Picuris Morning Mist

Picuris Peak in the snow south of Taos, NM

Picuris Peak the morning after the last snow

Just over that mountain is Picuris Pueblo. The last time I was there, I watched a sun dance. A man dragged a buffalo head around the circle with leather thongs tied to bone needles pierced through the skin on his back. Round and round he went until he pulled free.

Pottery fragments are everywhere up here. Some of them go back 800, 900, 1,000 years or more. A thousand years! The end of the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe. Five hundred years before Columbus.

What is this “America” we speak of, anyway?

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  • FW February 1, 2013, 11:45 PM

    Thanks as always John for your gorgeous photos..!! Can you tell us what type of camera you use..??
    Cheers,
    FW

    • JHF February 2, 2013, 12:20 AM

      It’s a somewhat dated Pentax K-x DSLR. We’re not talking lots of megapixels here, but just enough. My two main lenses are a 55-300mm telephoto and an 18-55mm wide-angle. I always use the Auto setting and shoot high-resolution JPEGs. I don’t have time to mess with RAW. When I get back to my computer, I usually crop and tweak a bit with Photoshop. That’s it!

      I’m not really into photography per se so much as simply taking pictures. It’s all about the light coming through the lens.

  • Ken Webb February 2, 2013, 4:07 AM

    The question I have when I hear of contemporary enactments of old ceremonies such as the Sun Dance is this: Does this action function for this man today as it did for his great grandfathers? –This question is not specific to native American culture. I ask the same question about Christian enactments like baptism, praying or even attendance at church. How many, I wonder, are going through the motions as a way of honoring their roots, or because they are lulled pleasantly by the words of the good book or the music?

    The point I am trying to make, perhaps feebly, is that we all inevitably live in a fallen secular world, yet we long to call back the evaporated magic of the old days. Maybe we even fool ourselves into thinking we have done that as in a self-induced hallucination or psychedelic experience. While there’s nothing “wrong” in doing this – it’s a free country and all that – I can’t consider that these gestures have much significance, inner authenticity or reason for being other than as performance art. The adolescent Sun-Dancer saw visions which told him who he was going to be as a man. He carried this experience in to his real life. What does a present-day Sun-Dancer do with his visions? Over and over again Fehrenbach characterizes the great conflict of the red man and the white man as a tragic clash of cultures, one that extinguished the way of life of the former. History has few happy endings in any event – this one was a catastrophe.

    In Canada I see our own native peoples making certain choices: the bands that encourage education, responsibility and enterprise create a decent life for their people. Those that depend on ancient enactments like sweat lodges and drumming circles may produce a frisson of relief and even awe (often for the consumption of the white man) but little of use – no relief from the poverty, alcoholism and despair that accompanies the failure to find a real life in the world. When a way of life is gone, you can’t get it back through rituals that have lost all connection to life as it is lived. In the disenchanted modern world incense is only incense, not the authentic smell of holiness.

    I once thought of becoming a catholic. I liked the smell of incense and all the rest, but in the end it amounted to no more than the “willing suspension of disbelief” that one has at a movie, except that this movie kept rolling over and over again, and eventually I tired of its irrelevance.

    • JHF February 2, 2013, 8:29 AM

      All I can say is, the event I witnessed was a private activity under the leadership of a particular medicine man. I’m in no way qualified to address your questions, obviously. I was there in the company of an invited guest who’d recently had a hip transplant and needed assistance. There were no general spectators.

      As an observer, however, I can say that the effect was very powerful.

  • Ken Webb February 2, 2013, 9:14 AM

    Those were pretty harsh words, spoken in a spirit of provocation. I should probably simply say that I have my questions, for the reasons indicated, and leave it at that. No one can know the full story of the inner life of another. We are all speculators in that department.

    • Marti Fenton February 2, 2013, 11:37 AM

      Wow! Mr. Webb, a lot of cynical words floating on hot air. Maybe humans are hardwired for ceremony, and prayer and the cynical spoiling of such leaves one bereft of meaning and subject to self destructive behavior. In that frame of mind one cannot take photos like the one above. Reverence is necessary for survival, or do you really believe the world of meaningless intellect and technology is survival. Take a look at the long term results.

    • JHF February 2, 2013, 12:22 PM

      On a gut level, I was affected in a way I never expected, especially considering I’m not a Christian. (Perhaps you get my drift.) One must conclude we’re all connected on some level. To a great extent, we share an inner life of universal symbols.

  • Ken Webb February 2, 2013, 12:43 PM

    I will concede that reverence comes easier to some people than to others. I also agree that genuine reverence is something to be respected and that intellect can be meaningless. It was reverence allied with intellect that has created much of the world’s great art: that union is what is really unique about us humans. It is certainly hard-wired in to us.

    What I am questioning is more the tendency of us late-comers to seize on traditional practices from the past and attempt to reenact them in times shaped by very different realities than the ones experienced by our ancestors. If you agree that a ritual such as the Sun-Dance had an organic function in a thriving culture, I would ask the simple question: What is that function now?

    I don’t set out to by cynical and don’t believe I am. Asking questions is a form of reverence in its own right, isn’t it? Wasn’t myth and religion the way our ancestors posed and sought to answer questions about the meaning of things? I guess you could call what they were up to hot air, but I, for one, would honor the honesty of their attempts. Honesty in the past – as in the present – is not cynicism.

    • Marti Fenton February 2, 2013, 3:41 PM

      We assume that progress is a movement forward. Actually, it is the dominant culture’s view of reality that is linear both backward and forward in this way. But it seems to me that we lose some important powers as we gain others. Change isn’t a simple movement in one direction. I’m not a Sun Dancer but I can see how such an experience opens one up to the power of participation in the living and dying forces of creation. In most indigenous cultures there is no word for art or religion. One participates experientially in the processes of creation or one doesn’t. “Us latecomers” have lost much of the direct connection with mystery and look at those who still remember as a link to a lost power. But ultimately it isn’t a specific form that is important but what it awakens in those that participate and how that radiates in all directions to include those beyond the direct participants. My husband is Taos Pueblo and they don’t share the meaning of their ceremonies with outsiders, nor do they answer questions. I’ve learned that this kind of participation falls beyond the boundaries of intellect. It functions on an entirely different level and that level penetrates deeper than intellectual knowledge or even emotional response. The rest is a mystery.

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