Thursday, August 16, 2012

People and Place

Lots of people have tried to describe what constitutes the enchantment of New Mexico, "The Land of Enchantment."  It's a subject I've wrestled with a few times myself -- not very successfully.

I've driven out here dozens of times over the years. The first time we came to New Mexico in 1982 was by driving hell-bent for leather from California on the way to St. Louis (I had work there.)  There was a moment and a vision on that drive -- and on every subsequent one -- that triggered the sense of enchantment: the cleft between those painted cliffs which I've long called a Baroque Mesa at the border between Arizona and New Mexico.

This is kennedymarijuanaseed's video that gives you some idea of the gasp-worthy visuals at the crossing. (I have some photos, but they aren't loaded to this computer, so...)

It's breathtaking. And for me at any rate, the instant we cross over from Arizona into New Mexico, we are in a different environment. The sky is different. It's clearer and bluer, a nearly sapphire deep blue. The clouds are whiter and fluffier. The land is different, still high desert, but not like Arizona. It's less, how shall I say, manipulated for gain, and people's presence seems much lighter on the earth. It's Navajo country on both sides of the border, one is in Dinetah no matter which side of the line you're on, but the New Mexico side seems spiritually much freer. My heart soars on crossing the border.

That's the first enchantment for a visitor driving through. You see something you aren't really expecting given the flat arid high desert of Arizona's eastern sector, and you're transported into another world.

You see Indians everywhere; you hear their languages on the radio; you can get some frybread or oven bread at the stands along the road or in surprise locations where you don't expect to find such things. There are horses and sheep wandering free.

The place seems laden with silver and turquoise.

As you travel east, you see a series of red mesas marching along in formation, but soon enough you're in the presence of Mt. Taylor, known to the Diné as Tsoodził, "the Sleeping Woman." If the light is just right -- which it often is -- the reason for the Navajo name of the mountain is obvious. There is a long haired woman sleeping on her side taking up the whole top of the mountain.

We like to stop for a bite at a place called the Kiva Cafe in Milan, just under the mountain -- which you can't see from the ground because the peak is hiding behind a mesa. The place is often packed with people from the area out for lunch or dinner, many of them Indians. The food is abundant and good and the staff is friendly -- if sometimes harried! Next door is the Chaco Canyon Trading Company, which is a remarkably fine and complete place to find Indian jewelry (some made on the spot), pottery, and other items. Most of what they sell is made by nearby artisans, much of it of very high quality and at prices that are certainly fair. The total experience at this location (it's also a truck stop and convenience store) is very down to earth, not at all what you may encounter in the more fashionable places frequented by denizens and visitors to Santa Fe, say. 

At one time I didn't care for Santa Fe at all. I didn't even want to go anywhere near it, I had such a bad reaction to the place. After a while, I found out why. I was a smoker, you see, and Santa Fe is at an altitude of 7,000 ft. It's very, very difficult for someone who smokes heavily like I did and has not adapted to the altitude to breathe in such a rarefied atmosphere. The body reacts as if you are suffocating -- which in a way you are -- and most people suffering under those conditions get very crabby, essentially panicking. 

I could recognize what was happening after I stopped smoking, but not until then. 

I still mock Santa Fe as "Fanta Se" and otherwise poke fun at the pretensions of so many Santa Feans, both newly minted and some of the crusty old timers. But it's no longer a problem being there, nor do I tend to become panicked because "I can't breathe!" 

Yesterday we had a surprisingly delightful time in the City Different, going up to attend some events as part of Indian Market week. There were some Navajo made short films playing at the History Museum, and in the afternoon, there was a book-signing at the Collected Works bookstore featuring about a dozen Native American artists whose work was featured in Contemporary Native American Artists by Suzanne Deats and Kitty Leaken. 

We also attended a workshop on support for Native American documentary film making presented by Native American Public Telecommunications. Ah, the grant process! I've been out of that realm for quite a while, but it's like riding a bicycle. You never actually forget how, though your skills may become rusty with disuse. It was really a useful presentation, though it's not clear that either the "White Guys" or the Indians in attendance (and one Filipino) could realistically participate in the program. Personally, I've never been fond of the film making process though I've been in some movies and have dabbled in making a few films and videos -- but generally only in support of theatrical projects. For their part, many film makers have trouble appreciating the theatrical process, and it is not as if one is superior to the other. They are different, and to my mind their purposes are quite different as well. I have been more attuned to and more comfortable in the theater-making process than in the movie making process.

Be that as it may, I learned a great deal about how Native Americans can gain valuable assistance in documentary film making through the NAPT. Some of the productions they've supported include "Good Meat," "Reel Injuns," and "Thick Dark Fog" among many others. 

After the workshop, we attended a showing of Navajo made short films, collectively called "Navajo Paradiso." It was quite a variety of styles and topics, all with a Navajo perspective, some spoken in the Navajo language. The film-makers were all in attendance and spoke afterwards about their work and process and intent. 

I found myself quite drawn to two of the works. One, called "Floating," was surprisingly compelling. I say surprisingly because it was so... edgy... a non-Indian is smoking dope and trying to fix hot dogs while arguing on the phone with his (Navajo) girlfriend in what the film maker referred to as an "epic" redundant conversation. Yes. It was. OMG. Stylistically, the film was innovative -- clever cuts and dissolves, unusual screen proportion manipulations, unexpected visual and auditory moments. It would not change your life by any means but it was certainly a definitive slice of what you might call an ordinary life. 

The other was titled "The 6th World," an innovative Navajo science fiction picture centering on a future mission to Mars which relies on corn (as it happens, Indian corn) to provide oxygen for the trip and to form the basis of terraforming the red planet. It wasn't a fully-developed idea, but it was a start on a topic that could prove fascinating to explore in film and other formats. Just how would Navajos and other Native peoples approach a Mission to Mars or the other planets? (According to Buffy Sainte-Marie, an old Indian told her after the moon landing in 1969, "You know, they really ought to leave that Moon alone.")

The film makers were mostly women (there were two men), they were young, enthusiastic, creative in different ways, and each film was unique. The film makers were exploring the medium and the possibilities of story telling through film. None of the films was particularly polished (which is not meant as a criticism), but neither were they obviously amateur products by people who were just fooling around. They were all serious attempts at formulating and presenting unique visions of "what is" through Native eyes. And they all met that specific objective.

We had lunch at the Plaza Cafe, a Santa Fe institution that was closed several years ago due to an unfortunate kitchen fire. The restoration seemed to take forever, in part due to the requirements for upgrading so much infrastructure before the reconstruction could proceed. There were many, many delays. This was the first time we'd been back since they reopened earlier in August, and it was a treat. 

Like the Kiva Cafe in Milan, the Plaza Cafe on the Plaza in Santa Fe is not a fashionable eatery, so you'll rarely see those who suffer from "Santa Fe Style" inside its doors. On the other hand, plenty of locals seem to like it a lot, and tourists and travelers who just wander in are surprised and delighted with the food and service. It's a New Mexican/Greek diner sort of restaurant, and you can get your New Mexican dishes with a Greek accent if you like. 

It was nice being back.

Then it was off to the book-signing at Collected Works. This is where things got really intriguing. I was almost certain we'd been to other events at Collected Works, but walking in the door, I didn't recognize anything, so... maybe not. We found seats and were almost immediately approached by an elderly lady who said that Kitty was her daughter. We were not familiar with the book under discussion, so "Kitty" didn't mean anything at first. But then I looked closely at the older woman and a younger one who seemed to be in charge of the event and the resemblance was obvious, so that must be "Kitty," and then I realized that "Kitty" was Kitty Leaken, the photographer for the book "Contemporary Native American Artists" which was the topic of the event and the reason why everybody was there. Oh. Well. 

Later, we would meet Kitty through Peter. Who was Peter? I had no idea, but we struck up a conversation while waiting in line to get our books signed by the dozen or so artists featured who were in attendance. Peter had just come back from leading a tour at Chaco Canyon, and he thought he had missed this event. He was very glad he didn't. Turns out he was close friends with Kitty and knew some of the artists featured in the book. We were joined shortly by Mark, from Tesuque Pueblo, who was the manager of the tour outfit and had been a Chaco too. Turns out Mark -- in addition to running tours -- is an artist, a sculptor of some repute (well, his works are at the Wheelright and the Smithsonian among other places) but he was too modest to say that. No, I found out later when I Googled him up -- actually, I was Googling something else and his name appeared, oh. Instead, he and I chatted about Berkeley in the '60's and how things got a little tense there in 1969 when his family decided it was time to get the hell out and return to the comparative sanity of New Mexico. What a story. 

We continued to chat as if we were old friends while waiting to get our books signed, and then we chatted as if were were old friends with the artists themselves. Of course Mark was an old friend of many of them, as were many of the others in the room. 

I noted with interest that I was one of a dozen or so people in attendance happily sporting a Hawaiian shirt. Yes. Well, it's summertime in Santa Fe, and if you don't want to be taken as a tourist, what are you going to do? Wear a Hawaiian shirt, of course!

So we yakked and continued through the line -- I learned a good deal about relations between artists in Santa Fe and New Mexico which I sort of knew of in the past... and then it occurred to me how I was drawn here to begin with. 

I've written about it before, but it was this event that brought it home to me. 

Harry Fonseca.

He was a Native American artist in Northern California who created the "Coyote and Rose" series and made the Coyote character an American icon, especially in Santa Fe. I was lucky enough to have known him in California, and was intrigued when he said he was going to move to New Mexico, initially to Albuquerque. He was already famous, you see, for his Coyote character series, but it would be just a little while longer before Coyote became a... well, for want of a better word, "meme."

This is the Coyote Harry Fonseca did for Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe in 1994:

Coyote for Coyote Cafe by Harry Fonseca, 1994

Harry told New Mexico stories before he moved here, and they were filled with both mystery and joy for me. The night sky was a special pleasure to hear about -- because in most of California you never see a brilliant starfilled night sky, you never see the Milky Way, and you can't know what is out there for your amazement. You can and often do in New Mexico.

Seeing for yourself is what it takes, along with the motivation to make it possible. 

New Mexico itself provides the motivation, I think. If it draws you back again and again, eventually you have no choice. You have to live here. You must.

I was talking to one of the artists featured at the book signing yesterday, Upton Ethelbah (Greyshoes) who is at least as well known as Harry was, and he asked me about moving to New Mexico, as he's been all over and now works in Albuquerque. I told him it was "time." He laughed and said something like, "Yah, sure. You leave California for a better quality of life out here!" I said, "Yes, that's it exactly. It IS a better quality of life, though you'd never convince most New Mexicans or Californians of that." He said, "Everybody should find the place they're best suited to. California, New Mexico, they're all good places. So don't be ashamed of being from California. Enjoy living here. It's called you home." Or did he say, "It's called your home?"

That's the key to the Enchantment; it's not just a marketing slogan. When the land calls you, you know it, and you're drawn, there's no escaping it. I've talked to so many people who live here now who came from some part of California (usually the south, because the landscape is somewhat similar)  who say exactly that. From the first time they saw it, they knew that New Mexico would one day be Home, there was no way around it. For some, like me, it took years, decades in fact, to make it real, but New Mexico would be Home no matter what.

Harry Fonseca clued me to the spirit of the place, and once he moved here himself, it was as if he, too, were part of the lure. Even after he passed away.

Yesterday, as we were going about to the various events we attended, we kept running into so many people who had made that trek east from California to New Mexico, quite a few having just arrived and who said they were just getting familiar with the place and the people. I don't know whether they felt the same pull we did, but if they did, they knew what that Enchantment was all about too. 

Practically every time I've attended events in Santa Fe or elsewhere in New Mexico -- or just been hanging around someplace-- I've been amazed at how quickly, almost instantly, I've become integrated with the locals, as if I had lived here for years and years and everybody knew me and I knew everybody. There are any number of tight-knit communities in Santa Fe and New Mexico in general, this is after all  a very tribal society, and it's not easy for outsiders to penetrate these communities, though outsiders are usually treated pleasantly and politely. 

What's so striking in our experience is that at least momentarily we are welcomed into the tribe, which ever it happens to be, spontaneously, sincerely, as if we have always been here.

It happened again tonight. We were went to the opening reception of Virgil Ortiz's "Venutian Soldiers" series of pots, sculptures, and photographs at the Zane Bennett Gallery in the Railyard District of Santa Fe. It was an adventure.  No one we knew was there. Virgil Ortiz himself we only knew by reputation. 

Spontaneously, literally out of nowhere, people started talking to us, chatting away as if we were old friends, telling tales and sharing life stories, making connections that might last. The problem for so many years has been that these spontaneous contacts can be made only one time because we almost immediately have to go back to California, and we may not be back in New Mexico for months. By then, the moment will have passed.

But now we live here, this is our home, and when we go back to California tomorrow, it will be to finish packing up for the final move east.

This has been quite a week. One we will not soon forget.


  1. Just a quick note but Reel Injuns is on Netflix. I watched it on there, on the streaming service.

  2. In 2004 I was in Santa Fe for the wedding of an old friend of my wife, the bride to be was part of the a larger sprawling collective of woman who all hung out at the Women’s Center in downtown LA from the mid-80s to the early 90s and my wife was in a writing class with her…

    Santa Fe and the trip from Albuquerque was daunting for us at least from the perspective of money, between the plane tickets the car rental and the cost of the motel while in Santa Fe made me very cranky and like you it was most likely the altitude and smoking. I was able to reframe from smoking most of the trip and only did so after the wedding and after the wedding dinner in the cool of the night while we all got quickly drunk.

    My impression at the time was one where all the white folks seemed to be from somewhere else and wee bit out of place. The whole art gallery scene seems to me at the time, a bit forced and over the top, in price and pretense.

    Authentic western painters I thought were all long dead and from another era. My reaction to the realistic paintings was ‘didn’t Remington and others already cover this subject much better? ‘ The more arty stuff all seemed derived from Frida Kahlo and many others with iconic native subjects intermixed….and as it is with so much modern art devoid of any discernable message beyond --- if you can afford to buy said painting you can read any meaning into it you want…

    In short in another lifetime in which I am not broke all the time I guess to be able to go to a place like this and stay for an extended time would be very nice indeed, but like so many currently broke and forever in debt Americans it seems like a world totally out of reach and only suited to post cards or passing through.

    I not slamming you at all; as I know many of our generation have had the luck to get in while the price was still affordable at some time in the past, please understand this and don’t take this as a personal attack of any kind.

    But for so many broke and underpaid working types in the cities we too are like the natives there in NM who feel something is not right when all these rich white folks come in and hang about, only in my case I have to watch all these over paid Hollywood types tweet away like this no tomorrow and busy themselves with those so important cell phones…

    At the wedding there was an authentic Irish guy, a friend of the groom who pulled me aside and questioned me at very quickly as the few things I said must have clued him into my past political history. It seemed he was checking me from a political perspective and said some very cryptic passing remarks about the war back in the day in Northern Ireland, the type of man it takes to become a provo and then how all white revolutionaries must get in touch with their Druid heritage. Later I said something, I can’t remember and he said that is the “Druid in you”.

    According to the bride he was passing through on his way to Chicago, I think –very odd fellow indeed.

    Between the booze and the altitude and his accent I had a very hard following his conversation or even remembering what the fuck he was getting at.

    Odd trip all in all, it seems like so many things in this country today most of us are just reduced to passive participants- watching the people with more $$$ enjoy life in way I stopped even thinking about years ago. One could argue that is the only thing I have in common with Native Americans a stranger in my own land, like millions of others there will come a point when we are sick to death of being the outsider whose face is pasted to the glass looking into the grand splendor of our betters .. . . ..

  3. pws -- re: "Reel Injuns." Great. I've seen part of it. Will have to take in the whole thing one day. "Good Meat" has been shown on PBS quite a bit, and I like it a lot.

    jackson I'll try to respond at greater length when I can (we're on the road again) because you bring up some good points about the dichotomies in NM, especially between the fancy Whites, especially in Santa Fe and everybody else, but there are many others. All I'll say right now is that I felt exactly the way you did about it, but as I've become more familiar with the place and the people and become more involved in some of the communities, I've found the issue is a bit more complicated than it at first appears. Layers and layers, wheels within wheels.

  4. jackson -- my more recent post has to do with some of what is going on with regard to our connections with the arts scene in New Mexico, particularly Santa Fe, and especially Virgil Ortiz's focus on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 -- recast in modern terms.

    I think we're pretty darned lucky to be able to live sort of OK in NM, but we're not even remotely in the financial class of the arts patrons (the rich white guys) who actually keep the arts afloat in NM. As Upton Ethelbah put it to me, "So you're moving to New Mexico from California for the better quality of life," and I said "That it, exactly." For us, it is a better quality of life, in part because California continues to deteriorate while in NM people are still making discoveries.

    Our place is out in a small town, about equidistant from both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We can get to either city in forty-five minutes or so. There is no art -- at all -- in this little hamlet. No arts community. No patrons of the arts (though two former Democratic governors are from the area). There is, however, a brand new and very deluxe performing arts center at the high school. I don't know what they were thinking when they built it because they don't use it, but my it's handsome!

    Virgil Ortiz who I keep writing about is from the Cochiti Pueblo about half way between Abq and Santa Fe -- and that's where he has his studio/laboratory. He's from a family of Indian potters, and he works a lot in clay, using traditional techniques to create astonishing modern works that are intended (I think) to make (white) people nervous. It's a really positive thing for Indians to see what effect Virgil's work has on white folk. At the same time, some older Indian artists are not amused. Virgil is using traditional means and methods to blaze new paths and it makes older Indian artists nervous too. Where is Virgil going with this stuff?

    Toward the end of his life, Harry
    Fonseca was doing something like this. He'd given up Coyote, and he was getting into some very spiritual ideas that came from both the Spanish and the Indian realms. He also dealt with the bloodshed, so much Indian blood spilled for -- what? The gold? The land? The stars in the sky? Or just because?

    I loved his later works, but they didn't really sell; not like Coyote. Coyote paid the bills. And Coyote was gone. Then one day, Harry said, Coyote came back and told him to do some more Coyote-works. And he did. A few. Of course the collectors pounced on them. I suppose the bills got paid!

    Some of Virgil's photos and prints (as well as his clothing lines) have been selling, but I don't know about sales of his edgier figures (they're priced at around $7,000, and there aren't a lot of people, us included, who can afford that.) And he's not at all sure how he's going to pay the bills.

    I'll tell you this, it is rough going for younger artists in NM especially since the crash of '08. Those who can keep at it, even if they aren't making any money -- which more and more of them aren't -- will make a lasting contribution. But even a noted and now middle aged Pueblo Indian sculptor I was chatting with runs tours to Indian Country for fat old white guys to make ends meet.