Thursday, May 7, 2009

Poverty or Prosperity

Time and again, the trading post has taught me that things are not always as they appear, and that my quickly drawn conclusions are almost universally incorrect. The social fabric of the Four Corners is extremely complex, and not subject to the usual assumptions. Ours is an area where unemployment rates are chronically high and poverty endemic. In this region, however, textbook definitions are not generally applicable, and the poor are often more wealthy than one might think.

Kachina Gifts give to Dacia at the Bean Dance.

This concept was brought home to me earlier today when Barry and I had two visitors from the Adopt-a-Native-Elder program. As we leaned on the counter and chewed the fat, the travelers excitedly talked about the elders they had adopted and the experiences they had recently had out on the Reservation. I could tell from the excitement in their voices and the tenderness in their eyes that they had been truly affected by their experiences.

Adopt-a-Native-Elder is a charitable organization based in Park City, Utah which assists traditional Navajo elders. Twice a year the group distributes support in the form of food, clothing and a variety of other items to “elderlies” living on the Navajo Reservation. This particular couple had just returned from a food run to Winslow, Arizona. Since one of their adoptees is a silversmith, they were adorned with turquoise bracelets, rings and necklaces.

The couple talked about visiting their adoptive family in an area where there is no running water or electricity, where the people still live in traditional hogans and where sheep roam freely. I could tell from their statements that they had experienced the same things I witnessed several years ago when my daughter Dacia and I first visited the village of Moenkopi.

Dacia was only about five years old when my Hopi friend Stewart invited us to the Bean Dance. Having never attended a Hopi dance, I was excited to see this aspect of their culture firsthand and give Dacia the opportunity to experience the richness of these, as yet, unfamiliar people.

The lower village of Moenkopi was founded in 1870 and is traditional in the sense that it too has no electricity, running water, sewer or piped in natural gas. Several ceremonies are still held at the village, including the Bean Dance. During this particular ceremony, the katsinam, spiritual guardians of the Hopi way of life, arrive to help the villagers begin preparations for the coming growing season and to initiate children into the Katsina Society. The ritual involves propagation of bean sprouts and a series of rites that promote fertility and the vitality of their crops.

On the sixteenth day of the event, the katsinam distribute the plantings and give presents to the children. It was once explained to me that the Bean Dance is the equivalent of our Christmas. When we arrived at the upper village, Stewart announced that he wanted us to meet his grandmother, so we drove to the old pueblo.

As we walked around the village, Stewart pointed to a large cottonwood tree that had a pipe with flowing water emerging from the trunk. In a very sincere voice, he explained that the tree provided moisture for the village. There was no mention of a spring or seep located behind the cottonwood.

When we walked into his grandmother’s home, I was struck by the lack of modern conveniences, and immediately assumed she lived in an advanced state of poverty; there was only one room, no bathroom, no electric lights, water was stored in a container under a rough counter and the bed was an old military cot with a thin mattress.

After we had visited for a while, however, I began to notice melons under the bed and that the home was comfortably appointed and warmly lived in. I came to realize that rather than living in poverty, this woman was rich in all the most important aspects of life; she had everything she needed, including the unconditional love and support of her family.

In the Desert Southwest, wealth and poverty are not always subject to traditional western definitions. As it turns out, Stewart’s grandmother was one of the richest people I have ever met. Our Adopt-a-Native-Elder visitors had found a similarly wealthy family and had themselves become enriched. As Edward Vernon Rickenbacker once said, and as we often say at the trading post, “We would rather have a million friends than a million dollars.” Barry and I have, however, decided that, if pressed, we could live with half a million friends and half a million dollars.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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