Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A study in exoticism ... .

We were on a field trip to Hopi tribal lands and a remarkable archealogical dig that had unearthed a village complete with pueblo and blow holes ("...where the wind God lives").

It was here that we met the most unlikely National Park ranger. He was about 5'7", "portly," with a protruding rounded belly and a waist-length jet black braid that bounced loosely against his back as he walked. This was Ruben, a member of the Wupatki people of the Hopi tribe upon whose land this national park had settled. In his park uniform Ruben appeared cartoon-like. I felt sorry for him in this inappropriate "costume" that did not fit the image of a bronze present-day Hopi warrior. How sad, I thought! He seemed more captive than ranger in these clothes. Given the history, I found myself wondering how his people viewed him dressed the garb of the invaders ... .

The reception center features murals that tell the tragic story of a time in the not too distant past when our government came to the decision that the Hopi had over-grazed the land with their sheep and that they must go. The lands were then confiscated by the NPS and the tribes burned out of their pueblos. The Hopi were then dispersed across the deserts of Arizona. To its credit, the National Park Service owns that history and the murals on the panels of the reception center are true to events just as they occurred; despite the discomfort this surely must bring to today's more socially aware park administration. The saving grace in all this may be that -- as a nation -- we're finally having these long-silent conversations and owning responsibility for our past through our system of national parks which are actively engaged in the telling of the stories of the nation in countless ways.

After our class had inspected the excavated Wupatki Pueblo and learned something of its history through a quick study of the exhibits in the reception center, we gathered outside within sight of the excavation to hear a presentation from our unlikely interpreter and park ranger; Ruben.

And then it happened: This chubby dark-skinned oddly-garbed park ranger turned to one of the instructors. He quite deliberately removed his NPS ranger hat and handed it to someone standing nearby -- clearly by prearrangement; and in that simple act of apparent but practiced defiance, reclaimed his identify. It was a moment not unlike the act at the end of the movie, "Miss Jane Pittman," when -- after a lifetime of humiliation and racism -- Miss Jane walked up those stairs and took a drink from the "Whites Only" water fountain. This was Ruben's moment of transformation. One that he could not have brought off standing under the traditional and honored hat of the NPS. This would be about his people.

We listened to him relate his stories for the next fifteen emotional minutes; of his doubts about the wisdom of "the dig" of that Wupatki pueblo -- a construct that "probably should have been allowed to remain in the earth ... to become one with it." He spoke of the "Eaglet" story; of the decades-long legal battles for permission for his tribe to re-enter into their homeland and what was now "the national park" to capture an eaglet to be used in a 2000-year-old ceremonial ritual that was a part of the ancient Hopi religious tradition. The eaglet was to be revered as it matured under loving care. It would be raised to centuries-old tribal standards -- to be sacrificed at the end for religious purposes. The sacred feathers would then be used for traditional ceremonies. This practice, of course, clashed with the National Park Service's mandated mission of preservation of all natural resources. Needless to say, the Hopi have been continually denied their request despite years of litigation through our courts.

He talked about knowing many of the tribal land's secrets - of sites he would never disclose to anyone for fear of their exploitation and uses that would defame the long-held belief systems of the Hopi. There were hints that those secrets may be common knowledge among the Native American -- but would be withheld against further invasion from "the Invaders;" (my word, not Ruben's)

A strange thing happened as I listened. This plain little stubby man in his grey/greens might as easily have been standing before us in a feathered warbonnet, buckskins, and beaded moccasins. He was transformed in the telling of his stories. He was all pride and dignity. And -- the Anglos and others of us who stood around him were subdued and respectful. This was a giant of a man who was well able to stand on his own and not be buried by any bureaucracy. I had the distinct feeling that those park boundaries we honor have little meaning in his world, and that the Hopi world is inclusive enough to allow us to believe that those boundaries are real and unyielding.

I suddenly saw myself as the "exotic" in my park in much the way that Ruben is at the Wupatki site. I am the only African American on our staff. I wondered if I'm living my exoticism as effectively as Ruben is living his in that world? Like Ruben, I am able to speak my truth and bring my whole self into the process. And, like Ruben, I'm experiencing the respect of my community and my colleagues. I felt a deep kinship and an affirmation in my work from this quietly heroic man whose life had been shaped by events deep in human history but undying in their effects over succeeding generations and into his lifetime.

I won't forget him.

Since arriving home I've had dreams of that pueblo -- peopled and busy with life. And in those dreams Ruben appears in full native dress and holding an eaglet ... .

Click on this panoramic view of the pueblo for the full impact. It had an effect upon me similar to that experienced while visiting the slave quarters at the estate of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Arlington in Washington, D.C. Ours has been a painful history -- most of which we've never really processed. Perhaps this is the role people like Ruben and I are now fulfilling -- at a time in history when those lost conversations are finally encouraged and made meaningful.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

About the Coming of Age... ?

Hadn't thought about it in quite this way, but this trip brought with it some interesting and vague reminders of the inescapable truth; that the day will come soon when I'll need to pay more attention to diminishing capacities. If that is the new truth, it is also true that I'll need to learn to distinguish between just which limitations are natural to the aging process (for me) and which are externally imposed.

When first it was suggested that I take this training opportunity -- I hesitated due to the suspicion that I would be the eldest and out of context for an entire two week period. That could be hard for me and (perhaps) might make for a less than optimal experiences for my classmates. After all, my assumption was that everyone would be young and eager and at the beginnings of their careers with the NPS. Not so, there were several men who were surely entering a second career after teaching or lawyering somewhere in the country and facing retirement reluctantly after the loss of a spouse. It was comforting to find myself not alone in my later years, but at least in a couple cases -- among contemporaries. I don't believe anyone, though, was older than I.

Nonetheless, it never occurred to me that -- once there -- I would not be able to keep up with everyone else. I'm healthy and fit and able to do about anything the training or the company called for, and so it was -- until ... .

Along about the middle of the first week we were studying concessionaires and partnerships of the NPS and as an exercise were sent out in teams with clipboards to survey the concessionaires along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I happily trudged along with my classmates and entered the Hopi Shop to make an attempt at being discreet while looking at and assessing a number of criteria from my list. We'd been told to try not to be too noticeable among the tourists.

As I was observing a tourist trying on a beautiful Navajo bracelet, the woman behind the counter greeted me with, "...well, hello! Are you here with Elderhostel?" Suddenly I was no longer a student of the Albright Institute on a class assignment, but a lil ole lady who may have absent-mindedly wandered away from her tour. I found myself suddenly walking a bit more slowly and noticing that my breathing was more labored than usual (the altitude, I'd been told), and remembering that I might not be paying proper attention to the warning that I stay hydrated... all nonsense, of course.

Then, during the Sunday visit to Sedona and that anticipated visit to the Vortexes (mysterious energy fields that arise from deep in the sandstone hills), I jumped out of Maggie's little sporty top-down Miata and scrambled up the hillside to experience this phenomenon. Halfway up the incline I stopped to rest for a minute or so before taking on the next level. Maggie had gone ahead. As I stood catching my breath a conversation of a group of elders drifted across the slope. A white-haired older woman was saying, "...and, oh!, I was so frightened! I found myself caught halfway up to the hillside and I panicked. I couldn't go up or down and it scared me to death until someone shouted to me to just sit down and slide down on my bottom!"

That was all it took. Again, I was suddenly old. I simply couldn't dare go up another foot lest I get caught in the embarrassingly helpless state just described. I missed the experience of the Vortex. The chance will hardly come again. And it was all because, again, I allowed myself to be limited by accepting an external view of what was possible for me. Had I not overheard that woman's conversation, I would surely have scrambled up that incline along with Maggie and thought nothing of it. Scraping up or down on my bottom would have been little more than something to laugh about later in explaining the condition of my Levis!

I decided during a moment of silence on the drive back to the Grand Canyon that I would never ever want to live in a nursing home where the expectations of what I am capable of comes from others.

I must continue to dictate life on my own terms -- while understanding that I'm bound to run into a lot of sandstone gravel-ly places over the next few years -- but somewhere at the top of the incline will be a Vortex that I must not miss.

Maybe -- if I keep listening for the music -- I'll not hear those dissonant voices that dull the senses and limit experiences.

The only limitations I experienced during the entire two weeks at Albright were those I placed upon myself.

What a pity!

Photo: A thumbnail panoramic view of Sedona from the site of the Vortex. Click to enlarge.

Suffering from a rare burst of outraged feminism!

I've seldom claimed militancy where women's issues are concerned -- been far too absorbed in dealing with racism and concern for human rights over a lifetime -- but today I'm more than a little annoyed.

After hours of searching the Internet for the name of the woman who designed this exquisite Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, all I can come up with is "... created by a disciple of the great Frank Lloyd Wright." Now isn't that an abomination!

If anyone can do better, do let me know. I'd love to give credit to this superb architect. She deserves better treatment by the arts world -- as do the many great women artists whose work has been credited to others throughout history.

Monday, March 03, 2008

This photo can't possibly do justice to this exquisite little chapel, but maybe there's enough of a hint of the grandeur of the setting and the magnificent colors of the sandstone to encourage you to visit to see it for yourself at some point when the mood strikes and the gas tank is full. Makes me wonder why I'd never heard of the Chapel of the Holy Cross before now. Perhaps there are books published -- but then maybe -- if I'd taken the time to walk down to the lower floor to the gift shop I'd have noticed them ... but I was too totally caught up in the wonder of the moment to think of anything so obvious.