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#ThrowbackThursday: We Stand and Grow On the Backs of Our Elders

Turtle Peak Hat Pin

It’s the same with every generation: The young think they are the first, the only, to have experienced their disappointments, their losses, their failures . . . and their successes. It’s a part of youth, this inability to see beyond oneself. With age and experience and the wisdom accumulated thereby comes perspective, or at least it should.

As we age, our eyesight grows more limited — and yet, our view widens by the year. By the time we are the elders, if we have lived and learned as we should, we will have a view that spans three hundred sixty degrees. Oh, it will be shorter in some areas than others; some vantage points will be bright and clear while others remain stubbornly murky and dim. But we will, if we pay attention, have the ability to see our past, our present, and even parts of the future that nonetheless have not yet come to pass.

We stand and grow on the backs of our elders.

In some of our traditions, we mean it literally.

Those of us whose origin stories include that of Grandmother Turtle are one example. I’ve told her story many times here before, how when the First People emerged from the Underworld, there was no dry land for them to live upon, and the spirit being charged with ensuring their survival sought the help of the animals. Bear, Wolf, Deer, Hell-Diver — they all, and many more, competed for the chance to gain the favor of the spirits by saving the people. Yet none, not even the most powerful, could figure out how to do it. At last, Grandmother Turtle spoke: I can save the people, she said. I can carry them on my strong hard back. The other animals laughed, but the spirit stilled them and bade her try. Sure enough, her hard, armor-plated shell provided the solid dry surface the First People needed, and gave them a space upon which to build a world.

And that is how this continent came to be called Turtle Island.

It’s a beautiful story, and a stern lesson, too, a reminder that no one is insignificant, and that all have something to offer. And in this, the growing season, it reminded me of a particular piece that Wings created about six years ago, a very special commission by a very dear friend for her husband, who wears it on his cap. It’s a small pin that eventually took the name Turtle Peak, a reference both to its spiky form and to the shape of the cap upon which it lives.

And it’s a perfect embodiment of the colors and shapes of growth.

It began, of course, with sheet silver — solid enough not to bend, but not so heavy as to weight down the fabric where it would eventually reside. Wings cut out the turtle freehand, keeping it small — no more than a couple of inches from nose to tail. He also kept this one angular, with an unusually pointy nose and tail, and feet whose toes emerged out of inverted points.

He kept to the pointy peaked motif throughout the stampwork, too: He used layered arrowhead shapes to create the scales on the legs, and a chased pattern of layered geometric patterns to form the scales on the body. Two tiny hoops, circles not much more than dots, served as the eyes, and the tail’s scales were peaked like the rays of a star.

Then it was time to create the elder’s shell. He had already chosen the stone, and designed the body accordingly: it was a very old, free-form, highly domed cabochon from his personal collection. Where and when he acquired it is lost now to the mists of memory, but he has always thought that it came, perhaps, from his own father’s collection, passed on to Wings many years ago. Its provenance thus cannot be assured, but an educated guess puts it in one of two likely mining camps: either the Symes Frogskin mine, or the Damele mine, both from Nevada. Its rounded matrix, much like billowy green clouds, bear the hallmarks of the Symes operation, so named because the matrices’ rounded green curves look like the mottled scaly texture of a frog’s skin. It was a small operation, however, and very little exists. In Nevada’s Carico Lake District, a similarly mottled look is found in both Carico Lake and Damele turquoise (and, among the latter, variscite as well), and Damele often appears in pale lime and seafoam and ivory shades. I’m partial to the Frogskin theory, not least because it brings together two spirits of water and land, Frog and Turtle.

At any rate, the mottling on the stone looked much like the plates of Turtle’s shell, and Wings decided that it was perfect for this purpose. He fashioned a bezel for it that hewed to the same “peaked” motif, not plain or scalloped but sawtoothed. He then edged the bezel with twisted silver, set the stone, and soldered a pin assembly onto the underside.

It was a work for a friend for whom Turtle has particular meaning: not the same as our indigenous stories, but no less world-building for that. And as we know, our elders have both created our world and made it possible for us to continue that process of creation ourselves.

Even elders who were long before the First People.

~ Aji






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