Anglo Sisters

sky city mesa

[For those of you not in the Southwest, the term Anglo usually means anyone not Indian, more or less synonymous with White.]

It’s embarrassing, but one of the hardest things about being Anglo for me has been admitting it. After years living in Navajo country and more years working with Pueblos and tribes, I sometimes drift into some kind of fantasy that I am not really Anglo, that I am almost an Indian, that I am more non-White than White. Of course this is not true, and I try as quickly as possible to bring myself back to reality before I do anything that might embarrass myself and others. One memory that helps bring me back comes from Acoma Pueblo several years ago.

I had a free day and decided to indulge myself and go to the traditional dances at Acoma Pueblo. I jumped in the car, zipped through Albuquerque, turned west toward Acoma, then south to the pueblo’s mesa top. I spotted it in the distance, rising hundreds of feet off the valley floor, so beautiful, so powerful. I felt very lucky to be on my way to a special ceremony in a community that would welcome me and all others who came with respect.

sky city 3I arrived early, parked in the lot at the bottom of the mesa and walked up the dust and sandstone path to the top. The adobe houses, the white church, the ancient cemetery, the smells of cooking, all was very comforting. I felt oddly at home. I was ready for a spiritual experience, a reprieve from the demands of my life in Santa Fe.

It was 10:30 and the first dance would probably be starting soon. I walked behind the houses that ringed the dirt plaza, peeking between them to find the perfect viewing spot. I assessed  the level of the sun and its direction, the location of the kiva, and other vague criteria. I found an area between two blocks of adobe houses where I would have a good view. There were a couple of dozen folding lawn chairs set up in four rows in front. I picked a spot next to one of the buildings and behind the rows of chairs. The chairs, I thought with anticipation, will be filled with elders and children, and I will be able to see what is going on in the plaza over their heads.

I leaned against the wall and looked out beyond the plaza and above the roofs on the other side to the sky. It was spectacular. The clouds were puffs, huge ridiculous, snowy white puffs, bigger than they should be, so big I wondered how they could hold themselves together. Surely they were drawn by a preschooler and pasted up above the pueblo for this special day. And the color of the sky, also straight from a preschool box of crayons, was simple, gorgeous, clear blue. A perfect day for dances at Acoma, dances which promise to be a delight to the eye and ear, and an inspiration for the soul.

My reverie was broken by the sound of chatter, chattering women coming across the plaza in my direction. They were not the elderly Acoma ladies I had pictured sitting in front of me; nor were they a younger generation preparing with excitement for the feast to come. They were from a tribe to the east, from Texas. They were tourists — from Dallas, I surmised  — and they had targeted those empty folding chairs as prime seats. “How lucky we are to get here early,” I heard one say, “so that we could get good seats.” As they got closer I saw that the glint coming off their breasts was the sun striking their large, extra large, silver and turquoise squash blossom necklaces. They each had on a hefty concho belt as well. They were decked out and they were ready to see the dances. They settled themselves in four front row seats, and continued to talk, unaware of me behind them, leaning against the wall in the shade and blushing violently.

I stared at the backs of their heads and thought critical thoughts. “How could they be so insensitive? Don’t they realize that these chairs are not for them?  Don’t they know that they should be unobtrusive like me?” Pueblo members were beginning to gather and I could hear the drums from the kiva. The dance would start soon. I was certainly glad that I had nothing to do with those women from Dallas. I made sure to stand as far from them as I could so that no one mistook me for part of their clan. I assured myself that I was a different kind of Anglo, one who had lived and worked with Native people — and here I began to slip back into that fantasy — one who was really more Indian than Anglo… underneath it all.

The folding chairs were filling up with Acomas, and I was getting more and more agitated about the tourists in those chairs designated for Acoma elders and children. I was torn. On the one hand I wished that the Dallas women would snap to and move themselves to some secondary position where they belonged. On the other hand, I reveled in the fact that they remained ignorant, because that made them all the more distinct from me. There could be no confusing us, them and me. They were insensitive and I was enlightened and aware. I was dying for them to get up and move, to see the light, and at the same time I was relishing the fact that they were the Anglos and that I was not.

The drums were louder now, and from the posture and movement of those around me I could tell that the dancers would soon appear between the break in the houses across the plaza.  Perhaps it was the beat of those drums, the anticipation, those oversized clouds, a pang of guilt —  whatever it was, I had a revelation. My pettiness and judgementalism, my competition with these women for who was the most deserving outsider to be present at this very special cultural event, all these unpleasant and unworthy emotions subsided.  I saw these Dallas ladies in a new light. I realized they were doing the best they could. They had no knowledge about where they were, but they had taken the trouble to get themselves up to the mesa top in time, on this special day, and they cared enough to sit in the heat of the late August sun and wait for the dance. They saw chairs and made an assumption. This was all foreign to them.

At the last possible moment my conscience kicked in. After all, I knew so much more than they did. I was Anglo, and I was kidding myself to think any differently. And these tourists were Anglo, and by God, we needed to help each other out. Much to my surprise, I was flooded with affinity for them. They were my sisters! Moving in their direction, I squeezed between chairs until I was standing behind them.

“Excuse me,” I whispered,” leaning over and smiling at them. “I just wanted to let you know that these chairs are always reserved for the older Acoma people and the children, so that they can have a good view of the dances. Probably you didn’t know….” Before I could finish, there was a muffled shriek in unison from the foursome, and they began to rustle in their seats, gathering purses, parasols, and water bottles. “Oh my, no! I didn’t know that! “Well, thank goodness you told us!” “How embarrassing!” “We would never want to do anything wrong!” They vacated the chairs in such a hurry that one collapsed. The last Dallas-ite turned quickly to right it, and smiled at the elder who had been sitting beside her. “I was just resting, you know. Sorry about that.” The grandma smiled back.

acoma cloudsMy Anglo sisters followed me to where I was standing at the side of the building behind the chairs. With many thanks and apologies they settled in to enjoy the dance. The clouds were even puffier and more outrageous than before. The first set of dancers rounded the corner of the opposite building and appeared in the plaza. We five Anglo ladies gasped with quiet appreciation.

4 thoughts on “Anglo Sisters”

  1. I’ve often felt like that, Lucy, kind of ‘hipper’ than other whites. I was born In India – British. I’m white to the core. Not Indian, tho’ most of the people I cared for were. I lived New Mexico for twelve years, and, unlike you, I never had very much to do with the local peoples. But I thought I knew how they felt about ‘us’. As with Australian aborigines, South African blacks. I went to a Chinese school for a while. I thought I was Chinese. They knew not.
    It’s complicated, because the sentiments are somewhat altruistic, and kind. You think you know more than you do. And friends have not told you much, when it really comes down to it. On the other hand, who can know about me?
    Same deal.
    I think Acoma is a most remarkable city. Such a sight to see, coming down that hill and suddenly seeing That Place!
    Great Blog Lucy. Myv.

    1. Thank you, Myv! What a rich and complex life you’ve had. I really like your observation that we think we know more than we do, and that these feelings come from an altruistic place. Seems to me we also run the risk of being patronizing…ignorant altruism — interesting topic. Thanks again, Myv

  2. Lucy, your blog hits home today, reading the Pasatiempo (7 months after your blog) on another issue around cultural differences – especially when it expands into the realm of intellectual property and sacred native traditions. I am copying the relevant part of the article and would be interested in your “Common Ground” take on it.
    Pasatiempo Newsletter 1/15/16
    “Last summer, Penguin and its related imprint Viking published two books on the history and traditional Native American religion of New Mexico’s Pueblo of Acoma: How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family and The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo. Both were projects of Peter Nabokov, a professor in the Dept. of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, and author of many scholarly works on Native American history and architecture. Three days after the books were reviewed in Pasatiempo on Sept. 18, 2015, Ray Rivera, editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican, received a letter of protest from Hon. Fred S. Vallo Sr., then governor of Acoma Pueblo. When Nabokov appeared for a reading at Albuquerque’s Bookworks on Sept. 23, he was confronted by members of Acoma Pueblo and others who demanded to know what right he had to publish the Pueblo’s sacred narratives. A similarly tense scene ensued at a reading the next day at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. What went wrong? Aren’t bookstore readings usually love fests? Since September, members of Pasatiempo’s staff and I met twice with Acoma Pueblo leadership and with the Pueblo’s legal counsel, the Chestnut Law Offices. We also contacted Nabokov. Although we do not presume to speak for the leadership of Acoma Pueblo, or indeed for any Native American group, this article explores the issues involved. The matter reduces to a fundamental difference of opinion and worldview about cultural knowledge and intellectual property. On one side, we have the modern Western idea that all knowledge is available to everyone without any restrictions, while with regard to Acoma Pueblo, we understand that some kinds of knowledge are not for everyone. It is an open question whether such seemingly incompatible viewpoints can coexist without support from state or federal laws.”

    1. Thanks, Peter. I may want to talk more about this in next month’s blog, but here is one quick musing.

      I read with great interest the New Mexican Pasatiempo article last Friday (should be able to link it here, but a bit beyond my current ability, sorry). And I heard from a friend a blow-by-blow of the confrontation at Collected Works Bookstore last September. I wish I had been there because it sounds like a classic cultural conflict, and I confess I’m a junkie.

      I’m wondering about the right of the world to know everything, that all knowledge should be available to all: I think this is a gray area and it is not as black and white as many think. There is knowledge that relates to health and well-being — toxics, hazardous spills, viruses, etc. — that is critical for everyone to know. Although I confess I weary of the latest warnings about coffee, wine, chocolate, that are reversed in a few months by a new study, but that’s another issue. And then there is knowledge that is not critical to our well-being, and that certainly includes the Acoma origin myth. In this case, it gets gray for me, and in cases of gray I come down on the side of “do no harm.” For Mr. Nabokov’s sake, I wish he had been more thorough in his communications with the Pueblo; it may be a case of assumptions, and they are dangerous things in cross-cultural matters. He has deep experience in Indian Country, but that does not give us any special privileges when it comes to sacred matters. The Pueblo on their part may not have been as responsive or assertive as they should have been. They may have had changes in administration, or have been overwhelmed by what seemed like more pressing problems, and let this slip by. This is total speculation on my part, based on my own experiences. In any case I am sad for everyone involved.

      Tune in next month for more! In the meantime, I would love to hear thoughts from others.

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