Bronze bust of Louis Tewanima at the 2010 Louis Tewanima Memorial Footrace. Photograph by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert
Last week Felicia Fonseca of the Associated Press alerted me to a story that she was writing about a criminal complaint made by Anna Mae Silas, Gibson Namoki (BIA Police Officer), and the Hopi Museum. The complaint alleged that past Hopi chairman Benjamin H. Nuvamsa of Shungopavi had stolen a bronze bust of famed Hopi runner Louis Tewanima.
Although I don’t know all the details in this case, I find it hard to believe that Nuvamsa would steal the bronze bust of his grandfather. In fact, the whole case seems a bit bizarre, and it leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions: What could Nuvamsa possibly gain from stealing this bust? Why did an individual – who appeared to be a Museum staff – help the former Hopi chairman load the bust in Nuvamsa’s vehicle, and then, six months later, assist Silas, Namoki, and the Hopi Museum in filing a complaint against him in Hopi tribal court?
For those who have frequented Beyond the Mesas over the years, you know that I have a lot of respect for Nuvamsa. You also know that I greatly appreciate his activist work back home. Of course, it’s my hope that this will all be cleared up soon so that we can get back to focusing on Tewanima’s running legacy, and the inspiration his life and accomplishments have been for so many Hopi and non-Hopi people.
To learn more about the allegations against Nuvamsa, read Fonseca’s newspaper article “Ex-Hopi chairman charged with Olympian bust theft”. See also Nuvamsa’s response to the allegations below.
March 31, 2014
How Can It Be Theft?
This is my response to the baseless “Theft” charge filed against me by Anna Mae Silas, Gibson Namoki (Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Officer), and the Hopi Museum on the alleged “theft” of a bronze bust of our famous Olympian, Louis Tewanima.
Section 3.8.4 of the Hopi Law and order Code defines “THEFT” as: “A person who knowingly takes or controls the property or services of another person without consent of the owner or other proper legal authority, is guilty of an offense”.
An essential element of the crime that has to be proven by the Tribal Prosecutor, beyond a reasonable doubt, is that the Tewanina bust was taken “without the consent of the owner or other proper legal authority.”
Here are the facts I intend to present in my defense. Louis Tewanima, from Shungopavi Village, was a great Hopi runner. He was an Olympian. He and the famous Jim Thorpe represented the United States of America at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm where Tewanima won the Silver Medal in the 10,000 meters, setting a U.S. record for 10,000 meters. He also ran the marathon in the London Olympics in 1908. Louis Tewanima was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame; and to the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. Tewanima is our grandfather. I grew up with him in the same house at Shungopavi.
Every Labor Day, since 1974, we celebrate the accomplishments of my grandfather, Louis Tewanima, at the Annual Tewanima Footraces. See http://www.tewanimafootrace.org/ for more information about the annual Tewanima Footrace. Each year our families, and race organizers, would bring his trophies and pictures to the races to honor his accomplishments and for public display. A bronze bust of Louis Tewanima has been displayed at the annual races in recent years. Shortly before the 2013 races, I visited the Taylor family of Shungopavi (members of the Association and relatives of Tewanima) and inquired how I could help with the race. They talked about displaying the bust at the 2013 annual footrace. We agreed that I could help the race organizers by going to the Hopi Museum and obtaining the bust to be displayed during the 2013 footrace. I asked where the bust is kept and was told that it was at the Hopi Museum, at the Hopi Cultural Center.
On August 29, 2013, during museum regular business hours, I went to the Hopi Museum to obtain the Tewanima bust on behalf of the race organizers. Anna Mae Silas was not there. However, her brother, Matthew Silas, Jr., was there tending to the museum’s business. Because he appeared to be “tending the store” and appeared to me as a museum employee, I told him the purpose of my visit. He said “Ok, it’s back here” and walked me over to where the bust was displayed. He said “It’s real heavy … let me carry it for you”. But I said, “I think I can lift it”.
I picked it up and Mathew Silas opened the museum door and helped me load it into my personal vehicle. Mathew Silas never tried to stop me from taking the bust. He never told me I had no right to take it or that I was doing anything improper or illegal. To the contrary, Mathew’s actions, by showing me the location of the bust and helping me load it into my vehicle, indicated to me that I was doing nothing wrong, illegal or criminal and that the Hopi Museum, as it had in the past, was allowing the bust to be in the temporary possession of the Tewanina race organizers for display at the upcoming race. I then went to the Taylor residence and dropped the bust off at their house so that it could be displayed at the race. That was the last time I saw the bust.
I had no criminal intention of stealing the bust or taking it without the museum’s consent. Had Mathew Silas told me not to take it, or that he would call the police, I would have left the museum without borrowing it. All appearances that day lead me to believe that Mathew Silas was an employee of the Hopi Museum and he allowed me to take the bust. When I explained to Mr. Silas the reason why I wanted to borrow the bust, he understood and showed me where the bust was displayed. In fact, he helped me load the bust in my vehicle. If I intended to steal the bust, why would I steal it in broad daylight, during museum hours while the museum was open, and in front of, and with the help of Mathew Silas, a museum employee, then drop it off at the Tayler residence for them to use during the race?
If this was truly a case of theft, why did it take the Hopi Museum, Anna Mae Silas, Mathew Silas, Jr., and BIA Police Officer Gibson Namoki six (6) months to file the criminal charge against me? According to the criminal complaint, the alleged theft occurred on August 29, 2013, yet, the Criminal Complaint was not filed until February 24, 2014 – six months later. Did it actually take the BIA Police, Hopi Museum, Anna Mae Silas and Mathew Silas six (6) months to investigate and decide that I had stolen the bust? Or, are there other ulterior motives and reasons for filing this baseless charge against me, and publicizing it to disgrace me in public?
If I am to be charged with theft of the bust, then shouldn’t Mathew Silas, Jr. also be charged as a co-conspirator because he showed me the location of the bust, opened the museum entrance door as I carried it out and helped me put it in my car?
The story about the arrest warrant that was issued against me is even more confusing. After the complaint was filed on February 24, 2014, the court claimed it mailed me a Notice to Appear (Summons) in Hopi Court for arraignment on March 10, 2014. The Court mailed the summons to a Mesa, Arizona address that I have not used in over eight years. In other words, an old address. My present mailing address is in Pinetop, Arizona. Naturally, since the summons was mailed to an eight-year old address in Mesa, I did not receive the notice. I, therefore, was unaware that I was to appear in Hopi Court on March 10th. When I did not appear in court on March 10th, Hopi Chief Judge Jess Lorona issued a warrant for my arrest. I had no knowledge of theft complaint, the summons to appear in court on March 10th, or the arrest warrant. I did not
receive word about these matters until I was contacted by news reporter from Flagstaff, and was asked to respond to the theft complaint and arrest warrant. I immediately contacted a lawyer and we arranged to quash and set aside the arrest warrant and the court would send me new summons where I am to appear in Hopi court on April 8, 2014. I will appear at every court hearing to fight this ridiculous theft charge.
I only hope that the Tribal Prosecutor, BIA Police, Hopi Museum and Anna Mae Silas will come to their senses and find the courage and wisdom to drop and dismiss this ludicrous theft charge and save everyone (Prosecutor, Police, Court and me and my family) time, money, embarrassment and other tribal resources in pursuing a matter that has no supporting evidence or merit.
Publicizing this baseless theft charge in the local, regional and national papers was only a futile attempt to disgrace me, but it now raises a lot of serious questions that must be answered.
In closing, there are many good Hopi people that have stepped forward and offered to testify on my behalf, including witnesses who saw Mathew Silas, Jr. helping me load the bust into my vehicle; and members of the Louis Tewanima Association.
Benjamin H. Nuvamsa
Village of Shungopavi – Bear Clan
Former Hopi Tribal Chairman