A trip to Taos

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Feb. 1994)

"[The Pueblo Indian] above all others has the Divinity's ear, and his ritual act will reach the distant sun soonest of all. The holiness of mountains, the revelation of Yaweh upon Sinai, the inspiration that Nietzsche was vouchsafed in the Engadene -- all speak the same language. The idea, absurd to us, that a ritual can magically affect the sun is, upon closer examination, no less irational but far more familiar to us than might at first be assumed. Our Christian religion...is permeated by the idea that special acts or a special kind of action can influence God -- for example, through certain rites or by prayer or by a morality pleasing to the Divinity."

-- C.G. Jung, on the Pueblo Indians' belief that they help the sun God move through the sky, writing in Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I was a bit spooked when I opened Memories, Dreams, Reflections, one of my school texts, two days before I left for New Mexico and found myself staring at an account of Jung's interview of a Pueblo Indian in Taos -- my very destination.

Jung would have called the experience a "synchronicity" -- one of those eerie coincidences of parallel psychic states and physical events for which there is no causal explanation. In Jung's view, such experiences are not truly coincidences because their occurrence is common enough to defy ordinary probabilty. Instead, they are a manifestation of this psychological phenomenon, synchronicity, that operates completely outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

The meaning of a particular experience of synchronicity, in Jung's view, is connected to a deep archetypal process -- an instinctual-level manifestation of an idea that is common to mankind and surfaces repeatedly from culture to culture.

Clearly, the particular process manifesting itself in this synchronicity was the search for spritual meaning and the return to nature. Weeks before I visited Taos, my dreams were likewise full of images from Georgia O'Keefe's paintings -- skulls floating forever over the desert, flowers at the height of bloom. O'Keefe's ranch is in the New Mexico desert. I dreamed, too, of D.H. Lawrence who tried to create a utopian community near Taos.

I thought a lot, too, about a startling experience of spontaneous past life regression from six years ago. Contrary to my own beliefs, a narrative as clear as a movie was projected before my inner eye during a psychotherapy process. In this narrative, I was a member of a South American Indian tribe, banished to a mountain cave for a crime I didn't commit. Whether the experience was a literal memory is beside the point to me. I knew it was most certainly an archetypal process -- a story of my struggle, within my family and the world, to live my own truth without guilt. (And as an archetypal process, it had, in some ways, a depth of realism that even ordinary experience lacks.)

These images of desert, mountain and Indian have long made me want to visit Taos, an hour north of Santa Fe. High in the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains, and surrounded by prairies aromatic with sagebrush, the area offers frequent views of the earth as it was a million years ago. The Taos pueblo itself, where Jung visited, is one of the world's oldest continually occupied residential structures. The adobe village was built 900 to 1200 years ago and its residents fiercely protect its animistic spiritual traditions, not allowing access to the kivas, the underground ritual sites, by outsiders. Indeed, as Jung wrote, they won't even talk much about their spiritual beliefs.

This is somewhat in contrast to other Indian tribes that have actually cooperated with the marketing and appropriation of Native American spiritual beliefs. And even if the Taos Pueblo Indians resist the appropriation of their spirituality, its images are everywhere -- translated by the area's thousand artists, including Indians themselves, into a landscape of relentless manmade cliches imposed upon the unruly geography. The staggered steps of the kiva -- a holy image -- frame everything from doormats to candy boxes.

Admittedly, this process of commercialization fascinates me. (It also cracks me up.) Do the images of the apocalypse lose their power when they become dashboard ornaments and ear bobs? In the desert, the icons of Catholocism mingle with the images of the kivas, the residences of Father Sun. If these symbols of the transcendence of death do not speak clearly, there are O'Keefe's skulls.

Yet, even that image of death and transcendence -- the bones of dead animals -- seems grotesquely trivialized. In a restaurant in Albuquerque, I sat beneath cow skulls airbrushed with the hackneyed images of Indian women who looked like candidates for a Playboy centerfold. I laughed, thinking of the skull that hangs over my own bed, painted by the artist Rakin. The skull parodies this practice by featuring a painting of the Mona Lisa. Is this the future? Will extraterrestrials of the future, slouching towards Taos, retrieve cow skulls painted with the Mona Lisa and call our spiritual lives an effort to transcend death with a mysterious smile?

On the highway between Santa Fe and Taos, I came upon a roadside business called "BIG PILE OF BONES AND OTHER STUFF." There, on a couple of acres, bones of dead animals were sorted according to type and anatomy. (The biggest, least shopped pile was the cow vertebra section.) Amid the less organized piles, goats and chickens wandered, oblivous -- as if strolling through a graveyard of the disinterred.

"Where do all these bones come from?" I asked the proprietor.

"People just bring 'em by," he said.

"Do you have regulars? I mean, do you ever wonder where a person gets so many bones?"

"Yeah, I think about that, but not too much."

"What does this mean?" I asked. "Why do people want all these skulls and bones?"

The man threw back his head and laughed and laughed. Two Hispanic men, scrutinizing deer skulls decorated with beads, stood up, shoved their black cowboy hats back on their heads and stared at me. I had asked questions that made no sense.

Perhaps these images are only crass to the outsider. Maybe they really do represent some imbuement of the mundane with the mystical. On the same road, every few miles, I encountered roadside crosses -- little shrines -- decorated to mark the spot where people were killed in accidents. Plastic flowers, bits of painted bone, shards of mirror tied with raffia -- the flotsam of existence were reconstructed into an image of the soul.

It is an eerie experience to drive at the foot of sheer mountains where boulders half the size of your car are poised to fall -- with the smell of sage, by which the Indians purify themselves, in your nostrils -- by shrines of the dead. The air at 7,000 to 9,000 feet is thin. The Pueblo Indians, in the rituals to help the Sun God move across the sky, call their home the rooftop of the world. "Our head is in heaven. We are dying," was the inscription on a card I saw in a Taos Pueblo shop. I felt giddy reading it -- as giddy as I felt when I (illegally) crossed a fence, traversed a sagebrush prarie and perched upon a boulder that overlooked the Rio Grande gorge. Was it the air or the thought itself that made me so giddy?

The Taos pubeblo is two complexes divided by a stream that runs from the mountains -- sacred mountains that outsiders are not allowed to visit. ("All life comes from the mountains; anyone can see that," the Indian told Jung.) Here, too, commerical images have intruded and one cannot avoid the uncomfortable sense of exploitation. The land did, after all, first belong to Native Americans and it is discomforting to realize that you are a tourist on land that was stolen from them. We, not them, are the foreigners, but history has, unnaturally, reversed our roles.

In a gallery on the premises, in a hut built 900 years ago, a young man born and raised in the pueblo displayed the contemporary art of members of his tribe. Most of it was garish, unfathomable. I tried to be polite. "This imagery doesn't resonate with me," I said. "I don't understand it. I don't understand anything about Native American art and spirituality. I understand its appeal, because it takes us back to nature, but for people like me to absorb themselves in this doesn't feel any more natural than for a Catholic to enter a synagogue or for a Buddhist to go to a snake-handling service in rural Georgia. What is the difference in a white man's appropriating Indian spirituality and your marketing its images to the white man?"

The young man became very animated. "This is a very controversial issue here in Taos," he agreed. "If you noticed, the predominant structure in the village is the Catholic Church. Some people think it should be destroyed because the Church acutally subjected our people to torture and violence. But the reality is that it's part of our history; most people here are actually Catholic now. I don't think we should try to erase that. In the same way, I don't think we can avoid the fact that our culture is now so interesting to outsiders."

I asked him how the village was going to preserve its traditions if it accommodated outsiders.

"Well, that's your own ignorance speaking in part," he said. "The true holders of our traditions, the people who really practice the old ways, don't talk about them. Their spiritual life in the kiva is so personal that they'd never consider discussing it in any kind of casual way. So, the traditions are being passed on among a select few. All of this other stuff is just external -- but, and this is important, it helps keep our own people interested."

I asked him his feelings about Lynn Andrews, the author (and resident of the area), whose books on her experiences with Native American spirituality turned out to be fabrications, actually plagiarized from tales from her ex-husband's family. Andrews, sued by her ex, settled out of court.

"I don't even react to that kind of news," he said. "It's so common. We are used to people stealing from us."

At another gallery, I met one of the nation's foremost Indian potters from a different pueblo. Her work, in the characteristic black glaze of the area, elaborates native imagery she learned from her mother and grandmother. I asked her about assimilation of Indian spiritual imagery and beliefs by the culture at large, too.

"It's a funny thing," she said. "I am only one-quarter Indian, so when I was a kid, the other kids gave me a hard time about being so light skinned. I was the victim of a lot of prejudice by other Native Americans. But nobody has ever questioned my right to do this work. I'm an artist. I don't think this way of seeing is inevitably Indian -- it's not racial. It's a way of seeing that is common to early Native Americans, but it doesn't belong exclusively to them. I think what's important is that it's personal. When you commercialize it, it loses the personal aspect -- like all other art."

I recalled the Indian telling Jung that his people think with the heart rather than with the brain. I asked her about that.

"Yes, exactly, or at least it used to be so. We feel nature; outsiders tend to think about it. I'd hope that our real art makes that distinction clear."

It is this feeling, this urge to touch something numinous, that blooms in the desert and mountains, in the underground kivas and the pure art of the area. One day, I decided to visit the site of D.H. Lawrence's utopian experiment -- which lasted less than a year. I found his tomb, containing his ashes, sitting on a snowy hill. A guestbook was full of names and comments, mainly by students who claimed to have been transformed by Lawrence's writing. I found myself irritated that the pen wasn't working so that I could record my own name. In that instant, I recognized how deep the yearning to connect with spirit and articulate its experience are.

A little later, after sitting under a huge tree where Lawrence liked to write, I trespassed into a fenced area that seemed to have once contained animals. As soon as I set foot on the other side of the fence, I caught sight of the carcass of a deer and heard a voice yell at me to move away.

The torn body of the deer had obviously been food for some animal. Had it been killed by man to feed another animal or had it been hunted and killed by an animal predator? I could see the bones of its hips jutting out in the bright light. Again, a voice yelled at me. I moved away.

The next day, I encountered a herd of antelope on a mountain road outside Red River Valley. Tame or nearly so, the animals stared at me with no less intensity than I had stared at the deer the day before. They seemed almost reluctant to leave. I wondered if they wanted food or to connect with me in any kind of authentic way.

It was, I realized later, exactly the feeling I had among the Taos Indians. And it was the same feeling I had later when I viewed an exhibit of D.H. Lawrence's tamely erotic paintings, banned from England years ago and hidden in an old hotel in town. It is the feeling of co-creation in the face of death, the recognition of your nature in another, synchronicity.

"We are the sons of Father Sun," the Indian told Jung, "and with our religion we daily help our father go across the sky. We do this not only for ourselves, but for the whole world. If we were to cease practicing our religion, in ten years the sun would no longer rise. Then it would be night forever."

Copyright 1994 by Creative Loafing | Published Feb., 1994

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