Culture in the American Southwest: The Earth, the Sky, the People

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If the Southwest is known for its distinctive regional culture, it is not only the indigenous influences that make it so. As Anglo Americans moved into the territories of the greater Southwest, they brought with them a desire to reestablish the highest culture of their former homes: opera, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. But their inherited culture was altered, challenged, and reshaped by Native American and Hispanic peoples, and a new, vibrant cultural life resulted. From Houston to Los Angeles, from Tulsa to Tucson, Keith L. Bryant traces the development of "high culture" in the Southwest.

Humans create culture, but in the Southwest, Bryant argues, the land itself has also influenced that creation. "Incredible light, natural grandeur, . . . and a geography at once beautiful and yet brutal molded societies that sprang from unique cultural sources." The peoples of the American Southwest share a regional consciousness—an experience of place—that has helped to create a unified, but not homogenized, Southwestern culture.

Bryant also examines a paradox of Southwestern cultural life. Southwesterners take pride in their cultural distinctiveness, yet they struggled to win recognition for their achievements in "high culture." A dynamic tension between those seeking to re-create a Western European culture and those desiring one based on regional themes and resources continues to stimulate creativity.

Decade by decade and city by city, Bryant charts the growth of cultural institutions and patronage as he describes the contributions of artists and performers and of the elites who support them. Bryant focuses on the significant role women played as leaders in the formation of cultural institutions and as writers, artists, and musicians. The text is enhanced by more than fifty photographs depicting the interplay between the people and the land and the culture that has resulted.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Few books on the American Southwest have woven together its history, ethnicity, geography, and mythology to demonstrate their impacts on the region's "high culture." Bryant (history, Univ. of Akron; William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian. o.p.) has put together such a work. He ably captures the essence of the Southwest as he describes how Native American and Hispanic cultures reshaped the "high culture" of the Anglo Americans to produce a distinctive regional culture. The author explores the area from the Mexican-American War (1846-48) to the economic, architectural, literary, and theatrical revival of the mid-1990s. He touches on such well-known writers and artists as Georgia O'Keeffe and Zane Grey and introduces hundreds more, such as Oklahoman Alexander Hogue, a painter of the land, and Roy Harris, a composer of 200 musical compositions effusing the spirit of the Southwest. The many photographs enrich this valuable source for anyone interested in history or the cultural trends of the American Southwest. Recommended for public and academic libraries, particularly those with strong arts collections.--Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Keith L. Bryant, Jr., a professor emeritus of history at the University of Akron, has published in Southwest history for over thirty years. His studies have included regional architecture, art, and cultural institutions. He also authored a biography of the American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase.
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Culture in the American Southwest

The Earth, the Sky, the People

By Keith L. Bryant Jr.

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2001 Keith L. Bryant, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89096-948-9


Cultures & Conquests

By 200 B.C., settlers of the Basketmaker culture occupied caves in what is today the Four Corners area of northwestern New Mexico, establishing a permanent society based on agriculture. Within five centuries, these peoples had organized villages composed of "pit houses," circular units occupied by one or two families. They gradually moved into unit housing constructed above ground, structures known as pueblos. Large housing blocks, religious chambers, irrigated fields, intricate communication systems, and food distribution networks de-marked the classical period of the Pueblo peoples, from A.D. 1100 to 1300. In size and construction techniques, both the cliff houses of Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado and the "Great House" of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico demonstrate the emergence of a vibrant, highly sophisticated culture. From the outset, these Pueblo peoples, known as the Anasazis, believed that their society, the earth, and the sky were one. Native Americans in the Southwest thus established cultures that reflected and interacted with the region, setting a pattern that was continued for over two millennia.

As the Pueblo culture reached a peak in terms of refinement, bands of Athapaskan-speaking Indians from western Canada migrated south into present northern New Mexico and Arizona. These newcomers, the Navajos or Dinehs, were hunters and gatherers but quickly adapted to the patterns of the Pueblos, becoming agriculturalists and settling along the verdant valleys of the Chama River and in the San Juan Basin. Their raids on the Pueblos introduced not only captives but also new food products, woven items, and decorated pottery. As the Navajos extended their raids to the east they contacted Plains tribes, and regular patterns of trade emerged. Game, buffalo hides, colored stones, feathers, and other goods became so highly valued that fighting was suspended during trade days. The Navajos established permanent settlements, began to weave cloth, and started to develop items that could be exchanged in their expanding and increasingly complex world.

In the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona and along the Gila and Salt Rivers, other societies emerged almost simultaneously with the Pueblo peoples. The Mogollon and Hohokam cultures also erected large-scale buildings and created highly sophisticated arts, especially basketry and pottery. The Hohokams established agricultural villages of brush-and-mud huts scattered over a large area of central Arizona. They built more than 600 miles of canals, constructed ball courts, and perfected a distinctive buff-colored pottery with red designs. The Mogollon people expanded to the north and west, and by the thirteenth century many had been absorbed by the Pueblo culture. They left a legacy, however, of extraordinary decorative pottery. The Native American societies in the Southwest thus became diverse within a relatively brief period.

While the Puebloan peoples extended their settlements south along the Rio Grande, other societies entered the region. The Yumas settled along the Colorado River in southwestern Arizona even as the Apaches occupied southern Arizona and New Mexico and then roamed far to the north and east. On the southern plains the Comanches, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes competed for buffalo, water, and trade goods. Hunters and gatherers, wanderers over vast areas, the Plains tribes interacted with the Sioux nations in the far north and later with the Navajos to the west. They too made the earth, the sky, and the environment the sources of their religious beliefs and the subjects of their arts.

Forming hundreds of societies scattered across a land of seemingly infinite geographical variety, the first occupants of the region developed similar attitudes about themselves and their place in the universe. The Pueblo peoples, for example, believed that the earth was square, that there were six sacred directions, and that the sky and the earth were deities. Their spirit world was filled with heroes and villains, but they believed that good triumphed over evil: warm south winds defeated cold north winds. An underlying force united all elements of an external world. Even before humankind arrived on the earth, an order had been established that served as a framework for all existence. The realities of that world consisted of deserts, rivers, lakes, mountains, animals, and plants. Colors and directions merged; east was white, and south was red. Animals and colors formed elements of fetishes and rituals, just as the lakes and mountains held the homes of the gods from which the people drew strength. These beliefs created harmony and order in Pueblo life and supported the integration of these symbols into their decorative arts and oral traditions.

Architecture serves as a primary example of the ways in which Native Americans adapted to their environment and related to their view of the universe. In New Mexico and Arizona the warm, dry land of strong colors and bright light produced particular needs in terms of shelter. The sun seared rock or adobe walls throughout the day, and with warmth radiating from the earth at night, strong walls, narrow windows, and raised floors were required. The Indians built structures near sources of water and shade in places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. In central Arizona, around 1350, the Hohokams erected Casa Grande, a four-story earthen structure that possibly served as a ceremonial building or as an astrological observatory but that unquestionably showed their ability to create caliche structures far larger and more complex than simple brush-and-mud huts.

The Navajo and the Apache peoples developed hogans and "wikiups" in response to the climate and weather, turning to the land for materials. The hogan ("home place"), a one-room, six-sided structure heated by a central fireplace, was the core of Navajo mythology, the Blessingway. The hogan was a gift to the Navajos, whose oral traditions and music formed part of the Blessingway. After First Man and First Woman completed a journey through three underworlds, they met Talking God, who gave them the first hogan, shaped like Gobernador Knob Mountain in New Mexico. The hogan had four cornerposts—one made of white shell, one of turquoise, one of abalone, and one of obsidian, the four sacred minerals. The door of the hogan faced east, to meet the rising sun and to avoid the prevailing cold winds of the north and west. Talking God also provided the "female" hogan, a dome-roofed structure that resembled Huerfano Mountain. Hogans had to be purified periodically, since they provided shelter and, more important, harmony and beauty. Many hogan-blessing songs spoke to the relationship of the Navajos with their homes:

Beauty extends from the surroundings of my hogan,
it extends from the woman.
Beauty radiates from it in every
direction, so it does.

The Papago and Pima peoples of Arizona used earth and water to build mud huts and constructed lodgings along watercourses and under trees as they sought shelter from the sun and the heat. Called the Ki, the houses of these descendants of the Hohokams were far smaller than Casa Grande but often shared the Casa Grande construction technique of stacking hand-shaped loaves of adobe. The Ki provided shelter in the winter, but in the heat of the summer the Pimas moved to arbors, called ramadas by the conquering Spanish. Adaptation to the environment and the use of natural materials became constants in Native American architecture.

The residents of Mesa Verde used the topography of that immense monolith to create multistoried houses of stone and timber to shelter them from the sun and protect them from their enemies. Masonry buildings incorporated cool caves and smooth concave mesa walls overlooking steep canyons. Monumental houses, such as Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, contained hundreds of rooms on several levels and appeared, at a distance, to be part of the rocky spires, canyons, and cliffs. The cliff dwellers constructed practical and efficient buildings that incorporated the concepts of mass and proportion. Within these gigantic structures they created paintings, textiles, and ceremonial arts. They embellished utilitarian objects with designs based on plants, animal life, and geometric shapes. At the height of the Puebloan culture, the decorative pottery of black-on-white wares included intricate religious symbols. Not only architects and engineers, the Pueblo peoples were also artists attuned to their environment.

Plains tribes also created an architecture, a portable architecture. Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Pawnees, and others used buffalo hides and pine poles to form tipis. These shelters combined portability, strength, and ease of erection with artistic enrichment. Bright red or white, the tipis were not perfect cones; their builders deliberately placed a steeper rear side against the prevailing west wind. The doorway, like that of the hogan, faced the rising sun. The tanned-hide walls resisted rain and snow while offering a surface on which to paint large figures and geometric forms. Dogs pulled the V-shaped travois; later the introduction of horses led to much larger tipis with more decorative furnishings. The designs on the tipi walls linked the Plains people to their environment.

Anasazi or Pueblo architecture evolved as builders sought to balance the forces of nature, economic concerns, and a more complex mythology. Like their Plains counterparts, Pueblos placed the back of the structure to the wind. They added roofs and terraces of mud to the south to absorb heat in the winter months. Adobe walls beamed with timber protected the Pueblos from the sun, snow, and their enemies. Population growth led to multistoried buildings with windowless first floors, wooden ladders leading to the terraces, and timbered ceilings. Between the buildings, circular excavations, or kivas, became the center of religious life. Some of the "great kivas," enormous circular rooms, incorporated murals depicting the Pueblos and their religious beliefs. The larger pueblos, such as Montezuma's Castle in Arizona, showed a design skill as advanced as that being used in Europe at a similar time. It is no wonder that the Spanish conquistadors stood in awe of these vast condominiums.

Beyond architecture, Native American culture in the Southwest centered on aspects of the daily lives of a diverse people. Their music, art, dances, and oral traditions drew from nature. Within a changing environment they incorporated the spirit drawn from their relationship with the land. In their oral traditions, the peoples gave the land meaning; the land became a cultural landscape. The Papagos spoke of an unfinished earth; darkness lay upon the waters, and from that nearly soundless place came life: a child was born. Pueblo high priests preserved the stories and prayers containing morals that doomed evil-doers. Birds, snakes, bears, and deer populated the stories as metaphors for the people. The oral tradition reinforced beliefs in the clan and the family and brought the Pueblos into harmony with the earth from which they sprang.

Graphic arts repeated the tales and myths on kiva walls, sandstone cliffs, buffalo hides, clay pottery, jewelry, and fetishes. From the first appearance of humankind there were artists in the Southwest. Form, color, and design related to beliefs but often were decorative as well as religious and utilitarian. As early as A.D. 900, the Pueblos created pictographs composed of strange beings and imagined objects. Colors applied to rocks, walls, and ceilings—as well as scrape, gouged, or pecked surfaces—used shapes and textures that depicted the other world as well as daily life. Complex symbols evolved into linear constructions that covered walls and the surfaces of pottery and baskets. Mogollon potters, using red or black on white, brought together symbols of animals and plants with abstract geometric patterns in a highly stylized pottery. Carved wood and stone figures became religious objects as artisans incorporated stones, mica, beads, feathers, and hair into fetishes. Elaborate headdresses, tooled leather, and garments of skins carried forward the theme of oneness—the people, the land, and the sky. Paintings at the Jemez Pueblo kiva brought together the sun, the moon, and the stars with the pueblo as the center of the universe. Neither clouds nor lightning could separate the people from the sky.

With the limited resources in the arid deserts of present-day southern California, Native Americans produced a culture that Anglo conquerors believed to be less sophisticated than that of the Pueblos. The tribes located closer to the Pacific Ocean dedicated their wealth to elaborate costumes and highly decorated baskets. In their pictographs, artists produced drawings of complex and decorative mythological figures. The almost total decimation of these peoples and their cultures by the first conquest, that of the Spaniards, left little record of their oral traditions or their graphic arts, however.

The societies of the Native Americans of California, as well as other southwestern tribes, reflected their interrelationship with Mesoamerican peoples to the south. The idea of the village, dietary patterns, pottery and its decoration, and architectural concepts linked the Hohokam, Pueblo, and Mogollon peoples to those who occupied what is now northern Mexico. The Apaches and others moved freely through this area, transferring goods, captives, and ideas from one society to another.

These exchanges led to jewelry that incorporated items from the material cultures of many peoples. The feathers of parrots and macaws became part of lengthy necklaces. Abalone shells, jet beads, and brightly colored stones joined by cordage decorated the necks, wrists, and clothes of the southwestern Indians. Hundreds of beads formed into necklaces ten or twelve feet long demonstrated the wealth and social position of the owner. Turquoise stones, geometric designs, and elements of bones decorated bow guards and religious objects alike. Once limited to carving wood, Plains artists traded for stones and shells that they used to produce a wider variety of objects. They decorated clothes and hides and created ornaments with which they danced. The earth provided artistic materials and inspiration; it was the main subject of the oral tradition, and it was the source of food and shelter. The earth and the people were one. Not even the coming of the conquistadores and the disasters that followed severed that tie.

The Spanish conquests of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries first disrupted and then decimated the Native American societies of the Southwest. A new economic system and religion arrived, as did new diseases. The conquerors also produced a new race as the first generation of mestizos was born. But just as the Spanish altered the lives of the Native Americans, the indigenous peoples challenged and changed the culture of their oppressors. Spanish military expeditions conquered the region for "God and the King" but soon fell under the influence of the land and its peoples. For example, as Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's soldiers, led by Hernando de Alvarado in 1540, passed beneath the Acoma Pueblo perched high on a mesa above the surrounding plain, they were stunned by its majesty and complexity. A troop under Pedro de Tovar roamed the lands of the Hopis and marveled at the size and construction techniques of their buildings. Alvarado also visited the Pecos Pueblo, with its four-story buildings of adobe, an architectural style that Spanish settlers would eventually emulate. The Spanish brought new fruit trees and vegetable crops, but they also discovered and subsequently cultivated the corn, beans, and squash of the Native Americans. The earth and the sky soon dominated the Spanish just as they had the first settlers of the region.

Spanish colonists moved across the Rio Grande into present Texas and New Mexico while priests created missions in southern Arizona and California. The sites of ancient pueblos became Hispanic communities: Santa Fe in 1609, El Paso in 1659, Albuquerque in 1706, and Tucson in 1763. Near watercourses, the settlers established farms and ranches in the wake of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, who entered the pueblos preaching about a singular God who, they hoped, would replace the deities of the Indians. The colonists built houses of adobe not unlike those of their rapidly displaced neighbors. They took into account the climate, weather, water supplies, soil fertility, and rainfall in considering not only the structures they built but also the crops and trees they planted. Adaptation and adoption formulated a society far removed from Spain, and even from Mexico City.

Missionaries brought saints, bells, chapels, and cloisters to the Southwest, but they too saw the advantages of adopting aspects of the Native American societies. Saving souls meant organizing agricultural production, of both old and new crops, and restructuring housing near the chapel so that workers could be present to build large churches. Massive edifices made of adobe or stone walls four feet thick rose above the pueblos even as the local populations declined, riddled with diseases and frequently overworked. Adobe, timber, and stone in the churches of New Mexico formed simple, undecorated exterior walls of flat surfaces. In California and Arizona the church fathers produced complex, rectilinear designs with vaults, domes, arches of cut stone, and substantial bell towers. Ornate inside and out, these cathedrals of the desert blended the traditions of Iberia with the architecture of the pueblos. The friars in California converted hunters and gatherers to Catholicism and subsumed the indigenous architectural materials to their own needs.


Excerpted from Culture in the American Southwest by Keith L. Bryant Jr.. Copyright © 2001 Keith L. Bryant, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Chapter 1. Cultures and Conquests,
Chapter 2. The Importation of Anglo Culture, 1850–1900,
Chapter 3. Cities and Culture, 1900–1920,
Chapter 4. A Regional Culture Is Formulated, 1920–1940,
Chapter 5. Nationalization of a Regional Culture, 1940–1960,
Chapter 6. Institutional Culture/Creating Icons, 1960–1980,
Chapter 7. A Renaissance with Many Voices, 1960–1980,
Chapter 8. The Exportation of a Regional Culture, 1980–1995,
Selected Bibliography,

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