This essay is one of 70 by mostly Pueblo people—artists, writers, historians, scientists, and political leaders—collected for "Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery," an exhibition that runs through May 29, 2023, at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. For an insider's look at the exhibit, read "Pueblo Pottery Exhibit Breaks the Mold," by Kate Nelson.
BEFORE THE ORGAN MOUNTAINS east of Las Cruces were so named (a reference to the resemblance of some peaks to the pipes of a pipe organ), they were known as the Sierra de los Mansos. This name denoted their relational, spiritual, and ecological significance to the Manso community. Manso is one of New Mexico’s oldest original cultures and yet is perhaps the most overlooked historical community in the state. The area from what we know as the Mesilla Valley all the way down to present-day Juárez, Mexico, was originally inhabited by our Manso ancestors. Yet, aside from a brief Wikipedia entry and an out-of-print book by Patrick Beckett and Terry Corbett (The Manso Indians, 1992), there is little to no awareness of the presence of the Manso. However, if you ask my dad where the Manso tribe went, he will enthusiastically say, “Right here!”
In 1911, construction work began on Elephant Butte Dam, which led to the destruction and rerouting of the Río Grande. Before this, Las Cruces was a lush area, with a vibrant ecosystem abundant with wildlife. The river snaked through the valley, creating fertile pockets of marshland, where various Manso families established ranches. We refer to the Río Grande as the Turtle River because it used to be home to countless turtle relatives. What the builders of the dam perhaps did not realize is that when you cut off the water flow to a river, you also kill the wildlife living in that river. Today it is rare to spot a turtle swimming in the Turtle River. As a result of the dam’s construction, many clay sites were lost, and the pottery tradition waned as the city took on a new form.
Through all these changes, Manso people never disappeared. To this day our Piro-Manso-Tiwa tribe thrives in Las Cruces. That is why the symbolic significance of this pot—its ability to carry water implies life—is now just as important as its original purpose. For this exhibition, I consulted experts, including the potters Jerry Dunbar, Albert Alvidrez, and Carol Carabajal, and the current conclusion is that the pot is of Manso heritage with Rarámuri stylistic influence. Although its provenance remained unclear for decades, this pot has living relatives who claim it, connecting it to Indigenous people residing in southern New Mexico and all the way into Juárez.
For a long time, this elegant, carefully shaped pot had nobody to speak on its behalf, nor anyone to speak to. Much like the entire history of the Manso, its history was untold. My opportunity to represent this pot, to speak on behalf of its ancestry, reinforces the fact that Manso have always been present in New Mexico. This pot stands as an equal, telling its story alongside the other beautiful pots from communities across New Mexico.