Thursday, May 28, 2009


Washington D.C.

Chapter I
The Family of Sculptures

The five sculptures of Always Becoming have clearly begun their transition. The red coat of plaster on the smallest sculpture known as Hin Chaa or "Baby" has almost washed away. The second layer of mud and straw surface is highly textured and richly organic looking. The fired clay balls on the top of "Baby" are holding tightly to the surface giving the piece a tribal look and feel. Mason Bees have started burrowing small holes into the surface of Gia, more commonly known as "Mother". Because of the wind's direction, rain travels through a channel between the NMAI building straight toward Gia who has all but lost her Micaceous clay coating making her, of all the pieces, look like an older building from the Southwest- think Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde. Ta or "Father" and Pin Tse deh (Mountain Bird) or "Brother" - the two Tee-pee forms- are still standing with their dignity in tact, awaiting the Yam vines to cover their surfaces. A few pieces of plaster have chunked off so during this visit, Gail Joyce with Conservation and the Mellon Fellows - trainees in Museum Conservation - and I spent time cleaning and oiling the pieces.

As an aside, during the presidential inauguration a man who'd come to witness this historic event crawled inside the "Father" sculpture and started a fire with inauguration flyers and pieces of bamboo. A guard on duty noticed the flames and discovered the man inside of the structure who was "Just trying to keep warm".

Moon Woman the largest and most sensual form, is holding up well. The very top point of the sculpture has has begun to dissolve turning once crisper lines into even rounder curves. She is regal looking, maintaining a presence of solid certainty and dignity while maturing into a matriarch.

The weather has now become an official partner in the transition and creative design of these five ephemeral pieces.

The next chapter of the Always Becoming sculptures will truly be about weather, land and human stewardship.

Chapter II
Under Fluorescent Light

Smithsonian Photo Archives

What a curious experience to sit under fluorescent lights at the NMAI's Suitland archives flipping through volumes of Native photographs. Page after page of cultures rich in ceremony, land and community, images of a much different cultural experience than the one I live as a contemporary Native woman. While looking at a second generation image of an adobe building, protected under plastic,I traced the image with my finger and guessed that this post modern phenomena was a commonality that contemporary Natives understand all too well and, is in fact, a large part of our cultural experience. Looking at a print of my culture that once was, captured by a photograph and hermetically sealed and stored for protection spoke volumes about the degrees of separation that I feel about culture. What does culture mean now in the era of casinos and golf courses? And more importantly to me, what do we do with what we have left of culture?

Again, looking at a photograph of Santa Clara Pueblo - circa 1930, I could hardly recognize my own community, but as I studied the image closer, something about the land surrounding the structures reminded me of home. I was struck by the notion that the land humans occupy was and still is crucial to our cultural survival, to our human survival. The rolling, grassy plains of the Osage, the wet and lush timber land of the Northwest coastal tribes and most familiar and close to my heart, the parched, textured earth of Pueblo is the soul of culture.

The land surrounding the NMAI museum represents the core values of the indigenous world view. The tobacco grown on the grounds of the museum, harvested and shared. The Grandfather rocks placed in each of the four directions, guarding and protecting everyone who passes by, even the Mason bees burrowing into the surface of Gia, are all part of the Eco-system born from the land that inspires, returns us to core values and allows us to become in our evolution.

* A special thanks to Kathy Suter for setting up our visit at the NMAI's Suitland archives and to Lou Stancari at the Archival Department.
Also to Gail Joyce for her on going stewardship of the Always Becoming sculptures.

Next Month

Translators and Transcribers Working on the Always Becoming Film Project.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Crossing Over

Day One

We crossed the border south of Tucson, Arizona at the wind swept town of Nogales, Mexico. The desert landscape stark under the glaring mid day sun undulated, slipped into ravines then resurfaced behind a valley of mud homes. Intimidating border officials, weather worn and dark, waved cars toward the next check point. In between checks points, kids sold candy and an older man hawked canaries in tiny metal cages. Mexican music drifted into the car slipping through the crack of the window and mixing with the heat and our curiosity. There was an endless stream of people and cars weaving in and out of the border in a chaotic carnival like atmosphere and in an instant it seemed like everything had shifted.

After crossing the border we headed south toward Obregón to find Don Juan and the rest of the Always Becoming construction crew.

Day Two

Guaymas is five hours into Mexico. The city of Guaymas sits on the Sea of Cortez and is one of many inlets on the Pacific Coast line. We stayed in an old hacienda near the bay where the following morning we interviewed Bill Steen in the courtyard of the hacienda. Bill was a member of the Always Becoming construction crew in Washington D.C., Bill connected us with other earth builders in the D.C. area and was instrumental obtaining red clay and other organic supplies for the sculptures. In our interview Bill discussed the area of Mexico we were traveling in and gave us a sketch of Yaqui history. He also talked about meeting Don Juan - another Always Becoming crew member - and the events that lead the crew to Washington D.C. to work on the sculptures at the NMAI Museum. After the interview we made our way through Yaqui land toward Obregón.

Day Three

Obregón, Mexico

We drove through to Obregón looking for the meeting place where Don Juan and his family would be waiting for us. On the outskirts of Obregón there are massive factories that line the road one right after the other. Across the narrow highway from the factories there are clusters of unfinished houses that seemed to go on forever. Tiny houses positioned close together, designed and made specifically for the factory workers, inexpensive shelter for workers who will spend their entire lives paying off the mortgage.
We continued toward a more remote area near a bosque where the houses differed from the factory built and owned modules. Make shift dwellings of cardboard tin and plastic spotted the area. A herd of goats casually grazed along the river. A few unattended children played in the river. This was not the Mexico boasted on travel brochure, this was the Mexico of the poor who scratched out a living picking through trash heaps looking for something to salvage and possibly resell. We passed a family of four on a bicycle coming home from work, their faces covered with layers of dirt and sweat, I was struck by the fact that this family waved and smiled at us as we passed by in an air conditioned rental car.
Down a dusty dirt road we arrived to the place where we met Don Juan and his family. They were gathered under a large tree singing and playing their guitars.

Day Four

Obregón, Mexico

The next day we drove to the Save the Children office building outside of Obregón.
The building was constructed by the Steen and Morales families several years ago. The families met and began a relationship while working on this straw bale and mud plastered building. It seemed appropriate to conduct the interviews here in the garden that Don Juan once tended, where he, his family and new friends, the Steens met. Wildly colorful Bougainvilleas framed walls and arches that were plastered in the brightest blue and yellow clay mixes. All of these wondrous colors popping out of corners and gardens only added to the charm and beauty of this simple yet elegant compound. Athena - a crucial Always Becoming crew member - spoke about traveling to this place in Obregón where she felt anchored and enlightened not only by the land, but by the people. Don Juan sang a song for us which we'll use in the film and Juanita - who is a shy woman - quietly spoke of her experience working on the Always Becoming project in Washington. After the interview we drove to a park and ate fresh coconut with peanuts peppered with chili powder.

Day Five

Rio Sonora, Mexico
Returning North - away from the city - back toward the border through the Rio Sonora valley
through an area of subsistence living.

Small villages
Above the valley
Under the intensity
Of a hot
Full sun.

Humble abode
Simple construction
Wooden doorways
Leading to courtyards
Where minimal water and flowers make visual magic.

Taco stands everywhere
Outside of people's homes
Selling the hottest chili ever
Outside tamales boiled in huge metal pots
Grandmothers held grandchildren lovingly
As young mothers sold roasted green chili.

An old man sold us Bacanora

Moving through calm
with the people and land
Ending our last day together under the stars
We passed the coke bottle of Bacanora around and around.

We celebrated our journey
Toasting the boundaries we'd crossed together and separately.

That night we slept soundly in Banámichi, Mexico
Near a plaza
Above farm land
Under a bright
Clear moon.

* Bacanora: Alcohol made from the Agave plant, distilled and bottled. Usually purchased in a coke bottle from a farmer/distiller.

Day Six

Naco, Mexico/U.S. Border

We crossed into the United States through a dust storm, re-entering at the border town called Naco. We exchanged the last of our pesos for dollars and passed through a fenced off check point. Armed security guards looked over our passports and waved us through the fence. We were back in the United States and suddenly everything shifted. Once on U.S. soil we stopped for one last photo-op with the crew and before everyone went their separate ways, we shared one last shot of Bacanora and thanked each other for a good trip.

For five days we moved together, navigating through a foreign land, reuniting to tell a story about a project that made us all cross over in our thinking. And in doing so, we migrated closer to ourselves.

I've been inviting people to share their comments and suggestion on this blog, so please anyone out there interested in sharing their thoughts, you are most welcome.

next month: Washington D.C.