The job of a translator is to interpret, explain or even to change into another language, and taken in that context, we are all translators. Every day we are trying to reach common ground with someone, to convey something that we know, but which they do not.
Many years ago, my Native American friend Georgia Oliver, teacher of my children, invited me to spend the summer with her as she visited her family in New Mexico. I jumped at the chance, looking forward to learning more about the Pueblo people and thus about Georgia herself.
We traveled across the country, with Georgia driving and me navigating, passing Navajo hogans in Arizona, and visiting Indian traders along the way which Dr.Advice and I were to visit often for the next forty years. So much of what we passed on our way to Laguna where we would be staying briefly, was nostalgic to Georgia.
When we arrived at the village of Laguna, New Mexico, we stayed with Georgia’s two elderly aunts and an uncle, who lived in an old building which was once an old mission. Georgia’s grandfather, George Platt, a white engineer came to survey the land with two other white engineers, all of whom married Indian girls and settled in this same mission building! They each raised families of ten or twelve children. Surrounded by a stone fence, the home overlooks the dry bed of the San Jose River and the mesas beyond. There are ancient pueblos dotting the hillsides around.
The village consists of mud houses some of which are at least 300 years old. A path meanders over the pitted rock which forms the entire hill behind the house. It is worn in places a foot deep from the footsteps of hundreds of years. Gives one the chilling feeling of connecting with thousands of people who made this their home. You have the sensation that ancient faces are watching and hoping you will not destroy their legacy. The old church founded by Franciscan fathers, has been in continuous use since 1699.
We continued on to Isleta, the home of Georgia’s father, where Georgia Oliver became Georgia Abeita, the name of her father, who had been chief of the village. We spent much time in Isleta, using it as our base from which we traveled to places where my Indian American education continued to give rich rewards. We stayed with Georgia’s cousin, Diego and his wife where I was asked if I liked chili. Being a Californian, I expected chili beans, but got chili stew, hot and spicy, along with cantaloup and Kool-Aid. We were rewarded with stories of their past experience at the San Francisco World’s Fair, as well as a period in Hollywood where they were in a couple of movies.
We tramped around Chaco Canyon, and visited many Anasazi ruins throughout the area including this one of Mesa Verde in Colorado, which is one of the most famous ruins. To stand and paint this place of the past, is an awe inspiring feeling, and one which places the artist in each of the dwellings, along with the ancient ghosts. You begin to wonder if they really want you to intrude upon their privacy, and it makes your brush travel a little faster.
We spent some time at the village of San Ildefonso, where Georgia’s mother had taught school. It is the home of Maria Martinez, who was one of the most famous of Pueblo potters. She and her husband Julian, were also part of the San Francisco World’s Fair, which introduced the black on black Indian pottery to many people. I am fortunate to have several of the black pots, including one of Maria’s. We spent a lovely day with their family, and Maria and I “talked” pots!
Driving through Navajo country, I was thrilled with the wonderful rugs, and was fortunate to find a lovely Two Grey Hills rug which I have hanging over my computer. A much larger version hanging in the La Fonda Hotel in Albuquerque, caught the eye of a tourist who wished to buy it. When told it would cost him $25,000 he asked to meet the “Two Grey Hills” assuming that it referred to two old women, and not a place!
The summer passed too quickly, and I felt I had made many new friends, along with a number of paintings of these very kind people, who on another visit would honor me with a naming ceremony, teach me to make bread, and give me a greater appreciation of a people who were “different” from me. Translation: We are all alike in many ways.