A Wisp of Smoke

For the last several months my priority has been Secretary Haaland’s Not Invisible Act Commission, designed to address the epidemic of Missing Murdered and Trafficked Indigenous People (MMTIP). I am honored to be part of the facilitation team and have given the effort everything I’ve got… perhaps a bit too much. After facilitating public hearings around the country where victims, survivors and family member told horrific stories of loss, abuse and pain, I began to carry their grief with me. The accumulation of traumatic stories, broken people, anger, desperation and despair became unbearable. I was numb, depressed, and hopeless. I felt broken myself.  

And so, as the conscientious White woman that I am, I sought help from a psychiatrist who has been there for me in times of need for many years. I was suffering from trauma, he said, not as a victim, but as a witness to the trauma of others. Having treated veterans and victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking, he said: “Retelling the traumatic story will not lead to healing. To heal, to live with the trauma in a healthy way, that requires something else, something beyond words.” I saw many witnesses at the hearings testify in tears and struggle through their stories. Clearly the retelling can re-traumatize. But many take that risk in order to educate and advocate for solutions and system reforms to address the epidemic. And many of them have non-verbal resources – ceremonies, songs, prayers, dances, drums, medicinal herbs, healers — within their cultural traditions to help them heal.

Read More

Small Awe

I heard a program on the radio as I was driving back from Albuquerque today. It was about “Awe.” What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean? How does it make you feel? It was interesting to hear the wide range of awe-inspiring things that people all over the world identify as giving them that spine-tingling, teary, jaw-dropping, out-of-body feeling that we call awe. Here are a few of the categories that I remember:

  • Nature: rainbows, clouds, mountain peaks, ocean waves, hurricanes, a mother doe and fawn
  • Art and music:  a Michelangelo, Mozart, an elegant building, dance, choral singing
  • Huge life moments:  being present at a birth, or a death, feeling the enormity and fragility of the miracle of life
  • A greater power:  the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves, something that is guiding us, something that binds us all together

I can’t argue with any of the above. I can imagine being awestruck by any of those experiences. But interestingly, the moments that came to mind were small, very small.

It was a wintry March in Santa Fe, snowflakes swirling in a bitter wind as I hurried from the house to the car. I looked down and saw a tiny flower, the tiniest daisy imaginable, the size of my pinky finger nail. There it was, alive, brave, determined to offer the world a speck of beauty. It was peeking up, all alone, next to a rock at the edge of the driveway. I was stunned. I stooped down and spoke: “Who are you?” A strange question, but I meant it. I felt I was meeting a remarkable fellow inhabitant of the planet.  I spent time getting to know my little comrade, crouching, staring, watching the snow flakes land on its tiny face. It is amazing how vivid this is, decades later. Surely that was awe.

Of course this is not my daisy. But imagine just one, as tiny as this, with snowflakes flying.

And just yesterday, another moment. It is unbearably hot here in Santa Fe. No matter we are at 7,200 feet, it is in the 90s day after day, we even reached 100 last week. For whatever reason, along with the heat came a huge squadron of flies, inside the house, buzzing at the windows, landing on the counter, driving us crazy. The sticky flycatcher caught one, by accident I’m sure. So we resorted to old-fashioned fly swatters. I had trouble with the first one, even muttered an apology before smashing it on the wall. After that it was easy and I swatted dozens of them every morning with no remorse. Roberto followed me with a hand-held vacuum sucking up the corpses. Then yesterday afternoon I saw one that he missed…and it was moving along the tiled floor! How could this be? I knelt down and saw an ant – much smaller than the fly — carting its treasure across the floor to some unknown destination. 

I was filled with awe. Again, a fellow inhabitant of this planet was at work, carrying out a mission, the details of which I couldn’t understand, but the commitment, the determination, the belief that was the best use of its short life — that I could definitely relate to. I talked to the little laborer, as I did the flower, expressing admiration, and asked permission to take his (or her) picture.

I know I will remember that exchange for a long time, as I have the conversation with the flower. Small moments, tiny creatures, insignificant by many measures, can be just as awesome as the big, flashy ones. It just takes a sharp eye and the willingness to think small. And come to think of it, connecting on an intimate level with another species so far from our own feels…huge.


Read More

The Girl with the Beach Towel

I had stopped for gas, and she was walking past on the other side of the street. It was only 10:00 in the morning, but already hot. She wore skimpy shorts and a skimpy top and had what looked like a big beach towel draped around her shoulders. My first thought was that she was on her way to a pool somewhere for a morning swim, but the neighborhood was semi-industrial and urban. Would there be a pool within walking distance, I mused? And her gait was a little off for a young woman on her way for morning exercise. Each step was slightly tentative. Maybe it was the flip flops she was wearing, I thought. Or she could be a little hung over, and I imagined a night of partying. Her expression was serious, preoccupied as if she were imagining herself somewhere else. The gas nozzle clicked off and I turned my attention to finishing the transaction and getting back on the road.  

I was on my way to facilitate one of seven public hearings for the Not Invisible Act Commission, this one in Albuquerque, just down the road from Santa Fe.  For three days the commissioners and staff heard from those who wanted to share their stories, highlight injustices and gaps in services, plead their cases, and make suggestions for how the system could work better to address the epidemic of murdered, missing and human trafficked Indigenous people (MMHTIP). There were boxes of Kleenex on every table. The walls were lined with home made placards and posters. Family members and survivors wore red to symbolize the blood shed in this slaughter. The testimony was unbelievably powerful, heart- and gut-wrenching, and often shocking. These witnesses were courageous. They told very personal and painful stories in order to bring attention to the wrongs happening every day in Indian country. Most of the stories reflect the hopelessness and helplessness victims and family members experience when a loved one is lost or murdered.

Some of the placards and posters brought by witnesses
Read More

I hesitate to go there…

…But, it’s fresh on my mind, and maybe some – or even many – of you can relate.

About two weeks ago I underwent oral surgery. Just those two words together make you clench your mouth shut, don’t they? I had an exostosis, a benign growth on a bone. A bone spur is an exostosis. For better or worse mine was growing straight out from my lower left jaw. If this is too much information and you’d like to click the “enough already” button, I will understand, and I hope to see you next month, when I promise a more palatable post.

Read More

Who Are These People?

I reached in the mailbox the other day and pulled out “Resilience,” a beautiful, slick publication from the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe that I have followed and supported since its beginning. I have a fondness for the coalition because 20 years ago I was lucky enough to be at the birth of this gutsy, crazy, doomed-to-fail initiative. The midwives were two conservationists and a renegade rancher who believed that his ranch could support both his family and a healthy ecosystem, a proposition that was radical in those days when environmentalists and ranchers were sworn enemies. The three got to know each other, gradually over several years, and then in 2003 they convened a group of 20 ranchers, environmentalists and scientists to see if they could sell their collaborative dream to “take back the American West from the decades of divisiveness and acrimony that now truly jeopardizes much of what we all love and value” and “restore ecological, social and political health to a landscape that deserves it and so desperately needs it.” [from their website]

Latest issue of “Resilience” can be read online at quiviracoalition.org

They adopted the name Quivira which comes from the term on old Spanish maps to signify uncharted territory. And indeed, they were in uncharted territory. The suggestion that a coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmentalists could succeed was laughed at by some, spat on by others, but a critical number held on, and the result today is a vibrant organization, committed to fostering ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration.

Read More


He could have been 75. Or he could have been 95. He wore a blindingly white shirt, tucked into Levis that were creased, both ironed by his wife, or maybe his daughter, I thought. He made a slow beeline for us, pad and pencil in hand.

“Welcome, folks, welcome. We will give you the best breakfast you’ve ever had. I promise. You’ll see.” He chuckled and smiled. He was typical of certain older Hispanic men in northern New Mexico, living treasures, who have deep roots in the land and the culture, who can tell endless stories, and whose hardworking ethic isn’t diminished by the aging process.

We were in Las Vegas, New Mexico, for the weekend. It’s a wonderful town, an hour east of Santa Fe, that offers a great escape from the pressures of work and the routine of home. I’m not complaining about Santa Fe – we are incredibly lucky to be here – but Las Vegas offers a more down home, relaxed, humble experience. At the Plaza Hotel on the town plaza they serve special cocktails with cute names. The Santa Fe is described as “slightly pretentious,” which really made me laugh. Las Vegas is far from pretentious, although it has the same complex history, rich cultural mix and great shopping as its famous neighbor just down the road.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas, New Mexico

Read More

An Honor

Sometimes an invitation comes along that you can’t refuse. About a year ago I was asked to join a team of facilitators, writers and administrative staff to support the newly formed commission to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous people (MMTIP). Very grateful for the chance to be part of the effort, I accepted and for the past year have been working to help bring the Not Invisible Act Commission into being. I am careful not to talk publicly about my current cases. The work is often delicate and it is crucial to maintain confidentiality for the participants. But, last Tuesday Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, co-chair of the commission with Attorney General Merrick Garland, issued a press release reporting on the first in-person meeting of the commission in Washington DC. And so I take that as permission to share with you what has been consuming most of my professional life in the past several months. At the end of this post are the link to the press release which will give you an overview of the commission, and a glorious photo of some of the commissioners and staff with Secretary Haaland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.

Commission support team (partial) with Secretary Haaland;
Cam Hager, me, Steven Hafner, Pat Field

Most federal commissions are small (10-20) and include experts in the field from government, academia and related organizations. They typically meet in DC and then hold public hearings around the country, taking testimony that will enrich and round out their understanding of the issues. This commission is unique in its size (45 members) and its makeup. A significant number of the commissioners are family members and survivors of this epidemic of abuse sweeping much of Indian country. They are working side-by-side with a broad range of representatives from law enforcement, data management agencies, non-profits serving these victims and families, and many others who have knowledge and insights that can inform the commission’s recommendations.

The presence of these family members and survivors has been critical in keeping the commission focused on what really matters. Their stories and life experience remind us all of the very real impact of this epidemic and the desperate need for attention. There is no way that their fellow commissioners who are professionals from the Departments of Justice and Interior, the FBI, BIA, CDC, Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies around the country can forget why they are there and the urgency of their work. It is not easy for family members and survivors to educate, to relive their horrific experiences, to grieve again for a lost one. I admire their courage and commitment to this effort. They are choosing to work with the federal government, hoping that this time it will be worth it and that the results will be good for Indian Country. I am honored to be working with commissioners and staff, and I know that for all of us this is much more than just a job.

Link to press release:


Deputy Attorney General Monaco, Secretary Haaland, members of the Not Invisible Act Commission and staff

Department of Interior, Deputy Attorney General Monaco, Secretary Haaland, members of the Not Invisible Act Commission and staff

Read More

Why Old People Watch “Jeopardy”

Well, I finally figured it out.… as I found myself flipping channels from the PBS NewsHour, which I have watched for decades, to Jeopardy.

It’s always been a joke, hasn’t it? Your grandparents sitting in front of the TV, in a rocker or perched on the edge of a sofa, peering intently at the screen, trying to figure out the answer before the young whippersnapper blurts it out. “Oh, well,” we younger folk would say, “they’re happy, just watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune,” implying that in those golden years, at such an irrelevant age, they might as well check out of the real world. But it was hard to accept, hard not to be critical. This person we knew to be vibrant and energetic, engaged in the world was satisfied just sitting in front of Jeopardy? Where was that outrage at the newest mass shooting, the latest tragedy in Ukraine, or the unstoppable melting glacier? What a shame, we would say to ourselves. They just don’t care anymore.

Jeopardy board — it’s a fun and educational game show, even if it’s an escape
Read More

Living Together

I recently read about a bison being born in the “wild” in England. I put it in quotes, probably unfairly, thinking that England is pretty much tamed after all this time, with shrub-lined lanes, flower-dotted meadows, tidy fences, carefully pruned trees and well-behaved weeds. But reading the article I learned that indeed three wild bison were reintroduced last July in the Kent area and a young female delivered a surprise in October, the first bison born in the wild in England in 6,000 years. Pretty incredible to bring back a species after driving it to extinction. The English conservationist confessed that just about all large mammals had been extinguished in England, the result of centuries of hunting and taking over habitat. We humans don’t share particularly well when it comes to wildlife.

Bison calf born in the wilds of Kent

The same thing happened in North America once the colonists arrived. Some took what they needed of the richness that lay before them, cultivating, harvesting, hunting to support themselves. Others, a significant number, saw a huge expanse of land and resources, including wildlife, just waiting to be exploited. Some believed it was a God-given right and duty, even, to help themselves; others had commercial motives; and others simply indulged in recreational killing for the joy of it. All this is spun out in a powerful new book by my friend Dan Flores, “Wild New World.” It is a great read for all kinds of reasons. And yes, there are painful parts where you will shake your head in disbelief that mankind could be so wantonly destructive of animal life. “This is not going to be a happy ending,” you think to yourself, and then, Dan, a self-described optimist, pulls it out and ends with hope.

Read More

Giving Tuesday

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Electronic Monday and Giving Tuesday….if you have anything left to give. This string of money-based “holidays” has become as traditional as the turkey on Thursday. And how ironic that Giving Tuesday is last in line. I scan the flood of emails reminding me that today is the day to give, and I will probably participate and click a couple links. But, in the past year since the last Giving Tuesday, I have realized that helping others is a complex undertaking. What, when, where, how, why to give are all questions that deserve some thought.

I am reading a wonderful book, insightful, witty and so educational for those of us embarrassingly ignorant about Africa. “Africa is Not a Country,” by Dido Faloyin, presents the continent in all its richness and variety, debunking myths that plague modern-day African countries ready for respect and acceptance as important players on the world stage. One of the most pernicious myths is that Black Africa is helpless, starving, ignorant, and generally incapable, waiting for White colonizers and their 21st century successors to save them.  

Lagos, Nigeria

Most impactful for me was Faloyin’s critique of charitable fundraising for African causes. With all good intentions, developed countries, European and US in particular, are able to create compelling campaigns to “help Africans” who are starving, being slaughtered or kidnapped, or other crises that the media features. What is almost always missing is the guidance or better yet partnership of actual Africans who know best the answers to those “what, when, where, how, and why” questions above. Our White eagerness to act quickly to feed a dying baby or rescue a kidnapped boy soldier, can easily go awry, contributing to political upheaval, corruption, and perpetuation of the stereotypical desperate African needing the White savior. Not denying there are very real crises that need assistance, the author emphasizes that foreign responses must be designed and directed by those on the ground.

Read More