Telling Stories of Today: Collecting Native American Material Culture in the 21st Century

February 6, 2014

gtaA lot is going on in the American Section of the Penn Museum as we make our final preparations to open our newest exhibition, Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now, on March 1. The exhibition explores contemporary Native America, and though Penn Museum has its share of older Native American material culture (over 160,000 objects!), we actively do our best to expand the collections a little bit each year by purchasing new Native American objects of today.

Native Americans today make up hundreds of North American communities in both urban and rural settings. Material culture remains one of Native America’s most distinctive and enduring legacies, and we need to continue to collect it today.

Recent purchases for our new exhibition give voice to contemporary concerns and experiences in the Native American community. One of my favorites is by Jason Garcia (aka Okuu Pín), an artist from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Jason shapes and paints his ceramic tiles using all natural materials from his home region. His amazing graphic art combines traditional Pueblo scenes with popular culture and comments on events happening in his community now. His piece “Grand Theft Auto Santa Clara Revisited,” is inspired by the popular video game of the same name.

In his own words…


The piece is inspired by the video game series Grand Theft Auto, the game is set in a fictional city named San Andreas. I appropriated the box cover art and made some minor and major changes to it. The vignettes reflect my upbringing and observations of Santa Clara Pueblo or Kha’Po Owinge’-“Rose Path village,” this is the Tewa name and refers to wild roses that grew along the water ways of the Santa Clara Creek and the Rio Grande River, when the Pueblo was settled in the 1300s after a major drought forced our ancestors to move from the Pajarito Plateau to seek closer water sources.

The back of the piece has various codes that are a specific succession of buttons that when entered can change different variables of the game play. The codes that are on the back are:

R2 X L1 L1 L2 L2 L2 X FOGGY
R2 X L1 L1 L2 L2 L2 ☐ CLOUDY
↓ X ← → ← R1 ← ↓ ↑ Δ INFINITE HEALTH


The codes that are entered reflect the ceremonial songs and prayers that are incantations for rain, prosperity, and long life.

Key to vignettes:

A—Puje Cliffs and Village is the Ancestral home of Santa Clara Pueblo. Puje= “where rabbits gather,” the Tewa name of our ancestral home. It refers to the ancestors who referred to themselves as P’u Towa or ‘rabbit people.’ Puje is said to have been a major gathering place for many villages that were spread out among the Pajarito Plateau.

B—This vignette is directly lifted from the game cover art, in that it shows a main character of the game. The background shows a silhouette of Pueblo homes in the background and the street signs show the location of where I grew up. On the corner of Agoyo and Nava Alley. Agoyo meaning “star” and Nava meaning “field” both in the Tewa language.

C—The image of the girl is directly appropriated from the cover art.

D—The red polished carved pot represents the strong pottery traditions that have and continue to remain a part of Santa Clara Pueblo’s identity and culture. The water serpent carved is a symbol of water. This image was inspired by a pot created by the late Teresita Naranjo.

E—The table games/blackjack player represents the economic development efforts made by Santa Clara Pueblo. Currently the Pueblo operates a casino in Espanola, the neighboring town, called The Santa Claran Hotel and Casino. Casino and gaming enterprises offer financial security for some Tribes/Pueblos, but also offers many social problems as well.

F—The vignette shows the Jemez Mountains experiencing a catastrophic forest fire. In 1998/Oso Complex Fire and 2000/Cerro Grande Fire burned over 8,500 acres of the Santa Clara Canyon. In 2011, the Las Conchas burned 16,000+ acres of the Santa Clara Canyon which included the upper watershed of the Santa Clara Creek leading to major erosion and closure of the Santa Clara Canyon to visitation.

G—This vignette shows the Summer moiety kiva at Santa Clara Pueblo, which I belong to. The kiva is the ceremonial building in which many Pueblo ceremonies take place. This kiva was built in the mid-2000s and was part of the Pueblo’s efforts to build new kivas and renovate old kivas after the Cerro Grande Fire. This is a representation of how strong Pueblo cultural traditions are and how they will be continued into the 21st century for many generations to come.

F—The Corn Maiden holds a flip phone that is taking a photo or recording a video. This is a representation of technology’s role in the continuance and destruction of a culture. Technology can be a tool to save and promote cultural ideals/languages/etc. But it can also be detrimental as well. The Corn Maiden is also a symbol in my work that represents Mother Earth and how we care for her in our actions and inactions.

Grand Theft Auto, 2013-14-2 front and back. Jason Garcia (Okuu Pin), 2010, photograph by Lucy Fowler Williams
Grand Theft Auto, 2013-14-2 front and back. Jason Garcia (Okuu Pin), 2010, photograph by Lucy Fowler Williams

Museums are pretty amazing places and in this setting, Jason’s tile is preserved for future generations who will one day look back on 2014. How would you choose to tell your story?