Monday, August 31, 2015

Anasazi Ways

[I'll try not to make this post too long, but no guarantees...]

Most Americans know little about "Anasazis" -- the Old Ones who lived in and beyond the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. ("Anasazi" is a Navajo pejorative meaning "Ancient Enemies." It's rarely used among modern Pueblo peoples.)

It may or may not be widely known that the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona are the living descendants of the Old Ones who built the magnificent ruins in Chaco Canyon and elsewhere in the region, but for the most part, these descendants are reluctant to speak with Anglos and their archaeologists and anthropologists about what they know regarding the Old Ones and ancient times. Consequently, a lot of mythology has been built up to explain the ruins and the people who built and then abandoned them.

One of the chief myths is that the "Anasazis disappeared." They didn't. Their descendants are alive today; they have been around throughout historical times; they have had much contact with the scholars and experts who came to study the ruins; and they have had very little to say about it.

On the other hand, Navajos, who are not the descendants of the Old Ones but who arrived in the Four Corners region in the period between 1400 and 1500, long after the buildings in Chaco Canyon and elsewhere in the region had largely fallen to ruin, have and tell lots of stories about them.

Consequently, much of what the Navajos have to say about the Old Ones is pure invention, some of which is clearly designed to please the scholars and confirm their biases -- though seemingly, it doesn't occur to the scholars that that could be so. Indians, like children, never lie, right?

As I've written about in the past, Ms Ché and I have been to Chaco Canyon a number of times (she more than me), and we've explored and gotten a pretty good sense of the place and what it was to the Old Ones -- and to some extent why it was allowed to fall into ruin.

The Chacoan world was extensive -- reaching far beyond Chaco Canyon -- and it was never completely abandoned. Still today, Pueblo peoples visit and perform ceremonies at any number of ancient sites throughout the region, and those areas that could support a Native variety of agricultural living have done so for untold ages. In effect, the "Anasazi" not only didn't disappear, some of them never left.

But there were hard times, very hard times in the region. Keeping going what had been created in the Four Corners during the relatively brief florescence of the "Chaco Phenomenon" didn't make a whole lot of sense, and rather continue what didn't work under the circumstances, most of the people moved away and only returned as (sort of ) pilgrims.

The circumstances were lengthy droughts that made farming almost impossible throughout much of the Southwest.

The Chaco Phenomenon depended on extensive and productive farming activities; when that was impossible due to lack of water and other resources, it was time to give up the phenomenon of spectacular building in relatively remote locations.

And so the Old Ones did. They moved away to relatively well watered areas (such as the Rio Grande valley) and gave up the spectacles of the Great Houses that have captivated scholars and others for many a long year.

Great Houses were not living quarters for the most part, nor was the bulk of these buildings used for storage when they were at their height. In fact, most of the ground floor rooms were empty when they were excavated. Many showed no signs of ever having been used for any purpose while others appeared to have once been used -- either for storage or living quarters -- long ago but hadn't been used for many years before the collapse. That's because they weren't "rooms" in the sense that most of us would understand the term. They were either built for or ultimately became foundations for upper stories. Much of these upper stories, in turn, became foundations for higher stories yet.

The Great Houses were essentially trading and ceremonial/celebratory centers. Something like pow-wow/trading posts.

They depended on farmers, craftspeople and artists to produce surpluses for trade, and on a wide variety of people to come to the Great Houses to exchange their goods for those available (often only available) at the Great Houses and to engage in their gathering together and ceremonial practices at the Great Houses.

When the droughts came and persisted, there was no surplus any more; there was great want instead. For a while, the Great Houses had enough supplies on hand to alleviate some of that want, but eventually their supplies were exhausted, and when that happened, there was no longer sufficient reason to regard the Great Houses as "centers" and they were largely allowed to fall to ruin.

Navajos say the ruins are filled with malevolent spirits, but the Pueblo peoples appear to disagree. Instead, they see the ruins as ... well, ruins. What used to be but isn't any more. Filled with neither "good" nor "bad" spirits but largely empty now because they are not necessary for the living. And if the scholars would leave them alone (but of course they won't) these places would be the peaceful resting places for Pueblo ancestors.

Unfortunately, the scholars have an urge to dig, dig, dig, and they recruit the nearby Navajos to assist.

To the Navajos, the whole "Chaco" thing is kind of creepy, understandably so from their point of view.

Because the scholars essentially can't find out from the Pueblo descendants of the Chacoans about how the Chacoan society worked in ancient times (they're not tellin') they have had to speculate given the physical evidence they find and the stories they've been told by those who will talk (primarily Navajos.)

Their speculations tend to find parallels between the Old Ones and whatever contemporary phenomena in "modern" society suits their fancy.

For example, the Great Houses were once considered by scholars to be vast apartment houses much like -- but larger than -- those being built in big cities at the time. Only they weren't. They may have been begun as living-quarter/storage compounds, but they fairly quickly became something else again, as their trade and ceremonial aspects came to the fore. Once their purpose was revised and their expansion was under way, they were never used primarily as living quarters again.

But for decades, scholars clung to the notion that they were apartment houses much like those being built in big cities.

They were more like shopping malls and theme parks, but that's not an accurate assessment, either, as I suspect the Old Ones didn't have those concepts in their own time.

The popular scholarly notions now focus on the collapse of the Anasazi Ways, in parallel with their anticipation of the collapse of Western Civilization due to climate change and over-exploitation of resources. What happened at Chaco and elsewhere in the Anasazi world is seen as a warning to the rest of us of what could happen if we go too far.

This is not unlike the theories of what happened at Rapa Nui when population pressure and resource depletion combined to cause chaos and devastation.

However, there doesn't appear to be evidence of chaos and conflict within Chaco Canyon itself. Instead, there is evidence of a gradual restriction of access. What had been open and relatively welcoming became constricted until ultimately there was no access to outsiders, and eventually even the "insiders" decided it was time to leave.

The idea that the Chaco Phenomenon and the Anasazi Way were the products of an elite -- perhaps from outside the region, either from Mexico or Central America -- is one of the persistent scholarly notions. This idea also parallels ideas regarding Western Civilization and its elites. The problem, as I see it, is that Native concepts of "elite" don't mirror those of the West. They are really quite different points of view, and the effort to make direct parallels is bound to fail. Particularly irksome is the notion that an elite from elsewhere would have to come to the Four Corners to show the simple Natives (a la colonialists) how to build and how to run a Great House enterprise.

As if these simple Natives couldn't figure it out for themselves.

Every indication is that there extensive trading and communications networks all over the Americas from a very early time, and signs are that the Chacoans were in regular trade contact with Mexicans and Central Americans as well as with the coastal peoples of North America. They probably had contacts well beyond any that have so far been recognized by scholars.

There is a tendency for scholars to consider each Native American group as an isolate, unconnected with other groups, particularly at any distance, but the evidence suggests there were highly developed intertribal trade and communications systems all over the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans. The notion that the Chacoans, for example, were some kind of isolated tribe who couldn't have done what they did without the intervention of a more advanced "elite" from elsewhere is nonsense. But it does fit the colonialist mindset almost perfectly.

What caused the collapse of the Chacoan system? It seems obvious enough, given what the system had originally been established to do: provide a "center" for surplus storage, trade, ceremonies and gatherings.

The system was given up when it was no longer possible to maintain it because of persistent and repeated droughts.

When the Chacoan system could not function -- due to lack of surplus production largely due to droughts -- the people didn't need or use it any more. They found alternatives that suited their needs better. One of the alternatives was the dispersal of "center places" and the disinclination to repeat the Chacoan pattern of vast Great Houses to serve as centers for surplus accumulation and trade.

Yet people from all over the region and beyond continued to visit Chaco Canyon and associated sites after they were largely abandoned and fell to ruin. The ceremonial aspects of these places seem to have endured through all sorts of adversity and over many centuries. Some of these ceremonies are still celebrated today.

There are few signs of conflict and struggle within Chaco Canyon itself, but there seem to be quite a few signs of conflict elsewhere in the Chacoan world. No doubt, as surpluses disappeared and the Great Houses could no longer perform the function of storage/redistribution/trade, what little was left in them became prime targets for raiders looking to their own survival. Some of those raids were highly destructive, leaving many dead and destroyed structures. Some scholars have speculated that the raiders were Navajo and Apache moving into the region from the north, but others dispute this, as they can find so little evidence that the Navajo and Apache were even in the area prior to about 1400, which would be a century or more after the conflict period. No, it seems more likely that such conflict as there was involved raids by other nascent Pueblo bands, descendants of the Old Ones just like those who were being raided.

Ultimately, the smaller Chacoan outposts were destroyed or abandoned and the survivors migrated elsewhere -- places where their descendants still are.

They maintain certain aspects of the Old Ways, aspects they may or may not be willing to discuss with scholars. But they have also been willing and able to adapt to new ways both of their own invention and brought by the various waves of conquest and immigration over the centuries. Pueblo culture and society isn't static any more than Chacoan culture and society was. It is always adapting, developing its own ways, and passing on the wisdom of the Old Ones too.

The best Anglo outsiders can do is give respect to the Old Ones and their Pueblo descendants and admit that ignorance is the fundamental state of Anglo being.

We don't really know and we're not likely to know what really happened to the Old Ones, and... it doesn't really matter.

They don't have the solutions for our present predicament, any more than the Indians could have solved all the psychic problems of the invaders.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Emmett Till

I have vague memories of the news stories of Emmett Till's murder 60 years ago. I have more memories of the outrage at the acquittal some weeks later of the men who did it. But I also knew that at the time in Money, Mississippi, whatever white men did to black folks was considered right and just and proper by definition, and there wasn't a damn thing black folks could do about it.

It wasn't just in Money, Mississippi, either. Los Angeles (where I lived at the time) and many other parts of California had rules almost as broad regarding the impunity of white people to do to black and brown folks pretty much whatever they wanted. There was very little the victims could do about it in California, either.

That was the way it was.

The outrage over the murder of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers was somewhat muted, therefore. It's not that people weren't upset and angry. Even plenty of white people were. It's that the conditions under which these things happened -- and they did happen with shocking regularity -- were time-honored, even integral to the national sense of itself.

In those days, blackness (and brownness, indeed, every skin-color but whiteness) was criminalized, and that criminalization justified oppression, exploitation, and occasional murder.

That was the way it was.

I've mentioned previously that in those days -- indeed, for all my life until moving to Northern California in 1959 -- I lived in an integrated neighborhood. So far as I was aware, there was no racial animosity. But as I think back about the people who lived there, I suspect there actually was a good deal of white animosity toward the "colored" in the neighborhood -- "colored" which included blacks, Latinos/Chicanos, and Japanese that I can recall, and may have included others I don't recall -- but it was not expressed openly or frequently. Now the neighborhood is almost entirely Latino as is most of the San Gabriel Valley, but from the pictures I've seen recently it appears to be little different than it was 60 and more years ago when I lived there.

Street where I lived facing east c. 2015

Street where I lived facing west c. 2015; our house was the yellow one on the right

While ethnically it has become an almost entirely Latino neighborhood, visually, it is almost the same as it was when I lived there. A few houses have been extensively remodeled, but most haven't been. Some still look like they did when I walked or bicycled through the neighborhood as a boy.

Living in an integrated neighborhood was somewhat exotic in California at the time, but I thought nothing of it because I had never known anything else. It seemed perfectly natural to me. And the story of Emmett Till -- what little we children knew of it at the time -- was frightening to us because it was easy for most of us and for me to identify with him. He was older than I was and so he must have been wiser to the ways of the world, and still he was killed -- they say for whistling at a white woman? That didn't make any sense at all. Boys did that. Nobody paid more than a minute's attention to it unless it got out of hand, annoying, and then some grown up would tell the boy to stop. That's it. So they killed Emmett Till for something most people would simply ignore? What madness was this?

All we children knew of these things was that some adults were just out of their minds crazy and brutal. We all knew it. We had our own mystery stories of kids being killed by grown ups, by their own parents sometimes. We knew it happened. But this case... no, something was bad-wrong, and what was wrong was that two white men killed this black youth, "Negro" was the word then used, out of... spite? Or just because they could? And somehow they knew they'd get away with it if they did.

About 20 years ago I was asked to write a play about Emmett Till's murder, his lynching as it was being referred to. So I did a lot of research on the story, and it was very ugly indeed, especially with regard to that part of Mississippi, to the two men who killed him, and with regard to the so-called "justice" system which acquitted them.

Everything about it reeked.

As I was doing my research, I found a story about a white boy who was kidnapped and murdered at about the same time. I don't remember his name, nor can I recall where the incident took place (it may have been Michigan), but I felt that these stories were parallel examples of something uniquely American, a social and cultural belief system that devalues and enables the extermination of certain lives while protecting the lives of certain others.

The white boy, ultimately, was no more protected and valued than Emmett Till was, you see, and his killer or killers remain unknown to this day. They weren't let off like Emmett Till's killers were. They were simply never found. That's because -- in my estimation -- that incident was swept under the rug. It wasn't investigated more than superficially, and if the authorities had a suspect or suspects in mind, they never pursued it. The boy was dead and it was just as well... or so it seemed.

So I wanted to parallel this case with the case of Emmett Till as an indictment of the broader American social environment in which these sorts of things went on all the time. Well, that didn't fly with the professor who'd asked me to write the play. He didn't want any "white boy" messing up the story of Emmett Till. While I understood his point of view about it, I told him that I thought it was important to broaden the picture by including the similar murder of a white boy and showing how his life in the end was worth no more than that of Emmett Till, but we could not reach an agreement on that aspect, so the script was never written.

The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to hammer into American consciousness and conscience the fact that to a horrifying degree, black lives don't matter, especially to police and the interests whom the police serve. They are instead killable, disposable, pretty much at will. Until recently, it was almost impossible to get a police officer indicted for the clearly outrageous uses of force employed wildly disproportionately against black and brown people. While indictments are now being issued periodically, provided the case is outrageous enough, we aren't seeing convictions, and still, too often,  police are getting away with murder.

The current situation is remarkably similar to the situation in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, where a black youth could be murdered pretty much at will, and hardly anybody cared a whit. Except for his immediate family, of course.

We aren't seeing so many civilian lynchings -- though they still happen from time to time. Instead, we are seeing a daily body count, four to five a day, of men and women and sometimes children, killed by police who, in effect, have become the delegated lynching squad. Police encounter a black person mouthing off, getting uppity, not being submissive enough or obedient fast enough, or being belligerent, or even doing something wrong, and police feel perfectly justified in killing them, summary execution style, or taking them in and torturing them, or whatever they want to do, because... they think it's their job.

When lynchings by civilian mobs were commonplace in this country, the powers that be thought little or nothing of it. That was the way it was, and nothing could be done about it. Until something was done about it. What was done was mostly social shaming. That took decades to bring the number of lynchings down from hundreds a year to a few to -- officially -- none. Shaming works, but it takes a long time.

President Franklin Roosevelt twice refused to sign anti-lynching legislation proposed and (I believe) passed by Congress in the 1930s. They say he refused to sign so as not to piss off his Southern Democratic base which was filled with crackers, rednecks and lynchers, too. But it wasn't just the white trash he was concerned about. It was the white elites in the Southern Democratic Party, old line Confederates in many cases, those who suffered from Reconstruction or at least white folks claimed to have been its victims. Memories were long. The Lost Cause lived and breathed through these survivors and their descendants. To an extent, it still does.

By the 1930s, the number of lynchings per year had been on the decline, thanks in part to some brave Southern women who were fed up with the mob violence that characterized their part of the country more than any other -- violence which brought shame upon the South. You feel many echoes of it in the story of Tom Robinson as told by Harper Lee in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Life was froughtful for black folks in the South -- it was froughtful everywhere, truth to tell -- and death came often in the night and hideously. Black folks lived in mortal peril every minute.

Emmett Till was from Chicago. He'd been sent South to stay with relatives in Money, Mississippi for the summer before he returned to school in Chicago in the fall. That day was coming soon when he went to the shop in Money to buy some chewing gum (I believe it was) and as he was leaving, they say he whistled at the proprietor's wife who was helming the store in her husband's absence. They say. Accounts vary regarding what Emmett Till actually did -- or didn't do -- that day. The point was that in no way was what he did or didn't do a threat or indecent or what have you.

He had, apparently, "broken code" though. He (apparently) did what black folks in Money, Mississippi, were not allowed to do -- under summary penalty which any white man was allowed to administer by common custom.

That summary penalty could include fiendish tortures and death. A mob may no longer be openly involved, but the result was the same, and the point of it was also the same: to perpetuate white dominance by terrorizing the various "Others" into submission and compliance.

Whatever Emmett Till did that day, his companions knew he was in trouble for breaking code. The assumption is he didn't know that there were certain things he must not do while he was in Mississippi if he valued his life. Yet I suspect he did know most of what he couldn't do, and whatever happened at the store was either a deliberate act of mischief or of defiance. I suspect he did know because he'd been there long enough, he seemed to be extremely social and bright, and it appeared he could pick up social cues well beyond what he was told he could or couldn't do. He was known in the town, too, as were the relatives he was staying with.

He was no stranger.

And he was going back to school in Chicago soon enough.

Whatever he did at that store was no doubt innocent of bad intent, I would say, but it must have rankled Carolyn Bryant to the point that she felt something had to be done or this uppity nigra boy would give the rest of the nigras in the area the wrong idea.

So she told her husband when he got back to the store that something had happened with that nigra boy from Chicago and she didn't like it a bit. Time to teach that boy a lesson, don't you think?

There were certain things in rural Mississippi that simply couldn't be allowed.

Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went out to the house of Emmett's great uncle with whom he was staying and they demanded that the boy be turned over to them for... discipline, I suppose you would call it. The white folks as a rule never saw what they did to black folks as wrong in any way, any more than police today see what they do as wrong when they kill or brutalize to terrorize the way they do.

When you believe that black folks -- or any designated "Other" -- is nothing more than a savage animal, rabid by nature, and should be put down at a moment (the legendary "split-second decision," no?)  and it's your job to do that, to put down the savage, rabid animal, that's what you do, and you do not let conscience or any other form of empathy enter into it.

So Roy and J. W. -- good ol' boys in the time honored Southern tradition -- only did what they had to do. They took Emmett out to the river, beat him senseless and bloody, then shot him in the head and threw his corpse into the Tallahatchie River weighted down with a cotton-gin fan, and then went home and had a beer while they told of their bravery and cunning.

That nigra boy from up North wouldn't cause any more trouble, oh no. And I don't doubt they laughed about it, laughed out loud. They felt proud of what they had done. Remorse wasn't an option.

No more remorse than they would have had killing a stray, rabid dog or a thieving raccoon or a stink-spewing skunk or a skittering palmetto bug. They did no more than any upstanding white person would have done. They got rid of a pest.

The fact that they had to go on trial for their action was an inconvenience but there was essentially no chance whatever that they would be convicted of anything, let alone murder most foul, any more than police officers today -- even if indicted and handed over for trial -- are likely to be convicted of anything at all, no matter what they do to suspects or "subjects" as they are known in the trade.

A white man protecting his white woman from the predation of a rabid, savage black is only doing his proper and necessary duty. Right?

This is exactly the same attitude that informs so many police today. They are told and they are trained to believe that killing is their highest and most honorable duty to those they serve. They are told and they are trained to believe that the greatest threat to themselves and their women are black males. They are told and they are trained to believe that their first duty is to protect themselves, and that black males are the biggest threat to their personal safety and security; they must be on constant guard in any encounter with a black person, particularly with black males. And they must be ready to kill instantly if they perceive anything that might be a threat from the subject.

That's what they are told and are trained to believe.

They act as if they must make periodic examples of blacks and browns and designated Others -- by maiming and killing them -- or the rest of the "savages" would get the wrong idea and get out of line. So they kill. And kill and kill some more. Just doing their jobs.

Roy and J. W. were doing the same thing in the backwater of Money, Mississippi back in 1955. I guess the big bellied sheriff wouldn't have done it for them. Well, no. He actually was the one who arrested them. No, if the good ol' boys had gone to the sheriff about Emmett Till's offense, the sheriff would have laughed in their faces. Emmett broke code but he did not break a law, no matter how the good ol' boys tried to exaggerate what happened. The sheriff likely would have told the good ol' boys that they would have to take care of it theirownselves. And they might get into a bit of trouble if they did. "Good luck, boys."

Police are left to use their own judgement in their encounters with the public, especially using their own judgement with regard to use of lethal force against... "subjects."  They may have to account for their actions, but they will most likely never face serious consequences -- such as conviction in a court of law. That's reserved almost entirely for gross corruption and sexual impropriety. Not for killing and brutality while on the job.

White men had to act on their own in rural Mississippi back in 1955 because the law would not do it for them.

In 2015, however, police take care of these problems so white men don't have to do it on their own.

Progress, right?

The murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of their murderers in 1955 caused such a strong reaction among so many people because it was so outrageous -- and ultimately so frightening -- that it couldn't be allowed to pass without notice. The murder victim was a child. The murderers were a couple of no-account white bucks, tobacco spitting, arrogant creeps, the infestation and ruin of the South. Something had to be done.

But nothing was.

Roy and J. W. went to their graves free men.

That's the way it was in America and that's the way it still is in much of America today.

L to R: Roy Bryant, Caroline Bryant, Juanita Milam, J. W. Milam. Acquittal. America.

The confession that appeared in Look Magazine in 1956:

Friday, August 28, 2015

"We Are Power" -- Hopeful Signs Continue

A march and demonstration of solidarity between a number of Indian movements and causes took place during the parallel Indian Markets in Santa Fe on August 22, 2015. We weren't there for the march and demonstration but we heard about it later, and we were particularly intrigued with the notion that the demonstration was instigated by members of the Indigenous Fine Arts Market specifically to disrupt the SWAIA (Southwestern Association for Indian Arts) Market. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it shows some of the paranoia out there as well as some of the rivalry.

The following video (embed disabled, but the video is available to view at Vimeo; use button on video screen or link) was assembled by Frost Fowler from IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) in Santa Fe. Spoken Word by John Trudell.

We Are Power - Santa Fe 2015 from FFowler on Vimeo.

Among the Swells

We go to the Opera once a year. Yes, the Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, with which we have something of a historic connection (I suppose) since the '80s when we were in St. Louis working for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis which was headed by Richard Gaddes -- who also, of course, was head of the Santa Fe Opera.

Our trip to St. Louis in 1983 (or was it 82?) was our first encounter with New Mexico. (also our first encounter with St. Louis, but that's another story.) The "enchantment" New Mexico is known for was immediate. We may not have known it at the time, but that first time in New Mexico planted the seed that led to our eventual retirement here. One of the productions we worked on in St. Louis was "La Verbena de la Paloma," a Spanish zarzuela, which featured a performance by Maria Benitez and her flamenco troupe which had been invited to come to St. Louis from Santa Fe by... Richard Gaddes. That was our introduction to flamenco, an interest we still pursue whenever we can -- which is fairly often in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Last year, we attended "Carmen". This year it was "Salome." We have this thing for bad women I guess ;-). We sit in the back of the orchestra section, in the cheap seats. The only cheaper tickets are for standing room on the crossover behind us. Given the layout of the place, the cheap seats in the back of the orchestra section are really quite fine, and we have no complaints about them at all (unlike the situation at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque, where even the expensive seats can be terrible because the place is so poorly designed.)

Santa Fe Opera has certain traditions, including that of the Swells coming early in their Lexi and Mercedeses and Range Rovers and Escalades to sit in the parking lot, tailgating elegant meals -- which you can have catered by the venue if you like, or bring your own, and you can even bring your servants along to serve you if desired. Oh, it's all very swell.

Some people dress in their finest Southwestern or Manhattan attire, others, like me, don't. You can guarantee I'll be wearing a ballcap and jeans, not even fancy boots and belt buckles. Last night, though, for fun, I put on my  Translator t-shirt and Turkey Track ball cap from the Virgil Ortiz collection and wore an overshirt that I've had for years that is printed with various artist's signatures (Picasso, Matisse, Chagal, etc.) and "designs." So I was pretty festive compared to my usual get-up.

We do not tailgate at the Opera. Instead, this year, we decided to have a de luxe dinner at The Compound, a Santa Fe restaurant institution on Canyon Road. We decided to dine there because we'd attended a reception there for an IAIA scholarship recipient a week or so ago and had a wonderful time -- and because our tickets to the Opera included a gift certificate for $10 off dinner. Well, who could resist, right?

Truth to tell, we have never paid more than $100 for dinner out anywhere, and we knew that this dinner out would cost more than that, conceivably well more than that, even with the Opera certificate, but what the heck. If it's only once a year...

The only people who would routinely dine at The Compound are Swells because they are the only ones who can afford to do so on a regular basis. As it happens, we know some Swells through some of our various activities in  the arts and IAIA, and so it wasn't much of an off-putting experience to be among them at dinner. We knew some of the people dining last night at The Compound, some of whom, like us, were having a bite before heading to the Opera. "Hello, hello, nice to see you, how are you," that sort of thing. "Oh, I love your jacket!" This to Ms Ché. One day on a whim, she bought an embroidered jacket from Guatemala that she fell in love with at a shop in Santa Fe, and she wears it whenever she's feeling particularly festive. It never fails to draw complements.

We had our dinner -- it was lovely -- and when the check came, it was almost exactly $100, and I thought it was... reasonable for what we had, every bite and sip of which was excellent. What was nicest about the experience was that it was very relaxing after a rather long and tiring day, especially for Ms. Ché whose Thursdays as a student at IAIA are long indeed. On Thursdays, I have my own chores to take care of, some of which I've inherited from Ms Ché since she can't do them when she's at school (oh...), and so it's a very busy day for me,  too. We were able to unwind and relax at dinner which made the Opera experience even more rewarding.

Getting from The Compound on Canyon Road out to the Opera can be a little tricky. You have to use the dirt road that runs beside the Santa Fe River to get to one of the main cross streets that will get you to Paseo de Peralta which will hook you up with St. Francis Drive which you take all the way out past the military cemetery to the edge of Tesuque Pueblo where -- by golly -- up on the hill perches the Santa Fe Opera facility, in one of the most spectacular settings in all of the Santa Fe area (which has a lot of spectacular settings).

The Opera performs in a sheltered outdoor facility. The audience faces the sunset, and the sunset can be awe inspiring, breathtaking, requiring applause -- the way we once did the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico when we were working in Florida. Even out where we live in the Middle of Nowhere, in the Empty Quarter of New Mexico, the sunsets can take your breath away (sunrise too), but in Santa Fe, they can practically knock you out because of the mountains all around. And the Santa Fe Opera facility very cleverly integrates the sunsets into the overall ambiance and experience, sometimes even into the settings for particular operas.

Well, we missed the sunset from our seats at the Opera because we were down in the parking lot chatting with friends who were tailgating, oh my. Yes, indeed. Well, in this case, the friend was a Tesuque Pueblo native (and alumna of IAIA) who lived just down the road, and she was there with a friend of hers, an Indian whose tribe or pueblo we did not discover, who said he'd never been to an opera. I said I thought he would have an interesting time with this one. Oh my oh my.

We told of producing the play by Oscar Wilde on which the opera is based some 20 years ago in Sacramento, and how it met with some controversy and to-do because it was pretty... out there. For Sacramento theater at the time, it certainly was. The director was into whips and chains, piercings and tattoos, and he used every one of them in the production. A couple of nearly naked heavily tattooed and pierced young men perched on a tower above the stage throughout the performance as if they were gargoyles. The John the Baptist was himself nearly naked throughout, though his body was painted white with "native" designs worked in to his flesh. He was whipped on stage until his blood flowed. For real. This was possibly the most shocking part of the production. The Salome, on the other hand, was almost chaste and pure, driven to a kind of madness in her lust for John the Baptist, and ultimately, of course, to have his head on a silver platter, not because she was "bad" but because she was driven mad by her mother and the trauma of her stepfather's murder of her father. Oh, it was a strong psychological study as well as performance art that broke a lot of boundaries in Sacramento's theater scene in those days. That was part of our mission, however, so...

We didn't know how the opera would be staged as we had only seen a couple of pictures, and as it turned out, they weren't even from this production. We expected it would be challenging, no matter...

Soon after we took our seats, we saw other friends entering the auditorium, and though I wouldn't necessarily call them rich, I would say they're Swells of a sort in that they publish one of the area's arts and culture monthlies. Other Swells, of course, filled the seats at a leisurely pace, while the western skies burst into momentary slashes and swaths of color and then faded to gray as the house lights dimmed and the performance began.

It was challenging -- which we didn't mind at all. The story is not a happy one, and it doesn't end well. But we knew that. The staging was remarkable -- if rather static at times -- and the orchestra was superb. The singers, particularly the Salome, appeared to stumble a bit at the beginning, but they ultimately solidified their performances, and the hour-forty intermissionless performance seemed to go very quickly.

The main challenge was sorting out the figurative and psychological images in the "dream ballet" -- which was actually a substitute for the Dance of the Seven Veils. As a rule, opera divas do not dance. And in this case, though the Salome had a few "movements" I guess you'd call them, she did not dance for Herod or us.  She was pretty rigid during the "dance" sequence, reminding me a bit of the Carmen last year who stood stock still -- somewhat hilariously -- during her alleged dance sequences. 

Nor were there any literal veils in Salome's no-dance dance. Instead, the veils were interpreted as emotional and psychological veils that were expressed through layers and layers of the setting and mimed performances of the murder of Salome's father by Herod, and the layers of trauma that made Salome what she was. I have to say that this was not entirely clear in the production itself, though the director's explanation in the program -- which I didn't read beforehand -- helped to clarify the sequence for me after the fact.

References to "the Jews" got quite a few laughs, and the scene in which they dispute practically everything under the sun with one another was pretty funny. A lot of Santa Fe's Swells are Jews, so it would seem, and they appeared to get the joke just fine. It was presented in good faith and good fun.

Afterwards we skedaddled as it had been a very long day already and it would be another hour and a half on the road to get back home. No time for mingling and chit-chat among the opera buffs and the Swells.

My impression was that they -- like we -- were surprised and pleased with the production overall.

We'd seen any number of Carmens over the years -- and look forward to seeing more -- but last night's Salome was new to us and may have been new to much of the audience. Though the story is well-known, the music isn't (there's nothing you can whistle on your way out the door). Strauss's music is quite modern (for 1905) in fact and is deliberately a-tonal at times. Disturbing. Given what's going on, what do you expect? The setting was dominated by an intricate silver sided box that rotated and opened up this way and that, exposing John the Baptist's cell, the banquet room of King Herod, and Salome's traumas. The lighting was sometimes a bit dimmer than I would have liked, but that's a minor quibble. The staging was frequently quite static as performers lay or stood or sat still with little or no action observable. This wasn't so much a problem as it was noticeable. I would have liked to see more physical action on the part of the cast, but that's my preference, not an essential element.

This was Salome's production through and through, whereas the production of Oscar Wilde's play that we did was much more about John the Baptist. Both are important to understanding the story, and either can be the focus of attention.  But in Strauss's version, it is all about Salome -- and John the Baptist is little more than a supporting character.

My introduction to Salome was when I was in high school and acquired a booklet of Aubrey Beardsley drawings illustrating Oscar Wilde's play. Interestingly, that same booklet was on sale in the Opera Shop. I didn't buy it -- we have too many books as it is -- but I smiled when I saw it. Circles within circles, yes?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hopeful Signs -- Maybe -- On the Violent Policing Front

Never let it be said I'm a total pessimist. I'm not. I'd rather think of myself as an optimist, but as the year plus since James Boyd's killing in Albuquerque and the rate of police killings nationwide has increased not decreased, and politicians keep running away from the basic demand: "Stop Killing Us!" I've got to wonder whether this violent policing emergency is even being addressed by the High and the Mighty -- let alone being anywhere near a solution.

The problem with violent  policing is the violence, mayhem and death that results.

It's not racism or classism. Though both are factors. The immediate problem -- and the emergency -- is the violence.

So far as there is any statistical evidence at all, the police are becoming more violent and deadly not less since nationwide highlighting and protesting of police violence and murder got underway last year.

More violent and deadly, not less.

OK, what can be done about it?

The protests and all the activism obviously haven't done the job; just the opposite. When something you're doing has the opposite result of your intentions, it's usually a good idea to consider alternatives or consider not doing what you're doing and try something else.

While I've never had a problem with the protests nor with the activist cadres who have taken the risk to intervene and interrupt business as usual in all manner of ways, that alone has never struck me as sufficient to change things. Protests and demonstrations are necessary to highlight the problem and move the media and public sufficiently to demand action on the part of politicians and their appointees.

All right, we've had LOTS of demonstrations since James Boyd was killed a year ago in March (as I've said many times, the protests in Albuquerque over his killing were what triggered the nationwide protests over police killings that began in the summer of 2014 after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO.)  So many in fact that one can almost expect to run into one almost anywhere, almost any time.

Supposedly, the political class has heard the people's outrage and outcry and are on it, the evidence being the tidal wave of indictments for murder and manslaughter which have come forth from DAs in the aftermath of so many police killings, starting with the charges against Keith Sandy and Dominque Perez who killed... James Boyd. They've had their extended preliminary hearing (finally) and they are facing trial for murder 2. Whether they will be convicted is another question altogether (I think not), but at least they and a surprising number of others are going to trial for the homicides they have committed, so at least there's that.

But that hasn't seemed to stop the killing or even reduce it -- except in a handful of places, one of which happens to be Albuquerque where the rate of police killing has plummeted since the aftermath of the James Boyd killing, after spiking outrageously following the "scathing" DoJ report which found that most of the killings by APD were unjustified and that the department routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing.

Many other police departments have faced similar "scathing" reports from the DoJ and many did nothing about it at all, except perhaps to defy and resist any and all attempts at "reform."

"Scathing" reports and resulting consent decrees do not necessarily lead to police department "reform." Far from it. 

What does -- and this goes back to my initial foray into the issue of violent policing and brutality in Sacramento in 1996-97 -- are orders coming from the top. And the "top" means the police chief and/or sheriff and the city manager and/or county executive.

In most cities elected officials do not have direct authority over the police. Consequently, elections and voting rarely affect police behavior. That is an intentional part of the political structure set up during the Progressive Era to insulate police and city administration from the supposed passions of the electorate. In that structure, police officers are accountable to their chief, the chief is accountable to the city manager, and the city manager is (theoretically) accountable to the Mayor and City Council -- but he or she will often make an ostentatious display of ignoring or defying elected officials. In most cases, it is so difficult (and expensive) to fire or discipline city managers that they can usually get away with pretty much anything they want.

City managers as a rule are obedient to the demands of the financial elites of their cities. Them that have, gets, in other words. Everyone else, for the most part, doesn't exist.

Consequently, a city manager will ignore the protests of the people -- people who often don't even know who the city manager is or that he or she is the actual supervisor of the police -- unless the money-people in the civic jurisdiction say "change things."

That's how police and other reform happens. It doesn't happen because people march in the streets and hold vigils at the police department. It happens because somebody "who matters" -- and has the power to make things happen -- says so. No other way. (Well barring that Revolution that never seems to come...)

So far, it doesn't appear that city managers have collectively decided that doing something about violent policing is necessary. If that's so, it's because the people they listen to (which in most cases are not the elected officials) haven't said they want something done about it.  Doing something about it can have lots of unintended consequences after all, one of which is destabilizing structures of power. That's one thing city managers and the people they listen to seek to avoid. Stable structures of power are what keep the system functioning through thick and thin, after all.

However, a bright sign, a hopeful sign, is that police chiefs have begun to recognize that the current structure and practice of violent policing is unsustainable. That's a huge step, it seems to me. A few months ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible, but last May, the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that considers issues important to policing in this country (and abroad) held a meeting attended by what seems to have been hundreds of police chiefs, deputies, federal law enforcers and DoJ execs, and even police representatives from England and Scotland. Recently, they issued a report from that meeting (84 pg pdf).

I read it and was really stunned at what the chiefs and their deputies were saying.

In a nutshell: they agree with the protesters. Police in America are way too violent, too many of them are stone racists, and the system as it is is unsustainable.

While they primarily blame politicians for this state of affairs, they are also aware that there's a whole lot of culpability within police departments as well.

It's got to change.

They seem to realize there is a problem with American police culture and practice, and it's not just one of "optics." It's a problem of attitude and behavior, and it has discredited policing all over the country.

It's a problem of killing. It's a problem of brutality. It's a problem of disrespect of the public. It's a problem of ignoring the whole idea of public service.

Police chiefs recognize this -- or so it seems -- and they know the situation cannot continue the way it is. Things have got to change, and behold, they come up with ways to change things, in order to reestablish mutual respect with the communities they are supposed to be serving but clearly aren't.

Re-engineering how police are trained is a big part of the program, but it goes much deeper. Values are also a factor, perhaps the major factor, in the reform the police chiefs were talking about in May, starting with the extraordinary concept of valuing all human life, including that of the suspects/perpetrators police so often kill or maim.

The killing stops when the orders go out to stop it. Not before. But the killing stays stopped when police are convinced to value all human life, no matter what. In other words, when the police on the street don't even think of using lethal force against someone they suspect of a crime -- or who is disrespectful or otherwise obstreperous or obnoxious -- then the real reform has taken place.

That's one hopeful sign. Another is the report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, (116 pg pdf). The central point of this report is a fundamental value and behavior change by police: from "warrior" cop to "guardian." I have issues with that terminology and ideal but I will leave them aside for now. The key point is that there is a deeper understanding within the policing community that things have gone wrong and have got to change at the root, not simply the optics of policing. The president's task force was heavily skewed toward police and federal law enforcement representatives and interests and yet they still came up with a pretty solid set of reforms that could -- if implemented -- begin to overcome some of the worst aspects of the current fashion for violent policing and routine use of lethal force. If, for example, SWAT teams were used appropriately instead of routinely, there could be some very positive effects. If police departments demilitarized, there could be some other positive effects. If police officers stopped acting like an occupying army, who knows what sort of benefits would accrue? This report goes on like that, getting into many of the aspects and behaviors of police which have caused so much distrust and destruction of lives and families and whole communities over the years. It doesn't, however, call for an end to the killing. That's perhaps a bridge too far for the task force members.

Another hopeful sign -- which also, unfortunately doesn't directly call for an end to the killing by police -- is the recently released 10 point plan by CampaignZero, an offshoot of the #BLM movement. While it doesn't directly call for an end to the killing, nor does the president's task force (the chiefs were discussing how to end the killing or at least reduce it to very low levels) it does set out a roadmap for police reform that can over time ratchet down the level of force -- particularly lethal force -- used by police in the USA. The focus is on racial disparities in policing, however.

Once the problem of police killing civilians in such ridiculously high numbers and inappropriate circumstances is addressed and the numbers fall, the other problems of policing in America and the grossly unjust aspects of the so-called justice system and its many parts can begin to be tackled realistically.

But in my view, the killing has to stop first. That hasn't happened -- except in certain locations under very specific circumstances where the order went out to stop it. Overall, the rate of police killing has increased, not decreased in the past year, and somehow those in power have got to get a handle on it.

I'm not sure what it will take. But at least there are signs that the current bloody and intolerable situation is not sustainable. Change will come.
"Hell You Talmbout" live in New York


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In Other News -- The Rise of the Racist Right (Again)

The Summer News Cycle is winding down -- the shark and missing white people stories are being put away (this summer it seemed to be white boys going missing rather than the usual white women), and the presidential campaign for the 2016 election is being given the media's main spotlight.

Bernie, The Donald, Herself... and the wild card of Ol' Joe (Biden)... seem to be sucking out all oxygen from the newsroom.

The Bernie campaign is the one with the most populist energy in that the campaign is drawing large crowds practically everywhere. Some of those crowds are immense. They seem to arise spontaneously. In some ways, the Bernie campaign reminds me of the Howard Dean phenomenon when time was, and I cannot help but recall the real shock the single digit vote results in the primaries were. How could that be, we all wondered, when he had been drawing such enthusiastic crowds? Why could he not even break into double digits -- except in Vermont?

Well, I think Bernie is going to be faced with a similar situation. How such large and enthusiastic crowds translate into such a small vote result is something for a scholarly study I haven't seen yet, but I suspect it will happen to Bernie (though he might do better than HoHo did.)

The #BLM interruptions of his campaign speeches and his subsequent acknowledgement of and policy program to redress structural and institutional racism has been taken as a marker of Bernie's civil rights and progressive cred. But what he doesn't say is the same as every other politician on the national stage. He won't endorse or repeat the principal demand of the protesters: "Stop Killing Us."

Nor will any other politician on the national stage.

Not one.

The killing is apparently something to deal with in the future, the distant future preferably, once the problem of structural and institutional racism is solved. Or maybe the killing isn't to be dealt with at all. It's really hard to say.

The killing, though, is the immediate, emergency problem, and the rate of police killings keeps climbing despite all the protests, inconveniences and interruptions of routines that the protesters engage in.

The message here is that the political class as a whole -- Bernie included -- is not particularly troubled by the killing. Nope. I've seen arguments that it is actually quite a rare thing for someone to be killed by the police (despite a higher rate of police killings than just about anywhere else in the world) and those who are killed for the most part "needed killing" anyway, so the problem of police killings is not really that much of a problem when you really look and sort it all out.

Racism, though, is something else again.

At least that's the political message.

Racism is the issue that we must tackle with all available resources and from every angle. Structural racism, institutional racism, historical racism, personal and private racism, overt and public racism, all must be tackled and dismantled, or we will forever face an intractable, socially destructive  problem of racial injustice and discrimination.

And we're better than that. Or something.

So I was cruising around the interwebs and found a story that said the Prairie View, Texas, city council had voted to rename University Blvd to "Sandra Bland Drive Parkway," and I thought, "well, isn't that something?" Not necessarily progress -- that would be expecting too much -- but at least it was an acknowledgement that her life mattered. And that's something.

The story I read was from Channel 2 in Houston, and the comments on the story were filled with racist invective, literally in every comment I read. Oh my. I've seen this before on the internet. In fact, I see it pretty frequently. Racist invective seems to be a feature of the internet, not a social bug at all. It's built in to the structure of internet commentary somehow, but every time I see it, it's a shock. I thought I was fairly sophisticated about these things, but the sort of racist animosity I've been seeing for the last several years -- and sheer amount of it -- is both bewildering and shocking.

I regard it as specifically an internet phenomenon and not particularly representative of the general feelings and beliefs of Americans, but I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it is just the tip of a racist iceberg...

What I saw and read in the comments on the Channel 2 story about renaming the street on which she was manhandled and arrested for Sandra Bland was appalling, but it's not unique.

Apparently since the removal of the Confederate battle flag from places of honor in several Southern -- and some not so southern (ie: Albuquerque) -- places, a certain variety of white racist, incensed at the disrespect for their flag, have taken to arms and are prepared to fight the nigra tide that is sweeping over them... yadda, yadda, yadda. It's just ridiculous, but there you are. OK then. So be it.

The problem with this kind of white racism is that even though it may involve a relatively small minority of white folks -- though I can't be sure of the size of the current racist rise -- it can be very powerful because it taps in to America's original sins -- black chattel slavery and Native American genocide. Both were fundamental for the nation's creation and sustenance. There could be and would have been no United States of America without them.

Every effort to overcome those original sins has been fiercely resisted by some white folks for generation upon generation, and so far, while there has been progress -- chattel slavery has been largely eliminated, genocide renounced if not ended in practice -- these sins are still inherent in the nation's very being. The current level of racist internet trolling may be shocking to me, but apparently there are plenty of white folks who live this racist reality all the time.

It's powerful and it's dangerous.

I suppose that so long as it is largely confined to internet trolling, it's not really a serious problem, but I don't know that the internet actually confines it.

The #BLM movement has forced the issue of disparate justice and violent racist policing into public consciousness (again -- it's really always been with us) but so far has been ineffective in reducing the level of disparate justice and violent racist policing. In fact, the rate of police killings has substantially increased this year over last, and courts will still cheerfully charge, try and sentence black and brown folks far more severely than whites for the same offenses. Those same courts will also overlook police violence and killing.

In other words, nothing has yet positively affected the problem which has long since been identified.

At least superficially things are getting worse, not better.

There are some hopeful signs which I will try to get to in another post. But for the time being, the white racist trolls are having a field day.

Not a pretty picture.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Resistance Art -- The Art of Resistance (or "Why don't you put a feather on it?")

Yesterday, I spent a good deal of time at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, a project/program of the Institute of Native American Arts -- where Ms Ché is now a student.

The whole place has a fresh-new feel and the art on exhibit is much edgier than that of the recent past or even longer ago (I can't recall offhand when I first visited the museum, but it's been years and years). Candice Hopkins is the new curator, and I'm sure it is her vision more than any other that has guided the re-vision of the exhibits at MoCNA, and that vision is one of continual resistance by Native people and particularly Native artists against the impositions of stereotypes and expectations.

Consequently, there is much resistance art on view. I wish I could illustrate this post with images from the exhibitions, but as a rule, MoCNA does not post many pictures of what's on exhibit, indeed, sometimes there are none at all.

What is "resistance art?" I supposed it depends to a certain extent on one's own perceptions of resistance. In order to arrive at a realistic definition, we may ask: "What or whom is being resisted, by what or by whom, and to what object -- if there is one?"

Many artistic forms and expressions can fall into the resistance category, even when the artist is not consciously trying to create resistance art. Among the most commonly recognized forms of resistance art is the poster highlighting a particular issue, rebellion or campaign. One of my all time favorites is "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" (El Lissitsky, 1919), propaganda art produced to help inspire the struggle against the White Russians in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (El Lissisky, USSR, 1919)

The poster, while intended as a populist statement regarding the civil war then under way in the nascent Soviet Union, is in fact constructivist fine art, one of the strongest examples of the genre. Very often, posters and other forms of resistance art are both populist statements and fine art simultaneously. There's no real dividing line between them. There is no way I know of to separate the fine artist from the populist rabble rouser and propagandist. When the cause is strong or just, the works emerge almost spontaneously from many sources, including the studios of fine artists.

In the case of the exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, many of the pieces of resistance art are the works of honors students at IAIA or of alumnae of the Institute. Some of it is straightforward and in-your-face, some is subtly subversive. The point of much of it is the rejection of stereotypes of what "Indian art" is supposed to be as well as challenging expectations of who qualifies as an "Indian artist."  These seem to be constant themes within the fairly small Indian arts community, especially in Santa Fe and New Mexico in general where Indian art and artists have a very prominent position and role in the highly competitive art market.

On the other hand, much of the resistance art on exhibit at MoCNA deals with specific issues in the ongoing Native struggles for dignity and justice in the context of constant predation and expropriation by the dominant culture, whether it's war, poverty, abuse, abandonment, dispossession or what have you.

Indian artists fight stereotypes, and they also fight for what's right.

David Bradley, for example, has produced an enormous body of resistance (fine) art that mocks and disparages, indeed insults, the "Disneyfication" of Santa Fe in particular, the Southwest in general, as it molds and shapes everything to attract and please the tourists who flock to the region every spring and summer -- and the poseurs who settle in for the long term. Bradley currently has a major exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. Resistance art that he did early on, collages of various "Indian" ideas and struggles, are on display at the MoCNA.

And example of one of his statements of resistance is his Land o' Fakes Museum Currency:

Virgil Ortiz has been creating subversive images of his re-visioning of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 -- translated into contemporary iconography -- for years. His vision is encompassing. He uses every bit of his talent, skill, connections and imagination to create what is becoming an enormous body of resistance art that focuses almost entirely on the most successful Indian resistance action in North American history.

Why would he do this? Isn't it just "style," "fashion," or "entertainment?"

I say no, not at all. Virgil uses the elements of the high-style and fashion world he once served in the Donna Karan studio in order to highlight something that's often forgotten about Indian history -- the Pueblo Revolt -- and to send a clear message to his high and mighty clients that it can come again.

In effect, he becomes a translator, an interpreter of the Revolt, both for the benefit of young Indians who might not otherwise find the events of so long ago interesting or relevant, and for the education of a clientele that instinctively believes they are the Masters of the Universe.

Virgil left New York and the high-fashion industry he'd been eagerly accepted into in order to return to Cochiti Pueblo where he was from -- something that was in and of itself an act of resistance and rebellion -- where he develops his re-vision and the themes of revolt and rebellion based on what happened to chastise and drive the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680. An aspect of that re-vision was the Venutian Soldiers concept of 2012, which was -- I think -- the first gallery exhibit we attended after moving to New Mexico in 2012.

Venutian Soldiers c. 2012, Virgil Ortiz
Now wait. Surely this is not resistance art, it's some kind of wild-ass fashion statement, right? Actually, it's both. The "soldiers" depicted are the soldiers of a Pueblo Revolt of 2180, futuristic images of what may be to come based on what went before.

Virgil now has a major exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

Through similar images -- in ceramics, leather and fabric, paint, video and film, and whatever other materials and means Virgil decides to use -- a picture emerges of his vision that ought to give some of his expensive clients pause. I'm not sure it does because I still see some of them parading around Santa Fe in the Virgil Ortiz creations, many of which are the figurative equivalent of daggers and arrows to the hearts of those who wear them. It's all highly subversive but in a way that -- perhaps -- his targets can't understand at all, any more than the Spanish were able to comprehend what Po'pay and the other Pueblo rebels were up to in advance of the Revolt itself. They thought they knew... but they were wrong...

At the IAIA Scholarship Dinner Virgil and Rose B(ean) Simpson, presented a collaborative performance piece that took these resistance concepts several steps further, but I'm convinced most of those who saw it had no idea what they were seeing. To them, perhaps, it was something charming, even cute. But to others, it was as strong a statement of resistance to the status quo as had ever been presented in that context.

At the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Rose and Virgil have extended their collaborative efforts with an installation of even more elements of the re-visioning and translation of the Pueblo Revolt theme. There are manikins wearing costumes Virgil created for his characters and also, importantly, ceramic "masks" for each of eight named characters in the  story of the Revolt (c. 2180). I put masks in quotes because they are more like three-dimensional head-shots rather than face coverings, though they are called masks in the exhibit. To me they are quite disturbing -- which is, I think, what they are supposed to be -- because they do not depict humans. They are from another realm altogether, and I'm not at all sure they are benign.... they wouldn't be, would they, if they were representations of the forces of a future Revolt.

But then, most of what's in the Redness exhibit is disturbing. Deliberately so. Resistance art? Absolutely.

Carmen Selam is a young artist whose work I was able to purchase at last year's IAIA open house. The piece I bought was a print called "Indian Red":

"Indian Red", Carmen Selam, 2014
I was immediately attracted to it because it is a piece of resistance art that comments on the mis-appropriation of "Indian-ness" for commerce and (Anglo) 'beauty.' Carmen has written very well about it on her website:
Throughout my indigenous life, I have lived with elements of racism over the duration of my existence. The misappropriated usage of Native American imagery can be seen as a metaphorical modern day scalping. There was once a time when gathering pigment for the earth was a long and arduous task. This pigment, carefully selected was used to make paint that we used in ceremony and on the war field. We gathered the elements from the earth that my ancestors were buried. It was honorable to wear paint, eagle feathers, amongst other things. However, these days, it is not the same. The scapegoat for blunt racism is often disguised by the cloak of one word: honor. Often times we are dishonored in the name of honor by non-natives appropriating our sacred motifs and regalia as Halloween costumes, sports logos, and corporate emblems. My piece Indian Red is a reflection of the idea that the pigment and color of our skin is seen as a commodity by the red-lipped, twenty-something, non-native hipsters, who don the plastic war bonnet and faux war-paint.
Resistance art? Of course. What else could it be?

There are many other Native artists whose work is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and elsewhere in galleries and museums around the country and particularly the Southwest, much of it resistance art -- but some of it not.

There's a joke that goes around in the Indian arts community: "Oh, yer stuff ain't sellin'? Why don't you put a feather on it? That's what they like to see, you know?"


That's what they like to see. They don't -- usually -- want their Indian stuff to bite, if you know what I mean. But what I've been seeing more and more of, encouragingly, is Indian resistance art flourishing in galleries and museums, where some of the wealthy and powerful might see it. Whether they understand it or not is another question. But it really doesn't matter.

What matters is that artists are once again rebelling and resisting the pressure to conform to stereotypes and expectations. Artist rebellions typically presage popular rebellion, and I think we're getting closer every day.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Free Leonard Peltier"

It was bound to happen.

When Ms Ché contemplated her first week as a student at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, she warned me, saying, "I just might turn into a radical Indian, yanno."

I said, "It wouldn't surprise me at all. I can just see you marching and carrying a sign reading 'Free Leonard Peltier.'" That's when she gave me the side-eye and a little grin. "That's only the beginning," she said.

So Friday we were up in Santa Fe for that talk on Native American women sculptors mentioned in the previous post, and we stopped by the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in the Railyards afterwards where we ran into the Free Leonard Peltier booth, manned by Peter from the Indigenous Rights Center in Albuquerque and Leonard's son Chauncey, featuring dozens of Leonard's paintings, prints, posters, and all sorts of minor items-- buttons, patches, t-shirts, etc -- with that theme: "Free Leonard Peltier."

I think he is the longest-held political prisoner in the nation's history. Not even Geronimo was held as long as Peltier has been.

The story is complicated, and I won't go into the details here, but from our perspective, he's been held in Federal prison (for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975 at the Pine Ridge Reservation) not for the crime -- which he may or may not have had some role in (the evidence is more than sufficient for reasonable doubt) but because he was and still is an outspoken advocate of Indian rights which at the time had led to remarkable events throughout Indian Country, events which still reverberate. In other words, he's been an effective activist, advocate, and voice for the Indian peoples -- all oppressed peoples, really -- and that is, in this country, unforgivable.

Ms Ché has been moved by injustice all her life, as have I been throughout my own life. Injustice seems to be rampant these days, but in some ways it's been worse, oh far worse, in the past. Ms says she was awakened to the necessity to express and defend her own Native heritage by the AIM occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. Prior to that, she, like many other de-tribalized and urban Indians, had learned to suppress and almost keep secret her Native roots. It was not something to be widely, frequently or openly mentioned.

In fact, I didn't know she was an Indian when I first knew her. It literally did not occur to me. When she told me, after we'd known each other for a year or more, I was surprised, even delighted. But my ignorance was profound, and I've spent a lifetime learning the rudiments of her Cherokee culture, and I have been blessed to be part of her family -- both her immediate relatives and her extended family through various Cherokee and other Indian organizations and associations.

The occupation of Alcatraz and the subsequent AIM and other Indian rights actions galvanized her sense of being an Indian, but the context of our lives in California and our peripatetic travels around the country in the show business didn't include a lot of "Indian-ness." After settling down, much later in our lives, to a more mundane routine and lifestyle, there still wasn't a lot of Indian cultural integration -- because in California, there really isn't much of it to speak of. California was all but wiped clean of its Native peoples soon after the Gold Rush though pockets of Natives were allowed to persist on rural/remote scraps of land called "rancherias" scattered here and there, most of them were either slaughtered outright, kidnapped and turned into slaves, or assimilated willingly or not into the dominant (white) culture.

Not till the casinos arose was there more than an historical awareness of California's Native peoples and heritage, and it's still somewhat of an exotic topic among Anglos in California.

Meanwhile, Indians from other parts of the country were being sent to California, or -- like Ms Ché's mother -- were leaving their tribal lands and going out to California on their own to make another life.

Once they did, in so many instances, they didn't mention their Indian heritage -- at least not around white folks.

As a sidenote, I think I mentioned previously that in my genealogy research the past year or so, I discovered a purported Indian ancestor on my mother's side. There is some dispute over whether Prudence Eldridge was actually a Ketchemeche Lenape (ie: Delaware) Indian or whether the claim that she was arose in the 19th century after her death as a sort of romantic fiction that tied her, and thus the Thompsons and the Piersons who descend from her, to the the Native people of New Jersey's Cape May peninsula where my mother's ancestors (her grandmother was a Pierson descended directly from Prudence Eldridge and her husband Benjah Thompson) originally came from. At any rate, even if Prudence was a full (or perhaps half) blood Indian (other descendants claim she wasn't an Indian at all) it was so long ago, that my mother not only had no knowledge of her, she had no inkling she might have had Indian ancestry.

I had no knowledge of it, either.

Back to the topic at hand. We made initial contact with the "Free Leonard Peltier" booth at the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in Santa Fe on Friday. We did not know it was there prior to encountering it, though we found out later there has been quite a lot of press about it, and not a little controversy, too. John Torres Nez, who founded the IFA Market after he and a number of others quit SWAIA a little over a year ago (I won't get into the politics of it at this time) invited Leonard's people to exhibit his works and be part of the Market as part of his overall commitment to justice, and their presence at the IFA Market was galvanizing. Some people disapproved and a few exhibitors refused to participate because of the Leonard Peltier booth, but for the most part, they were eagerly welcomed with open arms.

Yesterday, there was a reception at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice for Chauncey Peltier and there was a small exhibit of Leonard's works. We learned that the Indigenous Rights Center, housed at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice since its formation in May, is a project of Leonard Peltier's struggle for human rights and his own freedom, and that the Indigenous Rights Center is fully involved not only with Leonard Peltier's campaign for clemency from the Obama administration but with a range of human rights and Indigenous support projects. Though still in the initial stages, it's really quite wonderful.

Chauncey Peltier is Leonard's son. He said he was not involved in the "Free Leonard Peltier" campaign before last year because he wasn't ready. When he'd visit his father in prison, his father told him to live his own life and not feel obligated to help or serve his father. Then, after he had lived his own life, raising a family, working in construction, conquering alcoholism, and so on, he realized he was ready, and he did have an obligation to help his father. He said he asked his father what he needed and what he could do, and he found himself put in charge of marketing Leonard's art, and serving as head of the International campaign to free Leonard Peltier, and he's never looked back. The past year has been the most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of his life. A transformative aspect as well.

Ms Ché was asked to read a prayer Leonard had composed in prison as part of the ceremony last night. She did so, eagerly and with aplomb. She was not the only other Indian there (besides Chauncey) but she was someone "new" -- a recruit if you will -- and she was ready:

A Prayer
Mysterious One,
We search for you along
this Great Red Road you have set us on.

Sky Father,
We thank you for this world.
We thank you for our own existence.
We ask only for your blessing
and for your instruction.

Sacred One,
Put our feet on the holy path
that leads to you,
and give us the strength and the will
to lead ourselves and our children
past the darkness we have entered.
Teach us to heal ourselves,
to heal each other
and to heal the world.

Let us begin this very day,
this very hour,
the Great Healing to come. 

Ms Ché and Chauncey Peltier became family yesterday, and through Chauncey, she and Leonard Peltier became extended family joining millions who already express their support for Leonard and his freedom. There is much more to come... The Great Healing continues...

Would you like to know more?

Incident at Oglala -- The Leonard Peltier Story

Incident at Oglala - The Leonard Peltier Story from CivilDisobedienceCompany on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Tired-Energized. What a Week

I haven't written a whole lot about what we've been up to -- indeed, I haven't written a whole lot about much of anything -- in a while now. It's partly been a slow-down for the summer, partly physical/health issues, partly a slow transition from one phase to another as we get older and our lives in New Mexico become fuller.

This last week has been astonishing in many ways, and it represents some of the changes we're going through. It's been extremely busy, especially for Ms Ché as she returns to college to (finally) get her degree, a BFA in Creative Writing from IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) after decades of doing other things in other places. That change in her life means I get to take up a lot of the domestic chores that were once her bailiwick, including looking after the feral cat colony which she's been wrangling and supervising. Given the fact that I don't get around as well as I used to, this domesticity on my part is probably for the best. At least I can make my way around most of our modest spread here and take care of it relatively well -- for the time being anyway.

One of the challenges we're facing is that IAIA is about 50 miles away, a good hour's commute if she drives herself, an almost 3 hour commute if she takes transit. There is a free bus to Santa Fe that picks up passengers at the Park and Ride not too far from our place (maybe three-four miles) -- at 6am. It gets to Santa Fe around 8am; there she has to catch a city bus to another transit center at a mall south of town where she can catch yet another bus to the IAIA campus where she arrives just before 9am. She's done it once. She says it's grueling, basically because of the early start and the bus changes. She can use the time to do her studies, so there is that. But it makes for a very long day, close to 14 hours on the road, in study and in classes. For the time being, at any rate, she's decided it's better for her to drive herself. It's still a long day, but doing so cuts 4 hours off the commute, though it adds considerably to expenses for the car.

When the weather changes, we'll reassess the situation. Snow can be heavy at times, and the road to Santa Fe, while well-maintained, is a rural two-lane highway, and the spur she takes from Galisteo to Highway 14 and then to the campus is tricky even in good weather.

We have some friends in Santa Fe who say she can stay with them if the weather is too severe to travel from there to our place, so that's a plus.

This last week has included activities that are more social than educational, though they overlap in various ways.

On Tuesday evening, we went to the Allan Houser Scholarship announcement/reception at the Compound restaurant in Santa Fe. This was one of the periodic social/fundraising events IAIA engages in throughout the year to raise and distribute money for the college and its students. In this case, the proprietors of the Compound established a scholarship fund in honor of Native American Sculptor, IAIA founding instructor, and artist mentor Allan Houser last year during celebrations for his 100th birthday. They gave out their first scholarship last Tuesday evening at a gala event that included a lot of Santa Fe's swells, plus a number of others, including some we talked to who had no idea why they were invited! The scholarship recipient, Maria Fairbanks(? -- not sure of her last name, actually) is a wonderful individual studying studio arts with a minor in performing arts, and there is little doubt in our minds that she's going to go far, as far as she wants to doing pretty much whatever she pleases. Interestingly, I was chatting with Allan Houser's widow, Anna Maria, at the event, and she pointed out that this is not the first "Allan Houser Scholarship" as the family has been giving scholarships and money for scholarships for years. But it was the first scholarship from this specific fund, and so...

On Wednesday evening, we attended the annual Scholarship Dinner and Auction at La Fonda in Santa Fe, an event that raises money for general scholarships that we've attended three times now since moving to New Mexico. Tuesday night's event was gala, the Wednesday Scholarship benefit event was gala-squared. The main ballroom at La Fonda was packed with Santa Fe's and some of the rest of New Mexico's swellest of swells, and money flowed like water. These events have been raising about $150,000 for scholarships each year, but I suspect this year's event raised quite a bit more. There is a silent auction of items -- mostly art -- many of which are produced by IAIA students, faculty and alums. There's also a live auction during the dinner which can raise large amounts of money, as many of the items auctioned are works by some of the country's major Native American artists, IAIA alums or faculty, including Dale Chihuly, Preston Singletary, Virgil Ortiz, Tony Abeyta, Rose Simpson and others... oh, so many others. Some of the works this year and in past years have been remarkable. We usually can't afford to bid on them, but quite a few of those in attendance can and do. Last year, we bid on some plates by Virgil Ortiz but we were outbid almost immediately by the governor of Pojoaque Pueblo (who's also an artist) who pushed the price into the stratosphere and well out of our budget range. (The pueblo has considerable casino money and has used a lot of it on purchasing art and establishing some rather stunning art exhibitions and funding arts education.)

This year, we didn't bid in the live auction at all, but we did bid on and win a number of items in the silent auction, including a large painting by Tyrone Headman (IAIA alum) entitled "Geronimo Sipping Latte." I may photograph it and post it at some point. Our house is already full of paintings, so it took some juggling to find a place for it. But it got hung. Hopefully to the amusement of a guest one night.

We purchased more items in the silent auction than we have in the past because we attended the dinner as guests of a friend who has a Native American art appraisal business and so we did not have to pay for the dinner -- meaning we could spend more for other things, and so we did... Ms Ché's favorite item from the silent auction is a lapis wolf fetish carved by Ray Tsalate of Zuni Pueblo that she almost didn't get because another woman wanted it and kept outbidding her. But in the end Ms bid the full "buy it now" price and so, it is now hers.

Ms Ché has received several scholarships to attend IAIA, so it seems only fitting that we do our part to return the favor. Since we've been contributing to the scholarship fund for years, we're happy to do a bit more this year if we can.

The event also featured a performance-art piece by created by Virgil Ortiz and Rose Simpson that seemed to enthrall, stun and puzzle the audience. I've mentioned Virgil a number of times in these pages as he was one of the artists we became immediately attracted to when we moved here. He's a well-known fashion designer, but there's much -- much -- more to his work than "just" fashion. His focus is on a futuristic version of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, set in 2180, with a whole elaborate cast of characters, a series of pottery figures depicting some of those characters (and others), film and video of those characters and their adventures, and many other items of art and fashion that relate to his theme. The performance art at the Scholarship Dinner was puzzling to those who were not familiar with that theme of the Pueblo Revolt and its futuristic counterpart, but for those who knew it, the piece was relatively clear. A god-like illuminated musician (he wore electric lights and played an amplified violin) accompanied a young man and young woman who find items in a trunk which they learn to wear as a kind of cloaking element, protection in a way, as they contemplate and prepare for the Revolt to come. At least that is how I interpreted the piece. It seemed obvious to me!

Rose Simpson is the daughter of Roxanne Swentzell, a very well known Native American sculptor -- whose exhibit at the Pojoaque Pueblo is stunning. Rose has been collaborating with her mother and with other Native American artists in a flurry of creativity which we were also privileged to encounter and enjoy yesterday at a "Breakfast With the Curator" event at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

The curator in this case was Leticia Chambers who I think we can fairly say has become a friend in the past year or so since we met her at an event at her house held to introduce the New Mexico Film Foundation to a wider public.

Leticia is from Oklahoma and believes she is of Cherokee descent though she is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her interest in Native American art goes way back to her childhood when her family visited Taos for the first time, and she spent the small allowance she had on a pot created by a Taoseno. She's been collecting, she said, ever since. She claimed, modestly, that she doesn't have a very large collection, but having seen it myself, I'd say she has one of the most important collections of Native American contemporary art in private hands in Santa Fe -- and perhaps in the nation. It is nothing short of amazing. I think a word I used when I saw it was "breathtaking."

When she and Ms Ché met that evening, they seemed to bond almost immediately, as if they were long-lost sisters or cousins (which they might be, who knows!) and they've remained bonded ever since though they're not in particularly constant or close contact.

Yesterday at breakfast and afterwards we heard Leticia explain about the sculptures and the sculptors she chose for the Museum's exhibit of monumental pieces by Native women about Native women. It was remarkable and very moving. We'd seen the exhibit before, but not in this way, not as intimately, not as fully elucidated, not as touchingly personal. The works are remarkable for themselves but the stories behind them -- how and why they came to be, and who created them -- added depth and dimension that otherwise we wouldn't have known. Leticia happens to be an excellent story-teller to boot, so the morning was extraordinary. Ms Ché became overcome with emotion at one point and Native staff members recognized what had happened immediately and offered her their comfort and understanding -- because it had happened to them, too.

Leticia herself knew and saw and empathized with Ms Ché and said she often found herself choked up when she contemplated the works and the women who made them. Indeed.

We left the museum a little after ten and went to Santa Fe's Railyard district to attend the Indigenous Fine Arts Market, the rebel-alternative to the immense SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe's historic plaza and surrounding areas. We went to the SWAIA market once and I doubt we'll return simply because it is too big. The IFAM market is smaller, more intimate, more comprehensible in fact, and I think it's fair to say it's edgier with a more contemporary feel on the one hand, and a wider variety of Native arts and artists on the other.

We were delighted to see so many artists from the East, from the Northwest and Alaska, and from Oklahoma. While the SWIA market does include artists from these areas, Pueblo and Navajo artists predominate to such an extent it can be difficult to locate the "others." At IFAM, it was not a problem. Though there were many top-notch artists from Navajo and Pueblo areas, there were also many from other areas mixed among them, which helped make for some very interesting/exciting juxtapositions.

At the Scholarship Dinner on Wednesday, America Meridith, publisher of First American Art Magazine, shared our table and she insisted that we had to go see the pottery by Karin Walkingstick, a Cherokee potter from Oklahoma. She said Karin would be at both markets -- and we had to see her work. Had to.

So we made it a point to find and check out her booth at the IFAM. Sure enough, her pottery was extraordinary and compelling. More amazing still was that she had only been potting for two years, but there was nothing at all raw or tentative about her work. It is all fully and beautifully realized, remarkable in fact, and we were very glad to have seen it for ourselves. Unfortunately, we couldn't purchase anything from her as our budget for art is exhausted for the year.

We had some other stops to make in Albuquerque later in the day which meant the long, boring drive down the hill from Santa Fe. Smoke from the fires in California and Washington has made its way to central and northern New Mexico and so casts a pall on the scenery. The mountains practically disappear in the murk, but there were also rain squalls mixed in with the smoke, so the usually boring drive down to Albuquerque had moments of interest as cloud bursts and rain-spattering periodically interrupted our boredom.

We got our business done in Albuquerque and headed home late in the afternoon. It was a heady day after a very heavy and heady week, and we were both exhausted -- but remarkably energized and elated.

One of the booths where we spent quite a bit of time at the IFAM was that of Leonard Peltier, wrongly convicted of crimes he didn't commit and wrongly held in Federal prison for those crimes -- and smeared and slandered by the FBI for decades. Dozens of Peltier's paintings were on exhibit -- and for sale -- along with posters, prints and minor items all to help fund his legal challenges to his continued imprisonment.

I had never seen so many of his paintings before. He's a highly talented artist in a more or less traditional style. Again, we couldn't afford any of them, but just to see so many was a remarkable experience. Among the minor items on display, Ms Ché found a patch with the combined figures of a wolf and a raven (both spirit animals for her) around which was the motto: "Do right and fear no one," and "Free Leonard Peltier." Well, that was something we could afford, and that patch now has a place of honor in the library here at the house (which is also her study.)  Peltier has been a symbol of Native oppression and resistance for decades. His continued incarceration is an injustice -- among so many injustices that typify the American system of injustice these days. To find his work in the "rebel" Indian market seemed just right somehow, and we felt privileged at that moment.

As Ms Ché has said, after spending a lifetime in the white world and learning how to survive and succeed in it while preserving something of her Indian heritage, she's now "becoming" what she's always been -- a strong and purposeful Native American woman. She's coming into her own in ways that simply weren't possible before. Exhaustion is part of the process of transformation they say!...

[I haven't put links in this post but will try to include them within the next day or two.]