Monday, August 01, 2011

Sante Fe, Pueblo Indians - Magan's World, Jan 2009

Sat 01 Jan 2009Credit to the natives

Manchan Magan'stales of a travel addict

IN SANTA FE, New Mexico, people seem inordinately proud of the various Native American tribes in the surrounding pueblos - at least on first impressions. At weekends they come into the city from the reservations and pueblos and take over the glorious mud-plastered plaza. There, they hold a market selling silver jewellery, turquoise pendants and bits of pottery to eager white Americans who crowd around reverentially enquiring about the meaning of various symbols and the provenance of precious stones, snapping up what they can without ever questioning the inflated prices.

The native artists themselves remain stony faced - true to character, or at least, to what is expected of them. They squat resolutely on low stools, making occasional surly comments in lugubrious tones, ‘The bear is a symbol of strength and power. I take Visa card - not Amex.’

Surrounding the plaza are shops full of yet more native pottery, weavings and beadwork at even higher prices with leggy blond saleswomen who gush about the spiritual integrity of the individual artists at the first flash of a credit card. The reverential attitude to Native American culture in these shops is contrasted somewhat by the reality of Indian life just down the road at the Indian Hospital. The Indian Health Service (IHS) receives only 60% of its annual funding needs and it struggles to provide for the nine pueblos in the area. ‘The aim of the IHS is to keep us healthy enough so disease won’t spread beyond the reservation into white folk,’ a Navajo elder said to me, hunkered over his daughter’s silver pendants in the plaza. ‘This whole market is a lie – Indians never made jewellery to sell. We’re doing it because it’s what is expected. You guys are still pulling the strings.’

At night when the artisans go home, the plaza becomes haunted by the occasional drunken Indian, wandering waveringly between the pine colonnades of the magnificent 17th century adobe Palace of the Governors – where the Spanish hid out during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 when the native tribes joined together and revolted against Spanish rule. Dressed in black puffer jackets or ponchos they stagger up to you looking for the price of a cheese burger or the stub of your cinema ticket so they can get some rest in the local movie theatre. Most of them come from towns further north where the old Teddy Roosevelt remark "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn't inquire too closely into the case of the 10th," still has some currency. Attacks on Native Americans still occur there – a Navajo man was beaten to a pulp by three youths shouting "Die nigger! Just die!" two years ago, while a Navajo woman had her skull crushed with a sledgehammer by a group calling themselves KKK - for "Krazy Kowboy Killers," in a town called Farmington, known as the "Selma, Alabama” of the Southwest.

I asked the Navajo elder in the plaza did he feel resentment at having to sell his daughter’s wares and to pretend to infuse them with spiritual blessings by blowing on them in the very same location where his ancestors had come to beg during times of drought after their lands had been taken from them. He looked hard at me and shrugged, then pulled out a book on the subject of ‘Survivance,’ the mutually compromising relationship between a dominant tribe and its victims. He said it was by his professor at university, a post-modern, anthropologist from Albuquerque, but it’s conclusions were so complex that he could barely understand them and certainly couldn’t explain them to me. He urged me to buy myself a copy. I promised I would, thinking how would I ever get anyone to believe this had actually happened. But it did, it really did.