In 1999, Rogers and Mary Ellen Aston donated their collection of American Indian and Old West clothing, art, taxidermy, and weapons to the Roswell Museum and Art Center. In doing so, they indicated it “was a gift of spirit, to honor and express respect and admiration for all those brave men and women who were people of our past, and who broke trail for us to follow.”
Stepping into the large back end of RMAC is a brilliant window into the past through this collection of Native American artifacts. Rogers had been collecting the pieces since he was 13 years old, and everything is in pristine condition. Several tribes are native to New Mexico, such as the Apache, Chiricahua, and Gallina. Each case is dedicated to a different aspect of culture, such as Family, Trade, and Conquest. Just some of what these people held dear is preserved here. Let’s step into the past and look at what some of these can teach us about what was special to these people.
Several animal furs and heads are on display, which were important in the early times when trade between tribes was more common. Some animals held in high regard to tribes in New Mexico were the black bear and grizzly, as they were an amazing source for clothing and meat, either personal or for trade. The fat of their bodies was commonly used in fuel, cooking, and medicine. Beavers were also incredibly popular for their waterproof fur, and one such beaver is displayed here.
Even more important than the grizzly or beaver was the American bison. Referred to as “Tatanka” by the Lakota Sioux, this word means “big animal.” For comparison, the average height of a grizzly is 6.5 feet, whereas an American bison is 9.3 feet, so the amount of value you gained from a bison was astonishingly greater. The bison was a focal point of physical and spiritual life for Natives. Natives would partake in seasonal migration, and they would follow the bison as they migrated from place to place. In the winter, herds sought safe areas from the cold, and in the summer they moved out onto the open plains. Bison were common in the prairies near Roswell before becoming a threatened species.
The horse would be introduced to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the 1700s. It would become a symbol of wealth for a Native American. Either sold in trade or gained through raids on Spanish settlements, it made an American Indian mobile and free. Several tribes used different markings on their horses as symbols of accomplishment, or to increase its abilities. A circle around a horse’s eye, for instance, was believed to enhance their sight. Hand prints on a horse’s chest were a symbol showing that a horse had knocked down an enemy. Hoof prints on a horse’s side meant it was successfully gained from a raid.
Some drawings at the exhibit depict Natives in battle on horseback versus Spanish settlers. The riders of horses would be painted as well, typically in dots, to represent hail stones. Allegedly this is to signify that the warrior wished hail-fall upon his enemy. Horses were typically painted for battle as well, with blue horizontal stripes signifying how many men their rider had defeated.
But Natives fought for several reasons, not just to take things from Spanish settlers. They had to defend their own villages from several kinds of people, such as other Natives, and possible attacks from Mexican and French settlers that were also arriving in the New Mexico area. They also fought for ceremony, where a “Coup Stick” would be used in place of a weapon. If the enemy is touched with it, it would be considered death, and the winner would earn prestige among the tribe.
Despite the rough and wild times these pieces display thus far, the second half shows us the beauty of these people as well. The mural with pictures old and modern shows a myriad of aspects in life; family portraits, house work, playing games in large groups, and feasts. These are hung among possible family heirlooms, such as saddles, woven blankets, and fire arms. The sheer expression of beauty in the clothing they made is breathtaking. The crow elk tooth dress on display may look simple to the modern eye, but knowing someone sewed each tooth into place is an act I’m sure several of us can’t fathom taking the time out of our busy day with which to bother. A cradle board for a child is displayed, which would be worn on the backs of mothers. When a baby was held in one of these, it showed honor, patience, and respect towards their culture, because it will carry on through that child.
While roles were set in stone for adults, men hunting and providing while the women taught and raised the children. Children could learn many things while they were growing. A child could be the helping hand that meant surviving the winter or drought, due to their youth, energy, and flexibility in roles among the tribe.
In the mid-1800s Natives were pushed into reservations by the United States government. Several of their customs and traditions were removed. However, celebrations were still allowed to occur, and this soon evolved into what is referred to as “powwow.” The closest translation of this is “meeting”, and it is typically accompanied by gift giving, dancing, singing, and the beating of drums. All of these have a great deal of etiquette to them, so as to preserve the culture that was so forcibly removed from them.
This takes us to the modern age, where large powwows are planned and coordinated, months to years in advance. Tribes people arrive to reaffirm and celebrate their heritage in the modern age. Powwow may be more important than ever, as with the busy modern life it can become difficult to keep the spirit of your ancestry alive.
The Aston collection is on permanent display at Roswell Museum and Art Center.