Thursday, November 25, 2004

Native Artists/New Mexico

Last weekend I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a few days.

I went to hear Pat Smith at the Zimmerman Library of the University of New Mexico (UNM) do American Indian storytelling. Pat along with her husband John Crawford, my publisher, were my hosts. Pat is part Micmac (Indians who lived in New Brunswick, Canada, and in Maine) as well as part French Canadian and Irish. She had recently published along with Michael B. RunningWolf the book Glos’gap Stories of the Micmac Indians (Persea Books), and told us stories about Glos’gap, a mythical hero of the Algonquin peoples. The stories she told were delightful, particularly the one how Glos’gap tamed a womanizer male Indian.

I also read Pat’s essay “Grandma West to Smith All Right: But She Went from Nine to Five” from Working Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory. Pat’s Micmac grandmother was a maid at Smith College, so Pat was able to go on scholarship for daughters of former employees. After Smith, she got a Ph.D. in English from Yale where she became a scholar of Edgar Allen Poe and then got a job teaching English at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. At the same time she was raising her two small sons.

Not long after arriving she volunteered to teach part-time on the Navajo reservation, commuting hundreds of miles to teach on small towns on the Reservation: Sanostee, Toadlena, Ramah. She said, “I learn enough Navajo to help my students begin to work with Navajo kids writing in Navajo. For three years our students in UNM’s Title VII bilingual teacher-training program graduate with Bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Ed and become luminous teachers.” She begins to include American Indian literatures into American Literature survey courses. A retired American Literature professor complains, "She’s gone native.”

But she thinks she hasn’t gone native but is only trying to teach as well as learn from Native peoples. She directed the Ph.D. dissertation of Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen that Allen later publishes as The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in Native American Tradition. Smith says, “Under Paula’s direction, a number of us pool essays and syllabi for the Modern Language Association’s Teaching Native American Literature: Curriculum and Course Design.” At UNM she teaches a generation of Native and Chicano writers: literary critic James Ruppert; Navajo poet and scholar Luci Tapahonso; part-Apache poet Jimmy Santiago Baca; Maidu poet-scholar Janice Gould . While taking Pat’s class Baca wrote his wonderful book of poetry Martin and Meditations on South Valley (New Directions).

Besides teaching, Pat’s published a book of poetry; criticism; and now non-fiction and fiction. Over the weekend I got to see Pat’s other recent books for young adults about Native Americans: Weetamoo, Heart of the Pocassets (Scholastic Inc) about a Indian teenage girl in 17th century Massachuttes and As Long as the River Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans, short biographies of nine prominent Native Americans she wrote in collaboration with Paula Gunn Allen, a major Native American poet, essayist, and anthologist.

The next morning John Crawford and I stopped at the Indian Pueblo Center, learning the history of the Pueblo peoples from being a hunting gathering people thousands of years ago to growing corn as the Indians were the first to use irrigated farming here. For the present day an exhibit showcased the arts and crafts of each of the nineteen Pueblos including Maria Martinez’s stunning black pots. In New Mexico the Catholics put their churches near their already existing pueblos, not like California where the Indians were forcibly removed to the missions. We also saw a short film about the Pueblo woman painter Pablita Velarde who made wonderful paintings of the dances at the pueblos and was a pioneering women artist; we watched her make her own paints out of the New Mexican earth. Since I had come I had been seeing the art work and hearing about the writinng of Indian women--writer Pat Smith, Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso, Laguna poet/critic Paula Gunn Allen, potter Maria Martinez, and painter Pablita Velarde.

Next at the Rio Grande Nature Center I walked the river trail about a mile to the Rio Grande River—muddy, majestic and broad--and stared at the other side of the river with heights crowned with houses. As I continued on the Bosque (forest) trail through the cottonwoods a sunburst of yellow leaves in November. Pat picked me up and pointed out the sand hill cranes in the field a few blocks from her house, making me realize this whole area was a wetlands full of birds. At her own house a large flock of sparrows perched in her front yard. Birds and Native women artists were everywhere.

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