On rare occasions there comes an event which is so priceless, so poignant, and so fleeting that a person can but stand on the peripheral edge and marvel at the symbolism and try their best to capture the moment so as to preserve it in memory. I created such a moment yesterday, deliberately yet innocently, only recognizing the depth of the ensuing contrast as it occurred before my eyes.
I work with and for a most fascinating group of people, a Native American Tribe, the Mescalero Apaches, amongst who live the descendants of the last of the free living people of their race, rebels all. Even now, in their modernized existence they still carry their traditions and their beliefs along with them. They will never be fully conquered even though they are confined to a reservation in the midst of a far greater holding which was once theirs to live in. They differ, as we all do, in personality and attitude but share a common thread also, their sense of humor surpasses any I have ever encountered and it is an inherent trait, a part of their nature which defines their very existence. They often frown at my overly serious approach, I savor their laughter.
I received a stack of calendars yesterday which had on each page a memorable painting of Norman Rockwell’s, some dating back as far as 1929. All of them were created for various advertising spiels and each was accompanied by a brief paragraph explaining their origin. I had, while leafing through the pages, read each caption and marveled at the history it described, less than one hundred years past and yet light years from the present. All the pictures pointed towards the new found prosperity our society had discovered, pharmaceuticals promoting better health, corrective lenses improving sight, catalogs selling any number of luxuries and conveniences and the wealthy couple entertaining the purchase. All the pictures illustrated in their own way some part of the indulgence of the Anglo race and the comforts they expected, as well as the softness of the pillow it all rested upon.
I handed out calendars to my co workers who are a lively group of young men and some of them were quick to take one. Others, less interested, soon gave way to my prodding and their own curiosity as I encouraged them to see the content. I explained who Norman Rockwell was and the story behind the pictures as I rapidly recognized the disparity between life on and off the reservation during that period of history and how it struck such a harsh contrast between them! While the people in the paintings were all dressed in the formal garb of the most favored in our society during that same time these men’s immediate ancestors were still battling confinement and starving through yet another bitter winter on the new found reservation. Children and elders likely died each day and were relieved of suffering by doing so. They were still sheltered by rude and inadequate housing with nothing more than their immediate necessities, if that, while some wealthy couple chose yet another dainty addition to their well filled coffers.
These men were as captivated by the pictures as I was by their response, each with a calendar in hand and their laughter pealing amongst them as they found likenesses of each other. Nobody was spared of ridicule and the laughter rose to a new height as they came upon the painting of a city slicker boy, visiting his country kin for the holidays. The unfortunate lad, dressed in his Sunday best, was fleeing from the turkey he had been tasked to slay, the sharpened axe flung over his shoulder. His cousins’ faces were as stretched with their grins as were the faces of my coworkers with me the merry witness! Even if I had a camera I could not have captured the moment and they would have been insulted if I had, but the memory shall never fade. It was as if I was witnessing the same event which Rockwell was so quick to capture, his on a canvas, mine destined for a page. The posture of each man gave me yet another perspective of who he was just as clearly as each character in the paintings they were studying.
These people have brought to me a deeper understanding of a culture I have always admired. I am inclined to ridicule my own, in company to their sentiments. Perhaps the contrast has never been clearer; we have imposed so many of our values upon them while taking away so few of theirs. We have done them a disservice in so many ways and yet improved their lives in others. Even as I huddle close to them in hopes of gaining some deeper insight into their religion and beliefs so I bring change also and I hope to offer an equal measure of affirmation in the process. I make every effort to reinforce the understanding that their way of viewing things may well be better than ours.
There comes to mind an insight which was shared with me regarding the Natives way of doing things. These are a people who understand it is best to wait for things to happen while we Anglos work so hard to make them occur. In our modern world it strikes us as a necessity to do so and yet if we listen to the words of the Bible it says quite the opposite. What if we simply let go and let God, in whatever form he appears to us, and rather than thirsting after outcomes simply put our houses in order and await the will of Heaven? This does not relieve of us of any responsibility; to the contrary it requires us to take care of our immediate business. The difference is that once we have made the effort we might have a moment to take pause, to leaf through a calendar, and to find the humor it was intended to express. We might even share a few moments of unrestrained laughter. Rockwell saw the need for that, as well as its value. Funny how it took a bunch of Indians to remind me of that!