Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Mountain Spirits -- Allan Houser and 100 Years

We had what was perhaps our most illuminating and enthusiastic thunderstorm so far this year last night. The lightning flashed and the thunder roared for what seemed like hours, though there was very little rain, almost none. The Monsoon is trying to get going, they tell us, and we should get rain sometime today, but I wouldn't be so sure. The rain will come when it comes and not before.

I was reminded of the Mountain Spirit Blessing we attended at the Allan Houser compound last weekend.

Allan Houser (1914-1994) was one of the best known and most highly sought after American sculptors of the latter half of the 20th century. For some time, I didn't even know he was an Indian -- though most of his work was Indian-themed. All I thought initially was that he was an American of -- probably -- German descent who had become captivated by Native images and themes and people and that was reflected in his work.

I don't know when it occurred to me that he was an actual Indian, probably when I saw a sculpture in a gallery in San Francisco and I asked the proprietor about the artist. And then I found out: Allan "Houser"'s original name was Haozous and he was Apache and a collateral descendant of Geronimo. Oh.

We made our first trip to New Mexico not long after and we saw his gallery in Santa Fe, learned a little more, and over time we came to understand and appreciate more of his family and his fame.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of his birth -- the first child (in his family) born out of captivity. To mark the occasion, both of his birth and of the release from captivity of the Chiricahua people after decades of confinement in Florida and Oklahoma, the Houser family had a celebration at the Houser compound and sculpture garden south of Santa Fe. In addition to family, a couple of hundred guests from the area round about attended, enjoyed a celebratory meal, met new friends and got together with old ones, and finally participated in an Apache Mountain Spirit Blessing Ceremony conducted by Joe Tohonnie, Jr. -- who they say is Navajo, as if that would make a difference.

The ceremony itself lasted well over an hour, perhaps closer to two hours, I wasn't watching the time. As evening fell, a piñon fire was lit in the center of the ceremonial circle around which we were gathered, and while we waited until the sun touched the mountains to the west (where the Diego Fire was already burning in the Jemez unbeknownst to most of us), family members and gallery staff passed out gifts to some of those in attendance. We could hear the dancers -- their jingling bells and their bird-calls -- among the juniper and piñon trees leading up to the ridge beyond the circle.

Then the moment came, and the crown dancers came down into the circle where they gained the blessing of the fire -- a fire which had been blessed and lit by Allan Houser's sons who kept it supplied with fresh wood during the night.

Apache crown dancers were only vaguely familiar to me. I knew they existed and had been considered somewhat sinister by religious Catholics. I'd seen video of a performance, and years ago, I purchased a number of figures of crown dancers carved by a Navajo artist, Steven Apachito. I knew they existed but I didn't know what they did.

Crown dancers perform for tourists frequently, and that's what I'd seen in a video, a performance at the Ute Mountain Casino in Colorado, but Joe Tohonnie, Jr. interrupted at one point and said that what we were witnessing was generally kept secret and sacred by Apaches, only done for the particular purpose of blessing, in this case the blessing of a well-known Chiricahua Apache family, and I supposed that because we were there we were all considered "family" for the night. It fit somehow.

It's difficult to describe what took place, though those who are familiar with American Indian ceremonies would recognize many of the elements -- the corn meal, the fire, the dancing, the eagle feathers, the calling forth of the spirits. This video shows something like what we witnessed and participated in. The "crowns" are unique to Apaches. They add a distinctive element of mystery as the crowns include complete head and face coverings so that the dancers themselves are no longer themselves but become something else again, they become the spirits of the mountains which bring the blessings.

The blessing was focused primarily on Allan Houser's 102 year old widow, Anna Marie  (or Anna Maria) (link is to a video of her 100th birthday party) and his oldest son Roy who'd come up from Tuscon, though it included other members of the family and ultimately everyone in attendance as well as the place itself.

Songs were sung, dances were performed, feathers and wands were passed over the bodies of Anna Marie and Roy, crowns were touched to their heads, and spirits were called on to bless them and us, to give us the kind of long life and happiness that we could spread to others.

The Mountain Spirits sound like birds...

Ceremonies are frequent in New Mexico conducted by the custodians of a multiplicity of faiths, Native and imported, most of them meant to connect the individual with others, and to connect them all with the spirits of the place and with the divine they grow out of and return to.

Allan Houser's son Phillip Haozous, a renown sculptor in his own right, created a bronze statue of his father after the old man's passing. It is beside a building in the compound. In the evening light, it glowed as if the elder Houser were still living and breathing. A magical moment.

There's so much more for me to learn...

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