalent about preservation. On the one hand, I was committed to the work of arresting culture loss among colonized peoples. I celebrated the efforts of Hispanics and Native Americans in maintaining their cultural distinctiveness. On the other hand, preservation seemed too static. I worried that preservation was just another way of killing culture, turning it into a fossil.

Rina helped me think through this ambivalence. She told me that cultural preservation made her sad. When people have to work so hard at learning the language or maintaining their traditions, when their efforts are so deliberate and self-conscious, their culture has been reduced to something intellectual, she said. She valued a more intuitive, less self-conscious way of moving through life. She was not particularly concerned about culture or our relationship to the past. Rather, she emphasized the value of creativity and an orientation to the present.

Imagine if New Mexicans today stopped focusing so much on culture or heritage. How would their communities change?

I have become a more self-aware white person and a better anthropologist thanks to Rina. Well-meaning white people often don’t realize how ignorant and blind we are. I sent Rina a draft of the conclusion of my book, Recognizing Heritage, in which I discuss her ideas. She thanked me for taking her thoughts seriously but wrote, “I don’t think that you understand the incredible philosophy of the Pueblos, as I understand it. I think that you hear my words but do not really know what they mean.” My first reaction was typically defensive: But I do! Then, I began to realize how much I had missed the point.

In my book, I emphasize the relationship between heritage-preservation projects and political power. Rina objected to this approach: “I do not believe that our most fundamental problems are about power—or even inequality, which comes from a sense of insecurity.” This perspective, she suggested, was Eurocentric. “My issue with the West is its mindset—its philosophical stance—characterized exactly by what you are proposing—to be mainly concerned with power and inequality in the human world. I believe that the more fundamental issue is our spiritual space—which is a universal concern.” She reasoned that the violence in our world today stems from materialism and fights over who owns what, “…which, from what I read in your paper, is what the whole heritage discussion is about.”

Rina’s comments helped me to see the irony of my suggestion that we need to focus more on power in order to unravel the pernicious effects of colonialism. I was trying to critique Euro-American domination, but in the process I reproduced a fundamental preoccupation of Western culture. I have since become more aware of the limits of my own understanding of the world, more humble. This is an important—and hard—lesson for white men to learn.

Instead of cultural heritage or power, Rina emphasized relationships, compassion and integrity. She wrote to me: “Pueblo thinking, from my point of view, is about relationships, assumed equalness and the cycles of life.” Our lives are rooted in our relationship to the natural environment, which then influences our relationships with other beings.

In 2003, I asked her what she would like Santa Clara Pueblo to be like in 25 years. “I would like to see a community that is really concerned about basic relationships, about the world and themselves. I would like to see a loving, caring community…I’d like to see dances that would just make the people happy and feel like they…are taking care of each other and taking care of the place…I don’t care what the dances look like, I don’t care what the language sounds like. Those are all expressions of who we really are inside. When I hear that sound, I like to just feel I’m a part of this place, I’m a part of this group, isn’t this wonderful. I’m in a safe, secure place.”

More and more, I’m convinced that Rina was right: What’s most important is not some thing called culture or heritage but relationships. For this reason, I’m no longer very interested in either culture or heritage, and, in fact, I find them stumbling blocks or distractions in the vital work that awaits us as human beings in the 21st century: nurturing loving, respectful, compassionate relationships with other human beings and with the nonhuman world.

Rina was also one of several women in my life who have helped me see the importance of rebalancing our dominant culture in terms of gender, of nurturing more feminine values. A few years ago, I had breakfast with Rina at the Roadrunner Café, in Pojoaque Pueblo. I asked her about the Poeh Center across the road. She liked it, especially the adobe buildings with their soft, sculptural angles. “But they’re too big,” she said, evidence of the rise of masculine thinking among the Pueblos. In architecture and in human relationships, Rina valued softness and humility and gentleness. More than that, she embodied these values. She was one of the most serene people I’ve ever known; she instantly made me feel calm. She was quiet and kind. I have paid more attention to gentleness since meeting Rina. I have tried to become a gentler man, and I know our world would be a better place if we all experienced more gentleness.

When I heard that Rina had died, I cried. I still grieve her passing, and I miss her. I’m sad that I won’t have the opportunity to talk to her again. And, still, I’m learning from her. I continue to find comfort and wisdom in Rina’s ideas, even in my grief.

I remember her love of adobe. In Remembering Tewa Pueblo Houses and Spaces, Rina noted that the Tewa words for “us” and “earth” or “dirt” were the same, “so are we made of the same stuff as our houses.” When she was a child in Santa Clara, adobe houses were physically and symbolically connected to one another, to the earth, the sky and the mountains. Houses were blessed, healed, fed, tasted and otherwise treated as organic beings. They were even allowed to die. Rina recalled watching a crack grow in one particular house over several weeks. Her great-grandmother told her that the house had had a good life and that it was time for it go back into the earth. In due time, the rubble of the old house was used to build a new one. Adobe reminds us that life and death are part of the same ongoing cycle. I cherish memories of talking with Rina in her beautiful adobe home. And I know that there comes a time for going back to the earth.

Rina helped me come to appreciate movement and impermanence in the natural world. Whenever I notice the clouds drifting across the sky, I am grateful for their beauty and their motion. I know that clouds and the sky and the moving earth are sacred. I also think of Rina and how she revered flow. I thank God for clouds, for motion, and for the life and death of my friend Rina Swentzell.

Tom Guthrie is a cultural anthropologist and author of Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico (University of Nebraska Press, 2013).


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