Thursday, February 11, 2016

J. Michael Orenduff: The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O'Keeffe

J. Michael Orenduff was the President of New Mexico State University before he retired to write the Pot Thief mysteries. Since writing the series, Orenduff has gone on to win the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery, the Epic Award for best mystery or suspense ebook, and the New Mexico Book Award for best mystery or suspense fiction. To learn more about The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O'Keeffe go here.

J. Michael Orenduff:
The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O'Keeffe

New Mexico’s ancient Anasazi sites were my childhood playground. I descended into kivas via rickety ladders made from cedar poles and leather strapping. I hiked to cliff dwellings along narrow ledges with no handrails. I dug up potsherds and arrowheads. I poured water from my canteen into ancient tiny channels carved into rocky aeries and watched it trickle into fist-sized depressions each of which would have originally contained a single seed of corn or squash.

I won’t argue that life was better before the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. OSHA made life safer and ARPA lessened the looting of ancient Native American sites. But I’m glad I grew up around those ruins unfettered by law and regulation.

I was fascinated by deserted sites. Who lived there? What was their life like? Why did a civilization that built permanent settlements, created irrigated agriculture and beautifully decorated pottery disappear from the earth?

My sister loved the inhabited pueblos. She collected their pottery, once trading a batch of cookies for a small olla. I preferred the crude broken pieces and the tantalizing prospect that they might reveal secrets of their pre-Columbian makers. For example, I have learned that almost a third of all Native American stone tools were constructed by people who were left handed.

The relationship between my youthful explorations and my university anthropology courses was like the relation between the live insects I encountered in the desert and the ones in the biology lab that were pinned to cardboard displays. Academe has a way of sucking the life out of reality.

My love of Anasazi sites didn’t lead to a career in anthropology, but it did fuel a second career. When I decided to write murder mysteries, I knew my protagonist would be a pot thief. How do you entice readers to care about a hero who loots ancient sites? By showing them another perspective. Hubie Schuze doesn’t loot sites. He honors them. He rescues ancient pots by bringing them – and by extension their makers – back into the world of the known. Their uncovered handicraft becomes their obituary.

In 2012, a group of seventh-graders from the Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque were on a field trip exploring caves in the El Malpais National Conservation Area near Gallup, New Mexico. They discovered a thousand year old pot. One of the parents on the trip knew about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and told the students not to touch the pot or try to remove it. That is good advice, of course. They might have damaged it. But when Bureau of Land Management archeologists took possession of the pot, they put it in hiding.

What they should have done, after safely removing and photographing it, was give it to Sandia Prep for display. One of the students, Cole Schoepke, told KOAT-TV, “I think we were probably the first people to see it in a thousand years, so that's really cool.”

Unfortunately, Cole and his friends may also be the last to see it. It is still hidden away somewhere. This is the sort of injustice Hubie is dedicated to righting. The students who found that pot should have finders-keepers rights. Or at least their school should have. It would be a great teaching tool, and I’m certain Sandia Prep would make it available for the public to see and enjoy.

Donna Hummel of the BLM said of the pot that, “The students may not fully understand its importance.“ Well, not if they don’t get to study it.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act is well-intentioned. There are criminals who use backhoes to dig up artifacts and destroy ten for every one they save. But when hikers, campers or school children find an artifact, they should be allowed to keep it once it has been cataloged. After all, what better way to promote appreciation for protecting artifacts than to have members of the public own some of them?

And there would be more artifacts to enjoy and study. The BLM admitted that the find by the seventh graders was the first significant find in a decade. The New Mexico Bureau of Land Management controls over nine million acres. And the only significant find in a decade was by seventh graders? Maybe we should put school children in charge of artifact hunting.


jrlindermuth said...

I'm with Hubie. The pot deserves to be seen, and what better place than the school of the children who found it. By the way, Michael, loved The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O'Keeffe.

Ellen Kirschman said...

Left handed tool makers? Maybe I'm related. Can't wait for the dust to settle so I can enjoy some time with Hubie.