Rina Swentzell, 1939-2015
Rina Swentzell, a Santa Clara Pueblo author, potter, historian and architect. Courtesy photo by Bill Steen.

When word came out at the UNM School of Architecture and Planning that alumna Rina Swentzell – Santa Clara Pueblo architect, potter teacher and activist, died on Friday, Oct. 30, faculty responded.

Christopher Wilson, J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies, said, “Rina is certainly one of the most distinguished intellectuals to have graduated from our school.”

He added, “Through her eloquent essays, books, lectures and media appearances, Swentzell brought a Tewa Pueblo world view to life for a wider audience, and thereby made an invaluable contribution to the deepening of American cultural pluralism. By translating a few key concepts from Tewa into English—po-wa-ha, for instance, the life force or water-wind-breath—and then elaborating these into a compelling philosophy, she made a view of the sacred balance within nature accessible, believable and potentially useful to us all.

Starting with her 1976 masters of architecture thesis at UNM, Swentzell was a pioneer in elaborating on the mismatch between federal government policies and the contrasting values of Native peoples. In this, she influenced succeeding generations of Native and non-Native intellectuals and activists working in education, architecture and tribal sovereignty.”

“Her death is a profound loss for those whose minds were touched by her quiet eloquence,” Wilson said.

Ted Jojola, director of the school’s Indigenous Design + Planning Institute reflected on Swentzell as a “cherished colleague.” He said, “We had been working together on one board or another since the late 1980s. I will miss her calm demeanor and effusive wit. 

Through our upcoming Contemporary Pueblo Architecture Exhibit we were fortunate enough to do a one-hour video interview with her last fall on architecture. I suspect this is the last public document she did. I hope an edited version of this can be incorporated into that tribute.” He added that he will be reaching out to the family about a memorial at the school.

The following reprint is courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican and reporter Steve Terrell, posted Saturday, Oct. 31.

Rina Swentzell, 1939-2015: Daughter says Santa Clara artist, activist fought for all but put family first

Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo was known as an architect, a potter, a teacher, an author, a historian and a lecturer. She also was an activist for justice who wasn’t afraid to stand up to her own tribal council to argue for the rights of all people, her youngest daughter said.

Swentzell died Friday, friends and family said.

Despite her accomplishments, Swentzell was modest, never wanting people to make a big deal about her, her daughter Poem Swentzell said Saturday.

“She was an incredible person,” Poem Swentzell said. “Everyone who met her felt like they were touched by her. … They felt like she was their best friend.”

She was born Rina Naranjo in 1939 in Santa Clara Pueblo to Rose and Michael Naranjo Rose Naranjo, who died in 2004, was a traditional Santa Clara potter who was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure.

Rina Swentzell attended college at New Mexico Highlands University, earning her bachelor’s degree in education.

She went on to The University of New Mexico, earning a Master of Art in architecture in 1976 and a doctorate in American studies in 1982.

Rina Swentzell became known as a writer and lecturer about Pueblo culture, in particular the architecture and the art. She was the subject of a feature on the KNME show Colores, a weekly arts program, in 1990. There she spoke about growing up in Santa Clara in the 1940s.

She authored a book called Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters (We Are Still Here) in 1993 and co-authored To Touch the Past: The Painted Pottery of the Mimbres People with J.J. Brody in 1996. Swentzell worked as a consultant to several museums, including the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. She was a visiting lecturer at both Yale and Oxford in the mid-1990s.

A longtime family friend, Roger Peterson, recalled Saturday, “Decades ago, in the National History Museum on the Mall, I was astonished to hear [my] friend Rina’s voice down the hall.” It turned out, Peterson said, that Swentzell’s voice was on a film about Southwestern Indians that his friend had narrated.

Rina Swentzell became involved in Santa Clara politics, helping to organize a group called People for Membership, which fought for more inclusive membership rules for the pueblo. “She worked for the rights of everyone,” Poem Swentzell said.

But Rina Swentzell cared most about her home. “Family was first and foremost for her,” Poem Swentzell said.

She married Ralph Swentzell, who was a tutor at St. John’s College for 40 years, Poem Swentzell said. He died in 2005. The couple had four children.

One of her daughters, Roxanne Swentzell, is a renowned sculptor.

In addition to her daughters Poem, who lives in Chupadero, and Roxanne, who lives in Santa Clara Pueblo, Rina Swentzell is survived by son Cleo Naranjo of Santa Clara Pueblo, daughter Athena Steen, who lives in southern Arizona, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be held in the future, Poem Swentzell said.