Interview with Ellen Dornan, Author of Forgotten Tales of New Mexico

AK: What about New Mexico’s history do you think would surprise those of us who don’t live in the state?

ED: Many people don’t realize that New Mexico is the only state that was once its own kingdom, which points to the antiquity of the historical record here. I think what I hear the most is that many people are surprised that history is still very contentious; very simple things like is someone a hero or a villain? Around the time of the Quatro Centenario, the 400th anniversary of New Mexico’s founding, Rio Arriba County built a Don Juan de Oñate Monument Resource and Visitors Center up in Alcalde, near Ohkay Owingue (formerly San Juan Pueblo). They erected a magnificent bronze statue of Oñate astride his stallion in front of the visitor center. Some people from Acoma came and cut the foot off, like Oñate had done to the Acoma men four centuries ago, after the Acomans had killed Oñate’s right hand man. The artist replaced the foot, but left the seam visible, to make it clear that not everyone thinks Oñate was so great. That’s an exaggerated example of how contentious things can be but it’s not an isolated one.

AK: What characteristics make New Mexico part of or separate from the regional identity of the Southwest?

ED: Since prehistory, people living in the region of what is now New Mexico have been connected with people in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas and Mexico, all the way down to the coast. Those ties were very slow to break, if indeed they have been broken, although modern immigration policy makes it harder to maintain ties with Mexico. The Spanish had settlements in all the borderland states but New Mexico had the most established governmental infrastructure, which allowed New Mexico to participate in Spanish politics to a far greater degree than the other Southwestern states. In the book, I explore some of the consequences of that; good ones, like sending a representative to the assembly in Spain, and troublesome ones, like the difficulty the US had in assimilating the New Mexican government.

Because New Mexico was so well established and well settled by the time it became part of the United States, the homesteading pattern here was very different than in the surrounding states. Anglos settled in southern and eastern New Mexico, when it became safe to do so. Central and northern New Mexico remained very traditionally Hispanic for a long time and it has affected both the balance of political power and the way that history has been interpreted here.

AK: Was there a particular story or person who first drew you to study history?

ED: I began to study history while working for the Public Lands Interpretive Association, a non-profit dedicated to interpreting western public lands through publications, products, events and computer-based interpretation. My mentor, Stephen Maurer, has degrees in New Mexico history and journalism and spent over a decade deepening my understanding of natural and cultural history (and improving my writing!).

My first deep exploration into New Mexico history was creating an interactive online map of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, the royal road from Mexico City to Santa Fe, which was in use for centuries. It’s such an essential route that today an interstate highway parallels the ancient ox trail. Because the stories and places along El Camino Real reflect what was going on in New Mexico as a whole, it whetted my appetite for learning more.

The great thing about New Mexico history is that getting out to where things happened is really fun and wonderful; I am never happier than when poking around in a ruin that was bustling with activity at the time of the Crusades or wondering over a foundation or scraps of what was someone’s shot at the American Dream in one of the many ghost towns. New Mexico has great museums but the best parts of New Mexico history don’t fit indoors.

AK: In your introduction, you talk about the complexities and controversies of New Mexico’s history. Can you explain that?

ED: Part of the answer is that New Mexican oral history is very strong and documentary history is very slim. There are terrible things that happened to the historical documents, particularly during the Pueblo Revolt and during the American occupation. There are even modern horror stories of documentary devastation, like the mouse damaged Indian Trust documents that caused years worth of furor in Department of Interior. But storytelling is persistent and sometimes—as I wrote about Governor Manuel Armijo–there are a lot of rather biased historical documents going up against oral family tradition and the clarity of hindsight. Although so much was lost from the state archives, the Spanish were very careful about filing their paperwork and sometimes duplicate and triplicate copies of reports lost in New Mexico have shown up in Mexico City or Seville. These documents shed new light on what we thought we knew.

Often, oral histories give a solid sense of what things were like for people who weren’t the governors and viceroys and Fathers Superior. Some of it sounds wild, like the cosmological stories that explain many of the geological formations of New Mexico’s landscape. But much of it offers alternate interpretations from whatever has been accepted in the canon. I was reading some oral histories from Navajo elders about the Long Walk to Hwéeldi, and many of them were quite convinced that their trouble stemmed from a tragic incident involving the sheep of the Jemez governor and that the Americans protected them from the fierce reprisals of the Pueblos. Any textbook you pick up will tell you differently,  but the two versions are not incommensurate; the Pueblos were actually quite mad about the insult to the Jemez and helped the Army to hound the Navajo through years of flight and starvation, and the Americans did offer rations to anyone who surrendered. The point is that everyone was fighting their battles for different reasons, and disparities in language and culture prevented anyone from understanding  it at the time.

AK: As someone with an interest in interpretation, how did you go about balancing storytelling with historical accuracy in Forgotten Tales of New Mexico?

ED: Interpretation starts with the facts — primary source documents if they exist — but focuses on making connections in an effort to reach a deeper meaning. Individuals have ways of reflecting the great events of their time in their daily lives. People like Padre Martínez, the great priest of Taos, was perceived by his compatriots as a rogue and as a saint. The groups who saw him one way or another tended to fall into either pro-American or pro-Mexican camps, and so Padre Martínez’ story in Forgotten Tales is a nice way to illustrate the turmoil and upheaval of the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican American War, and how people did or did not reconcile their conflicting values systems.

AK: Who are some of your favorite scoundrels or schemers from New Mexico’s history? 

ED: Manuel Armijo was always my favorite until I learned that perhaps he wasn’t such a great scoundrel after all. He certainly was a schemer, though!

Of all the characters in Forgotten Tales, my favorite is  Dr. John Robinson. Robinson was a nice doctor who, in my estimation, went quite off the rails trying to topple the Spanish government, ruining his health and reputation in the process. His letters to James Monroe, as well as the manifestos he managed to publish, are unbearably long and ranting, but elegantly written. I think no one quite knew what to make of him because he was such a passionate and intelligent charlatan.

Luckily for me, New Mexico keeps producing scoundrels and schemers! Since I came to New Mexico half a lifetime ago, I’ve seen public officials arrested and indicted for all kinds of offenses, from abusing funds and smuggling marijuana to lesser offenses like drunk-dialing all the members of the Board of Education. I fervently hope some day someone writes a history about the time that Mescalero Apache governor, Wendell Chino, stared down Governor Gary Johnson and the New Mexico legislature over his tribe’s fabulous casino resort, the Inn of the Mountain Gods. I am guessing that the whole story is chock full of schemers and scoundrels.

AK: New Mexico is approaching its centennial. Are there any events or celebrations you’re involved with, or excited about?

ED: I worked with the New Mexico Humanities Council to build one of the Centennial projects, an online Atlas of Historic New Mexico Maps. I believe that the companion volume will be out next year, and that’s very exciting. I have also been training history teachers around New Mexico to use the Atlas in their classrooms, because it’s got some great features that I designed specifically for use with students, including a feature where kids can add their own historical maps and media. Many of the stories I share in Forgotten Tales are ones I learned while researching the Atlas.

AK: Were there any forgotten tales that you wish you’d had room enough to include?

ED: I left out many tales because there wasn’t enough room: stories of buried treasure, powerful priests and villainous Texans.  I was able to squeeze in some of the priests and Texans, but it seems there are always more. There are also lots of wonderful stories from more modern history like the scurrilous doings of the Santa Fe Ring.

Forgotten Tales of New Mexico will be available from The History Press in spring 2012.

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One Comment on “Interview with Ellen Dornan, Author of Forgotten Tales of New Mexico”

  1. barbara G Says:

    Whets my appetite for the book.
    Can’t wait for publication!


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