Re – Visioning Medusa

All through my childhood a self – portrait, painted by my mother hung above my parents’ bed. I was fascinated by this image of the stern face of my very beautiful mother with her long wavy chestnut hair. In the painting my mother’s body was buried in the sand up to her neck. Behind her, churning waves cascaded onto the shore. A blue sky was visible. A few seashells were scattered around and a large shiny green beetle was crawling over the sand. On the surface this image of my mother with her long curly hair seemed quite serene but as a child the painting disturbed me. It was as if this painting held a key – but to what? My father loved the painting and often commented on it…

I can remember playing at the seashore. My father would dig holes and bury both his children up to their necks in the warm sand that also held us fast…

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I had one reoccurring childhood nightmare of waking up and not being able to breathe.

I first heard the word Medusa when my mother mentioned her in relationship to herself in jest? Did I ask about her? My memory is silent on these two points, but I knew Medusa’s hair was writhing with snakes and that she was screaming. I also knew my mother was terrified of snakes. Because my mother was an artist, it is possible that I saw an image of Medusa in one of her art books (when I looked for images for this essay one seemed too familiar).

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I had another re-occurring childhood dream. My mother and I were locked in a bathroom. There were snakes crawling all over the floor. My mother jumped on the toilet seat and I was left alone on the floor with the snakes. I awakened screaming…

Once, walking in the woods a garter snake slithered across the path separating my mother and me. When I screeched in terror my mother turned on me viciously. Stunned and humiliated I endured her tirade, hopelessly confused…

When my little brother encouraged me to touch a snake in his terrarium one day, I agreed. I was amazed at how silky the snake’s skin felt. This animal was quite beautiful with his red tongue and golden eyes and the snake seemed unafraid and friendly. After this encounter my fear of snakes vanished…

As an adolescent I started to call myself Medusa.

Any time I acted out, losing my temper I berated myself. In time self – loathing became the mask I wore.

I hated my body.

I told anyone who would listen that I was “a lousy carbon copy of my mother” because that was how I saw myself. No one challenged me on this statement except my grandmother who told me once that she didn’t understand why my mother treated me the way she did… My grandmother intercepted my mother, but never confronted her openly.

In my early 20’s my brother’s suicide and my grandmother’s death severed me from any roots I might have had to the earth and any relationships including those with my children; I entered the dead years.

I couldn’t leave the house.

For my 39th birthday I bought myself a gold serpent ring. When I placed the ring on my left hand (on my ring finger) I intuited with amazement that on some level I was “marrying” myself. I also thought of my mother who was still afraid of snakes and experienced a peculiar sense of power and freedom. The hair on my arms prickled and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know what this insight meant but I believed I was prepared to journey into the unknown.

Steeped in mythology and the world of the Great Goddess, shaped by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas and fascinated by her powerful images of snakes and women, the serpent came to life as an aspect of self and I had married him.

I went camping and re – discovered the forest, and moved to the mountains where I began to write…

I kept shallow clay bowls full of water for the snakes around my house. I kept their skins after they shed them in the woodpile.

When I dreamed about two iridescent blue snakes my dog died. I came to understand that snakes had both a powerful positive and negative charge, and that both involved the body. I recognized that it was important to be aware of this holy aspect of snakes because they embodied life and death of the body in the Great Round. My respect for all snakes deepened.

Last August I came to northern New Mexico and became acquainted with Avanyu, the Indigenous Tewa name for the Horned Serpent that is pecked into many rocks as a petroglyph. Avanyu, the Spirit of Water and Life lives in Si –pa –pu (the underworld) and is a powerful supernatural being for the Tewa. He is unpredictable, presiding over endings and beginnings. He represents change, transition, and transformations. According to the Tewa, in the beginning Avanyu fought the spirit of drought (a fiery comet) and rain fell creating rivers that were shaped by his sinewy body. Every spring at the pueblos the bow and arrow dance is done in his honor.

Recently, I was given a wonderful gift, a small shiny black pot with Avanyu’s image carved into its micacious clay surface. I have become enamored by the images and the mythology around this powerful serpent. Every day I look at my pot and wonder what specific message Avanyu might be trying to convey to me.

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As I began this essay I also wondered how Avanyu’s serpentine aspect might relate to my writing about Medusa? Was he guiding me? I certainly believe he is highlighting the importance of needing to live through the truth of my body.

When I first began researching Medusa I was appalled by my own ignorance regarding the actual myth. I had never studied this tragic story because I thought I knew it.

In the earliest record, Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa was one of three sisters, the daughter of Earth and Sea who “lived at the world’s edge,” the only sister that was mortal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Medusa became a virgin priestess (devoted to celibacy) dedicating her life to the goddess Athena. In some versions Medusa was also vain, and Athena couldn’t tolerate her beauty or the conflict that this engendered. Either way, Poseidon desired Medusa and she broke her vows. In some versions Poseidon raped her in Athena’s shrine.

Athena’s fury was limitless, and she punished Medusa by turning her into a frightening figure. Her beautiful long hair became a tangle of hissing serpents, her face was contorted into a mask of hatred. To gaze directly upon this distorted countenance was to be turned to stone. As a final punishment Athena saw to it that Medusa was shunned and cast out; she wandered alone in despair and torment, and in some accounts she was banished to a desolate island in the sea.

Eventually Medusa escaped her mortal misery, meeting her death at the hands of Perseus who slew her because he used a mirror and did not look directly upon the dreaded face. He saw Medusa as a reflection in his shield. (To look directly into the face of human evil is to be possessed by it, to reflect is to see evil without being swallowed by it). Perseus took her severed head to Athena who attached and wore it on her shield. In addition to her other powers Athena could now deflect the powers of female rage/hatred in her mind, if not in her body.

Robert Graves believes that the myth of Medusa preserves the memory of conflicts that occurred between men and women during the transition from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society. According to Graves, the function of Medusa’s head with its writhing snakes was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies performed by women that celebrated the Triple Goddess as the moon. He suggests that Orphic poems reveal that the full moon is also the head of Medusa.

Scholar Camille Dumoulie postulates that Medusa is the Great Mother because so many texts illustrate Medusa’s affinity with the sea and the powers of nature. I see Medusa as one aspect of the Great Mother, the wild untamed aspect of Nature, and the great sea of the unconscious, a source of positive or negative power.

Dumoulie also perceives Medusa’s head to be a mask and a mirror. According to this scholar the mask of Medusa represents collective violence and death energy. I think that Medusa is an image of woman’s rage/outrage/hatred/grief that needs to be expressed in a healthy way by taking concrete positive actions to deal with negative feelings while inhabiting and listening to one’s body (as well as one’s intellect). Although she doesn’t mention it, I think it’s important to note that this “mask” aspect of woman can also be removed at will as long as one has developed some conscious awareness and an ability to contain feelings and emotions.

As a mirror, Dumoulie fails to explain what’s behind the rivalry between Athena and Medusa beyond stating that Athena needs to separate or split away from her double in order to hold on to her identity. I think the core of the issue between the two is Athena’s envy. Envy can result in hatred of women by women; Athena turns her priestess into a monster and then, after her death, puts Medusa’s face on her shield revealing the intimate relationship between the two. Athena “wins” acquiring power over her victim. Athena does not develop the powers of self – reflection; instead she persecutes her servant. Medusa’s head then becomes an aspect of Athena who is associated with the power to annihilate, to turn others to stone, but this power lacks a body.

Medusa and Athena are two aspects of the same goddess. Athena betrays this truth by taking Medusa’s head and placing it on her shield so she can kill without having to own this vicious feeling aspect of herself. Feelings and emotions have their roots in the body.

Dumoulie believes that “whoever seeks Athena finds Medusa’s head.” I believe that this statement of hers contains a warning for every woman. Athena is a goddess of war; she is associated with patriarchal “power over” and is also associated with the masculine ideal of wisdom. She was born from Zeus’s neck, not through a woman’s body. She is a daughter of intellect who risks reversal – snapping into her opposite (Medusa/feeling) without grounding in a body that will help her mediate unbridled power and hubris.

Medusa is also sometimes characterized as a symbol of male castration. Yet Medusa’s ability to annihilate is a result of the violence imposed on her by Athena who is characterized as a female hero figure. Medusa didn’t choose this mask – it was thrust upon her by Athena, a female goddess who victimized her. I think the story of Medusa is more about woman hatred. The result of her abuse was that she was abandoned as an outcast and died in a state of terrible despair. Her terrifying loneliness is evident in the images of Medusa that reveal female misery, not the face of female evil.

I would also argue that the snakes in Medusa’s hair are symbolic representations of woman’s power. Women and Serpents have a long history together, one that stretches back to Neolithic times when serpents were seen as wisdom figures, embodying the life force within women and in Nature. Like the Minoan Snake goddess or the snakes in my life that contain both life and death aspects in one serpentine figure, Medusa’s head is covered in serpents suggesting that the potential for women’s wisdom is also present. Medusa needs a body in order to express this potential.

For most of my life I had identified my anger/rage with Medusa condemning myself without ever knowing anything about this story or the context in which Medusa lived out her (mortal) mythic life. Today I see Medusa in a very different light and feel great compassion for her, and for myself. This female figure was brutalized first by seduction or possible rape, and then betrayed by the goddess she had dedicated her life to – Athena, who blamed the victim and not the perpetrator. Twice. This heinous act would be shocking if one didn’t recall that Athena sprang from Zeus’s neck, (an unholy birth if there ever was one) and was as a result, a male identified woman, one who may also become a woman hater.

I believe that Medusa can help us as women to stay in touch with the archetype, as in a force of energy/and information, so that we have a choice. Women can allow themselves to feel rage, contain it, and express it in healthy ways. We don’t have to act out destructively towards others or ourselves after we have been brutalized or betrayed.

I am finishing this essay on the day after the Women’s March on Washington (and everywhere else around the world). The massive world wide protest highlights how effective women’s anger/rage can be when it is mobilized into a peaceful collective movement that has at its core the belief that women, and the sensible/sensitive men that support them, will not put up with more abuse – verbal or physical. We say NO to giving up our hard won rights. We say NO to the destruction of the planet and its non –human species, to misogyny, to rape, to privileging one group over another, to restricting reproductive rights, to building stupid walls, to isolating one group of individuals from another. We embody Medusa’s outrage, and begin to fight back. This misogynist who became president partly because 53 percent of white women voted him in must be stopped. First we need to own the proliferation of women hatred and other hatred that abounds in our country, and then we need to take to the streets to protest in huge numbers. Our greatest challenge is to keep up the momentum. Women must gaze with the eyes of Medusa on the monster lurking behind the doors of the Oval Office. Women and men everywhere must turn him to stone.

I conclude this essay with a personal note on serpents. I believe that the serpent saved my life because by “marrying” him I opened the door to the unconscious waters, the wisdom of my dreams, and to living my life authentically. My greatest challenge then as now is to live my life through my body as well as through my intellect. I don’t choose as my mother once did, to bury my body in the sand. Perhaps Avanyu will continue to guide me…

The Deer Dance

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A waning crescent moon hung in the sky with a few steel blue clouds as a few people gathered in front of the hill at San Lldefonso Pueblo waiting for the deer to appear at dawn. The air was cold and the wind was still asleep. Suddenly, the drums began to beat insistently as the singers and drum players turned to face the hill. The drums were calling the deer down from the mountains…and sure enough antlers peeked over the horizon as the deer people made their descent amidst loud calls and whoops. A group of chanting, drumming men were just a few feet away from me. The women, dressed in colorful fringed blankets and white moccasins, their shiny black hair swaying along with focused movements, scattered sacred cornmeal on the ground in front of the drummers and singers. One by one the women came and then crossed quickly over to the other side to welcome the deer people. There were four of them that appeared, two fawns and two adults whose bodies were bent forward, almost like the well known flute player (kokopelli), to accommodate their two sticks for front feet. The fawns had only one stick and copied their elder’s behavior. The deer people were dancing inside a circle that closed around them. Some men had evergreens in their hands and other held rattles. Many of the men wore only a kilt, their bare chests covered with clay; paying homage to the earth. All carried bows and arrows, for this was the hunt. A cacophony of bells on the men’s belts intensified the beat and the Tewa songs seemed to fill the air. I felt rooted to the bare ground, all my senses seemed to be in synchrony with music that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. My eyes burned with tears that I had trouble holding back. Time ceased to be when the spirit of the dance claimed me and I was shocked when I noticed that dawn had transitioned into a beautiful morning with heat from the sun streaming down from the sky. The dancers moved to the front of the church briefly acknowledging the (folk) Catholicism that was practiced in all the pueblos. Just as quickly as it started the first deer dance was over and the participants disappeared into the kiva to finish their dances in private…Dancing is the primary form of prayer for all Indigenous peoples.

After breakfast a second round of dances began. The first dance to open the second round was either a Comanche or Apache dance that took place on the other plaza opposite the one where the deer dance ended. Again, rainbow ribbons and bright colors shone in the sun. A number of magnificent eagle feathered war bonnets were visible on the heads of the men. Others had faces painted black, and still others wore clay on their chests, arms and legs. There were no women dancing, and the sharp yells or calls punctuated the many drums that were beating in time to the dancers feet. The stunning regalia was a feast for hungry eyes and I was left with a vision of dancing moccasins, and the music of the bells.

Suddenly a second round of deer dancing began in the other plaza and it was hard to decide which plaza to go too! This time the women joined the men and all carried turkey feathers. Some dancers including children had turkey tail feathers attached to their regalia. The women looked like exotic birds with their brightly colored shawls and feathers, many of which were scarlet red and blue – the feathers of the parrot. Small children were part of the dance and I noted how skilled these small feet danced! The men wore, what looked like, skunk fur on their moccasins to repel the witches who had come up from the underworld along with the People so long ago and were always lurking nearby, unseen.

This time only two deer people were present and these were the two deer children. Men, women, adolescents, and children participated in this dance that moved around the plaza in a great circle around the two deer and the evergreen tree that represented the forest. I noticed two more trees laying against the adobe walls in a corner that would probably be used when the hunt intensified. Again the drumming, the singing voices, the intricate dancing stopped time. My eyes couldn’t keep up with what I was seeing. At times the circle tightened around the deer people and then moved outwards. At the end of this round the deer children, or fawns, were whisked away before the remaining dancers disappeared into the kiva.

A second round also occurred at the other plaza. This all male dance seemed to spiral inward and then outward at first and I was reminded of Avanyu, the Horned Serpent who is the spirit of water and of life to the Tewa. From where I stood I was never able to determine the shape of this dance because it seemed to change directions so many times. Once again bows and arrows were commonplace, and on some headdresses the horns of the buffalo were visible, as were the blackened faces that I believe represent the men who were captured or killed in raids. The energy of this dance seemed more warlike, and many of the men carried staffs with flags of different designs, including the yellow and red sun flag of New Mexico. Before I knew it this dance too was ending and the dancers and drummers disappeared into the second kiva to finish the dance in private. Both kivas were squarish or rectangular in shape, although an unused round kiva still sat in the plaza.

The wind was starting to bite and the sun was high in a cobalt blue sky. Although there would be another round of four dances after lunch my friend Bruce and I were ready to go. I was on an emotional high!

The deer are sacred to almost all Native American tribes and I believed that what we had witnessed was an enactment of the hunt, which begins with fasting and prayer and culminates in a re-enactment in which the deer will eventually voluntarily sacrifice themselves as food for the people because they have been honored and respected by the men who hunt then. There is a covenant between the two that makes the hunt and the kill a mutual decision made by both deer and men.

These dances that occur in the various pueblos are usually the culmination of private fasting and other rituals that outsiders know nothing about. And this is how it should be because these Indigenous people embody an ancient oral tradition that remains unbroken only because its secrets are kept. I feel privileged to be a witness to Native traditions/dances that remind me that my own Passamaquoddy roots may have been severed, but Tewa Peoples have survived in spite of incredible odds. Today they are teaching the Tewa language to their children as well as encouraging them to participate in the dances when they are 3 -4 years old.

I learned this morning from the tribes lawyer that women are now allowed to take part in the decision making process of Lldefonso Pueblo, although historically the Tewa, including those of this pueblo, are patrilineal or patriarchal which means that most power historically stayed with the men. These people have demonstrated that they know how to adapt to whatever challenges and changes that come their way. This flexibility has allowed the pueblos to not only remain intact but to thrive; (their villages are beautiful) especially now with the much needed help from the casinos, casinos that I once voted against in Maine.

A Woman of Substance

 

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I first met Beatrice at the Abiquiu Library and Cultural Center when I was searching for a book. She had just started working there as a librarian after five hours of training! Beatrice has penetrating sea green eyes, and an abundance of dark curly hair with chestnut highlights that frames her lovely face. It is impossible to believe that she is old enough to be a grandmother of two. That she is unusually bright becomes obvious the moment she opens her mouth. Beatrice once told me that her mother used to tell her “an idle brain is a waste of time.” Beatrice surely got the message! She is warm and friendly, honest, talkative, and she has strong opinions like me! I liked her immediately, and as we struck up a conversation she began to tell me a little about her life…

Beatrice Garcia – Fernandez grew up Abiquiu and farmed a five acre plot in the neighboring town of Medanales with her family, a lovely area where cottonwoods tower over every other tree shading the ground in the summer. The Chama river flows through the valley nearby. A couple of her brothers still have land in this area. Beatrice’s mother still lives in the same house that her father, a construction worker, built for his family in Medanales, after Beatrice and her siblings left Abiquiu. Her mother, now 84 years old, still maintains a small garden on this property. The house with its many apple trees sits tidily behind a blue iron gate, situated near the little adobe church and not far from the “spider tree.”

Below: road in Medanales:

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As a child Beatrice’s first memories are about working in the fields with her mother and the other children who grew cucumber, tomatoes, squash, beans, pumpkins, chile, and made chile ristras to sell. Her father worked two jobs. During the day he was a construction worker/builder. When he came home her father joined his family in the fields. Beatrices’s mother eventually started one of the first farmers markets in Sante Fe and Los Alamos. Beatrice says that all her social skills were developed at the farmer’s market while she helped her mother sell the food the family grew. Beatrice’s mother brought back any produce that didn’t sell and distributed it among the people of Abiquiu who needed the food. Beatrice was also encouraged to sell fresh produce outside the local market and was able to keep the money she made.

Beatrice is passionate about her love of the land. “My parents taught me to love the earth. The land is the heart and soul of my family. I can grow anything,” she finishes with authority.” (There is never a pause between her sentences!) She is teaching both of her grandchildren to garden whenever she can. She dreams that one day she and her husband Roland will be able to afford to buy a piece of land with water rights so that they can grow their own food, as she once helped her parents do as a child.

Below: view from Beatrice’s garden

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Beatrice has a powerful work ethic, which she no doubt inherited from her parents. She has always had more than one job and simply doesn’t understand why other people don’t work! One of Beatrice’s jobs is to care for her two-year old grandchild, Tiffany, while her daughter, Andrea, teaches elementary school in Abiquiu. Some days her astute and friendly six – year old grandson Isaiah comes with her to the library to use the computers. Apparently, this child is educating Roland, his grandfather, about how to use new technology. Beatrice exclaims proudly, with deep feeling and respect, that her husband is a wonderful father and grandfather. Beatrice also looks after her mother who is 84 years old and still quite independent, most of the time.

Beatrice and Roland have known each other all their lives; they went to school together and became childhood sweethearts. When they married Beatrice was 15 and Roland was a year older. Her parents encouraged the young couple to move to the city to find work, which they did. Beatrice trained as a paralegal, a medical transcriptionist, and a bookkeeper. Beatrice has held many jobs. She worked for the state beginning with data entry and was promoted to the Department of Health/Infectious Disease, and then to the Inspector General’s office where she became an auditor. She also worked for an independent contractor running the office and presently transcribes documents for a psychologist. In her own words “she jumped from one job to another because it was interesting.”

In 2010 She and Roland, who worked as a truck driver, moved back to Abiquiu because Roland couldn’t stand living in the city any longer. At first Beatrice was angry because she liked city life but now she is glad to be home because she can be close to her mother. Today, Beatrice and her husband live in Roland’s parents’ house (which they remodeled) that is located high on a hill above the library in the part of Abiquiu named Moqui (a word that identifies the people who first lived in this part of Abiquiu as those that had Hopi heritage). This home has an astonishing view of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Beatrice proudly shows me around her small garden even though the growing season is long past. Like me, she loves flowers and we fall into conversation about what grows best where. She learned as a child how to care for the soil, so growing is as natural to her as breathing…

Beatrice’s father worked two jobs his entire life and did not want his children to work as hard for a living. He encouraged each of his offspring to seek other less physically “demanding” careers in the cities, which most of them, including Beatrice, did.

A prime example is her brother Rudy Garcia has a Master’s Degree in Soil Conservation and presently works for the State of New Mexico as a Regional Soil and Health specialist (USDA and Natural Resources Conservation Services For New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado). His long – term vision is to help his people (and others) produce, quality, nutritious and affordable food by learning how to keep the soil healthy. When he gave a presentation here last November I was impressed. Rudy’s obvious intelligence, extensive knowledge base, and ability to reach people at any level demonstrated his extraordinary competence in the field of soil health. Like Beatrice, Rudy learned the basics of soil technology from farming with his parents as a child. And even during the presentation he credited his father for teaching him the basics of what he knows.

Although the Pueblo people developed The “three sister’s technology” to grow nutritious foods in arid conditions the last few generations have moved away from farming and good nutrition. Historically, Corn, beans, and squash were grown supplemented by hunting elk, deer, buffalo, and rabbits, watercress, wild roots, plants for medicinal purposes, and pinion pine nuts. Today, it is people like Beatrice and Rudy that can lead the people back to growing healthy food. Beatrice told me that her family spent one weekend last November up in the surrounding mountains gathering pinion nuts, just as her ancestors did. During famines these seeds sometimes kept the people in the pueblos from starvation. Today the riparian area next to the Chama River supports hundreds of apple and other fruit trees and many crops are grown. All are watered by the acequias that are dug into the ground downhill from the river that allowing the water to irrigate the land. Each spring these ditches have to be cleaned out, and water rights are shared by all.

When I visited the Tewa outdoor market in Pojoaque last fall I was amazed by the diversity of the produce being sold (The Tewa are Pueblo peoples who speak the same language and who live in this immediate area). Like Beatrice’s family once did, these people do not use pesticides as part of their growing practice, and consequently these fruits, vegetables, beans and buffalo meat are all organic, and reasonably priced.

After Beatrice’s father died eight years ago, most of her children (including Beatrice and her family) lived in other parts of New Mexico so her mother sold the five acres of farming land that she and her husband owned for$ 600. 00 dollars. In order to understand why her mother did this it is important to recall that neither parent advocated farming as a viable profession for any of their children because it was such hard work. Today, her mother bemoans this decision since Beatrice is the one daughter who would be only too willing to farm the land, if her mother still owned it. Unfortunately, land with water rights has sky rocketed in price even more than other acreage in the Abiquiu area. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe brought fame to this valley with her paintings, and one unintended consequence of the 40 years she spent living here is that Abiquiu continues to draw very wealthy people to this land of astonishing natural beauty. Today, one acre of land with water rights might sell for as much as $150,000 thousand dollars, a price that few can afford. I am dismayed that the original inhabitants of this area have been priced out of buying land to farm unless they inherit it.

Although the little sign at the top of the hill names Abiquiu as a pueblo, strictly speaking the village is not generally recognized as one, at least by the surrounding Tewa speaking pueblo peoples. This is because this pueblo was settled by Genizaros, people of mixed heritage.

In the book that Beatrice’s uncle wrote and published about working for artist Georgia O’Keefe as a young boy/adult (The Genizaro and the Artist”), Nepoleon Garcia complained that people asked him repeatedly what it meant to be a Genizaro.

In order to give the word genizaro context it is important to know a little about the history of the Pueblo people in this area. After the pueblo revolt of 1680, in which the Pueblos successfully fended of the Spanish for 12 years, the Spanish finally took control of the land around the upper Rio Grande. Few are aware that the Plains’ Indians maintained an active Native American slave trade during this period. The Spaniards, colonists, and some Pueblos bought or traded children with the Plains Indians. These Native American women and children captured in warfare were converted to Catholicism, taught Spanish/English, and held in servitude by New Mexican families. Although the slaves were freed as adults most of these people chose to stay with their captors, since many had families already. However, some did leave and today, descendants of these people (who later intermarried with Spaniards), live in a few scattered villages in this region. One such village or pueblo is Abiquiu. The Genizaros of Abiquiu were the recipients of an official Land Grant of 16,000 acres given to the people by the Spanish governor in 1754, a grant that remains in effect today. The Genizaros have Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, Apache and some Hopi Indian roots. Today the 300 year old villages are starting to tell their stories…

Beatrice is a Genizaro who is very proud of her Indian and Spanish roots. When I comment on her granddaughter’s curly black hair Beatrice tells me with pride that this is because of her Spanish heritage.

She is also a feminist who has no use for men who desert their women, wives, and children. She tells me proudly that when the pueblo burned (it burned three times in all) it was the women who rebuilt the homes. “Even today, the imprint of their hands can still be seen on the three foot thick walls” she states with pride.

Beatrice is very enthusiastic about educating her family into traditional ways. She listens carefully to the stories her mother tells her. When Beatrice lost her father more than ten years ago she said that “she didn’t know enough” to ask him about his experiences and regrets this loss of her family history. Beatrice is “not very religious” when referring to her Catholic affiliation but she was very upset when her daughter was not allowed to participate as a dancer at the Indigenous celebration last fall.

Abiquiu pueblo celebrates both its Indigenous and Spanish heritage with two festivals held each year. The Feast of Santo Tomas, is enacted every November to honor the Genizaros’ Indigenous roots, and specifically the children and young women who were sold into slavery. After Mass, drumming can be heard coming from inside the church. The church bells ring solemnly. Moments later the Santo appears carried by some of the men, and behind the saint, four young female dancers with red circles on their cheeks (to denote purity) accompanied by one male dancer appear in vibrant blood red Indian regalia that depicts the peoples’ anguish over the loss of these young women and children to slavery. These dancers move around the church and finish in the plaza. Periodically, a single gunshot can be heard. According to Giberto Benito Cordova’s folk history, the guns are fired to frighten away evil spirits that might be lurking around the church. After the traditional dances are over everyone is invited to a delicious meal at the home of one of the hosts. Traditional hot soup, Pozole, is served along with delicious cookies, Biscochitos, while live music is played by musicians on the guitar and violin. After lunch everyone is invited to dance in the ever expanding circle before guests depart, walking down the hill.

In August the people’s Spanish heritage is honored at the church ruins located about three miles from Abiquiu with the participants wending their way back to the church of Santo Tomas. The Feast of Santa Rosa de Lima is a time of celebration and the festivities go on all day.

According to its mission statement, The Library and Cultural Center was established “to provide resources for residents and neighboring communities to educate young people (and adults) about this region’s history and culture.” This group is also dedicated to protecting the land and water rights of Abiquiu pueblo. This organization is made up of Genizaros like Isabel Trujillo from the Pueblo and other dedicated folks from neighboring communities. It has done a wonderful job providing educational resources of all kinds, especially books about the history of this area, although it is totally dependent on grants for financial help. Cultural activities occur periodically at the library. Two recent examples come to mind. One was the presentation given by Beatrice’s brother, Rudy Garcia. Another was a book reading given by author and artist Sabra Moore. In the front of the library is a beautiful sculptured clay mosaic created by the children of Abiquiu with help from a talented artist and writer, Sabra Moore.

Beatrice is very honest about the difficulties that plague some of Abiquiu’s present population. She says some young people are leaving because they need jobs, and that theft and drugs are sometimes problems that afflict the pueblo. She expresses dismay over the fact that some people do not seem to care about their heritage.

Beatrice has a complaint about the Abiquiu Artists Tour that is held each fall in October. There are talented artists that live in Abiquiu pueblo that cannot afford the $250.00 fee required to participate in the Tour, and thus many Genizaros are left out of a community event that could bring some much needed income to the Pueblo.

Another grievance that Beatrice has is that during the tourist season many buses arrive everyday with people who are going to visit Georgia O Keeffe’s house at the northeastern edge of the plaza for a fee of 35.00 per person. Some of these people are very rude, wandering up the hills to people’s houses and taking pictures without asking permission. Having witnessed these infractions myself I wondered why the Georgia O’ Keeffe Foundation would permit such behavior. I believe that the pueblo of Abiquiu should be financially compensated for these continuous disruptions that plague the village, occurring over a period of about seven months a year, every year. Surely, Georgia O’Keeffe would approve of this idea, because during her lifetime she brought water into people’s homes, built a gymnasium, and used her money in other ways to help the people of Abiquiu without trying to change them.

One afternoon Beatrice and I drove up through Abiquiu so that I could see the whole pueblo without being intrusive. I was very grateful to have this opportunity because the scenery is stunning. Abiquiu is nestled in between two mesas, with a creek running in between. The sense I have is that the village evolved as an extension of these juniper tipped mountains, with modest houses, and some trailers tucked into the hillside. I was very curious to learn about the Pentitentes, or the Brothers of Light who practiced prayer especially during Holy Week in the Morada del Alto, a church – like structure that sits alone on one of the hills overlooking the Chama valley. This organization is connected to the Catholic Church, but also functions separately from Santo Tomas.

I learned from reading The Genizaro and the Artist that just after Christianity came to Abiquiu, there were not enough priests to officiate and that the Brothers of Light became servants of the church performing Rosaries for the dead, preparing burial plots, assisting grieving families, and caring for widows and orphans. They also performed marriages and baptisms. Today, the mission of the Brothers is to help the people of Abiquiu in times of need and to pray for them. Beatrice told me that inside the Morada there is a frightening doll -like figure called Madre de Muerto (Mother of Death) who has real human hair and who terrified her the one time she saw it.

Early in December the hood of a car fell on Beatrice’s hand breaking some bones. She could not drive and told me that without the support of her husband and family she didn’t know how she would have managed.

“My life is not my own” she quipped the last time I saw her, laughing, but we both knew she spoke the truth. Beatrice’s Life is inextricably woven into the tapestry of her extended family and her culture, and there are endless responsibilities associated with both that Beatrice takes very seriously. Whenever she has the time to spend with me I am grateful, for indeed we have a lot in common, and I continue to be delighted by her very active mind and practical wisdom, her effervescent personality, and her generosity of spirit. With people like Beatrice carrying on both family and cultural history, and organizations like the library, I feel confident that Abiquiu will be able to move forward into a future that allows for self sufficiency, creativity, and as a community that engenders hope because its present culture is still intact. My one prayer for Beatrice is that someday she and her husband will own their own land, and Beatrice can follow her dream of growing her own food as she once did as a child.

In the Beginning

A Day In Santa Fe

 

Indescribable Art.

 

Roxanne Swentzell is a contemporary pueblo artist who “focuses on interpretive female portraits attempting to bring back the balance of power between male and female (that is) inherently recognized in her own culture.”

 

Photographs are forbidden in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture but I copied down this Creation story that was written on the wall behind one of Roxanne’s sculptures. Roxanne comes from the pueblo of Santa Clara, a Tewa speaking people.

 

In the beginning

tucked in the dark womb

of Our Mother,

the urge struck us that we

might venture out.

At the same moment

Our Mother tilted the bowl

of Life, and poured us

Forward into our lives.

The Journey begins.

 

Flowers on Tsikumu*

are calling us.

We step forward.

The birds’ wings

Fan our feelings

We step forward.

Tracks in soft dirt

of antelope, bear and lion.

We step forward,

our breath joins all there is.

We joyfully step forward.

Mother of all things,

Bless our journey,

as we step forward.

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* Sacred Mountain

Thank you Bruce.

 

Eagle Day

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It was zero on my outdoor thermometer when I took the dogs for their early morning walk under a brilliant January sun, grateful that today there would be no wind because Bruce and I were going to spend at least two hours outdoors on a look out point spying for eagles.

The drive to Abiquiu lake was stunning. All the hills were covered with a fine coating of snow that seemed to etch and pull each rounded peak forward, highlighting the layers upon layers of mountains that lay behind one another – creating an undulating earth tapestry. Here and there patches of red were visible. As always the colors of the stone cliffs that lined the highway on one side captured my attention. Bruised purple, lavender, pink, ochre, buff and red rock provided a continuous visual feast for hungry eyes.

Below: red hills and mountains from look out

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Many people turned out for this bird watching/counting event, and a brief power point presentation inside the Core of Engineers’ office discussed some of the reasons for this event. I recalled that southern bald eagles were smaller than those in the northeast, but neglected to ask what the differences amounted to in weight. I learned that no one knows why there are so few bald eagles in New Mexico. I puzzled over this conundrum because there are many areas of open water and the Rio Grande flows through the state. I was discouraged to hear that eagles were still being shot in this state and that lead poisoning was still the second cause of death for these majestic predators. We were also told that eagles were quite “lazy” a word I wouldn’t use to describe eagle behavior because I know from personal experience that these birds are opportunistic choosing to steal fish or game that has been caught by others if they have the chance, in order to conserve precious energy, but who also hunt extensively on their own. I think this flexible attitude of theirs speaks to eagle intelligence. To cite another example – it is well known that Corvids like crows and ravens all use the same techniques for hunting if they can get away with it. These birds also use tools and have been studied extensively for intelligence (see Biologist Bernrd Heinrich’s work).

Before the group dispersed – some went on two boats and the rest of us were directed to look out points on land – we got a chance to meet Maxwell, a captive adult male eagle who could not be returned to the wild because of a wing injury. I have spent a lot of time in my kayak watching the eagles on North Pond (in Maine) raise their young, but I had never been this close to a live eagle before. Poor Maxwell seemed very nervous, and who could blame him? We were all enthralled, and busy snapping too many pictures for his comfort. A couple of times he tried to fly up and away. His great talons looked deadly and I was surprised to learn that he could only carry two pounds of prey. I knew for a fact that northern eagles made away with unsuspecting cats and adult loons who often weighed much more than two pounds! I had personally witnessed an adult cat capture on a neighbor’s field in Maine, a few years ago.

Maxwell’s sharp curved beak was huge (and larger than that of the golden eagle whose territory overlapped that of the bald eagles in this area) but it was his ice blue eyes that bored holes through me when I looked into them. The other thing that struck me forcibly was the sight of his pure white tail feathers, which fanned out both times Maxwell tried to escape. The feathers were Sangre de Christo mountain white, the color of newly fallen snow. Almost blue.

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Dispersing to the look out point that Bruce had chosen I felt excited by the prospect of sighting eagles soaring in the air. When we reached the top of the knoll (almost) about ten or fifteen of us we all began to scan the horizon. We were in radio contact with all the other folks and it wasn’t long before the first eagle was spotted. I found it difficult to find this particular bird that was perched on what seemed like a very low snag. He looked small in the distance. We had seen a couple more eagles when someone spotted a female mule deer running down below us. I was thrilled. I have lived here since last August, and although I have seen tracks, I have yet to spot a mule deer in the flesh. I had forgotten how mule deer bound – almost bounce along – because it has been 20 years since I last saw one in Arizona.

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Above Abiquiu lake from our look out point

To my utter amazement, a few moments later we glimpsed a male mule deer, with a full set of antlers, enter the water just below us and begin to swim. I was dumbfounded! The Park Ranger remarked that he was trying to get away from us and I concurred. People hunt both deer and elk and because of that they both have learned to fear humans. (I just hoped that men hunted them primarily for food, as the Tewa do). Watching the buck through binoculars, I was riveted by the sight of this majestic animal almost completely submerged except for his rack of antlers. I tried to count the number of points but he was swimming across the lake to the other side, and my eyes simply couldn’t keep focusing long enough to see. But it really didn’t matter. The sense of wonder I experienced was overpowering. I have lived around white tailed deer in the north most of my life and feed about 30 during the winter but I have NEVER seen a deer swimming across a lake before! When the buck reached the other side he seemed uncertain as to where he was going next. By this time my binoculars felt too heavy and I stopped watching him, just grateful to have been part of this astonishing experience.

What a day full of adventures! All in all 12 eagles were counted and this seemed like a respectable number to me. When Bruce and I drove home we saw two more of these birds sitting in a cottonwood down by the river.

Later, reflecting on the experience as a whole, I was struck by the sense of balance inherent in the sighting of the eagle, a magnificent predator of the sky, and the male buck with his beautiful rack of antlers. It seemed to me that both sky and earth had conspired to gift us with the sight of two animals, both of which are held in great esteem by Indigenous peoples and by others of us who are not.

Close up shots of Maxwell taken by Bruce Nelson

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A Sense of Wonder…

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Whenever I go to my friend Iren’s house I am astonished anew by the art – work that defines this particular landscape, inside and out. Iren creates art in every medium I can think of often utilizing Nature as her collaborator by using found objects, wood, stone, bones, shells, metal, glass to create highly original sculptured art forms.

Take the garage for example, not usually a place one thinks of as an artist’s canvas. The windows are made of old bottles whose colors shine brilliantly – amber, grass green, and cobalt – in the late afternoon sun. There are wooden panels replete with metal objects arranged in such a way that my eye returns again and again to the powerful and intriguing designs; these panels are hanging on the walls above the carpenter’s equipment that lines one side of the room.

Iren uses the chain saw like an old friend to cut the log I brought with me in two. Turning next to the table saw, she shapes one piece of the pinion pine into what will become another piece of Iren’s most original art. Awed by her expertise using these machines I ask her where she learned these skills. Iren tells me that her father taught her to use these tools as a child. I suddenly think of the gorgeous dining room table and chairs inside the house built by her dad…

I am delighted, excited, honored to be witness to this process of hers. Ideas are flowing, even as she runs the edges of the split log over rough sandpaper. We both comment on the sweet intoxicating scent of the newly cut wood as she shaves off its irregular edges effortlessly. We run our hands over the extraordinarily beautiful design that the bark beetles created while they devoured the cambium layer beneath the bark of what once was the trunk or branch of a tree. I am amazed by the fact that this destructive beetle created such beauty while it was killing the evergreen, and how Iren’s creative mind and hand is turning a piece of this conifer into an object that is more than a canvas depicting natural art.

“We can drill three holes in the top for sticks.” This remark excites me. The use of the word “we” is more than generous, since I am simply observing. But it reveals a lot about Iren’s character, her generosity of spirit, the manner in which she invites and draws a person into her world… I suddenly imagine gnarled roots coming out of the newly flattened and lightly sanded top with its three holes… “Which size drill shall we use?” she asks next, as she shows me the different sizes and we both agree on the same one.

“We could bore holes for some stones on the side,” she states more as a question to which I instantly agree. In the next breath she hands me the wood and gives me a pencil to mark the places where the holes will go to complement Beetle’s designs. I love every idea that springs to her mind. Iren picks up the drill and I watch as the drill bit grinds three holes in seconds. Each is quickly sanded. We discuss what we might do to bring out the design. Perhaps a little more sanding. Olive oil and beeswax are two other possibilities.

We leave the garage in the golden late afternoon sun walking swiftly to the studio. My eyes fasten on the rounded metal sculpture with scissors to my left, and then jump to the beautifully sculptured adobe wall with a niche containing what looks like a small statue of a goddess that Iren built to hide a gas tank. Every time I pass the wall I want to go through the small inviting wooden door! As usual I am lagging behind her. There is just too much about this landscape to feast my eyes on.

Once inside the spacious studio with its tower that overlooks the river, and which has to be the best place in the world to watch the full moon appear over the eastern horizon, Iren pulls out tin boxes. One is hexagonal in shape. Even Iren’s containers intrigue me. I pour through the stones with the eyes of a child, thrilled. There are three holes to fill. The blue green copper pieces catch my eye. I choose two. “How about a piece of coral?” she asks. Perfect, I think, as I choose a small irregular shape, a fragment of the sea creature that lives at the bottom of the sea… Iren’s already rolling little glue balls and puts a couple in the holes before handing the wood to me to press the last glue ball and the three chosen objects into place.

Just like that we are done.

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“We’re running a bit late,” Iren remarks as I snap back into linear time. I shake my head trying to catch up with the switch. This whole art-making process took less than two hours and it’s time to go back to the house to feed my two little girls (that happen to be canines)…

As always I leave here with regret. Once again I have spent a mystical, magical afternoon at Iren’s house with a woman who stops time, allowing me to become the child I once was. Thank you Iren.

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Above: Picture of half a log – look at the designs!

Poshuouinge

 

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Above: Photograph of Kiva site .

The first time I climbed up the rubbly rocky switch-back path to the ruins it was a beautiful blue and gold autumn day. The view of the river valley, the surrounding mountains with the Sangre de Christo range rising in the distance was absolutely stunning. The mesa is situated about 150 feet above the Chama river. I could see the outline of the dark brown buildings, the rocky remains of the Poshuouinge ruins stretching out in front of me. I sat down on a flat stone beside the path imagining what it must have been like to live here around 1375 CE when the pueblo was first built and inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Tewa speaking people. Apparently there were about 700 ground floor rooms, and some were three stories high. The pueblo had two main plazas and a large kiva near the center of the eastern courtyard. There were two springs nearby for water. I wondered if the women plastered the mud walls here like they did in neighboring Abiquiu.

The Pueblo Indians are one of the oldest cultures in the United States (perhaps the oldest). They are believed to be descendants of the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi peoples with their history tracing back 7,000 -10,000 years. The Anasazi (“Ancient Ones”), believed to be ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, inhabited the Four Corners country of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300, leaving a heavy accumulation of house remains and debris behind when most migrated to New Mexico.

Recent research has traced the Anasazi to the “archaic” peoples who practiced a wandering, hunting, and food-gathering life-style from about 6000 B.C. until some of them began to develop into the distinctive Anasazi culture in the last millennium BC. They built pueblos on tops of mesas or in hollowed out natural caves at the base of canyons. During the last two centuries BC, the people began to supplement their food gathering with growing maize. By 1200 CE subsistence farming was a way of life. They hunted, grew corn, squash, and beans, raised turkeys, and developed complex irrigation systems.

The Tewa are a linguistic group of Pueblo Indians who speak the Tewa language and share the same pueblo culture. The word Tewa means: village above the muddy river. Their homelands are near or on the Rio Grande and Chama rivers north of Santa Fe. Included in this group at present are the pueblos of Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Okay Owningeh (San Juan), and Santa Clara. Today, the once oral language of Tewa is being taught to children who are learning to read the language as well as to speak it.

The Tewa have a story about their origins. In the beginning they were one people. As they began their journey they divided themselves into two groups called the summer (squash) people and the winter (turquoise) people. They traveled along the banks of the two big rivers, the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande making many stops along the way, building a village at each location. When the people reunited they built one village together. It was called Posi- ounge, and this ruin is situated a few miles south from Poshuouinge along with a number of others some of which are now on private property…

Poshuouinge was one of the larger pueblos. About 1500 Indigenous peoples made their homes here for about 100 years before the pueblo was abandoned. The Tewa people of Poshuouinge were using terraced gardens. They grew maize, beans and squash and also hunted deer, elk, and rabbits and gathered pinion nuts, wild plants and roots. Oral histories tell us that an epidemic struck and the people were forced to leave. Climate change may have also been a factor that forced the people to abandon this and many other ancestral pueblos. Poshuouinge was definitely deserted before the European invasion began, as were many other pueblos in this area. Descendants of these people now live in Abiquiu, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and San Juan or Okay Owingeh.image4.JPGThe sense of peace that I experienced sitting on the rock that first afternoon called me back to the mesa a number of times. The last time I climbed the stony path was just before the winter solstice on a beautiful warm almost winter day. The sun was so low that it cast deep shadows on the hills and surrounding mountains. In the distance to the east, the Rockies were covered with snow. As always, the view was astonishing. Is this why I had missed the petroglyphs the first couple of times I walked up the steep hill beyond the ruins?

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Above: Big Bird with hole below for offerings?

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Above: Serpent attached to ?

When I first saw “Big Bird” I wondered what kind of bird the artist was thinking of when he pecked this petroglyph into the basalt rock. Was this a turkey? On the other side I saw another drawing. This one depicted a serpent swimming horizontally; the snake was connected to some kind of figure I couldn’t identify. I had seen this type of petroglyph before and its meaning continued to escape me. Serpents, however, appeared on most of the petroglyphs I had seen thus far and were associated with the element of water as well as with the underworld. On this same rock there was also a smooth area that was used as some kind of grinding/sharpening stone? Very curious. Another eagle-like bird petroglyph was pecked into the side of this same rock. As I gazed into the distance I imagined that this spot must have been a lookout because it was about half way up the steep hill and the ground was level around the rock. The Tewa, (who were peaceful people) feared the nomadic warrior tribes like the Comanche, Ute, and Apache and even the Navajo that raided these pueblos and often took Indians as slaves – particularly the children.

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Above – grinding stone?

I had brought some blue cornmeal as an offering to “feed” the spirits who lived here. I left some on this rock that also had a strange looking hole bored into it. It suddenly occurred to me that these holes might be places to leave offering too.

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A bit further on I discovered a stone that must have once held a petroglyph that had been completely lifted off. I felt a sharp sense of grief. What part of the story has been lost as a result of this pillaging?

As I climbed to the summit the view claimed my attention once again. Whenever I came here I felt as if I could see forever… It seemed to me that these Pueblo peoples chose places that were stunningly beautiful for their homes in addition to being well suited for their protection.

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I wanted to follow the path further but it was getting cold. Ruefully I acknowledged that every time I came to this place time ceased to be…I wondered if the Ancestral Spirits of Place captured me in some indefinable way.

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Retracing my steps I made a quick descent to the mesa. Unable to resist leaving the path, I wandered over to the ruins to look at the pottery shards scattered on the ground. I had already learned that the earliest pieces of pottery were those with designs – black on white. I picked up a piece of plain black pottery, and then one that was earth toned. There were a few shards of buff with red. Each piece was a different shape and I imagined putting the shards together to form a mosaic…

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Putting down the gently curved clay pieces my eye caught a gleam of bitter orange. This stone I knew was chert, most often used for making arrowheads. There were many small chips gleaming in the late afternoon sun. I knew that the Tewa and their ancestors traveled to the Pedernal, the flat mountain on which (Navajo) Changing Woman had been born, to get this particular stone because it made the sharpest arrowheads. There were translucent smoky gray, black obsidian, and midnight blue chips as well as rusty orange flecks. I also found a few pieces of what I thought might be pipestone. Sadly, scattered throughout the ruins there were also deep holes that had been dug into the ground by thieves to find whole pots and other artifacts that were then sold illegally.

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Meandering back to the path I passed junipers that wafted a sweet and pungent scent when I touched them. I reluctantly made my descent as the sun slipped below the horizon thanking the spirits of place for another timeless experience on this mesa that I had come to love.

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The above photo was taken by my friend Iren Schio. Three concentric circles might represent the three worlds as understood by the Tewa. I still haven’t found this one!