Honoring Native American Heritage Month

A member of Meow Wolf’s first internship program, Lindsey Toya-Tosa shares the story of her people and how she carries her legacy through creativity.

November is Native American Heritage month, honoring all the different Native Nations that are in strong existence today, including more than 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and all of the Native Nations around the world. A proud Indigenous woman myself, I was born and raised in the Pueblo of Jemez located in New Mexico. Jemez Pueblo is one of the state’s 19 Pueblos.

Woman with long dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, wearing a white dress with colorful designs and standing inside Trash Temple at Meow Wolf Santa Fe
Lindsey Toya-Tosa in Trash Temple at the House of Eternal Return. Photo by Noor-un-nisa Touchon.

Some of my family’s ancestors were originally from Pecos Pueblo, also known as Cicuye Pueblo. Before Jemez Pueblo and Pecos Pueblo were colonized, each Pueblo existed in peaceful coexistence. Pecos had around 2,000 tribal members occupying stone-built fortresses that were set up high on the mesa tops. Each one was about four to five stories high. The first contact with Spanish conquistadors happened in 1541, and the first colonization happened in 1598 when Don Juan de Onate visited with a Franciscan priest. This began the downfall of the Pecos people.

The Franciscan priest was assigned to build the first church in Jemez Pueblo of Guisewa. For years, there were many revolts and uprisings with Pecos and Jemez people fighting the Spanish as they tried to force Catholicism. Many Native people died as a result. In addition, the Spanish forced the two Pueblos to congregate into one village, where the Franciscan missions were located. 

In 1680, during the Great Pueblo Revolt, the Spanish were expelled from the New Mexico Province when all 19 Pueblos joined together. It was the first and only successful revolt in U.S. history in which a suppressive nation was expelled. A few years later, the Spanish again tried to regain control over the Pecos village. This caused many Pecos people to flee, as many others were killed. The Pecos people fled to the other village that Jemez people were occupying, and they offered protection. Since then, the two Pueblos merged together. In 1936, an Act of Congress legally merged both Pecos and Jemez together. There are many people that live in Jemez who have blood from both Pueblos running strong in their veins. Although Pecos Pueblo no longer exists, and has become a national monument, Pecos traditions and teachings are still strong and prevalent in Jemez today. 

I had the opportunity to be a part of Meow Wolf’s first internship program in 2021, in partnership with the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I was a graduate student studying creative writing with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. I had never worked with a company before who was so kind towards me and who encouraged me to share some of my culture with them.

Lindsey Toya-Tosa wearing a black Cobain t-shirt and long braids and Jeanette DeDios with cropped dark hair and a Rolling Stones t-shirt looking towards each other and talking
Lindsey Toya-Tosa and Jeanette DeDios on set for the Gyre video shoot. Photo by Noor-un-nisa Touchon.

In Jemez, the language that we speak is called Towa. It is not written, everything is done orally. The passing down and learning of our language is taught by speaking and listening to our elders talk. For one of the projects I did during my internship, I wanted to integrate Towa into it. I paired up with another intern, Jeanette DeDios. They had us team up to create videos for the Gyre Apartments that would be displayed in C Street in Meow Wolf Denver’s Convergence Station, the new exhibit Meow Wolf was about to open. Jeanette is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations, and we both knew that we wanted to include Native culture in our video. Three videos were brought to life, but one in particular was able to showcase my Jemez culture.

The main character’s name we created is a Towa word, “Thunpayah”, which describes a person who is “loud or obnoxious.” It fit perfectly for the type of storyline I had written and the story that we created behind the character. In the video, there is a dancer who is dancing in the middle of an apartment room. Thunpayah comes home from shopping and sees the dancer. He immediately begins to mock her by replicating her dance moves in a disrespectful way. The whole time, she continues to dance, completely unfazed and unbothered by Thunpayah. But in the middle of his ridicule, he stops and realizes that what he is doing is wrong. For the remainder of the video, Thunpayah sits down and respectfully continues to watch the dancer dance.

man sitting in a chair holding a remote out while a woman with long dark braids is dancing on a rug. There is a. green screen behind them, as this is part of a video shoot for Meow Wolf.
Lindsey Toya-Tosa and Gilbert White on set for the Gyre video shoot. Photo by Jeannette Martinez.

For this video, Jeanette and I decided that I would be the dancer. I chose to dance one of my favorite dances, called “Corn Dance.” In Jemez, we dance Corn Dance in the early summertime to pray for the corn we are growing in our crops to grow strong and prosper well. With this video, our hope is that others will view it as respecting Native cultures. Our culture is something that shouldn’t be mocked or disrespected because it is different. It should be respected. It is our way of praying; prayer for not only our Puebloan Nations, but prayer for the world to be abundant and prosperous as well.

I can’t thank Meow Wolf enough, and all the people that I worked with during my internship for allowing me to share my Jemez culture in a safe place. No one forced me to change anything about how I wanted to represent my culture. My dancing and the traditional clothes I wore were genuinely how we dance it in Jemez. Now that video is on display in one of Meow Wolf’s biggest exhibits, and it truly makes me so proud I was given the opportunity.

Lindsey Toya-Tosa wearing black rimmed glasses and a white dress, standing by the railing inside the forest at House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, NM
Lindsey Toya-Tosa in the Forest at the House of Eternal Return. Photo by Noor-un-nisa Touchon.

During my internship, I was also given the opportunity to write a zine about Thunpayah’s origin story. I wrote the story, and I worked with Kayla Wooldridge, who works at the Meow Wolf in Denver. She did the illustrations for me. While writing the manuscript about who Thunpayah was as a person, I began to realize how many times someone is misrepresented and how often that happens to Native people. We have been so misrepresented and misinterpreted for so many years. It needs to stop, which is a big reason why I choose to write nonfiction. I want to give Native people a voice, in particular Native women. We each have gone through different experiences of pain and intergenerational trauma, I’ve found that words heal. Everything that I write is based upon my own experiences, and I share what I can because I want others to know that they’re not alone. My hope is that the more I share my stories with others, the more it will encourage others to do the same, and allow them to feel that although life is hard, we come out stronger and more resilient.

Our voices have power.

Our words and stories heal.

We are no longer being silenced.