THE ROAD NORTH Kate’s Journal


Episode 27 New Mexico

Georgia’s mother had taught in several of the villages on the way north, and our first stop was at San Ildefonso, home of friends of Georgia.

San Ildefonso is another sleepy village with large cottonwood trees sheltering the homes. It is the home of Maria Montoya Martinez, one of the most famous of the Pueblo potters.

I was fortunate to own a small pot by Maria which had been given to me by my aunt. Maria and her husband Julian had been a feature in the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1939 as potters demonstrating the art of Indian pottery making, and they were quite famous among their peers.

Today there are 14 families and extended families active in making pottery. Many of the younger potters are using their own designs, but much pottery is still the old black on black type. Traditionally the pottery was unglazed and fired in dirt kilns using dung as fuel. It gained its black color from the firing process.

black pot2

We pulled up in front of one house and suggested I stay in the car while she approached the house but did not go to the door. Presently a man came to the door and looked suspiciously at her as she asked for someone by name. He hesitantly said “That’s me.” Then she introduced herself and he smiled broadly while he recognized her. She asked after her friend Desideria, and he said “I married her!” With that over, he stared at me sitting in the car, so Georgia introduced us and then I got out of the car. He invited us in and his wife came out of the kitchen. They said the priest was coming for lunch so we were invited as well. Desideria, who was Maria’s sister and also a noted potter, said that Maria was coming to lunch too. It was rather like imagining you were about to meet Merle Streep for me to meet her. Her husband Julian and son, Popovi Da are both active potters as well. At some point during the lunch, Georgia told them I was also a potter, and nods and smiles were exchanged. Maria was as gracious as I had imagined her.

During the summer, my Laguna-Isleta friend and I visited many of the villages, sometimes to renew longtime friendships of Georgia’s, and sometimes to attend a seasonal celebratory dance. All villages do not welcome outside guests, and those which do, expect that strict rules of decorum be observed. This includes no cameras, which would be confiscated, no unnecessary talking during the performance, and to my great shame, no quick drawings of the dancers. I was unaware of doing anything wrong, until I heard Georgia’s whisper not to look up. Keeping my head down I saw two moccasined feet directly in front of me, and heard Georgia say that I was writing a letter home. I guiltily looked up into an old and angry hawk-nosed face, deeply tanned and wrinkled, with not an ounce of compassion or forgiveness. I smiled weakly and quickly looked back at the dancers. After an abnormal length of time, the old man moved on to try and find any other miscreants. I realized that the best sketchbook is frequently in your head, and a lot safer too.

The various villages, all slightly different, on our way north to Taos, gave an opportunity for sketching, until we found the day drifting away and knew we needed to find a place to spend the night. It was Saturday evening and in Georgia’s words: “Not a good time to be on the road with a lot of drunken Indians!” We found a cheap motel offering a dance next door, so we chose it as our place of residence for the night.

The owner said there were no more vacancies, but he had a trailer in the back which we could rent for a small sum. The trailer consisted of two sleeping areas with a small kitchen in between. The man explained how to lock the door, and I had my small gun, so we felt safe enough, but after watching the dancing next door, we forgot how to lock the door. We spread newspapers on the floor in case anyone entered we could hear them and I could threaten them, but awoke next morning to bright sunshine unscathed.

Kiowa Kiowa dancer watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

O' Odham Tash O’Odom Tash dancer waterfolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Gratefully saying goodbye to our “trailer home”, we continued north to Taos, whose stories had long fascinated me.

TRANSLATORS


georgia (2)“Georgia Abeita” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmusse

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.

Indian ruins
“Mesa Verde Ruins” original watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

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!

black pot2

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!

2 grey hills

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.