I was not ready for New Mexico. It’s not just a different culture, it’s different energy altogether. Santa Fe, the state capital’s motto is, “The City Different.” Truly. I mean I was coming from Detroit, could not be more different.
Every part of this USA-maybe every state-is different. Minnesota is not New York not Wyoming not California not Texas….
New Mexico is; off the grid, no one thinks about it, third world poor in some ways, still gets by ok, sparsely populated (5th largest state physically with only 2,000,000 people total), actually is home to more people than that (I say)-way off the grid in some ways.
Anybody remember Mark Rudd? I know Eddie does. A Weather Underground radical from the 60’s, on the run back then from the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. He was a teacher there and we met and had lunch and he told me he ultimately went there-on-the-run in the early ‘70’s because NM was the last state that did not use a photo on their cardboard driver’s license. OFF the grid.
As I drove around the state the heartbreaking beauty led me to tears, which began a deeper healing process for me. That is the one aspect we Americans tend to know – the epic beauty.
Albuquerque, the only sizable city, is spacious. At the time, said to have the largest urban Indian population in the country. Wide streets, wide alleys, buildings not on top of each other, wide sky, a mirror for the whole vibe, the very air itself. I kid you not the compelling trait of NM is the Light. The air/light/colors are translucent to the point it feels like there are less molecules. That “space” (and the West Mesa winds) can be unsettling.
There are languages – German, Japanese, Navajo-that have words that need a paragraph to define them. Whole attitudes encapsulated within that word. The Japanese have a word or two that allude to an idea; that all beauty is tinged by a touch of melancholy. That this melancholy is woven in to remind us, melancholy not as sadness but an acceptance of the transitory nature of life, well lived. Or a sadness born of gratitude maybe. In over 80 other languages there are multiple words to describe variations of the word melancholy.
The Portuguese have saudade and the Spanish have duende to describe the nostalgic longing to be near a distant someone or something. The Germans have waldeinsamkeit to describe the feeling of being alone in nature or specific to the feeling of being alone in the woods. There is a Welsh word called hiraeth and it is the word for a homesickness that you cannot return to. It is meant to be the mourning of the lost places of the past.
The essence of some of our most celebrated eastern religions can be viewed as being rooted in becoming one with our melancholy as a path towards enlightenment. The Japanese know this to be true in Wabi-Sabi where the impermanent and incomplete have defined an entire aesthetic philosophy.
THIS is a glimpse of all that is contained within Native culture and New Mexico, this most Native of all lands. Add to that native humor-a unique, distinct outlook unlike any other you will ever hear. It’s everywhere and you’ll see wonderful native comedians and they will joke in a theater full of Indians who burst out laughing and you don’t get it. To quote Robin Williams, “They’re not laughing at you they’re laughing near you.”
THIS I needed- as my drug use was fueled by my fear of feeling. Embracing the melancholy of flowing beauty was essential to my health-building. “Laughter is the language of God.” THIS was the leap from “Detroit” to the desert. Give yourself three minutes to enjoy this.
Mostly a desert it is known as high desert-desert stretching up into mountains and Taos-in the north mountains (the highest municipality in the US, 10,000 feet elevation) is renowned for attracting artists. You can literally feel the energy streaming out of the ground there. Energy disturbing and ephemeral, those (and other) mountains are still growing an inch or two a year.
Have you heard of ley lines and the attendant power points? Dowsing? Carolina has a long dowsing tradition. Learned teachers have shown me enough that I believe all that to be true. New Mexico gets 2 inches of rain a year-the Rio Grande is empty for stretches that run hundreds of miles. A skilled dowser is always busy in the Southwest.
I was 4 years in recovery, and wanted to study holistic energy systems and chose a program in NM. Going for a 4-month intensive holistic medicine program which got cancelled and turned into a 1.5-year program, I stayed 13 years.
That type of experience is common for most who come from the east to NM. We come with some plan, it gets smashed to bits and we stay. Ego-deflation. Honestly-numerous easterners related a similar experience to me.
The motto on the state license plate is Land of Enchantment. The motto expatriates there coined is Land of Entrapment. (disliked-resented even-by locals-a majority Hispanics going back 5 generations)
All entrapment is internal and this is a land to work that out (and hopefully let go).
Average per-capita Native American income is $5,000. That’s a year.
What native is rich in America does not value. That’s an entry-point into a different paradigm. Remove the lens that sees everything and everyone as commodities and profits-really take those glasses away-and you see a much different world.
The thing I learned about poverty like that is if you don’t have it you don’t miss it. If they can’t take it away, then you’re free. What does Dylan say? “You ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose.”
The next depression, that comes to America, we’ll be stressing way more than them.
A running joke there; when you tell people you live in New Mexico they think you mean Mexico. They ask if you need a passport. It is a significantly different culture than Mexico. New Mexico- including Hispanic influence- has its own life away from Mexico-deeply informed by its profound Native roots.
But then everybody’s native. An Indian mentor joked, “Mexicans are just confused Indians.”
Hiking down to the bottom of Canyon de Chelly, I saw peoples and sheep herds that have been there in an unbroken line, a continuous lineage, for 1,000+ years.
Geronimo was Mescalero-actually Chiricahua is the more appropriate term.
Speaking of terms, words, language; virtually everything we commonly think and know about Native terms is so off or flat-out wrong it’s hard to know where to start.
I got to spend time with numerous native radicals, activists, artists-Dennis Banks and his son Red Elk, Russel Means, Wynona LaDuke, Don Coyhis, John Trudell, Joy Harjo, Gary Farmer, Sam English and virtually all of them used the term Indian. One fellow had a cap with FBI on it. I asked, “You were in the FBI?” He said, “Yeah man I’m FBI-flat broke Indian”.
Actors such as Dances with Wolves Rodney Grant and Wes Studi lived in NM and would come by my recovery program and hang out with the guys. With lots of filming in NM recovering actors were around regularly and often forthright and engaging. Christian Slater was a surprising standout. You might imagine-a successful native actor takes the time to reach out to brothers suffering and in despair at a very low time, it was helpful to the discovery process.
We do not have the space or time here to lay out a true snapshot of native experience. The history is worthy of a lifetime of study. All that is “off” about this starts with a vastly different paradigm-a so-different way of seeing life we can’t grasp it-we are in our way. But as far as the word Indian; before whites came, how native peoples here 10,000 years “perceived” their way of life did not include a need to “name” their groupings. You know-whites; the refugee immigrants of that time. We whiteys needed to name everything (i. e. label) and name we did. Therefore, even our now considered “normal” names-say Apache-originated from slang and offensive terms.
There were many many groupings, such as the Iroquois Federation.
Do you know of the 13 Grandmothers?
They were the Federation’s ultimate authority (like our Supreme Court), a Council of 13 Grandmothers-Women Elders. If the problem was too great to handle and they were needed they were heeded.
Here’s some books-including this one here. Here and here.
I stayed on a number of these pueblos and got to work with the peoples and what I learned is a different paradigm its own self because what’s needed is to stop and get silent and learn. There is (mostly) nothing we can teach them. We can learn, they can teach us. For me, near the top of the list of painful things is well-meaning white people come to fix things. Which initially I was.
Despite knowing better, I have done that here. Sat in meetings and blurted out, “Hey, here’s how we did it in…..so-and-so”, while I feel jaws clench. Another damn northerner here to tell us how to do it.
You don’t feel jaws clench in pueblo land. They are way past that. The Big Surrender in Native Country.
I both attended holistic school and stayed in the treatment field the whole time there, which illuminated some things.
What started me on this essay; I was reminded of the week I received calls, from two different wives, that their husbands had died. Both were recent clients of mine. One had suicided and the other died in his sleep from alcohol poisoning.
I want to relate what followed as a means of sharing glimpses of the native paradigm.
One death-Anglo, an environmental lawyer, deeply co-occurring, severe bi-polar flaring up at times. He and I bonded and he began to occasionally bring me files of cases he handled, including one the Navajo Nation had brought against huge energy conglomerates that had destroyed parcels of their land-poisoning peoples along the way. Very interesting.
He had recently re-admitted himself to the UNM psychiatric ward where we all collaborated together to support his medication and emotional stability and that last entry it had felt like we’d succeeded. A week later he was dead.
The second death, a sweet Navajo man I’d known/worked with for over a year-he was “partying”, passed out and never woke up. Loved to tell me he was really Italian. Far on the severe end of the alcoholism spectrum.
Within days of each other both wives called and I was, despite years of experience, in emotional turmoil which was increased by them profusely, quietly thanking me. Each wife shared that I “was the best counselor he’d ever had and, he said how he really liked you the best and I know you really tried to reach him and I want to thank you.”
This was actually hard, in the moment, to hear. The more I grew the more I had to acknowledge the depth of my feelings and it gets painful(er). But that’s not the real turmoil, which began when the Acoma pueblo wife of my Navajo client asked me to come to his celebration feast the whole pueblo would be having in three weeks.
I was, for a rare time, speechless. I actually tried to say something about, …. “but I failed”, and she went on to gently correct me that no I had not failed, I/she/everyone had tried and despite his disease the Acoma peoples always celebrate every life of every member of the tribe, the family, for the gifts they bring to this world.
I do not mean for this to be about me or my ego, it’s about what I saw/felt that feast day. Meanwhile, I hung up the phone and had tears. Floored/overwhelmed I was awash in feelings.
The feast was sweet, large, rambled all over the “town” on the pueblo-dusty, lots of tykes running to and fro. There was much music, drums, dancing. Some speakers shared all about my client-loving remembrances of his strengths. I was called out from the stage and honestly could not speak (again a rarity I do admit) though invited and so I mumbled a few things and waved. Tears for me and many others, light, flowing, quiet, sincere.
Is it clear what I am saying, is the picture I am painting coming into focus?
I stood in a spot of beauty as only New Mexico can be while a swirl of grannies and dust bunnies and rez dogs and kids and men and women all dressed festively in bright colors, amidst a feast of food lovingly prepared, while drumming and dancing and other rituals of prayer and celebration continued, all to honor the life of a man who drank himself to death. And I was honored for working with him.
THIS is what I mean by a paradigm. Allow yourself the luxury of going there in your heart to imagine what it must be like-within the hearts of a people-to honor someone, who died that way.
I had a wonderful time and yet truthfully I could not truly grasp. I was not fully present because deep down-I felt some shame. He had died “on my watch.” Despite years amongst the people-that’s what their word for Navajo means: Dineh = the People. I could not fully take it all in without multiple conflicting feelings. Eventually, my pain turned in to potent waves of gratitude, hope and faith, crashing on me like waves upon a shore.
My confusion of feelings I would lump under the co-dependence umbrella today.
As we grow understanding of our community’s cycles of codependency, insecurity & validation, we shift paradigms, healing on the way, and then we have a different understanding of our responsibilities to ourselves and each other.
Here now it feels like a faint dream-some eleven years ago or so.