santa fe/new mexico

At the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Sayaka and I lag behind a group of bored middle schoolers who are following a docent lecturing on Native culture.  Together we imagine a more engaged approach.   How might a Japanese English teacher make connections for her students with the art of the indigenous people here? We look at the patterns on baskets and the woven shoes, and Sayaka references hanakago and rice straw waraji.  We find children’s books on the pueblo culture and a Native American manga to take back to her curious future learners.  We wander Canyon Road and collect free postcards, imagining how to invite language production from the beautiful mixed media images of contemporary Santa Fe and American artists.   

Sayaka is visiting Santa Fe from Tokyo, having come to see me– her ESL teacher–eight years after the year she attended a Newcomer Program at my former high school.  In my fourteen years of teaching in public school, she is the first graduate to return, to seek my counsel as she prepares for a career as a native Japanese-speaking English teacher in the Japanese school system—her accomplishment through a rigorous preparation program with tests and interviews.

After the museum, at The Shed, we drink margaritas and talk about “wait time” in the context of emerging English learners. At the open air Palace of the Governors, we look at the wares on the blankets of the artists spread beneath the timbers. Sayaka chooses a delicate string of turquoise and seed pearls, symbolic of her Western and Asian selves: bilingual with fluent idiomatic English, bicultural American high school graduate and soon-to-become formal Japanese teacher.  We talk about identity:  the American self she developed through two years at Boulder High as captain of the swim team and her native Japanese self. She want to speak only English and identifies American. We are sitting on cushions on the floor in front of a fire in the kiva. I listen to the crack of scrap wood and observe this beautiful young Asian woman. What would happen, I ask, if she couldn’t speak Japanese? I mean, ever again. She waits, quiet, reflecting, then shares about not being able to talk with the grandfather she visits monthly in his small village.  He doesn’t know her American self, she says:  she becomes Japanese with him. And she speaks of the nuances in one Japanese concept that English only approximates: 待つ.

That evening, Ebrahim cooks planked salmon and basmati rice and we eat with chopsticks on the floor in front of the dying fire and, after, play Scrabble.  Sayaka is excited, delighted to spend a Friday evening playing Scrabble with her sixty-plus former teacher.  Unfamiliar words–jilted and queue– appear in the crossword. No matter how elevated my vocabulary, Ebrahim wins with a two letter. Oh. Sayaka asks him to take her to Target the next day to buy the game to take home to play with her parents, to teach to her students.

On her last evening, we drive in the dark to a pueblo for the Fire Dance. Firelighters with tanks of gasoline start bonfires of a dozen paired cairns like gates along a curved trajectory of the open field of mud. They flame up bright and hot. The paired fires burn, flaring with the bittersweet smell of pinion. We wait for the dancers.  The fire gates burn down to warming flames.  The Indian Officer stands by one of the fires:  he tells us to stay warm and invites us to stand around another. We wait for the dancers.  We think the men are in the kiva preparing for the dance: smoke coming from the chimney;  a door opening—light within–door closing.   The fires burn down.  Sayaka gazes down at the whitened logs on a hotbed of coals.  We wait for the dancers.  Ebrahim and I know this is how the experience goes:  we’ve asked before, “what time are the dances?”  “Later,” a passing pueblo resident says.  The warmth of the collapsing embers rise like a caress, pinion smoke acrid, the dark sky above so many pricks of starlight, the quiet pueblo adobe buildings framing the paired piles of crimson, our community of three: my husband, this beautiful young woman; me. 

When the fire gates burn to the ground, an older Puebloan comes to rake the coals into small piles.  As we step aside, I ask quietly, politely, are there going to be dances?  Yes, he says, over there. He points to the far side of the pueblo, across a sea of mud away from where we and other Anglo visitors are standing, waiting. He tells us some men will come out to light the fires and when we see that, we should go up there.  He says the dancers will come out and then they will go back in and that’s it.  He carries his rake to the next pile, scooping embers. I laugh out loud. Then get quiet in the burning. We three stare into the heat.

A few women wrapped in colorful blankets appear out of the adobe houses, stepping gingerly in white ankle moccasins across the muddy ground.   I think this is a sign the dancers are coming. We cross the space, squishing through mud, and stand behind the women in a large semicircle.  Firelighters come out of a far building with gas cans and light dozens of six foot high cairns stacked in a grand circle with pinion logs. The cairns blaze higher than our heads.  Anticipation tastes metallic.  Then the  kiva door opens, a man in leather and cloth emerges with boughs of evergreen, leading others in totemic dress. The Buffalo passes and women throw blessings. The antelope dances–in white leather with poles in their hands– step out, one foreleg then the other. Little deer dance, running behind, tufts of tail flit on the rear of their baggy brown sleepers. The dancers walk in a serpentine pattern around the central building, towards and away from us observers—native and tourist–standing respectfully, watching.   The dancers pass, to and fro, back and forth around the circle, then reenter the kiva—chief, shaman, buffalo, antelope disappear.  The firelight brightens our faces—Native, Asian, Middle Eastern, Anglo. Then, the Pueblo women turn away.  We follow them through the dark back to the parking lot under a zillion sparks, star embers in an infinite sky.