June 13, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Wild to the Heart # 1

The raven looks out the window from the corner of my desk...

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The raven looks out the window from the corner of my desk. Made of black obsidian, his carvedwings flecked with slivers of turquoise, he faces southwest toward his homeland where he wasoriginally carved. The bird came back to live with us after a recent trip to the town of Zuni, in the heart of Zuni country in western New Mexico. We drove the ribbon of asphalt within the desert’s rust-colored basket dotted with the dusky evergreen of juniper and piñon trees. The road suddenly broke into the valley spread before us, edged along its southern horizon by a mesa, a cliff-laced mountain with a wide flat top. “This is a lean, sparse, tense land,” writes Ellen Meloy in Raven’s Exile (1994). “The earth here has no skin. This is a desert.”

 

The deserts of the Southwest are home for me. I grew up in the southeastern corner of Arizona, amidst the arid landscape of the Sonoran desert. Home for me means the washes wrinkling hills made of rock and sand in a palette of soft yellows, reds, and whites stark as bones bleached by the sun. Home for me means mesquite trees laden with swollen yellow seed pockets that as children we chewed and sucked like candy, their leaves tiny pale green crescents connected to a single spine, nearly irresistible not to peel from the stem and watch flutter to the ground. Home for me are the cacti straight out of a Dr. Seuss book - saguaro cactus live for centuries, extending their arms upward and outward into the air, the ocotillo’s cluster of spindly barbed arms create a spiky silhouette. Like all things in the desert, the cactus respond immediately to rain, after which the ocotillo immediately bursts with masses of small emerald-green leaves and a cluster of poppy-red flowers top each stalk.

 

I now live in the high desert of northern New Mexico where we wound down the narrow road to the Zuni pueblo to wander on foot the narrow streets between homes built from adobe bricks, a mixture of clay and straw, that spanned centuries. The imposing mountain above us stood sentry over the town. “The mountain moves sometimes,” we were told. “Watch it.” That evening, we drove up the hill across from the mountain to watch the sunset. As the sun settled into the horizon, casting the wide expanse of sky in vibrant shades of deep pinks, oranges, and yellows, our eyes moved back and forth between display above us and the mesa. There, inhaling the musky scents of the desert at dusk as the sinking sun’s rays brushed the desert in gold, we watched to see if the mountain moved.

 

Fetishes brought us here. Stones carved into animals by Zuni artists, fetishes are believed to connect humans with the unseen mysteries of life. Ravens represent the possibility of transformation and healing through the willingness to look at our own shadows, created from pain, that we most likely want to keep buried and hidden from sight. The main problem with leaving these shadows unexamined is the tremendous drain of energy that goes into keeping them hidden. Ravens are not in the original Zuni tradition, but like so much in the Southwest, are symbolic of the cultural influences that Hispanics, Anglos, and Native peoples have on one another (Bennett, 1993).

 

I recognize the long history of Anglos writing and speaking about these tensions in ways that served only to further appropriate others’ cultural and life perspectives in ways that served to further colonize. I am well aware of how slippery language is and how easily the well-intentioned can fall into the trap of misappropriating the knowledge and experiences of others.

 

Here in the Southwest, we attempt to hide many of our shadows. While the tourism bureau would have everyone believe that we live in tricultural harmony, each culture melding seamlessly into the other, the reality more often than not feels like living in separate countries within one space, each ethnic group connecting primarily among themselves, with uneasy interactions along our borders. Sometimes these interactions are as covert as an unsaid word, while at other times they erupt into public displays of conflict.

 

An exploration of our history gives context to contemporary dynamics. Texts - codes and conventions of society - of the Southwest teem with these interactions along the borders of the peoples of the land. By examining the events, and historical and contemporary discourse surrounding them, we begin to understand the underlying foundations upon which our current political, social, and educational systems rest. Social justice issues inextricably intertwine within these texts and by understanding the history that unfolded around them we can, hopefully, bring air, light, and humanity to the shadows. “The conquest of America was not a monologue,” writes Ramón Gutiérrez in When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (1991), “but a dialogue between cultures, each of which had many voices that often spoke in unison, but just as often were diverse and even divided.”

 

These unisons and divisions remain, both peacefully and in open confrontation, as exemplified by two recent events. At an opening of a new history museum, within a ten-minute period of time, Native Americans sang in their mother tongue to the rhythm of their drum; marchers in full 17th century Spanish conquistador regalia responded to orders in Spanish to hoist the flags of the United States and New Mexico; and we all promptly said the Pledge of Allegiance in English - a snapshot-slice of southwestern history. At another event focused on the unveiling of a statue of a Spanish conquistador, the area was cordoned off as a group of Native Americans and Anglos beat drums, burned incense, and held up signs highlighting atrocities of the Spanish conquistadors, while inside the area Mexican mariachis played and Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos honored the conquistadors’ historical place.

 

As with other places, it often feels like the creation of healing, hope, and possibility is akin to moving mountains.

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