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Hemish Spiritual Pathway (detail), 2019,
Hemish Spiritual Pathway (detail), 2019, drawing
Secret Proof

Nina Valerie Kolowratnik

When Indigenous communities are asked to provide proof of their connection to ancestral lands, what Western legal forums accept as documentation does not truly represent or respect tribal culture and traditional formats of knowledge transfer.

Responding to the experiences of evidence production by Jemez Pueblo members in New Mexico, Nina Valerie Kolowratnik’s research challenges the conditions under which Indigenous rights to protect and regain traditional land are negotiated in United States legal frameworks.

Nina Kolowratnik with support of Pah-Tow
Nina Kolowratnik with support of Pah-Tow-Wei Paul Tosa and Sée-Shu-Kwa Christopher Toya, Hemish Spiritual Pathway (detail), 2019, drawing
On the annual San Diego Feast Day at Jemez Pueblo—one of the two days a year the sovereign Indigenous nation is open to the public—signposts are lining New Mexico State Road 4 as one approaches the community. The signs read: “Welcome to Jemez Pueblo, Respect Our Tradition: Do not use cell phones, photography, sketching, cameras, audio or video devises. Electronic devises will be confiscated and fined.”

When Indigenous communities claim their rights to traditional land in United States legal forums, the burden of proof is on the Native plaintiff. To prove their claim to ancestral land, the community must show evidence of current and continued “use and occupancy.” And while Indigenous peoples’ ways of life, including farming, hunting, and ceremonial practices on the land, are accepted in court as proof of the existence of Aboriginal title, the formats of evidence that the US legal and judicial system considers reliable are mostly limited to empirical facts. Oral histories—the primary method of knowledge production and transmission within most Native communities—are often reduced to hearsay status, and remain unheard, as they can’t be evaluated according to Western scientific standards. Western law strives for definite statements and expert knowledge that can be attributed to individuals. Oral histories do not have a set starting point or end, they cannot be traced back to one single originator, they often vary according to the individual creative expression of the storyteller, they are alive. And it is precisely because intergenerational memory can only be performed when a community’s traditional culture is continuously practiced, that the oral format itself represents the embodiment and proof of a Native group’s continuous history.

Asked to provide proof in a Western court, Native plaintiffs face a conceptual and structural change in knowledge transmission, when dynamic, oral history is translated into static Western forms of recording. They must also engage in a complex interrelationship between power and access to knowledge. The process of producing evidence runs counter to many Indigenous communities’ structural organization around multi-layered cultural secrecy and positions them in a double bind. Are they to remain silent because of their cultural demands to guard traditional knowledge, or do they comply with the imposed Western evidentiary criteria—which asks them to pin-point sacred sites and give detailed descriptions of rituals and when they are performed—thereby risking to silence the traditional practices they are aiming to protect?

The Language of Secret Proof is a research project which builds on responses to evidence production for a land claim by the sovereign Indigenous nation Jemez Pueblo, one of nineteen Pueblo nations in the American Southwest. Within this project, Pah-Tow-Wei Paul Tosa, Sée-Shu-Kwa Christopher Toya of Jemez Pueblo, and I devised an alternative set of evidentiary drawings that provide proof of the pueblo’s connection to the lands and speak about the importance the sacred grounds hold in the Jemez Pueblo tradition, while holding on to their secrets. 1 

The drawing titled Hemish Spiritual Pathway documents the spiritual connection between the Hemish people 2 and the shrine on Wâavemâ Mountain, located within the area claimed. It focuses on the ceremonial dances that structure the traditional Hemish calendar year and are performed on specific days on the plaza of Jemez Pueblo. Each dance sequence has a specific role in soliciting the blessings of the spirits residing on Wâavemâ Mountain; thus, dance movements and sequences are seen as a communication system and spatial manifestation of the spiritual pathway.

The drawing thus represents a cyclical calendar which is linked to moments of connection between the Pueblo and the spirits. Ancestral spirit relations and the times in which they must be enacted embody a temporality that cannot be captured by a standardized Western model of linear time. The drawing needs to represent a non-linear, non-directed, but repeating calendar, and a calendar without specific dates or time-frames, as all of the dances—except for two—are closed to the public, and the days they are performed remain undisclosed to outsiders. Dancers, ritual masks, paraphernalia, clothing, and the meanings behind the symbolism and dance movements are excluded from visual representation as well. The notational system adheres to what anthropologist Elizabeth Brandt has outlined as the lowest category of traditional knowledge: the knowledge a non-Pueblo spectator gains when witnessing a ceremonial dance. 3 Since the non-Pueblo spectator is unable to understand the meaning of the dance and its role in the culture, this knowledge remains incomplete and fragmented, hence harmless to Hemish tradition.

Linking individual traditional knowledge with the meanings of the symbols should allow Hemish people to read the blank spaces and “complete” the drawing, similar to the concept of speech images within oral history. To an outsider and to a legal audience, the only “accessible” components of the drawings are the encrypted representations, which in this case provide the proof, perhaps paradoxically, of secret knowledge.
1 My two main collaborators for the set of alternative evidentiary documents were Pah-Tow-Wei Paul Tosa, Hemish traditional leader and three-time governor of the Pueblo of Jemez and Sée-Shu-Kwa Christopher Toya, archaeologist and current tribal historic preservation officer for the Pueblo of Jemez. Antony Armijo and Steven Gachupin provided additional information for a drawing on traditional-running, while several members of the pueblo provided general feedback.

2 In 1909, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names named the Hemish people’s town “Jemez,” which derives from the Spanish colonial pronunciation, although the Indigenous nation calls its people, traditional land, and culture “Hemish.” Following the advice of See-Shu-Kwa Christopher Toya of Jemez Pueblo, I use “Hemish” when referring to the people, traditional land, and culture, and “Jemez” when referring to legal and political matters.

3 Elizabeth A. Brandt, “The Role of Secrecy in a Pueblo Society,” in Flowers of the Wind: Papers on Ritual, Myth, and Symbolism in California and the Southwest, ed. Thomas C. Blackburn (Socorro, NM: Ballena Press, 1977), pp. 14–15.

For a more detailed account of Nina Valerie Kolowratnik’s research on this topic, see The Language of Secret Proof: Indigenous Truth and Representation (Berlin/New York: Sternberg Press, 2019). The drawing Hemish Spiritual Pathway was first published in that book.

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