Lummis in Isleta

Forced out of his job at the Los Angeles Times on account of paralysis from overwork, Lummis moved to San Mateo, New Mexico, to recuperate. He was there, living with the Chaves family, for just short of year before one too many attempts on his life convinced him it was time to leave. His predicament stemmed from his determination to prove that a prominent family in San Mateo had orchestrated a string of murders. Lummis’s next stop was the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta, on the Rio Grande River 14 miles south of Albuquerque. He was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Indians, who after centuries of colonialist oppression were understandably wary of outsiders. But Lummis loved the place and decided to make himself at home, whether the Indians liked it or not.

The following excerpts from American Character describe how he attempted to integrate himself into the community.

Isleta had been a focal point in the sometimes violent convergence of European and native cultures in the Rio Grande Valley for 300 years when Lummis arrived on the scene looking for a place to live. By the late 1880s, though there was still a significant residue of anxiety about the dramatic changes underway all around them, the resilient and industrious Isletans appeared to be adjusting well to the new economic order. As he sized up the pueblo as a place to settle, Lummis was impressed with the tidiness of the homes and the prosperity of the farms surrounding the village.

His photographer’s eye was already framing shots of doors draped with strings of dried red chiles, pretty maidens with piles of Indian corn, chubby children and happy dogs playing out front, and picturesque old folks with handwoven serapes and weathered faces.

Alongside many of the houses, protected behind breast-high adobe walls from the withering winds, were tiny gardens bordered by grape vines, plum and peach trees. The fields surrounding the village yielded rich harvest of corn and wheat. Cattle and burros grazed in the brown meadows. Abundant water gurgled through an ancient aqueduct system from the Rio Grande, just beyond the fields past a grove of towering cottonwood trees. The waters of the river itself were dotted with ducks and geese.

Pueblo Indians in Isleta, photographed by Lummis in 1890 (detail in header). Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, no. N42945.

Pueblo Indians in Isleta, photographed by Lummis in 1890 (detail in header). Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles (N42945).

The farmers of Isleta were prosperous enough that they had recently pooled their funds to buy a newfangled mowing machine to expedite the wheat harvest. But they still employed more primitive forms of technology. They processed their grain in small, water-powered mills, and hauled supplies in ox-drawn wooden carts with wheels that were carved in one block from cross sections of huge sycamore tree trunks. The mellow rasp of the millstones, the “greaseless shriek” of the carreta, and the church bells were the sounds that Lummis fondly remembered from his years in Isleta.

To be sure, beneath the bucolic surface of Isleta, there was more social turmoil than met the eye. The sense of dislocation that had begun with the end of Spanish rule was exacerbated in 1883 when the local cacique, the hereditary leader of the pueblo, became paralyzed. He was still alive when Lummis moved in but was only nominally in charge. Though he survived for another four years, he was the last of the life-appointed hereditary chieftains of Isleta. His role was filled a decade after his death by the first democratically selected Pueblo Counsel.

The fact that no one was really in charge in 1888 goes a long way toward explaining how Lummis managed to slip in. The Pueblos have always been famously wary of outsiders — a suspicion borne of centuries of repression and attack by outsiders. The pueblos generally made exceptions for foreign traders and priests, but not for the likes of Lummis. He wrote in his diary that in December 1888, a few weeks after he arrived, the aguacil, or pueblo sheriff, told him point blank that he could not stay. But the aguacil clearly did not speak for everyone. Lummis’s landlord was Juan Rey Abeita, the patriarch of one of the most prominent families in town.

Father and son in Acoma, photographed by Lummis in 1891. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, no. N30540.

Father and son in Acoma, photographed by Lummis in 1891. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles (N30540).

Lummis was the strangest gringo the Isletans had ever seen. He was poorer than they were. When his physical condition worsened, as it did periodically, he seemed helpless. He had several relapses into severe paralysis and on several occasions ended up in a convent hospital in Santa Fe for a period of recuperation. According to one of the many stories about him, one day when he was at a low point he was still so determined to make it to the post office to check on his mail that he dragged himself on his belly, pulling himself over the hard, dusty ground with his one good hand. He had made it a hundred yards when one of his neighbors found him and, over Lummis’s protests, plopped him into a wheelbarrow, giving him a ride the rest of the way. The checks he got by mail in those days were often just $5 or $10 for a ditty or humorous line of prose for Life, Puck or Judge. The proceeds barely covered the cost of postage on his large volume of outgoing mail. In fact he sometimes had to borrow money from his poor Indian neighbors to pay for stamps.

Hobbling around town with his left arm hanging uselessly at his side, he frightened the more superstitious townsfolk, who heeded an old Pueblan folk tale about paralysis and other bodily defects. Anyone who touched a person who was paralyzed or had another serious physical disability would come down with the same malady, they feared. So they gave Lummis wide berth. On the other hand, others wondered whether there was some mystical kinship between Lummis and Isleta’s own paralyzed cacique, a sentiment that left them more favorably predisposed toward the odd American.

Despite their fears of him and their innate suspicion of all outsiders, the Isletans slowly warmed up to gregarious Lummis, with his infectious joie de vivre that belied his sorry physical state. Amado Chaves, who paid him a visit in January, less than month after he moved in, found that he had settled in comfortably. He had a “nice clean room,” on the outskirts of the pueblo on the main lane leading into the church courtyard, and the Indians “liked him very much,” Chaves reported.

Their nicknames for him reveal that the chief sentiments toward the strange new villager were sympathy and amused affection. One Tigua name that they gave Lummis meant “One Who We Worry About.” Others called him Kha-tay-deh, which means “Withered Branch.” But the nickname that stuck was “Por Todos” — For Everyone. It was a reflection of his chronic generosity. He never returned from a trip to Albuquerque without a handful of candy for all the children. And he gladly shared his tobacco with the men of the village, as long as they didn’t mind him sticking around for a smoke and plying them with questions.