Remembering C.F. Lummis


Over the 35-year life of this column, appearing in various newspapers, I have occasionally dealt with the flamboyant career of Southwestern author, pioneer photographer, historian and Indian rights activist Charles F. Lummis.

Just recently, I referred to his early friendship with archeologist Adolph Bandelier, who mentored him in the fundamentals of archeological and historical research.

My own appreciation for Lummis began at an early age when I read his classic "The Land of Poco Tiempo" (1893), one of his more than a dozen books on New Mexico and the Southwest.

Just when I was thinking I had nothing new to say about Lummis, it occurred to me that since early on I'd met a few people who had actually known the man (he died in 1928), a column could be carved out of those encounters.

The first person who comes to mind was an elderly resident of Isleta Pueblo named Lummis Abeita. The extensive Abeita family had befriended the eccentric white man when he moved into the pueblo in the late l880s to photograph and collect Native folktales.

After government employees of the Albuquerque Indian School forcibly held several Isleta children against the will of their parents, Lummis stormed the place, gained their release, and received a hero's welcome upon returning them to the pueblo.

One of those rescued was Tuyo Abeita, who years later named one of his sons Lummis Abeita. In 1959, I visited Isleta and spent an hour with that individual, then elderly and blind.

Lummis Abeita told me that he was 10 years old when Charles stayed with his family for a few days and the old fellow was so proud of his namesake. And Charles was also impressed by how smart and mannerly the boy was.

Another person who came face to face with Charles Lummis was Roberta Robey, whom I got to know in 1964. In the mid-1920s, she opened the celebrated Villagra Bookshop in Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel building.

Famous guests would drop by to browse the books, one of them British novelist D. H. Lawrence, who was on his way to Taos. The most interesting customer, though, according to her, was Charles Lummis.

On his final trip to the state in 1927, he spent some time in the shop, chattering away about his many early experiences exploring New Mexico.

On that same trip, he was the guest of his old friend Amado Chaves, a former mayor of Santa Fe who entertained him at the family's ranch on the upper Pecos River.

Amado's youngest daughter, Consuelo Chaves Summers, another friend of mine, regaled me with wonderful stories about Lummis' quirky behavior. She also generously gave me access to her late father's papers that included a series of original letters from Lummis.

I drew upon them to write a small book titled "Two Southwesterners, Charles F. Lummis: and Amado Chaves," privately published in 1968. A copy that I mailed to Charles' youngest son, Keith, in San Francisco brought a prompt reply from him and marked the beginning of our friendship that lasted until his death.

In 1975 Keith published a biography, through University of Oklahoma Press, of his father under the title "Charles F. Lummis: The Man and His West." At his request I had furnished him some information he needed and a photo of Amado Chaves that he included in his book.

When he visited New Mexico later that year, he stopped by and presented me with an inscribed copy of the biography. In it, he had inserted an old canceled check containing the distinctive signature of his father, to be used as a historical bookmark.

Several years afterward, when I was in San Francisco researching, Keith had me stay in his thee-story antique house.

He showed me his father's original heavy camera, used to take countless New Mexico photographs in the late 1800s.

Holding the priceless artifact, I felt a direct connection with the user and his era. It was a moment I'll never forget.

I last saw Keith Lummis in the summer of 1992 when he and his wife came to Santa Fe by train to attend the opera. He died 10 years later at age 97.