Romantic notions of 'tribe'

This film was shot in and around Laguna, west of Albuquerque, and San Ildefonse Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo, and Taos Pueblo, all north of Sante Fe. This geographic spread certainly will have served the interests of the film’s co-producer United Pueblo Agency (UPA), which encompassed the 19 New Mexico pueblos and three small Navajo reservations. Still, the film shows an unawareness of much that was actually going on.

In contrast to Ross’s footage of Taos Pueblo, the apparently full cooperation of the local population in northern New Mexico’s Pueblo region is a sure sign that this is a propaganda film. The corn dancers is meant to demonstrate how undeniably entwined the Pueblos’ economy had become with the rest of America. Tourists visiting Taos Pueblo are being charged parking and camera fees, which included a ‘free’ guide service. Pottery-making and weaving are identified as having “commercial value” as these crafts enter the market “to sell”, often outside the communities where they were made (e.g. at the Santa Fe Indian Market). All this belies Ross’s vision of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) as enabling Native Americans to live in economic and cultural enclaves. There was no going back to economic and cultural isolation, nor was there a generally felt willingness to. And there is another detail Ross doesn’t mention, which is that the Pueblos hadn’t been brought under the IRA. They remained a self-governing tribe for fear that the tribal constitutions required under the Act might limit “traditional claims to authority”.1

It is for that very reason that the Pueblos were prevented from receiving financial support from the IRA’s appropriated funds. No wonder that the film spreads confusion when it shows a meeting with Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner John Collier about water shortage on a southwestern reservation, followed by a sequence showing infrastructure improvement—replacing leaky gullies and inefficient rock dams as well as the creation of reservoirs. The suggestion that BIA financed all this is probably misleading. What is more likely is that it was a project within the jurisdiction of the film’s producer, the Indian Irrigation Service.2 The narration’s phrase “[w]hen funds are available” thus papers over the legal and administrative responsibilities involved.

On one hand, the film’s focus on economy—tourism but also local agriculture—, and on the other the recognition of rituals, such as the corn dance (albeit perfunctorily), point to the assumption that acculturation, particularly of the Pueblos’ economy, did not affect other spheres of life. Its politics, for instance, are explicitly shown as unchanged. But even though the Pueblos belonged to the least assimilated tribes (assimilation being defined as level of white intermarriage, extent of white education, and of the breaking up of the tribal land 3), the repercussions of economic change on Pueblo governance were real. In fact, they reinforced existing tensions. And not only that: the very existence of such tensions warns one (then as well as now) of romantic notions of tribe, because differences of generation, religion, culture, wealth or power would, of course, not stop at the reservation’s border. All this, although difficult to capture on film—even had the population been willing to let on—, didn’t disturb the upbeat, progressive tone of the film. More generally, such tensions didn’t make a dent in the preconceived notions of what essentially remained unfamiliar ‘others’ entertained by a seasoned politician like Collier, let alone a would-be ethnographer like Ross.

Nico de Klerk

F.C. Clark, Jr. The corn dancers
USA. Indian Irrigation Service in cooperation with United Pueblos Agency; 1941
35mm | color | sound | 22’

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys

See also

in Mind Map
Cold shoulder


1 Graham D. Taylor. The New Deal and American Indian tribalism: the administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-1945. Lincoln, NB – London: University of Nebraska Press; 1980; 47.

2 This Service ceased to exist sometime in the 1940s, after which its operation and maintenance were transferred to the BIA.

3 Taylor. 1980; 41.

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