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A new Indigenous history exhibit uses science fiction to bring the 1680 Pueblo Revolt into the now

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The entrance photo for the exhibition "Virgil Ortiz Revolt 1680/2180: Runners + Gliders" hangs inside the History Colorado Museum in Denver on May 18, 2023. Wren Batista, the model in the photo, said this exhibit shows how Indigenous history transcends time.

The year is 2180 and New Mexico pueblos are under attack by Spanish invaders. Two gliders in metallic combat gear — Omtua and Catua — are flying to each pueblo carrying coded messages to share the news: There’s going to be an uprising.

That’s the premise of "Virgil Ortiz Revolt 1680/2180: Runners + Gliders." It’s a new exhibit at History Colorado in Denver that blends Indigenous futurism, augmented reality, ancestral Puebloan pottery, photography and fashion to tell the true story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

“It's America's first revolution, but it's not called that or taught that because of the bloodshed,” Virgil Ortiz, an award-winning Cochiti Pueblo artist who led the project, said.

Ortiz's ancestors told him about Po’Pay, a Tewa religious leader, who was arrested by Spanish invaders for performing religious rituals. When he was released, he organized runners to coordinate the uprising in secret by using knotted deer hide.

“At each pueblo, they dropped off a knotted cord to all the leaders and they instructed them to untie one knot every morning,” Ortiz said. “So on the day when the last knot was untied, then all the people rose up and pushed out the invaders.”

The revolt kept the Spanish out of what is now northern New Mexico for 12 years. Historians call it the most successful Indigenous uprising in North American history, even though it has rarely been taught in schools, according to Ortiz.

Virgil Ortiz's "Recon Watchmen" pottery piece sits inside his exhibit at History Colorado. It joins a collection of pottery in the exhibit that is more than 800 years old.

His exhibit seeks to bring new awareness to the revolt's historical significance as well as his people's perseverance and enduring relevance.

“I'm trying to educate globally about what happened to our people, the atrocities of bloodshed, and eventually the peace that came after it, but using art,” Ortiz said.

To appeal to a younger audience and embrace his passions, Ortiz decided to envision the Pueblo Revolt happening simultaneously in two different time dimensions: 1680 and 2180.

“That allows me to really bring in sci-fi characters, which I love,” Ortiz said. “I was hugely affected and really inspired by Star Wars when I was 6 years old.”

The exhibit creates a slipstream effect, where past, present and future events collapse into one. Viewers see more than 800-year-old Puebloan pottery next to Ortiz’s present day pottery beside futuristic portrayals of the original runners.

Wren Batista, a Santa Fe resident, modeled for the exhibit.

“I've got this awesome silver crocodile skin-patterned chest piece on, with a spiky sort of headdress coming out of the back,” Batista said, describing one of his photos at the front entrance of the exhibit. “It's all very sci-fi and transformative.”

The exhibit employs augmented reality via QR codes. When a visitor scans an artifact with their phone's camera, it takes them to Instagram. A filter pops up, which, when hovered over the art piece, causes an effect to appear, like sparks flying off of the image or a superimposed ancestral mask.

KUNC"Virgil Ortiz Revolt 1680/2180: Runners + Gliders"

“The way a lot of people understand QR codes is you pull out your phone, scan it, and it takes you to a food menu or it takes you to a web page,” said Sebastian Bustos, the augmented reality developer for the exhibit. “It’s this kind of the same concept, but we're exploring it through art.”

The exhibit also features a projection room with colored lights, rhythmic music and projected Indigenous symbols. Meanwhile, a movie plays where the Indigenous characters are searching for artifacts.

“It's really like a portal,” said Morgan Barnard, a new media artist who helped design the room. “It really represents this kind of time dimension, this space between worlds.”

Barnard believes the varying mediums can bring reverence and immediacy to the history in a unique way.

“It's just a real acknowledgment of the history of this country, and it's really honest, but it's also really hopeful,” he said. “I think science fiction can be a really hopeful way to engage with the future. It doesn't always have to be dystopian.”

KUNC"Virgil Ortiz Revolt 1680/2180: Runners + Gliders"

The result is that the ancestral Puebloan pottery, for example, isn't seen as a relic — as Indigenous art is often viewed — but as art that's transcendent and relevant. Batista said getting to see an exhibit that communicates that during their lifetime is a "breath of fresh air."

“That heritage has survived on despite the violence, despite the colonialism against them,” Batista said. “And so to see it finally being socially relevant, to see voices like Virgil's being highlighted by history centers, is such an awesome turn of tides.”

The exhibit, which took about a year to develop, opened to the public May 13. Jeremy Morton, History Colorado's public engagement manager, said it's unlike anything the museum’s done before, pushing the boundaries of how history can be conveyed.

“I think art is one of the most powerful tools that we have to teach history,” he said. “Someone who is maybe not a history person is able to look at this exhibit and create this association of, ‘Wow, I didn't realize history could be told in this unique, interesting, sort of cool way.’”

So far, it’s left an impact on visitors like Kat Lovato, a San Luis Valley resident who’s part Jicarilla Apache. She came to the exhibit’s kickoff event dressed in traditional regalia.

“Everything that Virgil does, you know, that has an emphasis on the Indigenous population,” she said. “The wars and everything, it matters to us…. He's inspirational, to know that he also is willing to go out on a limb in his art and that he will bring knowledge to people.”

She believes this exhibit is part of an educational resurgence around Indigenous history. She hopes it continues to impact people, including her 8-year-old granddaughter, Emmaline Cheroutes.

“We teach Emmaline to be resilient and strong because people behind her went through great suffering in order to give her her place in this world,” Lovato said.

“I love learning about our family's history,” Cheroutes added. “And people need to know.”

Heather Ormsby works at the Denver Art Museum. Before coming to the exhibit, she didn't know about the Pueblo Revolt.

“I had no idea that that revolt had happened and that they were successful," she said. “There are people who are still with us and we don't hear their stories.”

Virgil Ortiz addresses hundreds of people who attended History Colorado's kickoff event for the exhibit. Ortiz got emotional talking about the revolt and the bloodshed it brought to his people.

Heider Tun is a history professor at Regis University in Denver. He is Yucatec Maya, and he related to the struggle of recognizing the presence of his culture today.

“I think, to say like, ‘Well, we are here, we are here as a Maya people, right?’” he said. “So I think this exhibition brings this idea that we are not just here, but that we are modern. We are part of the future as well.”

Ortiz agrees.

“Every time the people talk about Indigenous people, it's like in the past, right? I just want them to acknowledge and know that we're still here, living and thriving, creating,” he said.

He hopes such creativity, expression and education will strengthen Indigenous communities.

“I really want them to come speak up and tell their history, all of their ancestors, and be acknowledged of how we're all still here together,” he said.

"Virgil Ortiz Revolt 1680/2180: Runners + Gliders" is on display at History Colorado in Denver until next May. General museum admission tickets are $15 for adults and free for kids. For more information, visit the History Colorado website.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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