Reviews, Page 2

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA





Review by John Nizalowski
(from "Inside/Outside" Southwest: Books and Film, October 1999)
        As my wife Patricia and I stood outside Frank Waters' Taos adobe home a decade ago, my hand trembled a bit as I knocked on the solid plank door.  I'd never been so nervous for an interview.

        After all, here was the man who wrote such classics as Book of the Hopi, Masked Gods, and The Man Who Killed the Deer. I regarded him as a literary saint, the beneficent godfather of every writer west of the 100th meridian.

        Waters opened the door, and his weathered face broke into a wide smile.  He welcomed us in out of the unseasonably cold, sleet-filled July afternoon, and we followed his tall figure through the cluttered kitchen and into the living room.  At 87, he walked with a slight limp, the result of being thrown from a mule during one of his youthful adventures in Mexico's Sierra Madre.

        His living room -- filled with Navajo rugs, Hopi pottery, and warm yellow light -- was a place of quiet repose, where time seemed to slow down like a deep, broad river.  Waters and my wife settled into great stuffed armchairs across from each other, while I perched on the edge of a nearby couch and tried to calm down.

        Despite my jitters, the interview went well.  We spoke for nearly two hours on topics key to Waters' work -- the contrast of Indian and Anglo culture, the Euro-American assault on Indian rights, his love of Mexico, Hopi mysticism, and the emerging world of transformation.  For my last question, I asked Waters what he was currently writing.  He answered with a boyish grin, "Oh, I'm just foolin' around."

        What Waters called "foolin' around" would produce two of his finest books -- Brave Are My People, a history of American Indian leaders who resisted white domination, and Of Time and Change, the recently published memoir of his life in Taos.  Indeed, for Waters, who died in 1995, Of Time and Change is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant seven-decade literary career.

        In his preface, Waters describes Of Time and Change as a collection of "sketches . . . of the place that has been my permanent home for the last forty years, and of a few of my early intimate friends."  In this regard, Waters delivers a Taos version of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast -- prose portraits filled with gossip and personal insight on such famous Taos figures as Tony Lujan, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Leon Gaspard, Dorothy Brett, Nicolai Fechin, and Andrew Dasburg.

        In these portraits we find wonderful stories and incidents, like the time Tony Lujan's use of ancient Indian sign language saves Waters from being knifed in a seedy Mexico City bar.  We read of the day when Nicolai Fechin's wife interrupts the great artist with the news that someone is shooting at the studio.  He replies, "Get out of here!  Can't you see I'm working and can't be bothered?  Go to the sheriff or somebody else!"  Waters even describes the infamous Thanksgiving debacle, during which his wife, Rose, in exasperation with the venerable author hurls a cocktail shaker at him, flings the turkey on the floor, and throws rocks at his car's windshield.

        Waters, with his superb sense of detail and character, tells these stories with such charm and wit that they alone would have made the book an excellent read.  But Waters, rarely satisfied with a surface representation of events, explores in Of Time and Change the underlying meaning of the Taos landscape and of the lives of these famous friends. 

        Waters sets up his thematic thread with a denial that Of Time and Change is a fully realized autobiography: "Instead, these rambling notes simply attempt to trace the thread of an inner life running beneath the landmarks of my outer life . . . .  When it surfaced into daylight, it revealed what I thought were assurances of my early notion of an invisible Otherworld we simultaneously inhabit.  What and where it was, I didn't know, but I experienced many ways it influenced me, as it did in other ways those persons I've sketched here."

        In Of Time and Change, Waters first explores this "Otherworld" with an autobiographical essay, "A Mirror View."  In it, he describes how as a boy he had a vision while playing with a handful of Cripple Creek sand.  "In the bright sunlight every grain stood out with its distinct shape, color, and texture.  Then it happened.  In an instant Pike's Peak took on a new and different meaning.  I saw that it was composed of all these millions of grains of sand, which were mysteriously and precisely fitted together into one mighty, single whole -- a sacred place of power, as the Utes regarded it.  This momentary realization prompted the extravagant notion that all the mountains and continents in the world, like the grains in my hand, are also precisely fitting together to make a greater whole whose purpose and meaning were perceived by another world somewhere."

        Throughout his life, Waters would have such mystic moments -- a vision of three faces in a washbowl which would inspire The Man Who Killed the Deer, an elder woman in a remote village calling him an "old soul," a waking dream of Mexico City transformed into the ancient Toltec metropolis of Teotihuacan, a tropical flower on Mexico's Usumacinta River becoming a symbol for the beauty and fragility of all life and civilization.

        Waters pursues this theme of the Otherworld throughout the book's personality sketches, but most especially in the pieces on Tony Lujan, whose prayers for help in New York City summon a Hopi policeman, and Dorothy Brett, the artist lover of D. H. Lawrence, who painted massive canvases of Pueblo Indian ceremonies and angels protecting World War II bombers.

        The climax of this mystical theme occurs in the final essay, "The Four Corners."  In it, Waters proposes that "our own root culture and spiritual home is the great hinterland of American, the Four Corners region."  Waters then relates the history of the Colorado Plateau, beginning with the civilization of Chaco and ending with the Hopi Navajo land disputes, the strip mining of Black Mesa, and the forced removal of traditional Navajos from Big Mountain, which he believes could signal "the end of the indigenous American  culture begun by the Chacoans."

        Waters sincerely hoped the assault on Navajo and Hopi land by mining interests would be the final act of Euro-American aggression against the Indians, and that we would ultimately fuse the two viewpoints -- White and Indian, rational and mystical, as he had in his own life as a mixed-blood Cheyenne and Euro-American.  Waters states in the books's final passage: "Yet we still have time to learn from our pueblo and Navajo neighbors that the living earth is a font of spiritual energy as well as a source of physical energy.  The Cosmic energy is the same, viewed differently by those taking either an intuitive or a pragmatic approach to its totality.  Reconciliation of these two modes of thought, with the realization that matter and spirit comprise an undivided whole, has yet to come.  When it does, it will surely embrace the ancient wisdom and spiritual beliefs of the first native societies in the Four Corners."

John Nizalowski is a writer and reader living in Delta, Colo.  He also teaches in the English Department at Mesa State College, in Grand Junction.


Frank Waters and true West.

by Fred See, Tucson, Arizona

How does one compose a Western? Compare the novelist Frank Waters and the artist Cassidy Adams. The fight at the Little Bighorn (1876) has been called the last great battle of the American West: it’s both formative and definitive; Adams’ iconic painting “Custer’s Last Fight” (1895), purchased and widely distributed by Anheuser-Busch and hung in America’s saloons as the occasion for boozy meditations, sets the scene of a great triumph. Our last great battle for the West – and it somehow seems that the Seventh Cavalry won; nothing here suggests the Sioux and Cheyenne utter subjugation of the Golden Boy General and the slaughter of nearly three hundred troopers. Adams makes victory out of defeat; he secures the West for Anglo Manifest Destiny.  It’s a typical American strategy: bury the Western complexity. How not to make this mistake and still represent our West?

In truth, what happened at the Little Bighorn was a mess. Charges of poor judgment, insubordination, drunkenness, and cowardice circled around the incident, were later the subject of official inquiries, public speculation, but are forgotten as we gaze through the suds at Adams’ romantic image. We remember no humiliation, conceive no blame, only the shining simple moment. If we’re lazy and inattentive, that is. But like any great event along our Western frontier, the meaning of Custer’s action remains vexed. Because whether celebrated or private, a public matter or a personal struggle, what happens on our frontier is inescapably tense and contested. That is the real West: always the occasion of change and redefinition. Frank Waters sees this.

So Waters’ novel The Man Who Killed The Deer (1942) is exactly a classic Western text.  The setting is ‘the age-old pattern,’ the natural ‘rhythm of Indian life’ in the New Mexico pueblo Oreja – a word that means ‘ear’ but also ‘talebearer.’ To begin with the village seems utterly placid, no occasion for an important narrative for anyone to hear or tell, but as Martiano – the man who killed the deer – and his friend Palemon, who has found him unconscious and beaten in the mountains, enter the pueblo at dawn, ‘the rhythm was abruptly changed…something was wrong. It tainted the air.’

The Western setting, then, is instantly defined as complex, as it should always be. Visually this world is the same as that represented by the Taos Society of painters, serene and brilliantly colored; but the interior world of Martiano is a much more anxious place. He has always been a troubled presence. Ever since returning from the ‘away school’ he has been seen as an outsider. He has not abandoned certain details of the Anglo style of dress, though he braids his hair and wears a blanket in the tribal style; ‘he was at once of the old and the new, and…it was not the first time he had been caught between them.’ He refuses to take part in the village rituals and dances, so he is not permitted to use the communal thresher. Because he kills a deer two days out of season, on government not tribal land, he is whipped by the tribe and fined by the whites’ law. Martiano is haunted by the deer, which is really to say by his ambivalence and by the shame of his disgrace. He is scandalized, out of step, pulled two ways at once, called Martiano the Troublemaker.  This is the Western dilemma.

Options open to him – the peyote road, nature, catholicism, the kiva – but as a genuine searcher, his heart is not easily forced. The result is that for some time he can claim neither a personal nor a communal understanding. And his pueblo suffers this imbalance too, in its larger defining struggle to regain from the white government of secular ownership sacred land shared by the tribe. So both individual and village seek, and find,  a restoration of pattern and cadence. But neither process is simple. What seems merely serene or complete always conceals a complex energy.

This speaks precisely the  difference between Adams’ iconic Custer and what we should really know about that or any frontier encounter: our West is never a simple definition, but a difficult process of understanding. Thus after all his arduous questing, Martiano is ‘reborn…into the greater whole,’ and his pueblo regains its sacred ground. Frank Waters everywhere teaches this -- the West as interrogative and transformative, an American  condition of questions and inflection. This is the Western hope, beyond the Western dilemma.



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