Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sitting Around Yakking With A Couple of Indian Women Up In Santa Fe

Suzan Harjo
Luci Tapahonso

As I reported previously, we attended Indian Market in Santa Fe for the first time on Sunday, and it was overwhelming.  There was so much talent, so many remarkable works, so many people and not nearly enough time to see -- let alone appreciate -- all of it. I can see why the regulars have to take it in stages, day by day, and why there are so many "invitation only" events which go on all week long.

Now that we're elders, it's tempting to leave events like Indian Market to the spry and the young and satisfy ourselves with Literary Evenings.

So last night we were back in Santa Fe for a get together at the Hotel Santa Fe with Luci Tapahonso and Suzan Harjo, two of the nation's premier Native American poets and writers, under the auspices of Southwest Seminars.

We found out about the evening's event through someone we met at the IAIA Scholarship Dinner and Auction, Alena Hart, publisher of Santa Fe Monthly, one of the many periodicals put out by a plethora of local news and advertising interests. In fact, there are so many of them we sometimes feel overloaded with publications whenever we come back home from an adventure in Santa Fe.

Suzan and Luci were supposed to be joined by Sara Marie Ortiz, but we were told Sara was stuck at the SeaTac Airport, and I expressed my sorrow. I suppose there are worse places to be stuck, but I've spent enough time in that particular airport to have no urge to get stuck there -- again. Please.

Those attending were similar to types that we see at most events in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico, generally older people, Anglo (ie: White), well off or very well off, and often retired from academic endeavors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a little disconcerting when the principal attractions are Native or Hispanic.

Luci is Navajo, Suzan is Muskogee and Cheyenne. Both are widely known in Indian circles, and they have both made significant inroads into the mainstream. Both served on the board of trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC.

Luci is a professor of English at UNM; Suzan is based in Washington, DC and acts as a legislative advocate and analyst on behalf of numerous Indian interests and causes among other projects.

Luci is also married to Robert Martin, president of Institute of American Indian Arts.

Suzan and Luci talked about Indian education, sacred spaces, family, and living in the world as it was and is today; they read powerful poems and offered their insights into the Indian experience in both contemporary and historical contexts from their own highly personal perspectives.

The contrast between Luci's essentially positive and sunny perspective and Suzan's considerably darker vision (Suzan is older, but not by that much) was striking. Both maintain deep roots in their Indian communities, but Luci speaks English as a second language, whereas Suzan apparently grew up in an English speaking household. She knows her Indian history intimately, but I got the impression she never lived isolated from Anglos, whereas Luci's large family did.

There were other contrasts as well. Luci teaches English and literature in the way she learned from her mother and the other women of her household. Suzan is an advocate, pressing issues important to Indian peoples and on their behalf in congress and other legislative bodies throughout the land. Her efforts are informed by her Indian heritage, and yet it seems she conducts a good deal of her struggle on the White Man's turf. Her perspective is therefore quite different.

It has to do to a large extent with The Land. Dinétah (Navajoland) is a huge reservation, after all, with a large -- and growing -- population, though the density of people on the Rez is still quite low, whereas the Indians of Oklahoma, where Suzan grew up, long since lost their communal lands to Anglos. The tribes are still there, but the autonomous regions are not, and many Oklahoma Indians leave for other regions. (Not that Navajos don't leave, too.)

One of the differences Suzan pointed to was that the treaty of 1868 which enabled the Navajos to return to their lands that straddle what are now the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico was intended as a means of removing them to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, but by "magic" the Navajos went the other direction, back to their ancestral place, the place that was calling them back home -- as Luci put it. Having a home place that you know, that has called you, and that provides for your return should you go away or be sent away, mightily affects perspectives.

This was part of their commentary about the Indian Boarding Schools that Indian children were forced to attend well into the 1950's. (Missus Ché was almost sent to boarding school, and she still has nightmares about it. Her mother was forced to go to Indian boarding school and never really got over it.) It was a horrible experience for the victims, one that is seared in the consciousness of everyone who lived through it, and in the minds and imaginations of their descendants who didn't have to go through it. The only relief for so many Indians was being able to -- eventually -- return home. Many, unfortunately, never did. Yet surprisingly -- in some ways -- Indian schools and Indian eduction was remembered fondly by both Luci and Suzan, for if it hadn't been for Carlisle, or some of the other Indian schools, many of the relationships that are now so strong in and between Indian communities, and the lives lived by Luci and Suzan now would not have been conceivable let alone possible had it not been for the education they received.

So there are mitigated evils, let's say.

Chatting afterwards, one of the men in attendance, a Santo Domingo Pueblo member, asked what I thought was a very good question. Both Luci and Suzan had been active in AIM back in the day ("We all have our pasts," as Suzan put it -- with a sly grin) and now they were both essentially academics. The man asking the question said he had come up in the '60's and he had been as militant as they were. But now... what happened to dampen Indian militancy and how did they see their roles now in their academic and political settings?

This same question has come up repeatedly when we were in California in the context of the farmworkers' struggle. The men and women who marched with Cesar back in the day have, in many cases, gone into the academic world or become political figures, and they are no longer militants in the struggle for dignity and respect and a better life. They've largely achieved it. So, have they given up the struggle on behalf of others?

Luci, I thought, gave the best answer I've ever heard to this question. She said that she certainly had her "AIM Period" -- and it was what was necessary at the time. But she said she feels she can do a great deal more and have a more lasting impact on many more people as an instructor at the University than she ever could as a militant. Because she has been able to introduce so many people to her Navajo culture and her Native approach to education and learning, people who would never otherwise have encountered it, she sees her role now as someone who spreads the message more deeply and more broadly than she ever could have outside the academic environment. She said students come from all over now, and they pay to attend her classes, and she gets paid to do what she loves. What could be better?

Some might see that as co-option or a cop out, and that case can most certainly be made. On the other hand, there would be such a loss for everyone if she weren't where she is doing what she's doing -- even though she might be making waves with continued militancy.

Suzan said that she's now mostly concerned with achieving legislative remedies for the wrongs that Indians have suffered, and she really feels she's made more progress in the political realm -- a recent example is the return of tribal authority over domestic violence cases on Indian lands -- than she could by marching in the streets. She said the question is where you can be most effective at any given time, and now is the time for her to put her energy into reform and revision of laws that affect Indians.

The man from Santo Domingo, whose name unfortunately I don't recall, said that though he doesn't feel like he's doing nearly as much as they are, he understands that for him now is the time for acting on other fronts than those of direct confrontation.

At least on Indian matters, I tend to agree. Not that there isn't still reason for militancy, particularly in the Northern Plains, but because the militant struggle has largely been won. Now it's a matter of building on the foundation laid by militants.

Another Indian, a Haida artist named Ralph Bennett, who'd come to Santa Fe from North Dakota with his classical violinist wife (who I believe was playing with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra), offered a call to the ancestors and a warrior song, a contribution to the evening that was both unexpected and compelling. He pointed out that he loves his own language, but he loves English, too, because he can potentially communicate with so many more people in English than he can in his own language. But he also said something that I thought was pretty important. "The words, the vocables, mean NOTHING if they aren't meaningful to those who hear or read them. It's our jobs to make them meaningful to as many as we can."  He was speaking specifically of Indian concepts, but the comment is applicable to anyone who attempts to communicate through language. Tell me about it.

As so often is the case in New Mexico, we met our oldest and dearest friends last night for the first time.

Hopefully, we'll just keep right on learning.

1 comment:

  1. my last two comments (one longish, second brief) never posted. perhaps blogger reckons i'd worn out my welcome on your 'Tired' post.

    anyway, i did send an email (prolly in your junk box).

    the cafe: we are small, but we are mighty, lol. some non-political writings i've done in the past there, as well. one even features living briefly in truchas in the early '70s.