Sapawe is an ancestral Tewa Pueblo located outside of El Rito. Until this weekend I had never been to the ruin. I didn’t know, for example, that it was the largest ruin in New Mexico, and perhaps the entire Southwest or that during the period it was built and occupied (1300- 1500’s) that ten thousand people lived there. Estimates suggest that there were at least 1,800 ground rooms and twenty – three kivas. Walking around the huge compound is something I have yet to do. It was too hot for me to do more than take in the astonishing view or traverse a small part of the plateau, briefly. I did note that there were artifacts and planned to come back another time – soon.
Early yesterday morning I met with four other people to see the shrine that was located outside the pueblo. This was the place that secret ceremonies were held on behalf of all the people in the pueblo. On the surface all that could be seen was a large raised stone circle, but there was a sense of presence there that felt both powerful and peaceful probably because few people knew about this shrine and the natural power of place had not had a chance to dissipate. After having explored a couple of other Tewa ruins, I learned that it was very important to allow place to speak in its own time, and to allow that to happen I had to return again and again with an open heart, eyes that could see beyond the obvious, and an active inner ear … The land speaks to those that can listen.
When the leader, a kind local man pointed out an almost juniper hidden standing stone as the East entrance marker to the shrine, another man, who turned out to be Tewa, said quietly, “there is only one way in and one way out of the circle and it is marked by the stone which is always placed in the east.” Immediately, awareness struck – he knows what transpired here – I felt him “reading” the land as we walked. I watched carefully as he picked up an artifact. “This was probably a stone that held paint” he said, turning the oblong hollowed out stone over in his hands before placing it back on the ground.
Little by little the others dropped away as the man began to talk… I listened, dropping deeper and deeper into my body with each word. Although he had never been to Sapawe before he told me that he knew how the people lived here because the Tewa still lived. “Archeologists speak of us as if we are dead but we are here, and we have the stories, and our ceremonies are the same.” He told me that he had come to the conference because it was important for the Tewa to work with the archeologists. So he was a cultural bridge -builder, like me. He said he had to use sociologist terms like “values” to discuss the spiritual aspects of the material world, which for him, as for me, were one. “There is no separation, and archeologists don’t understand this… this is why I farm, because our spiritual lives are tied directly to the land. Our spirit is the land.” He laughed then, saying that he was out in his field spraying Neem oil on his squash plants at 1:30 in the morning the night before! I nodded. He was talking to a plant woman… we were on the same wavelength and we both knew it.
His next words upset me, “the Tewa live now but the old ways are dying. The young people are not following the elders. They are too impatient. They want money and don’t want to work the land, and they are too young to feel that the spirit of the land is alive, and living through them.”
“Are you sure, I asked him. The Tewa still have their stories, the dances that acknowledge every turn on the agricultural wheel…” my words faded away as I experienced the sudden paralyzing fear of loss because the Tewa are part of the reason I came here, and certainly one of the primary reasons why I am staying. I am a woman with Indigenous roots that has no tribe. The Passamaquoddy/Maliseet have been wiped out as have most tribes in the northeast. All my life I have been disconnected from a people whose ways were my own and it has been very lonely. Moving onto land that belongs to the Tewa has allowed me to feel supported by invisible threads. To lose that connection now would be devastating to me. I belong to the land; I am the land and these Tewa ceremonies have been my own, although I didn’t know it until I came here.
He continued, “I was talking to an elder who told me that it was the young people’s choice to leave the old ways behind and that there was little to be done to stop it. The Spanish tried to destroy us, the Mexican’s did too and now the United States is succeeding.” I felt an involuntary chill.
“But what will happen then” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear what he had to say.
“The young people will become confused and when all is finally lost then the Creator will return to restore not just the Tewa but all tribal peoples to the land.”
I experienced wild hope surfacing… I had heard words to this effect before but assumed that the people needed that story to go on. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure… something about the way this man talked to me made me believe him. He exuded a complex sense of deep humility, knowledge and authority. I thought about the ravages of Climate Change and the disgusting cross-cultural belief that the Earth’s job was to serve humanity. My rational brain went on overload giving me a thousand reasons why what he predicted couldn’t be true, almost as if it needed to win this round (ah, Patriarchy exposes itself – if you don’t win you lose). Yes, it was true that we were in a state of breakdown… he didn’t deny it but he also made it clear that this was not the end. First we had to survive the breakdown, and living through it is a challenge that some like me live with every day. These are dark times.
I thought of my relationship to the Earth then, how intimate it was, how she was my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my daughter, my lover, and how this relationship that sustained me when all else failed and whose foundation – Love – might be enough. Somehow.
That Nature loved me unconditionally was a reality, that she supported me was a reality, that she guided me was a reality – maybe that relationship was strong enough to overcome the final destruction of a killer culture.
My friend never said that all people would survive, what he said was that those whose lives were tied to the land would live on. And yet there was nothing about exclusivity or being a “chosen” people that was part of this thinking. It was simple. Nature responded to those that loved her. She took relationship with her humans seriously and responded in an unconditional loving manner. I knew this from ten thousand personal experiences over a lifetime. Perhaps our love of the Earth, our willingness to suffer heartbreak, torment, torture, even breakdown on her behalf might result in some sort of miracle like the one he spoke of. I didn’t know but now, thanks to him, a new door had opened for me. It was my task to keep it open…not to slip back into what I thought I knew from living through global catastrophe.
I thought about “new age” thinking – the belief that all you had to do was to “transcend” reality – step outside the murky waters of doubt, suffering, and fear – leave the heartbreak of the tortured earth behind, thousands of dead animals, drought, the millions of trees on fire, floods, polluted waters, air, and soil, and you would be free to make judgments about the rest of us who live in the world, not above it (we’re better than you – another tenet of Patriarchy). How utterly revolting, selfish, disgraceful, and insensitive… Above the fray, patronizing pronouncements of peace and tranquility can be made with impunity and superiority. The powers of denial were thriving in new age bubble thinking. All this when Earth desperately needs us to suffer with her, to be witness to her travail, so that together we might reach new awareness, another shore…
We walked and he spoke of many things that I am not at liberty to share, but as our meeting ended he said to me “the Creator told me to come to this conference to find people who would be able to help create bridges between tribal cultures and you are one of them. I was stunned into silence. Numb. I had nothing to give, Nothing. Believe me, I knew. I had been asking the same question every day for years – what can I do? What could this man be referring to? And then I blurted out “I am a writer…”
It wasn’t until later that afternoon after returning from the shrine that I had an illumination. One of the Tewa Grandfathers had incarnated through this elder.
It wasn’t just the Tewa Grandmothers that were speaking to me these days, but the Grandfathers too…