Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holy Water

We just got home from a short trailer trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As we trundled our way across the Tularosa basin, still 50 miles away, we could see Sierra Blanca looming to the southeast.

The peak has been a navigation aid to wayfarers for as many millennia as people have lived here, and it still works for us. Wreathed in dark thunderclouds yesterday, the mountain looked every inch the sacred giver and sustainer of life that Apache theology says it is.

According to one account, this was the place where White Painted Woman gave birth to two sons, Child of Water and Killer of Enemies. They grew up and killed the monsters of the earth so human beings could live long and prosper.

In another version I came across, White Painted Woman and Killer of Enemies were brother and sister on the mountain. Killer of Enemies was supposed to hunt for their food, but every time he killed an animal, a supernatural being known as Owl Man Giant would swoop down and carry it off.

The pair were starving and might have died. But help arrived in the form of a thunderstorm. It was the spirit called Life Giver. Nine months later, White Painted Woman gave birth to Child of Water, who grew up and slew Owl Man Giant.

That cleared the way for Child of Water and his mother and uncle to create the world as we know it.

Spirit Dancers, also sometimes called Crown Dancers, don elaborate headdresses and invoke these entities regularly at Apache gatherings. The beliefs that surround White Painted Woman and her family tell the tribe everything it needs to know about the origin and meaning of the world, the place in it of mankind, and the right way for people to live in harmony with each other and all creatures great and small.

Of course we Judeo-Christians just have to shake our heads at these pagan superstitions. Okay, we'll grant you Life Giver, as long as he's actually the one and only god we ourselves worship. But as for the rest, check out Genesis for the real creation story, starring Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with their trickster snake and his apple.

Haha, I'm kidding. But I was surprised to learn that until quite recently the federal government didn't even recognize Indian beliefs and rituals as religion for First Amendment purposes. The teachings and the dances were interfered with or banned outright by officials who oversaw life on the reservations.

Then in 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which essentially affirms that the "free exercise" clause applies as much to Crown Dancers as it does to an Easter sunrise service.

The language of the Bill of Rights seems reasonably clear to me, but it has always been the case that if you're a member of any of the disfavored minorities the Constitution was designed to protect, you need something extra that says it protects you too. Otherwise it doesn't.

There are some Indians who say that the 1978 law came too late, that even though the old ways are being kept alive by new generations, they are not and never will be the same.

Up on Sierra Blanca there is a profitable ski lodge and a forest products business. Both were controversial among Apache people when they were launched. Elders warned that the tribe was selling out the sacred mountain for money.

But others argued that this was the way in an inhospitable modern world that the mountain could continue to nurture the people, and they prevailed. Part of the birthright of Apaches is now a share of the income from tribal enterprises.

The thunderclouds that hid the mountain yesterday as we drove through Carrizozo toward home arrived at our cabin about the same time we did and dropped buckets of much-needed rain on our thirsty forest.

I understand a check arrives monthly at every reservation home, courtesy of Sierra Blanca. It wouldn't be unreasonable for a Mescalero believer to wonder what the Garden of Eden has done for us lately.

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