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Friday Feature: Checkerboard Earth and Flowering Sky

In this corner of Turtle Island, the word “checkerboard” has a very specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with children’s games.

It’s one of the products of colonialism itself: a method of “dividing up” undivided land between jurisdictions so that — and this, really, is key, thought the colonial powers that be and their successors in interest will always deny it — contemporary Indigenous peoples will not be possessed of too much of their own lands, uninterrupted. Over in Dinetah, Navajoland, there is a section actually referred to as the Checkerboard Rez, with so-called “tribal holdings” interspersed with federal, forest, state, and even “private” colonial-held lands.

There are areas like that here, too, particularly in the alpine forests, where federal and state entities hold “jurisdiction” over what were once all traditional lands, now abutting parcels contemporarily designated as Pueblo land.

If I sound it bit jaundiced, I am, and with good reason. Colonialism perforce diverts our attentions from the organic to the synthetic, from questions of stewardship onto those of jurisdiction.

But not all checkerboards are designed by human hands and human greed. Some — less uniform, to be sure; less perfectly geometric — are a child of the seasons: white snow alternating with red soil in this threshold between winter and spring, checkerboard earth and flowering sky.

It’s a motif captured in today’s featured work, one decidedly earth-based, but whose flowers are found in the colors of the sky on this day when looming rain- and snowclouds vie for primacy with the light. From its description in the Other Artists:  Pottery gallery here on the site:

Flowers and Checkerboards Pot

Camille Bernal (Taos Pueblo) creates a masterwork that blends old traditional shapes with contemporary expressions. Checkerboard patterns in warm red ochre arise and criss-cross like ancient paths from the base of the pot, their lines growing organically into the stems of gently-blooming flowers. Flower groupings are tipped in alternating Santo Domingo White, Laguna Blue-Gray, and charcoal shades. Stands 5″ high by 5.25″ across at the widest point, with a 2-7/8″ opening across the lip (dimensions approximate). Other views shown above and at the link.

Tewa clay; plant-based paints
$325 + shipping, handling, and insurance
Requires special handling; extra shipping charges apply


Today, the earth is in flower, too: After nearly two weeks of highs in the fifties, following upon both rain and snow, green shoots are dancing everywhere. the evergreens are lush with cones; the catkins are already bursting open on the aspens. Red earth and brown cover contend with remnant patches of snow; above, cornflower blue is flowering into a beautiful spectrum of rain-heavy grays.

Last year’s drought should have taught us all that there is no salvation in colonial checkerboards: The artifice of boundaries will neither preserve the water nor route it where it is needed most. Only stewardship will do that. But the earth and her spirits seem to have granted us a small reprieve this year; we have the chance to look forward, once again, to snowpack, to runoff, to a thaw sufficient to permit planting and irrigation and harvest.

The evidence is in the natural checkerboards on the land now — and in the sky flowering with rain, too.

~ Aji








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