- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

A noted New Mexico artist's portrayal of Indian artifacts was canceled by the University of New Mexico on the grounds it was too politically incorrect for public viewing.
Two years ago, Tom Baker, a Tijeras, N.M., portrait artist known for his oil renditions of prehistoric art, was commissioned to construct a set of gigantic murals for the lobby of a new archaeology building on the university's Albuquerque campus. He had worked a year on the project when members of a local Indian tribe told the university that the murals contained sacred religious images.
The university immediately canceled the project.
This is not the first time one of New Mexico's numerous Indian tribes also known as pueblos have tried to block a project on the grounds that it interferes with their religion. The Zia Pueblo, located northwest of Albuquerque, demanded $73 million from the state in 1999 on the grounds the state had misappropriated its "zia" sun symbol for New Mexico's distinctive state flag.
Frank C. Hibben, a renowned archaeologist who died last June at the age of 92, had used his personal fortune to donate the new archaeology building to UNM along with $10 million for a scholarship fund for archaeology students. He asked the university to install and pay for a mural in the new building that would be made up of images from Pottery Mound, an 800-year-old Indian ruin southwest of Albuquerque that he excavated in the 1950s and '60s.
Even though the tribe that protested the mural project admits its ancestors may have had nothing to do with the original artwork, university officials decided last spring to cancel Mr. Baker's $20,000 commission to design four 20-by-48-foot murals to decorate the new building.
Just conceiving the mural project was a daunting task, says the artist, as it encompassed some 4,000 square feet of wall, all to be painted on the inside of a three-story atrium that extended to a huge skylight. The mural was to have been at the second-story level.
Meanwhile, university officials had informed members of the Acoma Indian tribe, whose ancestral home is about 50 miles west of Albuquerque, about the murals. Three members of the tribe told the university that all art images created by their ancestors were sacred, and use of the images was off-limits to non-Indians even though the university owns Pottery Mound.
"These murals depicted some of our cultural icons or images," said Damian Garcia, cultural preservation director for the Acoma Pueblo. "These images were found inside a sacred chamber."
He added he did not know which tribe created the murals 800 years ago. Marilyn Hibben, wife of the deceased archaeologist, said her husband was devastated to learn the murals would not be used.
"There was no proof the Acomas did the art," Mrs. Hibben said. "Why didn't they call the Zunis [another nearby tribe] who may have been closer to Pottery Mound 800 years ago? Dr. Hibben hadn't seen any proof that any particular tribe was related to it.
"He thought the paintings were so beautiful, that people should have been aware of what [Indians at Pottery Mound] did. It was done to honor them, not to degrade their beliefs. Nowadays things get distorted."
Ever since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law in 1990, some archaeologists have complained that Indians are dictating the fate of too many artifacts by claiming them as sacred burial objects. In a November 1994 article for Archeology magazine, Clement Meighan, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, blamed cultural anthropologists.
"Many of them welcome an opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with an allegedly oppressed minority, especially when it means insisting that the latter's native religion be respected," he wrote. "Since their own research will not be adversely affected, they have nothing to lose. Political correctness has rarely been so all-around satisfying."
No other religious group in the country has been given similar protection, he said, adding that universities seem bound to honor any claim by an Indian group, no matter how implausible.
Garth Bawden, director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology on the New Mexico campus, defended the university's decision.
"The Native American Protection and Repatriation Act has brought into being a much heightened sensitivity to using cultural heritage that belongs to the Native American tribes of the region," he said. Although the Acoma tribe has no known link to Pottery Mound, "we wished to consult with the tribes that had the closest relationship with the people who were there."
"There are a lot of things that are gray in this, and legally we could do anything we could. We are part of a broad constituency that includes numerous Indian tribes. If we are doing anything that pertains to their heritage, we will consult with them."
But Mr. Hibben disagreed with the university's decision, Mr. Baker said.
"He told me that the ancient images of Pottery Mound belonged to no special interest group, religious, Indian or otherwise," the artist said. "They belonged to the world of art and science, and to humanity as a whole, just as do the cave paintings of Lascaux or the wall murals of Pompeii.
"They had been created by a mixture of Aztec and local ancient Indian groups who had practiced human sacrifice at Pottery Mound, and in fact human sacrifice and the killing of captives are depicted in some of the ancient murals.
"As far as I know," Mr. Baker said, "there is no legal basis to the [Acoma tribes] claim, nor any precedence for it."
Not all religious symbols are created equal, he said, citing last year's controversy involving a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe revered by many Catholics as the Virgin Mary appearing in Mexico in the 16th century in a bikini. Despite protests by local Catholics as well as the archbishop of Santa Fe, the state-funded Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe refused to remove the painting.
After canceling the murals, Roger Lujan, the campus architect, had his staff scan other non-offending images from the mound onto a large sheet of photographic paper, which was then mounted on 4-foot-by-4-foot acrylic and foam panels for display in the Hibben Center.
The Acoma Indians "found our replication of the human form objectionable," Mr. Baker said, "and that was enough for the university. The issue of what is suitable for public display we defer to our Native American friends."
Mr. Baker plans to finish and sell the murals in a Santa Fe art gallery, as the university, he said, only offered to compensate him $3,500 for a year's worth of work.
"Pottery Mound images were excavated by a taxpayer-supported institution on public land, and thus are public property," he said. "Universities and art museums have fallen under the control of the cultural left, which has no objections to ridiculing Western tradition and religion, and in fact encourages it. However, Indians fall into the left's category of approved groups and any objections by members of these groups must immediately be acquiesced to."

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