A sense of place

Nov. 17—Gregorio Gonzales is in his element. Gonzales, who was recently named tribal liaison for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, has been visiting the various pueblos to gauge how the governments can work together.

Gonzales is well-suited for the job; he's a member of the Comanche and Genízaro communities and has spent his academic career studying the interplay between peoples in the borderlands. He holds an undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University, a masters from University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. from University of Texas.

New Mexico is home to 23 pueblos and nations, and more than 10 percent of the state's population is Native American, according to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department. November is Native American Heritage Month, so Pasatiempo spoke with Gonzales about his role — and how to honor the contributions of Indigenous peoples, especially during this season of gratitude.

Are you in a role that is exactly aligned with what you studied?

I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Anthropology. My specific focus was sociocultural anthropology, but the unique thing about the program was that it was one of the only departments in the country that had a specific focus in the U.S./Mexico borderlands. My degree had a thematic focus in the U.S./Mexico borderlands. I also earned graduate portfolios in both Mexican-American and Latina/Latino studies as well as in Native American Indigenous studies.

It was an incredible program just because it was one of the few that actually allowed me to invert the concept of borderlands and think about what would happen if we were to look at borderlands from an Indigenous lens.

When you invert the concept, you're not looking at the border as a place of transience but as a place where people have lived for generations?

Yes. I got to teach at New Mexico State, and I was a student there. The border is a very real thing. It's a very tangible place and for some students I had out east, it was something they only saw on the news. It was something that was theoretical, but in my lived experience, I saw the border in a very different way. I was also experiencing it through my own culture.

What I was curious about is what happens when we shift the focus away from the United States and Mexico and actually foreground the ways tribal communities see their homelands. Those perspectives are just as important as what we think of as the U.S.-Mexico border.

It was a really unique way to indigenize it but also to ground it in place. New Mexico just has all these very vibrant sorts of connections with all of these different regions, whether we think about it through Latin America or whether we think about it through Indian country.


Many pueblos and tribal lands throughout New Mexico are open to the public for special holiday feasts and other events. Be sure to call ahead to confirm.

Check the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's website (indianpueblo.org) for a schedule of dances and other special events at IPCC.

The IPCC's Indian Pueblo Kitchen is serving a Thanksgiving feast that includes rosemary roasted turkey or prime rib with red chile gravy, pumpkin mousse, and other treats for $28 to $37 (for entrees) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, November 23.

During November's Native American Heritage Month, the restaurant also features the A Taste of the Pueblos menu, offering a choice of homemade stews, Pueblo oven bread, fry bread, and a blue corn muffin ($15).

No reservations required; 2401 12th Street NW, Albuquerque; 505-724-3510; indianpueblokitchen.org.

What have you learned in your first few months on the job?

It's been a whirlwind of an experience in many ways. I've had some incredible opportunities to visit with tribal leadership and to go to tribal communities throughout New Mexico. I've traveled from Taos to Zuni to Acoma; I've put a lot of miles on the state vehicle. That effort to go out to those communities is important, to visit with them, and learn about the things the Department of Cultural Affairs can do to support tribal initiatives.

When you visit for a Feast Day, are you celebrating with the people or considering it from more of an academic perspective?

I've been very fortunate, especially considering that since I started this position, some of the pueblos have not opened up those Feast Day dances to the public because of very real concerns with COVID infection rates.

There have been pueblos I haven't been able to visit, but that's because tribal leadership has taken the perspective that they still aren't comfortable with the public going into those spaces. But when I have been able to go into pueblos during their Feast Days, I've enjoyed myself quite a bit. Just being able to hear the drums — there's something quite beautiful and quite powerful about being able to feel the drums when you go onto the plaza.

But for my own way of approaching that place, I want to be respectful. I want to be mindful of the fact that within these spaces, there's a certain reverence and a certain demeanor we need to have.

What's it like when you go to these communities? How are you received?

My job is to listen and learn. Especially when I'm there for Feast Days. Those first interactions I have, I want to know what are the needs but also what are the initiatives that tribal governments are starting to take on their own? What different kind of entities are they collaborating with? How does DCA fit in as a state agency with those kinds of ideas?

I've had some experiences where people have been definitive about some of the things they're looking for and other experiences where we're just getting to know each other. There's a relationship-building aspect of these visits; we're in a unique time because the state government is really starting to work with tribal governments on a government-to-government basis, which is a very different way than business has been done in the past.

One of the interesting things about New Mexico is that Native Americans represent such a large percentage of the population . But all these tribal nations have different needs and concerns.

These trips out to these communities really underscore the point that we can't think of Native American people as a monolithic bloc. Each of these communities has a unique set of circumstances, and in many ways that's what makes this work all the more important.

I know we're talking about the challenges individual tribal governments face, but generally speaking, are there challenges that each of them share in common?

More and more tribes in New Mexico are starting to take the initiative to develop cultural institutions like archival repositories or libraries on their own terms rather than it being something where they have to go to a state museum to get exhibit space. In many cases, what we are seeing now is tribes wanting to independently develop these things.

But of course, they need support to do those things. It might be looking at it through the lens of infrastructure projects: brick and mortar, how do we build the edifices themselves? Then there's also gauging what's in collections: What are the kinds of things different institutions have in their possession that is the cultural patrimony of these specific tribes?

Are communities concerned about potential amendments to the STOP Act or changes to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act? [The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act prevents the export of Native cultural heritage to keep these items from being exported and sold overseas; the Indian Arts and Crafts Act is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States.]

I have heard from some folks in the community and in discussions that I've had that it's been a point of concern, especially with recent news reports that the Indian Arts and Crafts Board is being much more aggressive with the way they're starting to enforce those kinds of laws.

You mentioned COVID and how certain pueblos feel about allowing visitors back into their communities. For example, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument has been closed since the pandemic. Is that something that might change in the near future?

In many ways, that's kind of where that discussion and dialogue with tribal leadership is so important. When you have those kinds of sites that have cultural and spiritual significance to tribal people who've always been here, I think we're in a really interesting time where the state can be much more mindful about how it interacts with tribal governments in such a way that includes whether or not these kinds of spaces should be made accessible — especially when tribes have their own sorts of challenges and things that they're trying to work through within the community themselves.