I have begun four separate attempts to write something reflective about my trip to New Mexico a month ago, and I keep running into a wall. Part of the problem is, as with most writers’ block, that I don’t know what I want to say. But I think that is intensified by the fact that what I am thinking about comes out sounding like a new-age cliché even when it’s still confined to my brain.
I loved my trip to the Southwest in part because I love teaching, and the trip gave me a chance to share a line of information and analysis that I rarely get to share in school. That I once wrote a book about anthropologists and their interest in the culture of the Zuni people is irrelevant to much of the work I do as a high school teacher. I have to guide my sophomores through two centuries’ worth of what I think they should understand about United States History in about 35 weeks, which doesn’t leave much time for side journeys. The itinerary I worked out for our week-long exploration of New Mexico allows me to talk with students about a landscape that is new to them, about semi-sovereign cultures that still exist within the borders of the United States, and about how the people of those cultures have negotiated, in the past and at present, their relationship with the juggernaut of a nation that surrounds them. That I can do this as they hike in canyons, peer at petroglyphs and learn to harvest yucca makes their learning and my teaching more a part of the atmosphere than like school.
But I am drawn to New Mexico, I have to admit, by some of the same things that drew the anthropologists I sometimes scoff at. It is the tourist’s dilemma. Tourism at its best allows you to do more than gaze at the scenery and stalk artifacts in museums. I don’t want to be just a tourist; I want to be a participant, to talk to the people who live in this place that I am visiting, to see the place they inhabit through their eyes. Anthropology allowed early practitioners a framework within which to join the societies they studied. They did this on their own terms, to be sure, insinuating if not outright forcing themselves into private and sacred spaces. But their professional status and the social power of belonging to the country’s dominant culture allowed them to become something like insiders.
My book was concerned with trying to understand the motives of three early anthropologists who made reputations out of studies of Native American culture. I was interested in why people who thoroughly embraced the constructs and capabilities of a modern industrial capitalist society were so enthralled with the pre-modern culture they visited in Zuni. My own quarry was urban Americans, not native ones. But in my skepticism about their methods and their prejudices, I may have sold them a bit short. I, too, come from urban America (or suburban America, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference), and I, too, find myself wanting to experience, if not to capture, something that exists in New Mexico that does not exist in the same way in my world of New Jersey.
Our trip this time was awesome in ways I would love to take credit for, but can’t. In truth, I liked the balance of activities this time, especially the various outdoor climbing trips we did. Museums are great (one student actually suggested more museums next time!), but essentially passive. Hiking up the Puye Cliffs or down the Rio Grande Gorge opened the kids up, both physically and intellectually. I think they understand some things about both the area and themselves that they did not understand before. The combination of hard work and face-time with Forest the wolf was equally valuable. But the key to the success of this journey was the people we met: our hiking guide, the man from Santa Clara who shared the story of the cliff dwellers with us, Bobby Silas and Tim Edaakie, the potters who worked with us in Zuni, the director of the Zuni Fish and Wildlife agency who took time to teach us about eagles, and especially our more-than-bus driver, Neil Smith.
For me, the thing that made the trip so special was a challenge I faced that was not unlike those first uncertain steps down the steep path into the river gorge. I began to learn how to listen, and to do that I had to learn to block out the clutter of thoughts that are my constant companions.
I come from a culture in which fast thinking (and possibly faster talking) is a mark of success. I love how quickly my mind can work. But in the presence of people like Neil, our storytelling Apache bus drive, guide and guru, I began to practice thinking at a different, slower pace. I have a bad habit of finishing other people’s sentences. As soon as I think I know where they are going, I jump ahead. Neil’s stories were slow and full of pauses. His delivery was quiet – and mostly made while he was driving, so I had to sit forward to hear. Under his tutelage, I felt my thinking slow down, my east coast impatience dissipate. This was hard for me. As the leader of this group, some part of my consciousness was always jumping ahead in time to what I needed to do, behind me in space to how my students were doing, and in every direction as my mind met Neil’s stories with stories and insights of my own. It took discipline to do nothing but listen.
I think that somewhere in that listening is the key to moving from being a tourist to being a participant. I love telling people what I know, but they don’t all need to hear it. And I did need to hear the voices of south westerners and to take in the sights and sounds of the landscape without constantly translating them through analogies to things with which I am more familiar. At the risk of sounding like a New Ager, I needed to stay put in the present so that I could not just see but feel this different place I was in.
On our final morning in Albuquerque, after we’d packed our suitcases into the bus, and before the sun rose, Neil asked us to stand outside, facing the dawn, and he offered us a blessing in his native Apache. He stood in front of me and for perhaps 30 seconds he focused his undivided attention on the prayer he invoked for me. He did the same for others in the group. Albuquerque was not yet awake; his voice, though quiet, was all I heard. I am a rationalist, a skeptic and an atheist, and yet, in those moments when he stood before me I could feel his concern for me as a physical force. It was a fleeting feeling, but it was powerful and it was real. And I would have missed it if I had allowed myself to worry about getting to the airport or whether I’d left anything behind in the hotel.
The ability to inhabit a moment of connection with the earth and the sky and a culture that values connections and continuities was what drew the anthropologists I wrote about to New Mexico and to Zuni. That they encountered Zuni with the consciousness of modern consumers and salvage ethnologists led them to misunderstand a good deal and to do real harm to the culture and the people they understood themselves to be saving from evolutionary oblivion. But they lived in a culture that was losing connections and continuities, and in Zuni they sought a way to experience something emotional and real that they could no longer find at home.
I like to think that I have avoided their mistakes, but my stance is the stance of the tourist, the consumer of cultural differences. The Zunis and Acomas I encountered on this trip have come to depend on consumers like me; tourism is a mainstay of their economic survival. Between us there is a sort of compact that encourages them to act as tourists want them to act in return for purchases of guided tours, works of art and souvenirs. But around the edges of this consumer relationship there is, I think, a space for something less mercenary and more valuable, at least for me. What transformed my latest trip was focusing on the landscape, not merely from the windows of the bus, but in climbing down into the Rio Grande Gorge, up to the Puye Cliff dwellings, out to the foot of the mesa in Zuni. And while rooted, however temporarily, in this landscape, listening to the voices of the people who inhabit it. The stories they tell about their ancestors and themselves can’t be collected, they have to be heard. They will change every time they are told, and it is important that they do so. The stories live as the culture lives. To pin them down, to create an authoritative version caught between bindings of a book, is to strip them of their life and their truth.
For a moment here and there, I was fortunate enough to step into the stream of a culture very unlike my own. The pictures and souvenirs I brought back cannot contain the experience. Even this writing only evokes it. But it has become a part of who I am. I carry it with me, pleased to have it even if I can’t explain it.