Somewhere on a mesa in New Mexico on land belonging to the Zuni resides a powerful war god that once stood—more an exile than a piece of art—in the New York apartment of Emily Hall Tremaine. In solitude, visited by the wind, it looks out at the vastness of the land known as the Middle Place between Sky and Earth. A war god must never travel, but before it was repatriated to the Zuni by the Tremaine family in 1995, it had traveled half way around the world. So too, a war god must never be exhibited. But since the time it was stolen from the Zuni Pueblo—long before it entered the Tremaine collection—it was on view.
Immediately major questions arise: When is an object or a work of art sacred or consecrated? How is a curator, educated mainly in the art of the Western world, to know about the beliefs of other cultures that prohibit public viewing? How should repatriation be done? Underlying these questions is the most basic of all—what is art? The Zuni elder who carved the war god from pinyon wood at the time of the winter solstice would never have considered himself an artist, nor would he have objectified the emerging figure he held with awe between his hands. To him, it was a life-force imbued by the Sun Father.
How Emily Hall Tremaine came by a war god is related in the article “Artful Living,” published in the October 1985 issue of Connecticut Home & Garden. Martha Scott, the author, was the last person to interview Emily before her death in 1988, so the story about the war god appears nowhere else. Emily told Scott that early in 1985 she had been walking on Madison Avenue in New York City when she saw the war god in the window of a gallery. She went in to inquire about it and learned that it came from a distinguished Indian art collection in France that had been assembled fifty years before. Emily requested a photo so she could study it preparatory to purchase, but instead she took the photo to Arizona where she sought out a Zuni priest who instantly recognized the war god. He told her that it had been stolen by a Frenchman 50 years earlier near Gallup, New Mexico. The Frenchman had befriended the Zuni, lived with them, and then betrayed them. “He was very good to our people and they loved him,” the priest said. “Then one night he disappeared and took many of our treasures, including the war god.”
While there is no hard evidence, the story rings true about the Frenchman who befriended the Zuni and then stole their sacred possessions. Many war gods were stolen during the 1920s and 30s, ending up in European and American collections. Others were sold. Still others were found on New Mexican mesas by tourists and hikers who put them in their backpacks, thinking that they had been discarded.
Emily asked the Zuni elder for permission to buy the war god from the New York gallery and he granted it, saying he knew it would be in good hands. Although Emily did not repatriate it at that time, she vowed it would never travel again.
To understand the prohibition against travel, it is necessary to consider what a war god is and the enormous power it possesses for the Zuni. Known as an Ahayu’da, (also spelled Ahayuta), it is a “Big Brother” and “Little Brother” twin safeguarding the Zuni. However, the twins can also bring disaster. Between two and three feet in height, an Ahayu’da is adorned with blue and green earth pigments, feathers and shells. Significantly, a lightning-arrow rises from the head. After it is carved, it is placed on a sacred site on a mountain or a mesa where over time it returns slowly to the elements, in so doing protecting the Zuni and the entire Earth. The ceremonial trek to the sacred site is its first and last; the Ahayu’da must never travel again.
No words in the lexicon of art history and anthropology come close to adequately explaining an Ahayu’da. It is neither an idol nor an icon, if by idol is meant an object that makes visible an unseen spirit, and by icon is meant an object permeated by an unseen spirit. An Ahayu’da is sacred in a different way than a sacramental religious item such as a chalice in Christianity. Nor do the words totem or effigy apply. Borrowing from the languages of the Pacific islanders, the word Taboo comes closest to conveying the power of an Ahayu’da, although the word is not used by the Zuni. Taboo unites sacredness and forbiddenness, indicating that an item, person, place, or custom possesses a power so great it must not be approached or handled unless the greatest care is taken and proper ceremonies performed.
Besides her knowledge of the Southwest through her connection with the Bar T Bar Ranch and Meteor Crater in Arizona, there was another reason why Emily recognized the war god in the New York art gallery. A few months earlier in the fall of 1984, MoMA had presented a major exhibition titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which included a war god on loan from the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. It was compared to Paul Klee’s Mask of Fear (1932) that resembled it. Klee’s mask even had a lightning bolt rising up from the head. Emily owned Klee’s The Departure of the Ghost painted in 1931, which also had a mysterious quality, so it is likely that her interest in the war god was heightened by the MoMA exhibition.
In an essay Respecting Non-Western Sacred Objects: An A:shiwi Ahayu:da (Zuni war god,) the Museum of American Indian–Heye Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art (April 15, 2013), Cécile R. Ganteaume, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, writes that she was a curatorial assistant at the time the MoMA exhibition opened. On learning of the inclusion of the war god, she spoke to staff members at the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation (MAI-HF). Subsequently the assistant director wrote a letter to the director of MoMA explaining why the war god should not be included in the exhibition. MoMA responded appropriately and removed it. Looking back Ganteaume wrote, “I have never forgotten the pivotal role that the MAI-HF played in this incident, nor the experience of being a direct witness to a sea change in museum practice.”
At this point the story takes an odd twist to a different collection of Native American art that was assembled by Princess Evangeline Zalstem-Zalessky, the daughter of Robert Wood Johnson. Married to a Polish prince, Zalstem-Zalessky collected art of the Southwest in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at which time she was a frequent visitor to Taos and Santa Fe. In her collection were 32 paintings by the talented Kiowa artist Steven Mopope, dating from 1929 to 1932. By the 1950s, Zalstem-Zalessky’s art interests had shifted and she put her collection up for sale. In 1954, the Tremaines purchased it not for themselves but for the museum at the Meteor Crater Visitor Center. Recently designed by Philip Johnson, the center was being upgraded inside and out to make it more attractive to tourists. As part of that effort, the Tremaines wanted to expand the museum beyond geological displays. The Zalstem-Zalessky collection was a perfect fit. It was not a perfect fit for the Tremaine collection, which at that time was expanding with works by the Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
In 1995 following the deaths of Emily and Burton Tremaine, Sr., Ernest Chilson, (whose family were part owners with the Tremaines of the Bar T Bar Ranch and Meteor Crater) mentioned to David Chase, a Bar T Bar board member, that perhaps it was time for the last of the Zalstem-Zalessky collection to be sold. Chase’s wife, Katherin, was a curator of art at the Museum of Northern Arizona, which had a significant collection of Hopi and Navajo art, pottery, rugs, and easel art. Chase recalled, “On behalf of the Bar T Bar board of directors, my wife and I approached Ray Dewey, an art dealer in Native American art in Santa Fe about selling the art—then known as the Bar T Bar Ranch Collection—some of which had been dispersed but which still included the 32 Mopope paintings. Following a presentation about the sale to the board, Burton Tremaine, Jr. abruptly said to me, ‘I’ve got a Zuni war god. I’d like to sell it.’ I then turned to Ray who understood about the war god. ‘I cannot sell that,’ he said to me. ‘It is protected under Federal law. I can’t even get an appraisal.’”
The Federal law to which Dewey was referring was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which had gone into effect in 1990, helping to bring about the return of sacred and ceremonial objects to the tribes. Even before the law was passed, the Zuni had been actively seeking repatriation. Burton Tremaine, Jr. agreed that the war god had to be returned. Yet doing so was not as easy as mailing it to a post office box near the Pueblo. Its sacredness required that it be returned directly to the Zuni elders.
Again it was David Chase who helped make the arrangements. “I turned to Duane Anderson, vice president of the School of American Research, now the School for Advanced Research, in Santa Fe. Duane then contacted Edmund Ladd, curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.” A member of the Zuni tribe, Ladd was able to arrange for a delegation of Zuni elders to come to the Laboratory of Anthropology, which was part of the museum.
Anderson remembers the repatriation well. “The new plaza at the Museum of Indians Arts and Culture had not been built at the time, so the Zunis were able to drive up on what is now called Museum Hill and park in front of the lab. I was invited to be present for the transfer and was seated with a few other museum officials in the boardroom located just inside the building. Ed Ladd went out to greet the delegation and soon they all rushed in, single file, each chanting. They quickly circled the room, grabbed the war god, rushed out, and sped away. That was it. Later Ed explained to me that the Zunis were in a hurry because they were concerned about evil spirits, given the long period and unusual circumstances to which the war god had been subjected when it was away from the Pueblo.”
There is much to learn from this story. First, while it is difficult to know whether an item from another culture is considered sacred, an effort must be made to find out, which means going to the people nearest the source. In this story, Emily consulted a Zuni priest; her decision that the war god would not travel was made as a result. The consultation with Ladd, himself a Zuni, was also important. Second, even if a belief is not shared, it can be respected as can its believers. Too often people in positions of power automatically assume they have the right to make decisions for others, which is wrong. For example, it was for the Zuni elders to decide how the repatriation in Santa Fe would take place, and for Anderson and the others to sit quietly aside, which they did. Third, as Ganteaume points out about the MoMA exhibition, it is important to speak out, especially when a curator is privy to arcane knowledge as was the case with the war god and the prohibition against its being put on view. Ganteaume was moved by the sea change in museum policy that resulted.
Finally, the nature of the sacred is hard to define, and will ever be so. Even a modern item with enormous cultural significance can take on the contours of the sacred, while an ancient item, such as a Neolithic fertility figure, can be reduced to nothing but a piece of bone.
One thing is certain: as I write these words, an Ahayu’da that once stood in Emily Hall Tremaine’s home watches from a mesa in the Middle Place, slowly turning back to dust.
Special thanks to David Chase and Duane Anderson for sharing information for this essay.
Ganteaume, Cécile R. “Respecting Non-Western Sacred Objects: An A:shiwi Ahayu:da (Zuni war god), the Museum of American Indian–Heye Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art,” (April 15, 2013), http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2013/04/respecting-non-western-sacred-objects.html
“One of the Twin Gods of War (Ahayuta),” The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, 2018. https://aras.org/one-twin-gods-war-ahayuta
Scott, Martha. “Artful Living,” Connecticut Home & Garden (October 1985), 28.