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Red Willow Spirit: Themes of Emergence

Summer arrives fully two days from now. Here at Red Willow, its full emergence will transpire under cover of darkness, in the indigo hours just before the dawn.

It is an irony of the dominant culture that birth should be so inextricably bound to death, emergence to decline: After all, as of Thursday evening, the light will descend that much sooner than the evening before.

Our cultures traditionally tend to be bound to the light in more logical ways; our ways of demarcating weeks and months and seasons and years commemorating cycles of birth and rebirth. Many share stories of emergence, a concept found among the peoples of this broader region but also at many points across Turtle Island.

Themes of emergence accept the reality of the existence of other worlds, places whence we come (and often, the counterreality of places to which we go when we walk on from this world’s plane of existence). Such themes often encompass motifs of illumination, coming up from dark depths into the light of this world; sometimes emancipation is a factor, too, the idea of leaving an environment constrained by dark, cold, or mere circumstance to move into a plane that permits free movement in the warmth and light.

Here in what is now known as northern New Mexico, the concept has been appropriated and distorted beyond all recognition by the colonial culture. Perhaps the most obvious example is the ski resort some half an hour southeast of here: Sipapu, they call it, having stolen a Hopi word for a colonial profitmaking entity (even though this is not Hopi land). From the Hopi tongue, sipapu is said to translate roughly into English as “the place of emergence,” as well as to refer to the opening in the floor of the traditional kiva. In yet another irony, the ski resort operating under that stolen name features no one emerging from anything (except, these days, perhaps a manmade snowdrift after a fall); the entire activity occurs necessarily not merely on the surface, but elevated above it by the snow.

Here, however, the connections abound. In some indigenous cultures around the continent, the emergence occurs underwater; in others, it’s a birthing from the sky. In still others, it’s an awakening that comes from underground, where worlds are stacked as though in layers. One strand unites them all: a link to our cosmos, to the soil and skies and winds and waters that collectively we call our world.

We are bound, inextricably, to the earth.

Here at Red Willow perhaps more than most places on this land mass, it’s easier to see that bond, that braid given tangible form. It appears in the dusty earth of the old village plaza,  in the thousand-year-old homes stacked atop each other in a feat of architectural genius. It shows in the hornos, the old traditional ovens in which food is prepared, rounded dome-like structures that resemble their own small self-contained world, seeded with dough that is cultivated with fire, thence to emerge as bread for the people.

It is visible in the walls themselves, made of the most ancient earth, renewed semi-annually by mudding and refacing, all with the same adobe clay the ancestors used a millennium ago and more. It appears in the similarly ancient wood vigas, the supporting crossbeams that, yes, emerge from the adobe to show their shiny now-weathered ends to the world. It is a union of construction, of materials and elements, a way to build the soundest of shelter in way that is not merely integrated, but all of a piece, one with itself and its constituent parts.

In the village, it is visible in movement, as well, in the means of ingress and egress that are the daily migrations of a nonmigratory people.

Outsiders think of ladders as a means of entering the kivas (which are necessarily closed to all outsiders, Native or otherwise). A few who have at least a passing familiarity with Pueblo architecture, usually through past visits to the place, are aware that, not so very long ago, there were no “doors” in the usual sense. Those were added on long after the arrival of the Spanish invaders. No, ladders were once the usual means of entering a home: through an opening in the roof.

It was brilliant, both structurally and strategically. Windows and doors are, of course, the weakest points in the security of any ordinary structure. Rooftop access allowed family members entry, which could be denied immediately to others by the simple mechanism of pulling the ladder down inside the home. Then, when the threat had passed, they could drop the ladder from the roof once again and descend as desired.

A place of emergence of a very specific, very down-to-earth sort.

Today, of course, the homes — most of them, at least; perhaps all? — have more contemporary entry doors. They are still old by any measure, most of them, often simple pine planks nailed together with a handle of some sort attached. Even the newer screen doors evoke memories of my own largely assimilated childhood, wood frames painted and repainted, dark screens and old hardware and simple latches. But the ladders are still in use.

We live at an elevation of 7,500 feet above sea level. That means, typically, high heat in the summer, extreme cold in the winter, gale-force winds and heavy monsoonal rains and snow measured in feet rather than inches, at least in a good year.

It also means that, for the people who still live traditionally, in the interconnected multi-story village homes, there must be a means of ascending and descending between exterior floors: to sweep of the snow, drain off the water, patch and plaster, or simply enjoy the clear clean air and the unmatched view.

The ladders make that possible.

The image above is perhaps my favorite of all the hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos Wings has taken over the years of the place that is his home. I love it for its aesthetic beauty, of course, its flawless composition and use of simple color and light. But more than that, I love it for all the many, many symbolic themes it may be seen to represent: his home, his earth, his place of being and existence; the earth itself, elemental, collaborating with sky and with local light and shadow; and, of course, the sense of hope it inspires and evokes, offering a means to emerge from confinement in the shadows — out of the darkness, into the light.

A place of emergence, indeed.

~ Aji







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