Green Fire Times

In Memory of Those Who Have Gone On

By Regis Pecos

Beverly Singer, of Santa Clara Pueblo, an honoree herself for many lifetime contributions, has produced a beautiful video honoring Pueblo advocates entitled In their Memory. It was screened at the 2018 Pueblo Convocation.

The Convocation honored Pueblo advocates and their families for their vision, wisdom and years of tireless advocacy. The tribute acknowledged their contributions creating policies to guide Native children’s education when none existed. They were epitomized by people like Mateo Aragon, of Santo Domingo Pueblo, who walked and hitchhiked to meetings when there wasn’t transportation. He advocated for equity and justice at a time when Indian children were forced into public schools, ridiculed and discriminated against because of their lack of fluency in English.

The honorees insisted that their language deserved to be part of the vision for education. Early pioneers include Carlos Pecos of Cochiti, one of the first and few Pueblo school principals in the Bernalillo Public Schools. He created the first Pueblo language programs. The Pueblo-public school partnerships he instituted led to joint investment in the design and construction of the Pueblo Cultural and Language Resource Center’s Keres Language Program at Cochiti Elementary-Mid School.

On the other side of New Mexico at Zuni, Alex Seoutewa, a longtime cultural counselor and teacher, was on a similar mission to ensure that language and culture would remain at the heart of education. The breadth of his reach and impact was profound. For his work he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Daniel Webster University. His greatest tribute is the acknowledgement by many Zuni children, who, today as adults, say he was the “father to us, mentoring us in the spiritual knowledge and practice of being Zuni.”

These early efforts were boosted by the Grandma of Native language preservation programs, Esther Martinez, who created a movement that culminated in national legislation, known as the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Act. The same government that, years ago, created the first Indian Education Policy, centered on assimilation, was now compelled to preserve the languages it had made strenuous efforts to kill.

The power of this movement has led to a recent “watershed moment in history,” declaring that the State of New Mexico has failed to adequately support (among others) critical elements in the education of children, such as its failure to support Native language programs. The court cited this as a violation of our Indian children’s constitutional rights.

The struggle to legitimize the place of Native languages, beginning at the local level, was a lifetime body of work for people like Vina Leno of Acoma Pueblo. “If we do not give value to our languages, who will?” was her mantra.

As the winds of policy shifted and the pendulum swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, former Gov. Lewis of Zuni Pueblo; Frank Tenorio, former governor of San Felipe; Victor Sarracino from Laguna Pueblo; and brothers John Rainer and former Gov. Tony Reyna, of Taos Pueblo, and former governor and longtime school administrator Gil Lucero, influenced the foundation and framework of self-determination as a new policy. Together they opened doors and access to unprecedented programs in education. From early childhood programs to the development of graduate programs and the tribal colleges movement, they became national icons of Indian education advocacy, influencing national policy and legislation.

Rena Salazar Oyenque, the longest-serving director of Indian Education in New Mexico history, led efforts for the development of the first comprehensive education policy. She partnered with Regis Pecos, the late Mescalero Apache President Wendell Chino, the late Gov. Robert Lewis and former and late President Leonard Atole of Jicarilla. Together they ushered in the first expansive and comprehensive Indian Education Policy, which was adopted by the state Education Department and the state Board of Education.  

Dr. Joe Sando quietly authored some of the first books on the history of Pueblo people. These scholarly publications were part of another movement at the higher education level, pioneering the relevance of education at secondary and post-secondary levels. The eloquence and the beauty of communicating deep Pueblo knowledge was Dr. Rena Swentzell’s gift. She helped raise Pueblo intellectualism to new heights and respectability. She paved the way for many Pueblo and Native American faculty, who are teaching and producing valuable publications.

Former Gov. Calvin Garcia of San Felipe would use this new policy framework to begin impacting governance structures at local levels, advocating for opportunities for Indian education representatives in the prioritization of programs and decisions to influence investment of educational resources for Indian children. That framework continues today with New Mexico Rep. Derrick Lente’s legislation.

At times when there were few Pueblo people present in the public schools as teachers and principals, common people—the Uncle, the Grandpa—were there; whether as cooks, bus drivers or janitors. They too have been teachers and leaders. Sometimes the only Pueblo people, their presence provided encouragement and genuine love and respect for the children. They became the children’s champions, their voice, counselor, tutor. They won the children’s hearts with their generosity and support. Such people were acknowledged with the recognition of Luther Aguilar, of Santo Domingo Pueblo, a long-time leader in the pueblo who was employed by Bernalillo Public Schools. Children of that time, now adults, parents and grandparents themselves, still fondly remember his encouragement and say, “If it was not for Mr. Aguilar, I would not have stayed in school.”

The honoring at the 2018 Pueblo Convocation was a wonderful tribute to our people and their caring and loving ways.