June 15, 2023 | By:

Indigenous Mindedness

NOTE: This originally appears in a chapter from my memoir, Headed Into the Wind.

Coyote howling illustrationHere in the Galisteo River watershed, our adobe home is situated at 6,760 feet above sea level in a piñon-juniper grassland where wildlife is abundant. Frequently I see a coyote sniffing around twenty or thirty feet beyond the western window of my studio.  Coyotes’ coloration is such that their fur blends with the surrounding habitat. They’re most readily observed when they’re in motion.  When they’re still, it takes a moment to register their presence.  When I chance to be able to look directly into a coyote’s eyes, I sense intelligence and a finely honed awareness.  When Coyote stands hidden in the shadow of the grandfather juniper tree thirty feet from my window, I watch his ears rotating 180 degrees, each ear independent of the other. Coyote lives in the present.  Sporadically, especially in the nighttime, I listen to a chorus of coyotes, each coyote joining in from different points from within a square quarter mile, their eerie, beautiful voices blending into one of Nature’s greatest bio-phonies.

Once, many years ago, I chanced to watch a coyote sneak up on a gathering of snow geese.  When they finally sensed Coyote’s presence, they took to the air in a chaotic flapping of wings punctuated by their alarm calls—all but one that flapped its last clamped in Coyote’s jaws.  The coyote is a wild creature of habitat, conceived as a trickster figure in many indigenous cultures, but in reality is a wild successful hunter considered the bane of the grasslands by ranchers who shoot to kill in the mistaken belief that the coyotes are invading their territory.  In truth, the ranchers have invaded a habitat once far richer in wildlife before the coming of cattle, and themselves—the sons and daughters of Manifest Destiny.

Before the arrival of the Union Army in the Southwest in the mid-19th century, several tribes of Apache Indians roamed the landscape.  They sometimes raided other tribal homelands, and they came to be regarded as some of the most fearsome guerilla warriors of their time. Their ferocity was visited upon the sons and daughters of Europe after their own homelands were invaded first by Mexican soldiers, and later by U.S. soldiers who were intent on making the Southwest ‘safe’ for homesteaders and ranchers after the end of the Civil War.

The Apache guerilla warriors were adept at using the features of the landscape against their enemies.  Claudine Saenz, one of fifteen surviving speakers of the Chiricuahua Warm Springs Apache dialect told me of this account:

“One story that was told to me by my paternal grandfather was that the Apache people knew shape-shifting. He told me a story about how the Apaches were being pursued by the cavalry and they were running and they were closing in. They kind of ran over a knoll and out of sight of the cavalry and they were still being pursued. By the time the cavalry came up on the knoll, there was no Apache to be seen. And all that was seen was all these little quails that were running out from under the brush. So, you know, there is some truth to that, when they tell about stuff like that. We think that it’s magic, and I guess it is magic. It has something that is unexplainable. So I know that they did have those kind of powers. They had a way of not being seen. In this day and age we don’t see it, but I guess back then it was done for survival purposes.”

My own spin on this is that the Apaches, like coyotes, were capable of becoming invisible through imagining themselves as part of the habitat to the extent that other features become more prominent, in this case a covey of quail being interrupted by the presence of soldiers, and flying off in every direction as the Apaches self-absorbed themselves into the habitat, eyes closed, focused on the smells, sound, and feel of the place.  I’ve seen this work with many creatures in the wild.  If you can spot the open eye, only then do you see the rabbit or faun or rattlesnake.

To me, the bobcat is far less furtive that the coyote.  Not long ago of a late afternoon, I opened the curtains to the western window in my studio that I’d earlier drawn closed to keep the sun from baking me out of my work area.  As soon as I opened the curtains, I looked down, and there less than four feet away was a bobcat standing, looking up at me through the window glass.  Our eyes were locked for some seconds, and I sensed absolutely no alarm emanating from the bobcat, although I felt myself being drawn into some chthonic state to which the eyes of the bobcat were portals.  It was a timeless moment till the bobcat nonchalantly turned and slowly walked away, her own curiosity piqued by what might be around the corner of our adobe home.  I watched her for a full two minutes as I wandered from window to window.  Finally she slowly dissolved into the acreage northeast of our home, a being utterly self-contained in the present.

Joe Saenz

Joe Saenz © Jack Loeffler

I met a younger Warm Springs Apache named Joe Saenz, who is not biologically related to Claudine Saenz, although they are spiritually affiliated.  Joe makes his way as an outfitter for pack trips into the Gila Wilderness.  One day a few years ago, he provided me with his perspective regarding Apache culture:

“As far as our place, our being where we are supposed to exist—the place that we see ourselves is that we don’t consider ourselves above Nature. We consider ourselves as a part of it. And so whatever we did to the environment, we did to ourselves. So the code of ethics for Apaches was peace and harmony—peace among people and harmony with the environment. And that pretty much set a standard that we had to live by. Whatever we did, we had to do in mind that we were not the only ones that were going to use it; that there were going to be generations behind us using it. There were going to be families behind us using it. There was going to be somebody right behind us using it afterwards.

So the culture itself dictated our behavior in the environment. We had everything from what a lot of people consider as quaint mythology, mythological stories, stories of creation. But those stories were a distinctive outlay of our expected behavior. Everything from what animals you could eat, what animals you couldn’t eat, when you could do certain functions or events, the structure of the family—all of that had stories that evolved and made a person understand the meaning of it. But if you take it a step further, you can see that they were also stories that were intended to provide a lesson of the environment. Taboo foods. We were supposed to only, in that period of time before settlement and before the American culture expanded to this country, we were basically supposed to eat four-legged, air-breathing, herd animals—not predators, nothing of that nature that controlled other herd animals. So that in itself was just a matter of culling the herd. It wasn’t as—predators live alone, some of the predators hunt in small groups, stuff like that. We only ate animals that existed in large groups so they were easily to be replaced.

Fish—fish is a good example. Traditional Apaches did not eat fish. I lived in Alaska and so I understood the value of the fish up there and how much fish it takes to keep a people fed. So I can see in this country traditionally, Gila trout was the only fish here. So through some mechanism, through some teaching, fish became a taboo food for us. I can see why. We would have decimated that population if we tried to eat that fish. There’s just not enough fish here. So that in itself preserved the water, preserved the ecology of those animals and that existence there.

Number of family—we understand that traditionally Apaches usually only had one child every four years. And that made sense because of the resources, the movement, practicality, defense, all of that. And so even though we have stories that acquaint them with evolution and culture of Apaches, I guess because of my upbringing and schooling and formal education and trying to look more at a scientific application to it, I can easily see why those were very strong and practical and very effective methods of teaching the people and passing that on to them.

…Apache culture was in many ways a holistic culture. It took in everything. And what we didn’t have that we needed to use we learned very quickly, and sometimes we learned it extremely well. And that meant from hunting, to existence in the environment, to foods, to everything that we had to adapt to or take advantage of or use the resource that was there. But again I think that everything, even music, song, the language, everything, had an integral part in how it formed that culture to allow us to exist like we did back then, again keeping to those code of ethics, peace, and harmony.”

I think it’s important to try to peel back as many layers of cultural patina as possible to see who’s home, who the naked self is.  We are ultimately held in place by language, and as we speak, write, or think, in a sense we’re passing from the past into the future.  It’s only when we still our minds that we are in the present.  And if we are immersed in rural or wild out-of-doors when we achieve that state, our present is submersed in the flow of Nature, or could be if we open ourselves to the energy that prevails in all the organisms, the soil, the air around us.  The cultural perspective of indigenous peoples who are deeply aware of their habitats have an edge on the rest of us who are immersed in mainstream highly technologized culture whose primary concern is economics, and its concomitant, consumerism.  Our collective consciousness actually becomes calloused and insensitive to reality.  Our collective consciousness is engrossed in pursuits that often erode rather than enhance our place in Nature.

I had met Danny Lopez, a Tohono O’odham tribal elder on several previous occasions and we had formed a quiet friendship that I greatly valued.  One morning in the spring of 2000, Danny and I met at an agreed upon place deep in the Sonoran Desert.  We sat down in the shade of a palo verde tree, and I recorded Danny telling me of his perspective:

“The land was always considered to be something special. They even used to say that the land was a person and the plants were respected because certain plants give us medicine. As I sit here, I’m looking at all the creosote in front of me because creosote is one of the plants that we call a medicinal plant. Even the mesquite. Certain areas we get mesquites to build our fences or ramadas and the old homes that we used to build. The Earth helps us, so we respect the Earth. Also certain plants that gave us food, like the saguaro. We eat the saguaro fruit, the cholla buds, prickly pear, the wild spinach, those little buds that they’re called Papago lily. Even off the mesquite tree we get the mesquite bean, the sap. And other things too to help us in other ways. Like there’s a certain part of mesquite that we use to seal our gourd rattles. It was like a glue. Even off the creosote, there’s this little thing that forms on there, and even that was heated up and used as a glue.

So the plants help us and so we have a lot of respect for certain plants. We say the saguaro is a person. When you first eat something of the seeds of maybe the prickly pear fruit, before you eat the first fruit, you talk to it. You pray to it. Same thing especially the saguaro fruit. We always do that. We take a little of the saguaro fruit and we place it over our heart and we pray.

My elderly mother used to tell us that you have to be industrious because to be a good worker was something of value, but in the old culture nobody liked a lazy person. Because to be a worker you were useful to your community, to your family, and to yourself. To be an early riser because that was a very important value in the old culture, to get up early and to get things done and not to sleep late, especially during the summertime. Out here in the desert you got up early while it was still cool and did many of your chores before it got too hot and then you could rest later on.

You asked for good health because a long time ago people lived a healthy life. Their diet was healthy, eating off the land, the animals that we hunted: the rabbit, the pack rat, the mule deer, javelina, and other animals that helped us survive. We simply didn’t just go and kill an animal. We killed for our survival, and even some people used to say that when you killed the deer you spoke to the deer’s spirit to tell why you made the kill, so that we as people can survive. Even the animals were respected. One of the things that we never bother is the owl. We have a lot of respect for the owl because we people used to say in the old culture that when we die our spirit will come back in the form of the owl. Everybody respects the eagle and we too have that respect for the eagle, but we say that was the most powerful of all the bird people because the feathers are used for different things.

Even like sometimes a medicine man would keep a deer’s tail to use that for a curing ceremony, because if we did something wrong to certain animals maybe that meant we might get sick later on and then we’d have to have a curing ceremony. That’s where the medicine man would use the deer tail or the owl feather or even like little carved figures to imitate the horny toad or other figures. Certain things we did as children, we were told to leave alone the horny toad. We always had respect for the horny toad. We never picked it up. We just left it alone. Even the woodpecker, we never bothered the woodpecker. They would scold us as children if we threw rocks at the saguaro, you know how little kids do. They would always say ‘Leave the person alone. You’re hurting the person.’ I didn’t understand as a little kid but now I know why they say that, because there is a story of how the first saguaro came to be, came from a person.

Even the rabbit. When we cook it and eat it and we’re always told after to wash our hands for a certain reason. Things like that we had to have respect for. The things that we planted, we had to pray, we had to sing, we had to dance, and do a ceremony to help bring the rains. That’s where the saguaro fruit is very important, because from the fruit we make the syrup. Each family donates some of the syrup to the ceremony house where this brew is made that we call ‘nawatlis,’ kind of like beer but I don’t really compare it to beer. I don’t think it’s even that potent. I’m going to call it a wine even though to me it isn’t. After it ferments where it sits in the round house for two days and two nights, when it’s ready we drink it. It’s a ceremony that we go through. Again it’s all the calls for rain because the Earth needs the rain, the plants need the rain, the animals need the rain, the desert animals.

Of course we as people need the rain. When the rains came, the monsoons, that’s when we planted because everything out here, we got our water from the rains. We grew our squash, our beans, our corn. See, all those things we ate back then, we were eating healthy and we were active people. Even before the coming of the horse we walked, we ran across the desert. We kept ourselves healthy that way, by being very active and by eating healthy. But through time that has changed. Our diet has changed and that’s why today we’re very diabetic. This is what I’m trying to preach to my people. If they can realize the bad stuff we’re eating and try to eat some of the healthy foods; to plant a little garden, even though it’s just a garden, not a field, that at least you’ll be doing something because when you have a little garden you have to take care of it. It doesn’t take care of itself. Even like singing to your plants, talking to your plants, because that’s what the old people did. They helped it grow with the way they talked and the way they sang to the plants, to bring about the corn to grow and the squash.”

As John Wesley Powell learned early on, the American West, especially the Southwest is the most arid part of the United States.  Human cultures are known to have lived here for at least 12,000 years, and perhaps considerably longer.  The Pleistocene was drawing to a close 12,000 years ago.  We, as a species were still hunter-gatherers, but within a few thousand more years, we would discover and begin to practice agriculture. Many agree that this began about 8,000 years ago when the estimated human population of our planet was two to ten million human beings.  Thus for eight millennia, we were mainly agrarians who had to remain in tune with the seasonal cycles within our respective habitats to grow our food, herd our livestock, and develop civilizations.

In North America, great civilizations evolved in present-day Mexico and Guatemala.  Far to the north, ancestral Puebloan Indians were fashioning more modest civilizations of their own, aridity being the primary limiting factor.  Descendants of those ancestral Puebloans continue to inhabit areas in present day Arizona and New Mexico. Arguably, the oldest of Puebloan cultures is the Hopi culture that inhabits the three southern promontories of Black Mesa, a sizeable landform that is contained within the Colorado Plateau.  Their village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for a millennium possibly making it the oldest continuously inhabited village in the present day United States.  This is a dry environment that has shaped Hopi culture from the outset.

Lyle Balenquah

Lyle Balenquah © Jack Loeffler

My friend, Lyle Balenquah is a Hopi man who is both a trained archaeologist and a traditional culture bearer.  We got together in Flagstaff one winter’s morn, and I recorded Lyle speaking of the Hopi cultural relationship to homeland.

“I guess in some ways Hopi culture as I’ve been taught and has kind of instructed as how I should live, is about that concept of sustainability, knowing what your limitations are as an individual and as a society, as a group of people living in a specific area. You look at Hopi culture, we’ve come to understand that we live in a desert environment. With that understanding it means that we have to live a certain type of lifestyle that doesn’t push the limitations of it. You look at our farming lifestyle, what we’ve been able to achieve with our agricultural products, more importantly the corn. The corn is a direct product of us living in this desert environment. It’s well known that Hopi has strains or various types of corn that are drought resistant that grow well in desert environments that are suited to the types of soil we have.

Then with that comes all of those philosophical ideas of understanding that we all hear that term now, ‘water is life’. I guess that’s a basic foundation of Hopi culture—it’s one of them, there’s multiple. But I think that the landscape dictates how we structure our world view and knowing and coming to terms with where we chose to live. Take for example I went to Phoenix over the weekend. And you drive down the valley and you get past Black Canyon City and immediately within five, ten miles you start to hit all of the outgrowth, the subdivisions that are popping up. I hear it on the news. I hear it from various sources about how are they going to be able to sustain these communities not only with the water but just in terms of basic resources.

I don’t know if people really understand the limitations they’re pushing in certain environments, that being one example. I think there’s a contrast there in terms of how Hopi has viewed understanding our limitations versus a monoculture or dominant culture relying on technology to see them through. But as we all know, technology will only get you so far and it comes down to human ingenuity and perseverance to see you through some of the harder times, I think.

That sense of having a spiritual basis, I think, ties into that as well. You really have to have faith, not so much in the technology but in understanding that you have faith in your own understanding. Meaning that as Hopi, we understand where we live. We live in a desert. That sets our boundaries. Does the rest of society also have that boundary or are they just kind of living in a bubble that they keep blowing bigger and bigger and they hope that it’s not going to burst? I think that’s one of the basic—at least on a personal level—differences I see between what Hopi is trying to achieve or what they have achieved in their own understandings versus an outside dominant culture. I think maybe there’s always a few people who realize the imminent danger of what’s going on, but they’re few and far between, or their voices aren’t heard and progress is always put first versus sustainability in some ways.

I see that at home as well. Even as Hopi we have to be cognizant of our own progress in terms of development. We have limited resources and so we have to be able to—like any other society in the world, Hopi is forced to go forth as well. Unless some worldwide catastrophe happens, we’ll never go back to those days to those ancestral sites I visit when I’m out in the woods. We’ll never be living in those types of conditions unless we bring it upon ourselves. So we’re in an almost cyclical way of thinking. Do we really want to go back to that way or are we just holding on to certain things, the good parts, and we’re going to forget some of the negative changes that were brought upon us by our own selves, by our own actions. Are we going to revert back to that type of living? If not, we have to learn to apply these broad philosophical ideas of how to live to our modern way of living.

I think maybe Hopi can serve as a model—I think that a lot of people for a number of years have looked to Hopi as way of how to live sustainably. If we can do it in such a limited environment with limited resources on a small scale, maybe those types of examples can be applied to the larger global society. And not just Hopi but all of those indigenous cultures around the world that have learned the hard way, so to speak. We didn’t have the technology we have now. Whatever the Earth provided is what we lived off of. We weren’t able to coax more from it. So I think as a Hopi, and listening to other Hopis talk about how we’re supposed to live opposed to how the modern society lives, that’s one contrast I can see in terms of using one as an example to help the other.”

For hundreds of years, native villages have lined the Río Grande like gardens of human consciousness.  It is thought by tribal members and archaeologists that ancestral Puebloans, who have inhabited the Southwest for millennia, gradually migrated into this region from the north.  The Río Grande is a permanently flowing river that floods on occasion, but usually not so dramatically as to overwhelm the riverine habitat that it has nurtured since it selected its southerly course millions of years ago.

The Puebloan peoples speak different languages. The Tewa language is spoken in several villages including Okeh Oweenge (San Juan Pueblo), San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Cuyamungue, Pojoaque, and Kha’po Oweenge (Santa Clara Pueblo).  Rina Swentzell was born into the Naranjo family of the Santa Clara Pueblo.  Although she achieved her Bachelors, Masters, and PhD degrees, she remained rooted in Tewa tradition.

Rina Swentzell

Rina Swentzell © Jack Loeffler

She was my dear friend of over thirty years, and allowed me to record her on several occasions.  We discussed the concept of the commons at great length.  Here is an excerpt from her Puebloan view of the commons.

“From a Pueblo point of view, the commons is everything. It is the context that we live in. Again, when I talk about it, it’s the old Pueblo thinking. The community was always thought of as being whole. Everything was interconnected. There was always a center to it as well, and I was a center and you were a center. There were many centers as a part of the whole thing. And we think that a whole has one center. In a way it’s true. But with the Pueblo there are so many simultaneous things that can happen, which is all part of the commons, I think, because there are so many things that go on at the same time. The wind is blowing, the water’s flowing, and we’re actually walking around and talking. It’s all part of this idea of what we all share. It’s that notion of sharing.

In that Pueblo context the focus was always: what is it that surrounds me? Who and what surrounds me, and who do I work with and around all the time? But the primary thing is that we felt was the Earth, the Sky, the Clouds, the Wind. And that incredible term that we have that for me says it all: it’s the ‘p’o-wa-haa’—it’s the water-wind-breath—the thing that we’re feeling right now. And that connects. It moves through our entire world in such a way that it connects everybody and everything. That becomes the commons in a sense. It’s that real ethereal thing. What is that blowing through the window right now that’s giving us all vitality actually? That’s the flow of life. In the Pueblo, it really was that thing that swirls around, that swirls, that moves, that creates that sense of commons. …it’s the ultimate of what is common to every living being—what we have with the trees, with the rocks, with all of that that makes our life what it is today.”

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