NM historians to gather this week in Farmington

Mike Easterling
Chief James Garfield Velarde as photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1905 or 1906.

FARMINGTON – As a graduate student in history at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s, Veronica Tiller had a strong interest in the history of her tribe, the Jicarilla Apache, and especially its legendary longtime leader, Chief James Garfield Velarde. Verlarde served as chief from 1886 to the 1940s, a time period that straddled some of the most tumultuous times in the Jicarilla Apache history, and Tiller was eager to delve into how Velarde’s leadership shaped and sustained her tribe.

But she discovered not everyone at UNM shared her enthusiasm for that project.

“At the time, I was a young person, and I just wanted to get through graduate school,” said Tiller, who has owned and operated Tiller Research Inc. since a few years after she earned her doctorate in history from UNM.  “My professors told me there were more interesting things to study and steered me away from that.”

But Tiller — whose Albuquerque-based company specializes in interdisciplinary social science research, litigation support services, professional meeting facilitation, and writing and publishing services — never dismissed the idea of writing about Velarde’s legacy. It stayed with her, even as she went on to establish her reputation in the field of Native history by publishing her groundbreaking book “Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations,” which is regarded by many as the most comprehensive reference volume on American Indian and Alaska Native tribes ever compiled.

Veronica Tiller

Tiller’s long-planned biography of Velarde — a distant relative — is not a reality yet, but it will be soon. She has hopes to publish the book by the end of the year. In the meantime, she’ll be sharing many of her findings in a presentation this weekend that is part of the Historical Society of New Mexico 2016 History Conference that unfolds here Thursday, April 14 through Saturday, April 16.

Tiller’s presentation is just one of many that will take place over the course of the event. Most of the events will be staged at the Farmington Civic Center, but others will take place at the Courtyard by Marriott, which has been designated as the conference hotel.

The annual event, which attracts both professional and amateur historians, authors and academic types, is held at a different location around the state each year. Rio Rancho resident Gloria Bullis, who is co-chairing the conference committee with her husband Don Bullis, said it took place in Albuquerque last year and Las Vegas, N.M., the year before that. It also has been held in such locations as Deming, Hobbs, Las Cruces and Ruidoso, but this is the first time it will have taken place in Farmington, she said.

Zang Wood, president of the San Juan County Historical Society, which is presenting the conference in partnership with the state historical society, said the idea to bring the conference here originated about a year and a half ago in an exchange between local author Mike Maddox and Don Bullis. Maddox was in Albuquerque talking about his new book “Porter and Ike Stockton: Colorado and New Mexico Border Outlaws,” and the two were talking about future locations for the event.

“Don asked him, ‘How come we’ve never had the meeting in Farmington?’” Wood said. “And Mike told him, ‘If you want one, we can do it.’ One thing led to another.”

Wood said the historical society board talked the idea over and, despite some initial reservations, agreed to play host to the event. Wood was particularly excited about the idea.

“As president, the opportunity (to have the event here) was probably not going to come along again in my lifetime,” he said. “We need to show off Farmington and the Four Corners.”

The conference will feature a number of presentations that focus on Four Corners-related subjects.

Author and historian Don Bullis is serving as co-chair of the Historical Society of New Mexico 2016 History Conference.

“We try to do that,” Don Bullis said of conference organizers’ habit of concentrating on local topics. “Anybody can submit a paper for presentation at the conference because we like local folks.”

A number of those presentations with local subject matter made the cut this year in addition to that of Tiller, who grew up on the Jicarilla Apace Reservation in the Horse Lake area. Other presenters will talk about Navajo culture, Chacoan culture, the Connie Mack World Series, the Navajo Dam, Porter and Ike Stockton, the San Juan County Historical Society, the New Deal in the Four Corners and lawlessness in the Four Corners.

Don Bullis said the annual conference is so popular that organizers always receive many more proposals for presentations than they have room for.

“I think if you have an interest in New Mexico history, this conference is like a candy store for a kid,” he said. “It’s got everything. ... It’s really a smorgasbord of anything you’d be interested in in New Mexico history.”

He said one of the most commonly voiced complaints about the conference is that there usually are two or three presentations going on simultaneously, and many attendees bemoan the fact that they can’t be two places at once to hear about subjects that interest them.

Don Bullis will be signing copies of the new edition of his “New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia,” which was released last month. The book is a second volume to his popular “New Mexico Historical Biographies,” and it features nearly 1,000 pages covering 700 noteworthy places, events and people.

Gloria Bullis joined her husband in co-chairing the conference committee after the demands of the job grew too big for one person. She said they started work on planning this year’s event shortly after last year’s conference ended, and the job includes everything from choosing and lining up presenters to deciding what kind of food will be served at conference events.

That means the Bullises have spent a fair amount of time here preparing for the event, including a quick visit last week to iron out some details. They’re looking forward to seeing what all their work leads to, but it’s been an enjoyable experience so far, Gloria said.

“It’s been nice to meet some of the people in Farmington themselves,” she said.

The county historical society will play a large role in seeing that the conference goes off smoothly, Wood said, and has enlisted the help of dozens of volunteers to make sure that happens.

“Oh, goodness sakes, I’m going to guess all the members of the San Juan County Historical Society, which is 70-plus people, and all the board members,” he said, estimating the number of helpers. “Then, there are volunteers from San Juan College and (other) organizations.”

Wood said organizers anticipate that 250 to 275 people will register for the conference, but teachers and students who present an ID will be admitted free, so the actual head count is expected to be much higher. He had no idea what kind of economic impact the conference will have on Farmington, but Gloria Bullis said hotel management told her last week that 85 of their 130 rooms already had been reserved for the event. And she pointed out that visitors will be eating out every meal during their stay while also perhaps visiting such local attractions as Aztec Ruins National Monument, Salmon Ruins, the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park and the Bolack Museums.

Wood said it is very important that visitors get a taste of what life in the Four Corners is like during their time here.

“We want to use this as a springboard for the Farmington area and some of the attractions we have here,” he said. “We hope people don’t just drive up here, check into the hotel and go to the conference. ... We want to do anything we can to give them the impression Farmington is not such a bad place and that there are lots of things up here to do.”

Mystery author Anne Hillerman will deliver the plenary talk to open the Historical Society of New Mexico 2016 History Conference.

One of those people already is looking forward to visiting the city. Albuquerque author Anne Hillerman, who will be delivering the conference’s plenary address on the opening night, has written extensively about the Four Corners since taking over some of the characters originated by her father, Tony Hillerman, in his beloved Navajo tribal police mystery novels. Anne Hillerman is now writing a series of her own.

She said last weekend she was still trying to decide what she was going to speak about, but she was influenced by her recent experience of judging the work of nominees in the history category in the Western Writers of Amerca’s annual Spur Awards.

“I think I’ll talk about how authors are able to get the story right (historically) but make it interesting at the same time,” she said. “And I’ll talk about how I incorporate historical events into my own work.”

Hillerman said this will be her first time to speak before members of the state historical society, and she said she plans on attending many of the presentations.

“I’m really honored I’m being asked to do this,” she said.

As is the case with many of the sessions, Tiller’s presentation will focus on a figure — Chief Velarde — who has escaped the attention of many New Mexicans. She looks forward to enlightening people about the contributions he made.

“I want to speak more about his legacy, but also about his ... leadership values and his philosophy of leadership,” Tiller said. “That has usually not been addressed when people write about Indian leaders. They write about how they fought with the federal government. Well, they didn’t just fight. They also stood up for their own people. Also, part of my idea is that Native American people need to write about their history from their perspective.”

Jicarilla Apache Chief James Garfield Velarde poses with his son, James Garfield Velarde Jr, who was on leave from the U.S. Army during World War II.

Velarde is not some remote figure to Tiller — the wisdom of the legendary chief was related in her household on a regular basis when she was growing up, she said.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side admired him very much,” she said. “I remember when I was a child, whenever he spoke, and he would say this in Apache, he always began with, ‘According to Garfield, here’s the story … ’ Whenever he said that, he was adding authority and authenticity to it.”

Tiller said she began to research Velarde’s life seriously more than a year ago, and she has found a wealth of government documents that she is putting to use in the book. But she also is relying heavily on the memories of the Jicarilla people who knew Velarde, who lived from 1853 to 1961. Many of those tribal elders are of an advanced age, and Tiller said she felt a sense of urgency to capture their memories through interviews before they are lost.

Her research also has been buoyed by Velarde’s presence in so many historic photos from that era, and Tiller has focused much of her research on how the chief appeared in the work of such noted photographers as Edward S. Curtis and William Henry Jackson.

“I’m trying to determine the relationship he had with these photographers,” she said, wondering how men like Curtis and Jackson were able to establish contact with Velarde and gain his trust. She noted that many of the photos in which he appears were taken in such locations as Denver and Santa Fe, and from that, she concluded that the chief must have been relatively well traveled for his day.

He also had an abundance of common sense, she said, describing how he explained his longevity.

“He thought, ‘If you’re not sick, unless you do something stupid, you probably should live to be old,’ ” she said, laughing.

The project is one that Tiller has waited many years to bring to fruition, but it’s been worth the wait, she said.

“I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a history project I’ve worked on in a very long time,” she said.

And she’s not about to let anyone talk her out of it this time.

“I’m not looking for the approval of other people,” Tiller said. “I’m of the age now, I don’t care what people say. I know our tribal stories are valid. I don’t need other people to validate them.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.


If you go

What: The Historical Society of New Mexico 2016 History Conference

When: Thursday, April 14 to Saturday April 16

Where: The opening plenary session and dinner featuring author Anne Hillerman takes place at the Courtyard by Marriott, 560 Scott Ave. All conference sessions take place at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arringston St.

For more information: Visit