Sunday, September 19, 2010

NPR's "State of the Re:Union" episode on Espanola = NPR FAIL

National Public Radio (NPR) is running a program called "State of the Re:Union." The website has information about the program:
State of the Re:Union has set out to explore how a particular American city or town creates community, the ways people transcend challenging circumstances and the vital cultural narratives that give an area its uniqueness.
Currently (September, 2010), the program is featuring an episode on Espanola, New Mexico.  Espanola is just a few miles from Nambe Pueblo. As regular readers know, I'm from Nambe Pueblo, or, Nambe O-ween-ge. I learned about the episode on Espanola from Matthew Martinez, a friend from Ohkay Owingeh.

Espanola is a small town. There are several pueblos within a few miles of it. Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara Pueblo are closer to Espanola than Nambe is.  Matthew's words about the episode were a clue as to what I'd find when I listened to it. He said: 
Any radio program that starts off as "settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1598" raises some flags . . . and no discussion with local Tewas and our take on the acequia (often non-communal) system...
I clicked on the link and listened, transcribing and paraphrasing the program as I listened to it. Below is that rough transcript. 

Though this post about the NPR program may seem beyond the scope of American Indians in Children's Literature, it parallels what I see in children's books. In too many of them, American Indians are not part of the story of America. Our mere presence messes up a tidy narrative that a writer (of a children's book, a TV show, a movie, or an NPR segment) wants to tell. I know that a lot of writers listen to NPR and read American Indians in Children's Literature. Hence, I'm taking this opportunity to analyze the Re:Union episode on Espanola, New Mexico. (Or rather, just the first segment of that episode, which has to do with water.)

In the transcript:

  • N is the NPR narrator
  • MS is Miguel Santistevan. He's a PhD candidate in Biology and Sustainability Studies at the University of New Mexico. From Taos, New Mexico, his bio is here.
  • JL is Jack Loeffler. He's from West Virginia, long-time resident of New Mexico. When he says he is an "aural historian" he took care to spell out aural (a-u-r-a-l). I don't know why he did that. He's making a distinction from an oral historian, but I don't know what an "aural" historian is---that's a new one for me.
  • SR is Sylvia Rodriguez, an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico
  • JM is Joseph Merhege, a landowner in Espanola
  • MG is Margarita Garcia, Miguel's wife
  • NM is New Mexico; NNM is northern New Mexico

The transcript is in black type. My comments are in red and preceded by DR

N: Just before 6 AM. Sun peeking over mtns. It is summertime. Miguel Santistavan crawls out of bed, steps out of his humble home in Taos and starts by playing his wood flute. Then he turns water on for irrigaters--135 members. He's supervisor of an acequia.They've been using acequias for irrigation since the mid 1700s. Whole communities formed around the tradition. Water is not a big deal around most of country, but it is in NM.

MS: In NNM few things are more important than water, and the unique way people shared it for centuries. Growing up, I didn't know the acequias were 11,000 years old and went back to the Middle East, and had all this rich culture attached to it. All I knew was it was flowing water and when I was a kid, me and my brother would play in it, catch frogs, snakes...

N: An acequia is an irrigation ditch that carries water to farmers fields. Miguel is a biologist and mayordomo---an elected official who oversees distribution of water to other farmers.

MS: This is our local government, our water system. Older than U.S. by 25 years.

N: Each acequia has own mayordomo; ditches used for thousands of years. These ditches used to distribute water to indigenous communities around world. In NM water has been shared communally for as long as anyone can remember. Belongs to no one and yet to everyone. Very different way of looking at water than the rest of the country does.

DR: Not quite right. What is missing so far in the segment is the fact that Pueblo Indians had developed irrigation systems prior to the arrival of the Spanish. There's a gesture towards that important fact later in the interview, but here and later, the narrative omits the fights that the Pueblo Indians took up to protect their water rights. Take a look at, for example, this letter from 1899 sent by U.S. Indian Agent Walpole to the G. H. Howard, Special Attorney for Pueblo Indians, which says 
The Indians from Nambe came to this office today complaining that certain Mexicans near Nambe are imposing on them in regard to their water rights. Please give this matter your immediate attention and take steps to protect the rights of the Pueblo of Nambe. 
Read this Writ of Injunction from 1900, which instructed Mayordomo Teofilo Lopez to stop diverting water from the Rio Nambe (that's the river that begins on our reservation).  Or, see this letter from 1903, regarding the use of water that originates on land owned by Taos Pueblo.

Those documents date back over one hundred years,and while they are old, they are part of the legal documents and history of the area. The NPR segment also does not mention the current Aamodt lawsuit either. Filed in the 1960s, it is very well known in northern New Mexico.  

MS: The way we deal with it, we measure water in units of time. You get water for 8 hours, 4 hours... In proportion to amount of land you irrigate.

N: And this method is nothing new? Its passed down by generations?

MS:  Yeah, its ancient history, going all the way down to origin of acequia. And that is completely antithetical to the way the state does it.

N: And while acequia based on community and cooperation, being mayordomo not easy. Miguel learned that years ago, before he was elected, when he was trying to irrigate his field one time in June. Water not making it to the end of his rows.

MS: Called mayordomo and told him "Somebody stealing my water." Mayordomo said "There's no more. It's one of those years. There's just no water." Miguel didn't believe him. Then the mayordomo said "I am the mayordomo and I am not god. Can't pick you up and move you to the river. There's no more water in the river."

DR: When I was a kid in the 1960s growing up at Nambe, we'd go down to the river to play all the time. The river was more like a small creek that we could leap over. There were times when it was more of a trickle than a creek. Other times it roared with snow melt, and sometimes, it was a churning torrent of flood waters the color of chocolate milk. One summer we used the smooth river rocks to make a dam that blocked the stream and allowed a little pool to build. I do mean little---we were no more than ten years old at the time. We splashed around in this pool that was probably the size of a dining room table and a few inches deep. But then, the mayordomo drove up in his truck and yelled at us. I don't remember what we did. Run, probably, and he must have taken down our little dam.

In the 1970s, the Bureau of Reclamation built a dam above our waterfall so they could control the water year-round and make the flow of water more reliable for irrigation purposes. Now there's a man-made lake at Nambe.  It is a great place to fish and camp.
N: NM is a land that forces you to deal with hard reality.  When I got off the plane it seemed like I landed in another world whose orbit was too close to the sun. Desert as far as eye could see. Arid, unforgiving, and extremely hot in summer, but also beautiful, peaceful. In midst of two opposing visions is the Rio Grande, which has given water to these people for centuries.

DR: Hard reality? It's all relative to where you grow up! The forces I struggle with are the humidity I find in Illinois, Florida, Connecticut...  I wonder, too, where this NPR reporter got off the plane. Santa Fe is not a desert, and neither is Albuquerque. If he'd landed in Phoenix, maybe he could say there was desert as far as his eye could see, but not northern New Mexico! I guess its all in how you define desert. Certainly, northern New Mexico is not a lush place, but its far from a barren, sand-covered desert.

JL: The Tewa people that included, and still includes, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Pojoaque, Cuyamungue, Tesuque and Nambe. My name is Jack Loeffler, from WVA, lived in NM since 1962. For last 35 years, made my way as aural historian.

DR: Listening to Jack Loeffler, I wondered why they chose to talk to him rather than a Pueblo person. They could have easily spoken to Joseph Garcia, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, former governor of Ohkay Owingeh, and currently Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council... 

Certainly, any Pueblo Indian they'd have talked to would not leave out Picuris Pueblo when naming the Eight Northern Pueblos! And, adding Cuyamungue to the list?! I'm not sure why Jack did that... Prior to Spanish arrival, there was a pueblo named Cuyamungue, but it isn't there anymore.  

N: Europeans arrived in 1598 when Spanish conquistador Onate and group of settlers claimed land where Chama and Rio Grande meet. They brought cattle, Catholicism and acequias.

DR: Claimed land? Why no mention of the violent struggles that took place? The Pueblo Indians were treated so badly by the Spanish and Catholics that in 1680, we revolted and drove them out of our homelands. The Pueblo Indians burned the churches and killed the friars and Spanish who abused and persecuted them. Our leader was Po'pay. Today, there is a statue of Po'pay in Washington D.C. in the National Statuary Hall Collection. It is---I'll add---the only statue there that was carved by a Native artist. The artist is Cliff Fragua of Jemez Pueblo.

SR: And one of the first things they did was dig ditches along the rivers. My name is Sylvia Rodriguez, anthro, UNM, 22 years.

JL: That whole acequia system actually jibed with the Puebloan practices of irrigation that were taking place prior to coming of Spanish in 1598.

DR: Thanks (not) NPR, for this crumb you and Jack just tossed our way! 

N: Over time, old and new mixed together and the water ran through.

DR: That's a huge gloss.... the old and new mixed together...  It wasn't and isn't that simple, as demonstrated by the letters and lawsuit I pointed to above.

SR: You have, with the Pueblo peoples and Spanish and Mexican settlers and farmers, peoples who were both depending on the same sources of water and who developed systems for sharing of water, for distribution of water, for management of water that they had in common

JL: The acequia connotes a state of reciprocity with land. Its not just culture, its culture within context of landscape. Once that happens, the landscape becomes homeland and the culture  becomes rooted.

N - They came and put down roots and soon it was hard to see where earth stopped and their feet began.  They dug acequias to let water flow to their crops. Land passed down from generation to generation and with it a way of life. And acequias remained a cornerstone thru the Mexican American war, the railroads, joining the union and beyond. Until the mid of the 20th century.

DR: Land passed from generation to generation...  Sounds nice, but, how the Spanish came to hold title to that land is also very complex. Consider, for example, the Bursum Bill, introduced in Congress in 1922. It was supposed to settle disputes between Pueblo Indians and non-Indians over ownership of land, but it heavily favored non-Indians. Our leaders organized in opposition to it and the bill didn't pass.

SR: This is the place where the atom bomb was created, and the nuclear economy transformed New Mexico. Transformed the Rio Grande corridor. Transformed education, urban development, so you have a vulnerability of the native population and increasing inability to hold on to their patrimony.

DR: By "native population" she doesn't mean the Pueblo Indians; she's referring to the Spanish. Note that she didn't say anything about transformations that took place when Onate arrived amongst the Pueblo Indians...  Messes up that tidy narrative to include it, I guess.

N - Outsiders came in. From east, from California all people looking for pristine blue skies, red hued mesas. Northern NM began to look a lot like other cities. Strip malls, developments, steadily paving over ancient ways of the acequias. We're in the check outline at Walmart. Today, there is only a handful of farmers here. Over years, they have transitioned to jobs at the nuclear labs and places like Walmart. Many are still active acequia members who grow food and raise sheep, but only on the side.

JM: Never used to see cars. Just team of horses pulling a wagon. Now all of a sudden, all this traffic. Not pleasant.

N: Joe Merhage has been farming his land full time. He has a gorgeous 16 acres across from Walmart.

JM: We used to have farm there where Walmart is. We planted chili.

N: His sisters when he dies, will probably sell his land.

JM: It is worth a lot. Millions. I want you to know that. But money is not important to me. At this stage of game, or anytime, I have never been a materialistic person. I taught school for $2000 a year. What would I do with 4 or 5 million?

N: The contrast in Joe's farm and Walmart is stunning. One day the new world will come knocking and his farm will be another loss in the war of tradition and progress.

MS: And nowadays when we look at acequias, if you're a developer or a politician, the first thing you might think is water or water rights. But those of us who work the acequias, we think community.

DR: And those of us who are Pueblo think water rights AND community. Our communities need water, too! The struggles are on-going and very ugly. Local Spanish people point to the casinos and casino hotels some of the pueblos are running and contend that the pueblos, through these casinos, are wasting water that they (the Spanish) should have for their farming purposes. My point in writing this is to let NPR listeners know that the ReUnion episode about Espanola romanticizes and misrepresents the history and people, and, it omits Pueblo Indians of today. That is a serious error.

N: As economy shifts from farms to big box stores and people sell their land, the water rights are transferred to developers. These developers don't use the acequias. Many times they bulldoze over them, or they do not maintain them. That's key. Acequia needs all to participate to keep water flowing. Entire community must work, but with fewer farmers and more development, flow of water is being interrupted.... And in NNM water is everything.

MG: It's the lifeblood. People say it. Its real.

N: Margarita Garcia is Miguel's wife. She sees the importance of the acequias.

MG: I wouldn't have the language, the Spanish, those words, my words, songs, music, because people couldn't come here without water. They wouldn't have survived. Its everything. My entire culture.

N: As the older generation of farmers fades away, people like Miguel and Margarita are crusaders for ancient tradition. Miguel started a program working with youth to document what they've learned in films and slideshows. Legislation has been passed that gives more power for the acequias in its struggle with developers. Across country, water rights are contentious with states fighting each other. Solutions hard to come by, and yet for hundreds of years, communities in NNM have figured out how to make it work.

DR: "Figured out how to make it work" is just too tidy an ending. Too romantic, too optimistic... And wrong. We're all still trying to figure out how to make it work! I've got many friends who are Spanish. We all went to school together at Pojoaque. I hope my remarks in this post don't upset them or add fuel to the fire over water rights. None of us are well-served by history or stories that are romanticized, incomplete, biased, or inaccurate.

N: Miguel's day ends same as began. He's gatekeeper. Morning and night. Turning rusty metal wheel that controls flow of water. To see video and pictures, go to state of

DR: I went to the website to see the pictures. The only image of anything remotely signifying Pueblo Indians is a ceramic bust on the ground, propped up against a pole. There's no explanation of who it is supposed to be, but to me, it looks nothing like any Pueblo men I know.  

No Pueblo voices in the segment, and the only Pueblo image is that bust? Come on, NPR! You can---and should---do better.


Anonymous said...

I hope you send your comments directly to NPR.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You said you didn't know what aural historian meant. See for some explanation of the difference between that and oral historian.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous on Monday, I did send the link to the NPR Ombudsman. I got an auto reply that my email will be forwarded to the appropriate individual. If I get another reply, I'll post that info here.

Anonymous on Tuesday morning, thanks for that link. Reading quickly, I gather than an aural historian is someone who studies the audio fidelity of audio documentaries. Is that about right?

That is markedly different from an oral historian. I'm guessing the aural historian elaborated a bit more but that elaboration was cut and not used in the piece.

Debbie Reese said...

I got a lot of email about this post from people who are grateful for the analysis.

I sent it to the NPR Ombudsman when I uploaded it, and got a reply yesterday. The first and third (last paragraph) are template material. The middle one is specific to my analysis:

Response to Message #84124:

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for contacting the NPR Ombudsman. Our office invites you to sign up to have the weekly Ombudsman column sent to you. Enter your email address where prompted on the right-hand side of our webpage at

As for your email, we appreciate your thoughts regarding NPR's coverage on Espanola with relevant links which support your point. However, NPR hold no editiorial control over State of the Reunion. Please forward your concerns to

Making decisions about covering the events that impact our everyday lives is never easy. We make every attempt to ensure that the segments and stories you hear on NPR programming, and the attention devoted to them, are valid and appropriate.

We welcome praise, as well as criticism, and your thoughts will be taken into consideration.

Office of the Ombudsman


I will, as Kenya suggested, send it to State of the Reunion. I wonder if Kenya also sent it their way?

Anonymous said...

It is a decent analyisis, funny the bust native head is at my house which was picked up at a thrift store in Penasco. Don't know how the image ended up there. However we hispanos, really hate it when you call us Spanish. Why is it that Native Americans with papers (pueblo affiliation) forget that we are your brothers and sisters as well. Many of us have as much native blood as tribal members. Just look at the faces in Nambe or Pojoaque especially, most look very "Spanish" and not native at all. So there in itself is a conflict. I agree that there should be more mention of the native american irrigation systems, however the acequias were and are more than simple canals, it is the laws that govern them, the culture surrounding them and fact that they have made many hostile environments into paradises. I also disagree that you say New Mexico is not a desert, there are many kinds of deserts, sure Phoenix is one type but when I travel from Albuquerque up north even around Espanola I see high desert. The beauty of the acequias is that they have been around for thousands of years and have traveled all around the globe, bringing with it influences of many cultures and people.