Romancing the Buffalo Hide

I first met Tom Chavez in the early 1990s. He was director of the Palace of the Governors.  I was a lowly reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. The Palace still stands, but lately stands in the shadow of the far larger New Mexico History Museum. The Tribune? Well, let’s just be glad we still have the Palace.

My memory of our first encounter includes the dark and aged offices that Chavez’s staff worked in, a motherlode of archival photographs that put my newspaper’s library to shame, and an undeniable excitement about a faded scrap of painting.

Chavez told me the scrap was part of something called the Segesser Hides and, needing only a cub reporter’s curiously raised eyebrow for inspiration, launched into a tale of what it took to bring them back to their North American birthplace. Long held by a Swiss family named Segesser, the hides depict the 1720 Pedro de Villasur expedition against the French and their Native allies in present-day Nebraska.

To folks like Chavez and the many, many volunteers who joined him in the quest to acquire the hides, it just seemed right that they should be displayed at the launch site of that expedition. And thus ensued years’ worth of international diplomacy that occasionally produced a huge segment, occasionally a scrap, occasionally nothing.

Notable for their efforts along the way were Meriom and Howard Kastner, who lent their time to translate correspondence between the state and hides’ owners, and who ended up leading even more volunteers – the members of Los Compadres del Palacio – in a Save Our Hides Campaign. (Those Compadre, btw, didn’t give up after obtaining the hides. In recent years, they worked their magic on the massive museum-building plan and even served ice cream to visitors on opening weekend this summer.)

The Segesser Hides are on display today at the Palace, and the New Mexico History Museum has an interactive exhibit about them. (Teacher alert: You can find it online here.)

But one big chunk is missing. It’s still in a vault, still in Switzerland, still under the ownership of someone still thinking it over. Way back when, Chavez promised me, time was on his side. He was, after all, younger than the owner of the missing piece (insert your own version of a knowing glance here).

I liked his attitude. The sense of adventure, the air of mystery, the shadow of a scheme. Who knew that, one day, I’d be working at this same place (the dark and aged offices now replaced by bright, modern ones), walking past these same hides, sharing that same desire to someday see the hides made whole once more.

This Sunday, Chavez will share some of his memories as former director of the Palace and retired executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The talk is called Chasing History: Quixotic Quests for Arts, Artifacts and Culture. It’s the kickoff to the Telling New Mexico Inaugural Lecture Series, a five-part collection of speakers versed in everything from Blackdom to Japanese internment camps to Navajo women.

Tickets cost $10 and are still available. Buy them at the museum shops or outside the History Museum Auditorium before the lecture at 2 pm. Come early, at 1 pm, for a special reception. I’m betting Chavez talks about the hides and shares a few other behind-the-scenes tales of the people, personalities and adventures that lie behind the exhibits.

Kate Nelson