Sunday, December 29, 2013

Leslie Marmon Silko, "The People and the Land ARE Inseparable," from Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit

The people and the land are inseparable, but at first I did not understand. I used to think there were exact boundaries that constituted “the homeland,” because I grew up in an age of invisible lines designating ownership. In the old days there had been no boundaries between the people and the land; there had been mutual respect for the land that other were actively using. The respect extended to all living beings, especially to the plants and the animals. We watched our elders behave with respect when they butchered a sheep. The sheep had been raised as a pet and treated with great care and love; when the time came, it was solemn, and the butcher thanked the sheep and reassured it. When the hunter brought home a mule deer buck, the deer occupied the place of honor in the house; it lay on the best Navajo blanket with strings of silver and turquoise beads hanging from tis neck; turquoise and silver rings and bracelets decorated the antlers.

What I had not understood was that long ago the people had ranged far and wide all over the desert plateau region. The invisible lines of ownership had divided the land only recently. When I left New Mexico in 1978, I thought I was leaving behind my homeland. My friend Simon J. Ortiz used to telephone me and ask me when I was coming home. But after the first six months, I noticed that the rattlesnakes around the corral and house were quite docile and hospitable, and I realized I was at home. By then, too, I had thought much more about the vast Native American diaspora and all the people who had been scattered, taken far from their homelands by the European slave hunters, the survivors who were the last of their kind, who died without ever hearing another word spoken to them in their language.

In Tucson I was not so far from Laguna. One of my best friends and playmates when I was growing up had been Johnie Alonzo, who was half Yaqui. I was in Yaqui country. In the old days there had even been a Laguna man, called Antonio Coyote, who had traveled far to the south for a year or so, but who returned with stories from Mexico City.

I did not really learn about my relationship with the land or know where “home” was until I left Laguna for Tucson. The old folks and the old stories say that the animals and other living beings have a great deal to teach us if we will only pay attention. Because I was unfamiliar with the land around Tucson, I began to pay special attention. The Tucson Mountains are the remains of a huge volcano that exploded long ago; all the rock is shattered and the soil is pale like ash. The fiery clouds of ash and rock melted exotic conglomerates of stone that dazzle the foothills like confetti. I was happy to find such lovely, unusual rocks around my house. I sat on the ground looking at all the wonderful colorful and odd pebbles, and I felt quite at home.

Before I moved to Tucson, I had made one visit, during which my friend Larry Evers took me to an Easter Deer Dance performed at the New Pasqua Yaqui village, located west of Tucson. New Pasqua village was the result of an act of Congress passed in 1973 that recognized the Arizona Yaquis as “American Indians.” Until that time, the Yaquis who lived in Arizona were not considered to be Indians, but Mexicans who had fled north to the United States to escape the Mexican Army’s genocidal war on Yaquis. Anticipating Hitler’s Third Reich by many years, the Mexican Army, under orders, attempted to eradicate the Yaquis. Hundreds of women and children were herded into dry washes or into trenches they were forced to dig at gunpoint, and were shot to death. But long before the appearance of the Europeans, the Yaquis had ranged as far north as Tucson, and it was on this aboriginal use that the United States government based its decision to proclaim Arizona Yaquis American Indians.

After I moved to Tucson, I learned there were two older Yaqui villages within the Tucson metropolitan area, as well as a farming community of Yaquis at Marana, north of Tucson. One Yaqui settlement is located off Twenty-ninth Street and Interstate 10. I don’t know its name. The other is located off Grant Road and Interstate 10 and is called Old Pasqua. Although the city of Tucson has sprawled all around these Yaqui settlements, still one can tell immediately where Tucson ends and the Yaqui villages begin. At Old Pasqua, the Tucson street names suddenly change. Fairview Avenue becomes Calle Central, and the houses become smaller and closer together. The center of the village is a plaza surrounded by a community center, across from a little Catholic church. The little yards are neatly swept, and used building materials, car parts, and firewood are neatly stacked amid fruit trees and little gardens. Corn, beans, melons, roses, zinnias, and sunflowers all grow together; there are no lawns. I was not used to seeing a pueblo within a city. In New Mexico, all the outlying pueblos were burned, so that Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Lunas, and Socorro have no pueblos within their boundaries.

I thought it must be very difficult to exist as a Yaqui village within the city limits of Tucson. These were my thoughts because I had just moved to Tucson from Laguna, and I was thinking about what it means to be separated from one’s homeland.

The post office station for my area is located on the edge of Old Pasqua village, so after I had settled in Tucson, I used to find myself driving past Old Pasqua at least once a week. At first I didn’t notice anything in particular except the hollyhocks and morning glories or lilacs in bloom. On warm winter days I would see old folks sitting outside with their chairs against the east wall of the house, just as the old folks used to sun themselves at Laguna. After this time, whenever I drove through Old Pasqua I could sense a transition from the city of Tucson to the Yaqui village, where things looked and felt different—more quiet and serene than the apartments and trailer parks just a few blocks away from the post office. People liked to sit or stand outside and talk to their neighbors while the children played leisurely games of catch or rode their bicycles up and down the street. The longer I lived and drove around Tucson, the more I began to appreciate the sharp contrast between the Yaqui village and the rest of the city. The presence of the Yaqui people and their Yaqui universe with all the spirit beings have consecrated this place; amid all the clamor and pollution of Tucson, this is home.

The Santa Cruz River across Interstate 10 from Old Pasqua flows north out of Mexico past Tucson, to empty into the Gila River, which then flows south. The Santa Cruz flows out of the mountains in Mexico where the Yaqui people still live. Thus the Santa Cruz River makes Old Pasqua home and not exile. I came to realize it was the wishful thinking of Tucson’s founding white fathers that had located the Yaquis exclusively in northern Sonora.

One afternoon, after I had been to the post office, I felt like a drive through Old Pasqua. It was about two o’clock, and as I approached the village I didn’t see anyone. Even the school grounds at the elementary school were empty. I was thinking to myself how quiet villages are sometimes, how they can seem almost deserted, when suddenly the most amazing scene unfolded before me. At almost the same instant, as if on cue, the doors of nearly all the houses began to open and people of all ages came out. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I felt a chill, and hair on the back of my neck stood up. A moment before, there had been no one, and now suddenly people of all ages were streaming outside all at once from every house. They were not talking to one another and they did not seem excited or disturbed, but they all were headed in the same direction. When I looked, I saw a white hears parked in the driveway of one of the houses, and I realized that someone in the village had just passed on. The people were going to comfort their relatives and to pay their respects. What I found amazing then, and what I still marvel at, is the moment all the front doors opened at once. Even if every household had a telephone, and most do not, it would have been quite a feat to orchestrate—to have all the doors open at once and the people step outside.

I understood then that this is what it means to be a people and to be a Yaqui village and not just another Tucson neighborhood. To be a people, to be part of a village, is the dimension of human identity that anthropology understands least, because this sense of home, of the people one comes from, is an intangible quality, not easily understood by American-born Europeans.

The Yaquis may have had to leave behind their Sonoran mountain strongholds, but they did not leave behind their consciousness of their identity as Yaquis, as a people, as a community. This is where their power as a culture lies: with this shared consciousness of being part of a living community that continues on and on, beyond the death of one or even of many, that continues on the riverbanks of the Santa Cruz after the mountains have been left behind.

At Laguna when I was growing up, there were no telephones at all. The town crier still called out at dawn and at dusk the announcements about ditch duty, village meetings, and other communal activities. In the old days the whole village used to participate in communal rabbit hunts. When I was a girl, the town crier would announce the day when everyone was expected to pick up trash and clean up around the village before Laguna Fiesta on September 19 and on the original feast day assigned to San Jose Mission, March 19. A town crier was necessary to remind people about meetings and village work details, but village news and gossip were known and repeated by everyone.

Everyone minded everyone else’s business, though they did so quietly, without interference, because to interfere would be bad manners and could cause open confrontations, which the old-time people loathed. At Laguna, when people asked you how you had been lately, they expected to hear all the news and gossip you knew; then they would tell you all the funniest, most shocking, or sad news they had heard. All the gossip and news was told in narratives that often included alleged dialogues with sound effects. The funnier the gossip, the more dramatic the telling. People always remembered other similar incidents, which they would then recount until someone was reminded of a story she had heard, and so on. No matter how funny or sad an incident might be, someone could always recall a similar incident. The effect was to reassure the victim that she was not so isolated by her experience, that others had suffered similar calamities, and that she and her story now were joined with the stories of others just like her. Similarly, a person with great good fortune was not allowed to set himself apart from the rest of the village, because there was always someone who could narrate the details of others who had enjoyed good fortune, again so that the individual did not think himself somehow separate from others just because of his good luck. The storytelling had the effect of placing an incident in the wider context of Pueblo history so that individual loss or failure was less personalized and became part of the village’s eternal narratives about loss and failure, narratives that identify the village and that tell the people who they are. 

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