Published in 1962 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, “Isleta Paintings” represents the only pictorial ethnographic account of Pueblo ceremonial life executed entirely by a native artist. It is unlikely that there will ever be another collection quite like it, for Pueblo Indians who are cognizant of esoteric ritual, and who have in addition the talents of artists, are rare.
Perhaps most unlikely is the possibility that another native Pueblo artist will have the courage to venture on a project of painting ceremonial activities. Pueblos zealously guard the religious aspects of their culture and the strictures that befall the informer are so stringent that few dare to reveal ceremonial secrets. Something as graphically realistic as watercolor paintings of one’s townspeople in ceremonial activities, and so cleverly executed that identification of the individuals portrayed is possible, takes extreme courage or else foolhardiness.
In a letter offering to do the paintings, the artist makes a pathetic plea, “I don’t want any soul to know as long as I live that I have drawn these pictures…I have no way of making a living, no farm…If I had some way to get help in this world I would never had done this. I expect to get good help.”
The Isleta artist did receive help and his paintings have now been published for the public to see. Reading his sad note, a sensitive person might be moved to come to the assistance of the desperate artist without requiring him to reveal closely guarded ceremonial secrets through his paintings. Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons who paid him was, however, a dedicated ethnologist, interested primarily, if not solely, in furthering scientific inquiry. Pueblo Indians, and ethnologist as well, have long wrestled with their consciences on this problem should Pueblo Indians reveal age-old ceremonial secrets and should ethnologists freely publish the information they have gained, often in confidence? It is a problem for which there is no ready or easy answer.
“Isleta Paintings” by Elsie Clews Parsons. Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution 1962 First Edition; First Printing Hardcover Very Good in Very Good dust jack Hardcover, 8vo 8″ – 9″ tall; 299 pages