DANCING WITH FIRE

Santa Clara tribal member banished from Taos Pueblo for writing essay
about tribe's sacred deer dance

By MARISSA STONE | The New Mexican

Friday, February 06, 2004

Tito Naranjo teaches his University of New Mexico at Taos class Thursday in sociopolitical concepts of Native American culture. Megan Bowers | The New Mexican

TAOS -- In his own words, Tito Naranjo is "the man who killed the deer dance."

Days after an essay the American Indian wrote about Taos Pueblo's deer dance ran in a local newspaper, Naranjo received an order of exclusion from the pueblo. The order, which means Naranjo is banished from Taos Pueblo, states he could be arrested if he crosses onto tribal land. "Tito Naranjo caused irreparable harm to the sensible nature of the religious activity through exploitation," the order states.

Naranjo, 66, a Santa Clara tribal member, is married to a woman from Taos Pueblo. The couple, who live in Mora, have three children. But Naranjo's father-in-law resides in Taos Pueblo.

Naranjo said he was so inspired by the dance performed at Christmas at Taos Pueblo that he submitted a short essay to The New Mexican for a holiday-writing contest this past December. Before he wrote the essay, Naranjo thought about the consequences for his family members who live at Taos Pueblo, he said. "I thought immediately, Taos Pueblo is going to disagree," said the longtime college teacher. "Am I going to be a wimp, or am I going to write about this?"

Naranjo concluded that the dance -- which he considers to be on the level of a Shakespearean drama -- is so beautiful that it must be shared. "There's a complexity expressed in the dance that I didn't even get to -- these people who created the dance were pueblo geniuses."

Naranjo's essay begins: "The soft chant is ancient, coming perhaps, before the Tanoan dialects split Tewa, Tiwa, Towa and Tampiro. The beat is kept with a rhythmic clapping of the hands. A method older than the introduction of the large, dark drum, it predates the beating of a staff on a rolled buffalo or elk hide." The essay won first place in the contest's adult category and earned $100 for Naranjo. It was featured in the newspaper's Dec. 21 edition.

After the story ran, Taos Pueblo spiritual leader David Gomez Sr. filed a verbal complaint about Naranjo. "Tito Naranjo used a Taos Pueblo religious activity for self promotion by writing an essay of a sensitive activity for publication in The New Mexican," the exclusion order states. Gomez could not be reached for comment.

Naranjo didn't obtain permission from tribal officials to submit the essay, said the order, which was signed by former Taos Pueblo Gov. AllenMartinez and war chief Joseph Lujan.

Taos Pueblo Gov. John Mirabal declined to comment on the matter. A New Mexican reporter went to Taos Pueblo and met briefly with Mirabal to discuss Naranjo's story, but the governor declined further comment on the matter. At least 10 subsequent telephone calls to the governor and other members of his staff were not returned.

On a cold winter day last month, Naranjo sat at a Taos restaurant and spoke of the need for Taos Pueblo, as well as other Indian tribes, to preserve customs that are carried on orally. Because Taos tribal members are beginning to live outside the pueblo, Indian children are losing their connection to elders within the historic tribal square, Naranjo said. "Young tribal members are watching television instead of doing community work and going down into the kivas."

The only way to preserve traditions is by writing about them and recording them, Naranjo said. "CD-Rom will record the entire language of the elders and preserve precise intonations and authenticity of the language for future generations." "Literacy changes consciousness, and all of Taos Pueblo is becoming literate," he added. "This newly gained consciousness demands new freedoms."

"Jewish religious traditions have survived more than 5,000 years because they have been written down," Naranjo said. "Taos Pueblo has nothing written down to pass on. This worries me considerably. Taos Pueblo is not going to be able to withstand the onslaught of the wage economy and information-processing society."

Naranjo, a former professor at New Mexico Highlands University, now teaches Native American studies at The University of New Mexico at Taos. He is the author of the children's story Day With a Pueblo.

Many tribes in New Mexico prohibit the reproduction of sacred dances through photographs and stories -- saying the retelling of something sacred detracts from its spiritual significance. Those leaders also fear tribes can be exploited for monetary gain when images of the dances are reproduced.

Some leaders from Indian pueblos say the reason their traditions have been kept alive for so many centuries is they have been carried on orally. "Essentially," Naranjo said, "Tiwa spoken words have life and power, while the written word is perceived to kill the live and living nature of words, song and dance."

Others have celebrated Taos Pueblo's deer dance, including artist Dorothy Eugenie Brett and writer Frank Waters. The dance was also immortalized by Taos Pueblo artist Lorenzo Lujan, whose painting was paired with Naranjo's story in the newspaper. Naranjo doesn't consider himself a lone voice, crying out about the urgency for Indian tribes to record their traditions. "Lots of people are saying this," he said. Naranjo doesn't regret for "one minute that I wrote that essay," he said. "I'm going to keep going to the pueblo." In fact, he visited the pueblo recently and wasn't arrested.

When they were a young couple, Naranjo and his wife made the decision to live outside the boundaries of their tribes. "We decided not to live by the social checks that apply to all the people on the reservation," he said. Nevertheless, Naranjo hopes his order of exclusion will be revoked. For that to happen, the tribal council would have to vote in favor of it.

"They said I did irreparable harm to the deer dance -- they're saying if I did irreparable harm, I must have killed the deer dance. But I didn't kill it. It's still alive and well."