I confess that I’m a sucker for feisty, against-the-grain assessments of thoughtless pieties of this nature, largely because recognition of the real injustices of certain kinds of inter-cultural theft are undermined by indiscriminate accusations that one group is stealing cultural elements from another..
Living in the Southwest and regularly engaging with Native American nations has sensitized me to the harmful effects of thoughtless imitation, even when well intentioned—a prominent case in point being the history of the Smoki People, a group that imitated Hopi rituals and dress for decades. In short, cultural appropriation is a real problem worthy of informed criticism. But critical distinctions need to be made lest it be reduced to an empty slogan, which I take to be the point of deBoer’s post.
The Fiesta de Santa Fe is a fascinating example of an invented and evolving tradition. Its historic roots date to 1712, when the Hispanic residents of Santa Fe came together to celebrate the Reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692 by don Diego de Vargas. A general uprising of Pueblo communities in 1680, famously led by an Indian named Popé, resulted in numerous Spanish deaths and the evacuation of most of New Mexico by Spanish colonists. De Vargas returned with a military force in 1692. The first phase of the Reconquest was fairly peaceful, but by 1693 conflicts between Spaniards and Pueblo people had erupted and continued for years. The Reconquest, in other words, was not nearly as peaceful as advocates of today’s Fiesta assert. (Details of the Reconquest are available in a summary provided by the Office of the New Mexico State Historian.)
The Fiesta was primarily a religious event through much of its early history, although it went through various changes as control of New Mexico shifted from Spain to Mexico and then to the United States in 1846.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Fiesta had fallen onto hard times and was apparently abandoned in 1912. In 1919 a revival was spearheaded by SAR’s president, Edgard Lee Hewett. Hewett’s goals were multi-faceted. He and other members of the Anglo elite wanted to celebrate all of the region’s cultures while promoting Santa Fe’s commercial aspirations. Hewett’s efforts to control the increasingly elaborate event generated resistance by Santa Fe’s artist community, who organized counter-events that parodied the seriousness of Hewett’s version of the Fiesta.
In subsequent years Fiesta seemed to have returned to its original roots primarily as a celebration of Santa Fe’s Hispanic heritage. As Native American militancy intensified, however, local Pueblo leaders began to protest the whitewashed portrayal of the Reconquest. There protests are voiced in a powerful documentary, Gathering Up Again: The Fiesta in Santa Fe (dir. Jeanette DeBouzek and Diane Reyna, 1992).
This year’s protests put a sympathetic outsider in an awkward position. Fiesta is an occasion when Santa Fe’s Hispanos can express pride in their cultural heritage, which in the case of New Mexico has produced one of the most distinctive and in many ways admirable regional cultures in the U.S. At the same time, Native Americans can legitimately protest a public ritual that misrepresents the brutality and imperialism of the Reconquest. The conflict is further complicated by the many threads of history, family, and religion that unite the two communities. Still, Fiesta has adapted to new realities over its long history, and there’s reason to be optimistic that it can change yet again in response to the vitality of Santa Fe’s multicultural civic life.
–Don’t miss a charming and informative El Palacio article by Carmella Padilla that describes a painting by the artist Gustave Baumann that playfully documents the Fiesta parade as performed on the Santa Fe plaza in 1926.
This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.