Sunday, May 17, 2015

NDN Stuff, Change of Pace

Went up to Santa Fe yesterday for the 2015 commencement ceremonies for students at IAIA -- the Institute of American Indian Arts.

It was the first commencement we've attended there, and just getting to the campus at all was an adventure.

The day started at our place some fifty miles south of Santa Fe with heavy rain and thunder. So odd in the middle of May, but we've been experiencing a very wet spring in Central New Mexico, much wetter and cooler than last May.

The heavy rain let up just before we had to leave our place in order to arrive at the IAIA campus in time for commencement. The sun was shining, and the winds had stopped blowing as we left home for the drive north.

As we passed through the Galisteo Basin, a slight rain began and we could see heavy weather on the west in the Oritz and Jemez Mountains. There were signs of weather to the north over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as well. Santa Fe is nestled below those peaks, and the IAIA campus is somewhat south of the City Different itself, perched on a peak with a dazzling 360 degree view of the mountains and plains all around.

But passing through the village of Galisteo -- where bridge repair and road repaving has been going on for months and to get through the construction zone, you have to follow a pilot car which threads its way carefully around the various piles of gravel and earth and rock -- the rain was light. The sky grew darker, though, as we turned onto Camino de los Abuelos beside the village church and headed over hill and dale, through a surprisingly unflooded wash, across the railroad tracks, through the section of road that had been washed out at some point during one of the passing storms, past the Houzous Place where many of Allan Houser's bronze and stone sculptures are on display, but Mrs Houser wouldn't live there, "out in the middle of nowhere!" she said, and on to Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, that would take us to the turn off at Rancho Viejo leading -- eventually -- to the IAIA campus.

In the distance, beyond the abandoned ruin of the New Mexico State Penitentiary where dozens of prisoners had been killed in an appalling riot in 1980 and where ghosts now wander, I could see the sky was darker still and the clouds reached to the ground. I said, "That looks like snow up ahead," and sure enough, it was.

Snow, in the middle of May in Santa Fe. What a wonder. As we took the Rancho Viejo turnoff, the snow turned into a near-blizzard, and we wondered how the IAIA commencement would be dealt with,  since it was scheduled to be outdoors in the Dance Circle. The outside temperature gauge on the dashboard had been falling and now read 34°. We weren't really dressed for Winter. It was the middle of May!

We drove through the blizzard following a half-dozen cars headed the same direction. A pick-up truck wove in and out of traffic, its driver having no patience for the courtesies others were giving drivers ahead and behind. Ms. Ché observed, "That must be a student, late for the commencement." The clock said we had fifteen minutes to get to the campus, find our way through the snow storm to the Dance Circle -- or wherever else they decided to hold the ceremonies -- and get settled before the  commencement began. We were about a mile and a half from the campus, and there was no let up from the snow. The temperature gauge now read 32°. It was going to be an interesting experience.

We made it to the campus but then had to figure out where to park as all the regular parking lots were blocked off. We went to an overflow lot on the east side of the campus and jockeyed with other drivers for a decent spot in the gravel and mud. There was a car next to us, a white Lexus driven by someone who couldn't figure out what to do in the gravel and mud, who kept backing up and moving forward, alarming people already parked and trying to park sufficiently that they refused to get out of their cars until this one settled. I don't know what the problem was, but it took several minutes for the Lexus driver to stop going back and forth and alarming people. Finally, when the car's motion stopped, people in cars round about got out and slogged in the snow through the mud and gravel toward what looked like a tent, maybe a circus tent, erected over the Dance Circle. It was quite a hike.

Some people brought umbrellas, but most didn't. It was the middle of May. Nobody expected snow in the middle of May. The news cast the night before said that snow was expected "above 10,000 feet," with flurries possible as low as 8,000 feet during the night. Santa Fe is at 7,000 feet, and it was close to 11:00am, so this snow storm seemed very odd indeed.

We slogged our way toward the tent, me having to move somewhat slowly due to my lingering lameness from sciatica. When we got there, snow-dappled, muddy-booted and somewhat chilled, the welcome from the staff was pleasant. There was no heat in the tent, but many of those who were in attendance had wisely brought blankets and sat wrapped and huddled while waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

There were several hundred chairs, and we found seats quickly enough. We were not far from the platform where the ceremonies would take place. The tent was decorated with the flags of the many dozens of tribes represented by the student-graduates and the staff of the Institute. And it was cold.

After a while, the assembly was urged to cease socializing and be seated. The ceremonies were about to begin. There had been a lot of socializing beforehand. We knew a few of the student-graduates, instructors and staff, but not a whole lot of them, and we knew practically none of their families and friends, so our socializing was somewhat limited. Some of the people we thought we would see at the commencement did not show up for whatever reasons, including the weather, so ultimately there were a few empty chairs under the tent.

Soon enough, the commencement ceremonies began with the entrance of the administration, board, faculty, staff, and student-graduates, accompanied by hand-drumming and song from the student hand-drum corps. It was wonderful. While many were dressed in traditional graduation robes and mortar-boards, many of those in the procession opted for ceremonial Native dress and head-gear. Whatever they felt was appropriate to the occasion was what they wore, and it made for a highly diverse -- rather than a strictly uniform -- graduation procession. I liked it, I liked it a lot.

Feathers. There were lots of feathers. Turquoise, velvets, blankets, shawls, traditional Native dress from a wide variety of tribes, even a Plains warbonnet. Everyone was smiling. Even some laughter as the group made their way to the front. The Dignitaries sat on the platform; everyone else sat on the chairs in front.

There was a prayer ceremony that acknowledged the inclement weather, particularly the rain and the snow and how much they were needed and wanted by the people of New Mexico, and how meaningful was the snow in particular to the Pueblo people for whom it represented perhaps the best medicine possible for a gathering such as this one.

The board president acknowledged the dignitaries and supporters among the assembly, and what a surprise it was for us to hear our own names called out as "Friends of IAIA." Indeed we are, but how did they know we would be there? One of those mysteries, I'd say, of which there are so many in New Mexico. So many mysteries and so many convergences.

Luci Tapahonso, Navajo Nation poet laureate and creative writing professor at UNM gave the keynote address. She was a last minute substitute for Sherman Alexie who had to withdraw and canceled all his summer travel due to a bad back. Luci pointed out -- to much laughter -- that she wasn't Sherman, and she offered one of her best known early poems, "Hills Brothers Coffee," to the assembly. It was very well received by those who are so familiar with it they can speak the lines along with Luci and by those who were hearing it for the first time. It is as true and loving a  depiction of Indian life on the Rez as any that's so far been offered by Native authors.

Jon Davis offered Sherman Alexie's thoughts to the soon-to-graduate MFA students -- just as those thoughts were transmitted from Sherman's very expensive stand up desk in Seattle. "Congratulations graduates. You must be asking yourselves, 'What the fuck am I going to do now?'" Indeed.

There were fifteen MFA graduates in the creative writing program, about half the entire MFA class, and many were intending to pursue an academic career. That's what you get an MFA for, after all. There is really no other reason for it.

On the other hand, there were some forty or so Certificate, AA, BA and BFA graduates, some of whom intended to pursue a post-graduate degree, but many of whom had no intention to. They were going to change the world, however, just you wait and see.

Many tribes were represented, but many surprisingly were not. There were no Cherokee among the graduates, for example. Well, there was one, from the Etocha Tribe of Alabama, a group recognized by the State of Alabama but not by the Federal government nor by the Cherokee Nation. In fact, the CN calls them "fraudulent." Interesting. The graduate wants to pursue a law degree. Even more interesting.

There were no graduates from California Indian Tribes, either, which was just as surprising as the absence of Cherokee. There were only a handful from Northwest tribes. The preponderance of graduates were from the Navajo Nation and from New Mexico's Pueblo tribes. But IAIA recruits globally, and their students can be of any indigenous or non-indigenous origin.

We were not able to stay for the luncheon afterwards as we had another event to attend later that afternoon, and so we bid adieu and headed back south. The day had turned warm and sunny in some places, still heavy cloud in others. The newly fallen snow glistened on the peaks of the Jemez in the west, while snow squalls were scattered through the Sangres and over the Oritz Mountains. As we continued south out of the glorious Galisteo Basin, the cloud cover over the Sandias thickened perceptibly. It was raining on the road where we were, snowing -- probably heavily -- along the crest of the Sandias and even lower down. Sun shafts pierced the clouds ahead, and to the east there were piles and piles of cotton-ball clouds piled up against a brilliant azure sky.

"Don't forget to thank your neighbor for the rain; don't forget to say hello to the sky."

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