Going home: Navajo ballet star takes a new documentary to Dinétah and the world

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in March 2008.

New York City, N.Y. — Respect, caring and sharing, the pillars of all Native communities, are underlying themes of Jock Soto’s life and of Water Flowing Together, a new film chronicling his story by Gwendolyn Cates. One of the greatest dancers of his generation, Soto, who’s Navajo on his mother’s side and Puerto Rican on his father’s, recently retired from the New York City Ballet at age 40. Presently him as sure-footedly as he supported the many ballerinas he partnered in his 24-year career, Cates follows him as he rehearses for his farewell performance, contemplates his future and travels to the Navajo reservation and Puerto Rico to reconnect with his heritage. (For photographs and a trailer, see www.waterflowingtogether.com.)

Soto, who is gay, told Indian Country Today that he asked Cates to make the film as an homage to his parents as well as to encourage closeted gays to come out. For Cates, whose 2001 book, Indian Country, is a major work of photojournalism, the project was “a tribute to Jock, his family and the Navajo people, to whom I am grateful for a lifelong education.” The two have shown the documentary at prestigious film festivals and on the Navajo Nation.

“Reactions at Window Rock were so heartfelt,” Soto said. “It meant a lot to me. The message? We can do anything.” Future showings of the award-winning movie, which is named after Soto’s Navajo clan, include National Museum of the American Indian on November 27, 2007, Santa Fe Film Festival on November 29, 2007, and PBS Independent Lens on April 8, 2008.

In archival footage, Cates introduces Soto as a boy, who lives on his own in New York City from age 14 to follow a dream he conceived at five, when he saw a ballet on The Ed Sullivan Show. In voice-over narration, Soto describes struggling to find an apartment and subsisting on cans of tuna shared with roommates. We also see him grinning happily as he dances all day at the New York City Ballet’s school and sneaks into the theater at night to watch the company perform.

Bursting with youthful energy, Soto is seen scampering through impossibly difficult steps and, at age 16, is asked to join the company by its revered founder, George Balanchine. Almost immediately, Soto begins to work closely with great ballerinas and choreographers, including Peter Martins, who took over the group’s directorship after Balanchine’s death in 1983.

Soto’s first important partner was ballerina Heather Watts, who became a dear friend. The two cooked feasts for friends and family, creating a sense of community that’s rare for dancers, who are caught up in their art from morning until late at night. The duo’s passion for feeding others eventually resulted in a cookbook, Our Meals, published in 1997.

Soto was not the first Native American to excel in ballet. Prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, Osage, was a star of the New York City Ballet during the 1940s and 1950s and went on to run the Chicago City Ballet. Her sister, Marjorie Tallchief, Osage, was also a ballerina, as were Rosella Hightower, Choctaw; Yvonne Chouteau, Cherokee; and Moscelyne Larkin, Shawnee. In accomplishing this, all lived far from their homelands.

Yet, Soto’s mother says in the film, heritage is an enduring aspect of identity —even when the individual doesn’t comprehend the tradition. “Much of Jock’s magic comes from an inheritance he doesn’t understand,” says Mama Jo. An aunt demurs, saying, “He’s a New Yorker; people out there know who he really is.” In her view, it takes a village to know who you are, and in reaching out to Navajos and other Native people, Soto is carefully recreating those ties.

After Watts retired in 1995, Soto danced frequently with ballerina Wendy Whelan. In rehearsal and performance footage of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, made for the duo, Cates’s film reveals why Soto’s dancing was invariably called both masculine and spiritual. It’s not simply maleness his admirers refer to, just as Whelan’s dancing is not just about being female. By presenting masculinity as power rooted in the physical world, he releases her — literally by lifting her in daring airborne flourishes, but also metaphorically — to portray realms of the soul.

Soto and Whelan don’t act out this process. They experience it. Whelan tells Cates that her collaboration with Soto is a melding of their spirits. He calls dancing with Whelan “an out-of-body experience … we’re in heaven.”

Back on earth, 24 years of hoisting ballerinas has taken its toll. “I hurt,” Soto says, cataloging his injuries for Cates’s camera. He plans to start culinary school the day after his farewell performance in June 2005, in part to stave off the identity loss dancers suffer after their inevitably all-too-short careers end. After his last appearance  — a sold-out gala attended by thousands of fans, as well as relatives from Dinétah — he is seen backstage embracing his parents.

“I marvel at the way he’s turned out,” says his mother. Soto’s dad, Papa Joe, quips, “He used to watch Mama Jo and me dance merengue. That’s where he picked all that stuff up.”

“My dad thinks he’s the star of the film,” Soto joked in an interview with Indian Country Today.

Cates intersperses the film’s credits with shots of Soto in cooking school. “I graduated,” he exults, holding up his diploma. With a boyish grin, he’s off on another adventure, teaching ballet and planning to open a catering company and restaurant.

Today, his life has a new, easier rhythm. “I have my nights free,” Soto reported. “My partner and I cook for each other and watch Jeopardy.” In our life journey, we circle back and move forward repeatedly, spiraling upward to greater understanding — with an occasional well-deserved breather.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Savoring the Native-foods legacy: Chef Lois Ellen Frank at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta

Published in Indian Country Today in December 2007.

The recipes were modern, but their ingredients were ancient — legacies of the millennia-old cultures of the Americas. “Pre-Contact” and “First Contact” were the terms the chef, Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa, shown right, used to describe the corn, squash, chiles, buffalo, cherries and other foodstuffs she dished up during her Native-foods lecture-demonstration at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, in New Mexico.

These were the foods that indigenous people hunted, gathered and grew before and shortly after they encountered Europeans, Frank explained. However, she told her audience at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, she did not include a third category of fare: the U.S. government-issued provisions that appeared more recently in Native people’s larders. “The government commodity foods included white flour and sugar, lard, canned meat and other such items. I decided to spare you,” Frank joked.

Santa Fe’s annual Wine & Chile Fiesta showcases the area’s noted chefs and restaurants, along with the nation’s top wineries. From September 26th to 30th, about 5,000 members of the public shuttled among lavish luncheons and dinners, seminars, lecture-demonstrations and culinary tours. At wine auctions, they bid as much as thousands of dollars on fine wine. Some 150 exhibitors offered samples of their best work to a crowd of 3,000 at the culminating event: the convivial Grand Food and Wine Tasting at the Santa Fe Opera in the juniper-studded hills above the city.

Seated around tables in the Santa Fe School of Cooking’s sunny demonstration kitchen, the attendees at Frank’s presentation watched her prepare a three-course Native-foods meal with the help of the school’s sous chef Noe Cano, Santa Fe Community College lead culinary instructor Michelle Roetzer and Pointe South Mountain Resort banquet chef Orson Patterson, Navajo.

Working assembly-line fashion behind a counter, Frank and her colleagues dipped goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms in batter, deep-fried them and arranged them with tomato-and-green-chile salsa on plates that waiters doled out to the crowd. A strategically placed mirror above the counter gave every viewer the experience of being in a front-row seat.

As Frank worked, she lectured on the history and health benefits of the original foods of the Americas. A spirited and knowledgeable speaker, Frank is a candidate for a doctorate in culinary anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a proprietor, along with chef Walter Whitewater, Navajo, of Red Mesa Cuisine, an indigenous-foods catering company.

The primarily mainstream audience appeared to digest Frank’s message along with her menu. Most Americans have traveled far from their food roots, and they appeared to be captivated by the story of a galaxy of foods that were both delicious (the proof was on their plates) and sustaining, as evidenced by the Native people—Frank and Patterson—who stood before them. Finally, the ingredients were local and seasonal, thus physically and economically tailored to the needs of those who gathered and prepared them.

The four chefs moved on to the entrée. They draped seared, coriander-cured buffalo tenderloins over mounds of garlicky rough-mashed potatoes, then spooned onto the plates a dried-cherry sauce that had been infused with Chipotle, which is a smoke-dried jalapeño chile. The mix of sweet, smoky and spicy flavors was the perfect foil for both the rich, butter-soft meat, a product of the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program, and the smooth, fruity 2004 Cosentino Cabernet Sauvignon that accompanied the course.

The meal came to a delectable close with a flourless chocolate-piñon nut torte that managed to be both opulent and light. Frank told us that cakes she’d sampled on the feast days of the nearby Pueblos had inspired her recipe.

After the event, diners lined up to have Frank and her colleagues autograph copies of her handsomely photographed cookbook, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (Ten Speed Press, 2002), winner of a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award, the culinary world’s equivalent to an Oscar. Sated—with both food and information—audience members congratulated Frank and her team. A few popped into the cooking school’s adjoining store to find the ingredients they needed to execute the recipes themselves.

To order Frank’s cookbook, go to amazon.com or tenspeed.com. For Red Mesa Cuisine, Information on the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program is at itbcbison.com. The festival website is santafewineandchile.org. At santafeschoolofcooking.com, find classes and gourmet Southwestern food and cooking equipment. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.

The world on their plate: Native youth prepare for culinary careers

Published in Indian Country Today in October 2007.

Orson Patterson and kids like him are the future,” said chef, cookbook author and photographer Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa. Patterson, Navajo, shown left with Frank, assisted her during her indigenous-foods demonstration at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, a prestigious fall showcase for fine food and wine in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Patterson is one of several Native students who recently earned a professional chef’s certification from Santa Fe Community College (SFCC). He’s also working toward an associate of arts degree from the school and, with the recommendation of the culinary arts program’s lead instructor, Michelle Roetzer, has just earned a spot as a banquet chef at Pointe South Mountain Resort, a Phoenix-area luxury vacation spot.

Boyd Howeya, Acoma Pueblo, and Franklin George, Navajo, also earned their credentials while working in SFCC’s well-appointed kitchens with Roetzer. She placed Howeya with an adventure-travel outfitter in Alaska, and George at a high-end restaurant in Sandia Pueblo’s casino.

“The food industry provides viable careers,” said Frank, who is a proprietor, along with chef Walter Whitewater, Navajo, of Red Mesa Cuisine, an indigenous-foods catering company. Frank also noted the recent drop in diabetes cases on the Tohono O’odham Reservation following the re-introduction of the community’s heritage foods. “Working with our Native foods is integrally tied to identity and to health,” she said. “How can we be as healthy as possible?”

With diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other illnesses rising on reservations, cooking classes provided needed health information, says Roetzer. “The students learn to cook healthy, affordable meals for their families, and they develop a great skill set that can lead to a career,” she said.

Recent SFCC graduates have begun mentoring other young Native chefs-in-training. One 19-year-old Navajo enrolled at the college credited Franklin George with encouraging him. “I didn’t expect I could learn to cook so well,” the young man marveled. “So far, my favorite cuisines are Chinese and Mexican, but I’ve also learned Russian, Spanish, Brazilian and a lot more.”

The trick to good cooking? “Common sense, of course,” he responded. “But you’ve also got to be able to cook by feel and to eyeball the amounts of ingredients you need without measuring. Then you have to be creative when you arrange the food on the plate, because people eat with their eyes first. They see the food, then they taste it.”

The day Indian Country Today visited the college, he and a dozen other students were learning to make Tunisian dishes, including Debla, a dessert pasta that is cut into inch-wide ribbons, rolled up, deep-fried and drizzled with a lemon-honey. Standing at one of the kitchen’s long butcher-block-topped tables, he cracked eggs into the flour, added oil and water (without measuring, naturally) and began to knead the golden dough.

Roetzer, former executive chef at the elegant Café Central in El Paso, shown far left, called the Native students’ work life-changing — for them and for her. “I may have helped,” she said, “but they were the ones who showed up every day, worked hard and were positive no matter what. They touched my heart.”

Roetzer, a high-energy woman who helped raise three stepdaughters, is thrilled and, she confesses, a bit sad when each of her students graduates. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. She’s as proud as any parent of their accomplishments but knows she’ll miss them as they make their way in the world. On the other hand, the walls of her office behind the kitchen were decorated with photos of students and post cards from their travels, so perhaps they won’t forget where they first learned to cook after all.


Indian Country Today spoke to Orson Patterson about his training and his plans.

Indian Country Today: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to become a chef?
Orson Patterson: It was when I tasted Michelle’s Chicken Cordon Bleu. You wrap a boneless, skinless chicken breast around prosciutto and cheese, sear it in a pan for a nice brown color then finish it in the oven. I still like to make it for myself.

ICT: Learning to be a culinary professional is tough work. What kept you going?
OP: We learned so many cuisines, and Michelle taught us about the cultures as well as the recipes, so my eyes were opened to the world through food.

ICT: You’re pretty busy these days.
OP: Yes, I just got back from Phoenix, where I went through orientation at Pointe South. Today I had Lois’s event here in Santa Fe, and the day after tomorrow, I’ll be back in Arizona to start my job.

ICT: What will you be doing?
OP: As a banquet chef, I’ll do on-premises catering for big events like weddings and conventions.

ICT: Where do you see yourself in a few years?
OP: I’d like to be a sous chef. For that to happen, I’ll need to keep gaining experience. Eventually, I want to work up to being an executive chef.

ICT: As your career progresses, do you see yourself helping develop other Native chefs?
OP: Someday, I’d like to go back to Crownpoint [New Mexico], where I graduated from high school in 2006, and start an after-school culinary program for youth on the reservation. It would be a way to build self-esteem and pride. Native foods would be part of that. I’d teach students to appreciate our traditions instead of hip-hop and all the other things they get involved with instead. It’s important for us to know our origins and to go back to the old foods.

For more information on learning to be a chef at Santa Fe Community College, go to www.sfccnm.edu and search for “Culinary Arts Program” or call (505)428-1435.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Standing Rock botanical sanctuary threatened by cell phone tower

Published in Indian Country Today in July 2007.

Porcupine, N.D. — The district council of Porcupine, one of eight districts that make up the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, in North and South Dakota, voted on Thursday, August 9, to close down a botanical sanctuary within its boundaries. The 85-acre tract shelters many species of traditional medicine plants, including some that may have been planted by Lakotas of generations past, according to experts who certified the refuge as part of a continent-wide network.

           Elder Kenneth Painte, Sr., Lakota, called threats to the continued existence of the sanctuary “a downgrade for Standing Rock.” When reached by Indian Country Today, the district’s chairman, Benjamin Harrison, refused to comment.

For the district’s decision to go into effect, the Standing Rock tribal council must ratify it. Doing so would presumably clear the way for a cell phone tower to be built on the land; the installation would be one of 29 to be placed around the 2.3-million-acre reservation by 2009 in order to improve communications, especially for police and other first responders.

However, abolishing the sanctuary may not be necessary for the communications project to proceed. According to Department of Interior Indian Affairs spokesperson Nedra Darling, the tower sites are not entirely settled. The tribal telecommunications office has agreed to move five because of cultural concerns, she said. “More towers could be adjusted due to recently raised concerns,” she added. “There’s been a lot of cooperation between the federal government and the tribe on this matter, and respectful accommodations continue to be made. The sensitivity to the issues has given us a high level of comfort.”

Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, did not share Darling’s sanguine assessment. He pointed to the “Finding of No Significant Impact” in the Environmental Assessment that was prepared by the Great Plains Region Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2005 to determine whether the reservation-wide communications project complies with National Environmental Policy Act. This determination, or FONSI, left the sanctuary vulnerable to development, they say.

The plant refuge was mentioned in the report, but neither placing a 197-foot tower near its sweat lodge nor introducing noxious weeds such as leafy spurge, which the assessment described as an inevitable result of construction, was deemed a “significant impact.”

The sanctuary also abuts the nesting ground of 10 to 12 pairs of bald eagles, according to local residents. These were not described in the report, though possible “bird strikes” were, as cell phone towers kill four to five million migrating birds annually, according to the document. In respect to these threats, Porcupine resident Lynelle Bahm, Lakota, asked: “After all the environmental harm that’s been done to eagles, why are we doing this?”

Skye’s objections, which were initially focused on the Porcupine tower, have broadened, particularly since the tribal council’s rejection in July of a motion to relocate that particular installation to a less sensitive spot. He has been working with Painte to organize tribal members against the communications project and has referred to studies showing possible ill effects on health and the environment and cited the American Cancer Society’s reluctance to declare cell phone radiation safe. More than 200 tribal members have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the towers.

The protestors have also set up a conference on the consequences of radiation from varied sources, including uranium mining and wireless communication, to take place on August 28 at Prairie Knights Casino in Fort Yates, North Dakota. “Our health is already poor,” said Painte. “The towers will make matters worse.”

Both Painte and Aubrey Skye appeared before the Porcupine District Council during its August 9 meeting. They had been summoned there to explain the presence of the sanctuary’s sweat lodge, which Painte established in its present location some 15 years ago, and to account for $600 the refuge had received over two years for seeds and other items from United Plant Savers, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of native plants. 

“We had the receipts and a letter from United Plant Savers,” said Skye. “Council members were firing questions at me from all directions, and when they couldn’t find any irregularities with the sanctuary, someone suggested that they get rid of it. So they took their vote.” About the inquiry into sweat lodge, Painte commented, “They asked why it was hidden. If they had spirituality and tradition in their lives, they would have known it was there.”

In addition to organizing tribal members against the communications project, Painte and Skye have requested a Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) survey of all proposed tower locations. The study would ascertain the existence of any ceremonial or historic sites that could be adversely affected. This request, according to Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Tim Mentz, Upper Yanktonia Dakota/Hunkpapa, has been turned over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“It’s the responsibility of the federal agency to satisfy the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act Section 101(d)(6)(B) when an individual or tribe applies ‘religious and cultural significance’ to areas they deem important,” Mentz explained. Such a survey can, however, introduce its own problems, Mentz said: “It may force us to reveal information about sacred sites that should remain proprietary.”

Painte called the entire situation “a test from the Creator,” saying: “Do we want spirituality or do we want ‘progress’ that’s killing everything? It’s all about money. No one was arguing about any of this until the cell phone towers came up. We need to sit down and discuss this in a moderate way.”

Top photo courtesy Aubrey Skye; other photos by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Book reviews — Bounty from the Northwest

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2007.
  
Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook
The dishes that drew diners to Liliget Feast House, the Vancouver restaurant run by award-winning chef Dolly Watts, Gitk’san, are on show in her new book from Arsenal Pulp Press. The handsome volume, with its stylish food photographs and carefully crafted recipes, is a collaboration with her daughter, Annie Watts, Gitk’san/Nuu-chah-nulth, as was the restaurant, one of the first Native fine-dining establishments in North America. The two women were among the groundbreaking chefs who during the last few decades created a cuisine out of Native cookery, until then a family and community activity.

Dolly, who has a degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, did not plan to become a restaurateur. However, one day she offered to make and sell bannock to help Native students at the university earn money for a field trip. Her fried breads were such a success, they became a business that grew to encompass salmon and soup sold from a food cart, then a catering business and finally her restaurant, which she ran for 12 years before closing it in 2007. Annie has two degrees, one in culinary arts and the other in computer science, and put her talents to use at Liliget Feast House, where she cooked and designed the restaurant’s promotional materials.

The cookbook’s 150-some recipes are dished up with dollops of Dolly’s youth: descriptions of gathering berries, making preserves, collecting seaweed, digging clams and more. The dishes derive their interest from innovative combinations of small numbers of ingredients and from inventive marinades and dressings. Many of the dishes contrast sweet and herbal flavors; for example, Chokecherry Glazed Grouse is suffused with rosemary, and Wild Huckleberry Glazed Duck includes marjoram. Sweet and salty flavors find their way into meat preparations, which often contain soy sauce.

Some recipes have ingredients that are familiar to many readers: salmon, venison, buffalo, elk and a range of commonly eaten vegetables. Other dishes feature items that are most easily found in the Northwest, such as herring spawn on kelp and oolichan, an anchovy-like fish that is eaten and used as a source of cooking oil. (Readers are assured that they can find sources of the more unusual foodstuffs online.)

In addition to offering authentic indigenous preparations, such as smoked and half-smoked salmon or Gitk’san Slush, in which wild berries are whipped with snow, the cookbook presents variants on mainstream recipes. Caesar Gone Wild Salad uses oolichan instead of anchovies and croutons made from bannock; venison liver stands in for goose liver in French-style pâté; and bread pudding becomes more flavorful when bannock is swapped for white bread. Whether traditional or contemporary, all preparations are imbued with two crucial ingredients: generosity and joy.


Chapbooks by Duane Niatum
The salmon that appear so often in Where People Feast also surface in the writing of Duane Niatum, Klallam (Jamestown Band). Since the late 1970s, Niatum has produced chapbooks, or handmade books, that partake of the worldview of both his mother’s Klallam people and his father’s European ancestry. Some of the chapbooks include his poetry, while others offer his prose retellings of traditional Klallam stories. He composed the latter, according to a note in a 1999 chapbook, Stories from the Land of Red Cedar, to support language and cultural preservation.

A widely published writer whose doctorate is from the University of Michigan, Niatum has taught at several universities and edited pivotal anthologies of Native poetry, including Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry in 1975 and Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry in 1988. Since the 1970s, a variety of presses have published books of his poetry; most recently, West End Press brought out The Crooked Beak of Love in 2000.

The homemade chapbooks offer a look at what he was doing in between these and other large works. They also remind us that once upon a time, all books were made by hand. With their earth-toned paper and bead-trimmed spines, the chapbooks stand out from the stolid conventionally manufactured volumes on the bookshelf. A light breeze will set the dangling beads to dancing and transform the slender volumes into a row of little people with messages from their world to ours.

In Niatum’s writing, distinctive cadences support the flow of meaning, often via percussive lists of words or phrases. In some cases, rhythm is subject matter. In “S’Klallam Spirit Canoe,” from a 2004 chapbook, Journeys That Criss-Cross Darkness and Light, we find:

“My paddle keeps to the sun’s path,
pulls back home to sea,
my blood on its travels to the whirling depths…
The drumbeat slips beneath the current,
rattles from genes to prow,
returns to ancestral fire and form
emerging from the trail of cutwater….”

The content of the chapbooks is as personal as their distinctive bindings. In both the poetry and the prose, actors in vivid natural scenes metamorphose before our eyes and stretch the boundaries of metaphor: Stars turn into handsome suitors for young women; a canoe is cleansed by singing; and a narrator describes a night on France’s Côte D’Azure, when he resolves “to live the syllables of a twig,//vowels of a flowering lemon.”

Much of the 2004 chapbook deals with the solitary and sacrificial life of the artist. Niatum includes Cezanne (a “lone wolf”), Van Gogh (“furies, poverty”) and others. He ends with a poem that eulogizes those who toil to “turn pain into song”:

“Nothing will remain of him
except four rising notes,
the passing through phase
skinny dipping the giveaway rush of sky.”


c. Stephanie Woodard; quoted text used with permission.

Cell phone tower to be built near sweat lodge

Published in Indian Country Today in July 2007.

Porcupine, N.D. — The tribal council of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe voted on Monday, July 2, not to relocate a 197-foot-tall cell phone tower planned for a site in the watershed of the Cannonball River, west of the village of Porcupine. The tower is one of 29 to be installed around the reservation by 2009.

Tribal members had objected to its placement near a sweat lodge, shown above right, and a bald-eagle nesting ground and within the boundaries of a botanical sanctuary that shelters traditional medicine plants. “Progress has taken us back, and it’s causing self-destruction,” said elder Kenny Painte, Sr., Lakota, who resides in Solen, North Dakota. “I’m scared for the kids.”

The vote was four in favor of moving the tower to a less sensitive spot and six against, the tribal chairman’s office confirmed on July 3. One council member abstained. Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, Hunkpapa Lakota, would not comment further. Jesse Taken Alive, Hunkpapa Lakota, tribal council member-at-large and resident of McLaughlin, South Dakota, called the vote “a disappointing outcome.”

The project was approved in 2005 as a way to upgrade communications — particularly for police and other emergency services — throughout the nation’s 2.3 million rural acres in North and South Dakota. The towers, along with outbuildings and access roads, will be built by Turtle Island Telecommunications, a Native-owned firm, and eventually owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The botanical sanctuary in question is part of United Plant Savers’ continent-wide network and is the only one in the United States on tribal land. “From the get-go, I told the company building the towers that there are many important plants there, including some not found, or not found in the same form, elsewhere on the reservation, possibly in the region,” said Linda Jones, Catawba, an ethnobotanist and faculty member at Sitting Bull College, in Fort Yates. These include groves of an important heart medicine, hawthorne, that are so old and so large they may have been planted by Lakotas in generations past, said Jones. And, she added, “Radiation changes cell structure, so these plants will change. Can people continue to use them as medicine?”

Kenny Painte, Sr., said he had gone on vision quests in the botanical sanctuary, which he called “a place of cultural and spiritual significance.” He also described people coming from around the country to be healed in the sweat lodge. In his opinion, construction of the nearby tower meant “cultural genocide of the seven sacred rites of my people.”

Taken Alive expressed similar sentiments: “I am a practitioner of our traditional Lakota ways, and I think it’s a terrible precedent.”

Effects of cell-phone radiation on human health have also been causing increasing apprehension, as tribal members have become aware of studies linking the microwaves with brain damage, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses and have heard about calls for more research by several international consortia of scientists and doctors. “I’ve informed myself about these issues, and I’m worried about my children, my father who’s battling cancer and everyone who visits us,” said Lynelle Bahm, Lakota, whose home is about 500 feet from the Porcupine tower site.

In May 2007, Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, shown above, filed an unsuccessful injunction to stop construction. “People need to make an informed choice,” said Skye, a Porcupine resident. “In initial discussions with tribal members, better telephone service was stressed, not potential harm. What do we do when we get cancer? Use our great cell phone service to call an ambulance? Who here can afford cell phones anyway? People are living two and three families to a house. We need housing.”

Other residents criticized the environmental assessment completed for the project. “It wasn’t a full environmental impact statement, as you’d expect for a project of this magnitude,” one said. “When they came to the botanical sanctuary, they just drove through in their vehicle, squashing medicine plants.”

Arthur Firstenberg, an expert on wireless technology, noted that he didn’t see the word “radiation” in the document: “On a project whose only purpose is to produce microwave radiation [how can you] not mention the expected environmental effects of microwave radiation?”

Other experts familiar with the project expressed related concerns, including Dr. Chellis Glendinning, a psychologist who studies the side effects of technology; activist Charmaine White Face, Oglala, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills; Libby Kelley, a specialist on Native health issues; and Nancy Scarzello and Lynda LeMole, officials of United Plant Savers.

Tribal member Dennis Painte was an official of Porcupine District when it — along with the nation’s other seven districts — approved the towers in 2005. The tribal council then ratified these endorsements. At the time, said Painte, “We had no information about the possible ill effects of the towers. We simply thought they were a wonderful step forward technologically — no discussion. Now some districts would like to rescind their consent.”

Prior to the July 2 council meeting, Taken Alive had hoped the tribe would hold public-information meetings and reconsider its options. “Back in 2005, we were unaware of potential harm,” he said. “Better communication is a huge need here, but we have to consider all the alternatives, including more landlines, fiber optics and so on.”

“We honored the politicians by going to them,” said Kenny Painte, Sr. “Now we have to turn to the people. We’re preparing a referendum to take to enrolled members. This is their land, but they never had a say-so.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo at top courtesy of Aubrey Skye; additional photo by Stephanie Woodard.

Book review — Canyon Gardens: The Ancient Pueblo Landscapes of the American Southwest

Article published in Indian Country Today in May 2007.

Past is prologue in Canyon Gardens: The Ancient Pueblo Landscapes of the American Southwest (University of New Mexico Press: 2006). Editors V.B. Price and Baker H. Morrow have assembled 15 essays on the millennium-old Puebloan landscape. Leading archaeologists, architects, landscape designers, paleoethnobotanists and others offer nuanced commentary on its history and find lessons for today. The most important lesson, writes Price in his introduction, “is that it is possible to ‘design with nature’ … while at the same time altering natural flows and engineering landscapes to better serve human needs.”

Architectural historian Rina Swentzell, Santa Clara Pueblo, shows what happens when this teaching is disregarded or even quashed. In the chapter “Conflicting Landscape Values,” she compares the psychological consequences of two physical settings. One place is Santa Clara Pueblo itself, in a valley and oriented around the people’s emergence place. Children felt safe there, writes Swentzell, and able to explore their world with “tremendous confidence and an unquestioning sense of belonging within the natural ordering of the cosmos. Learning happened easily.”

Swentzell contrasts this with the rigid discomfort of the Santa Clara Day School, built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1890s with the idea of assimilating the Pueblo’s children. Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and set on a denuded five-acre tract, the school emphasized the value of things from other places and other cultures — things found in books, not in the immediate community and landscape. The result for students, writes Swentzell, was “lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy.”

In the chapter “Landscape and Survival,” Price decries another way in which the old lessons are ignored. He writes that modern developers despoil land and water, as they scatter energy- and water-guzzling housing across the arid West with a “ham-fisted” approach. He worries as a conservationist that mainstream builders will never understand the sensitivity to place apparent in both old and contemporary Puebloan landscapes.

In his essay, Price distinguishes between the ancestral survival philosophy, in which humans use simple, elegant means to adapt to nature’s requirements, and today’s less forgiving “sustainability,” in which humans push nature just to the point where it can still regenerate whatever resources have been stripped away. Sooner or later, the true character of the land catches up with you, Price says, warning that “development in the West is digging its own grave.”

Though mainstream culture has largely discounted Pueblo knowledge, the reverse is not necessarily true. In “Zuni Maize,” Mary Beath describes Zuni use of scientific analyses to help repair destruction to the community’s traditional agricultural landscape by off-reservation clear-cutting and the construction of large dams. The scientific information is less a departure than an extension of what the Zuni have been doing all along, says Beath: “Much as they cultivated with the topography, the soils, the wind, the rain, the heat and the cold, they were trying to work with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with science, and not be swallowed.”

Debunking old saws of Southwestern scholarship is another concern of Canyon Gardens. An essay by archaeologist Stephen H. Lekson takes on the concept of “permanence” in Pueblo settlements, popularized by Ruth Benedict in her influential 1934 work, Patterns of Culture. Benedict’s idea caught on, theorizes Lekson, because the idea of a people who stayed put provided a comforting sense of continuity to an immigrant nation.

However, that stasis was an illusion, Lekson says. Instead, Pueblo communities ranged widely, with a few eventually deciding they’d found the destination they were seeking. Most, however, were halted in their peregrinations by the arrival of the conquistadors and the confinement of the Pueblos to land grants awarded by the Spanish crown. When the United States took over, it honored the relatively small tracts, while benefiting from the notions that Pueblo homelands were diminutive and that Puebloans had no relationship to their previous homes, which had been abandoned.

In the chapter “Tewa Fields, Tewa Traditions,” archaeologist Kurt Anschuetz looks beyond the large-village studies so common in Southwestern archaeology to the surrounding land in which the people “made their living,” in his terminology. From this perspective, Anschuetz confirms that architecture is not what is permanent in the Pueblo world but rather the very idea of movement. By way of example, he notes that the Tewa visited and reoccupied old home sites and fields and did not, in fact, abandon them. Indeed, the residential instability — and the resulting fallowing of fields — may well have been a more productive strategy for survival across the generations than staying put would have been.

Moreover, Anschuetz says, the Tewa were creative managers of their fields: continually adapting their agricultural methods to cope with short- and long-term environmental change. He describes a diverse range of fields, tailored to local conditions and functioning year-round: Thanks to snowmelt trapped in winter by gravel mulches, during the warm months the beds supported cultivated food plants, along with useful non-domesticated ones. The ongoing manipulations of water had spiritual connotations, he adds, and reaffirmed “the interdependency of people and their cultigens, especially maize.”

The issues explored in Canyon Gardens have implications for federal, state and local land- and water-management planning, said Anschuetz in a separate interview: “These policies could serve all the people more appropriately if they drew from traditional-community knowledge and understood, as it does, that humans are an integral part of the landscape — not outside it.”

Implementing the lessons of the Puebloan terrain is a challenge for all of us. Morrow, in his epilogue to Canyon Gardens, concludes that the subtle ancestral landscape “will tell us its story if we can sit quietly and listen.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard, taken at a site that did not figure in the book.

Jack Strong takes Manhattan: Kai restaurant chef brings luxury Native cuisine to NYC

Published in Indian Country Today in May 2007.

Chef Jack Strong, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, spooned buffalo tartare — chopped raw meat, minced pickled cactus pads, capers and more — into little cones fashioned from miniature tortillas. Strong, the 31-year-old chef de cuisine of Kai Restaurant at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa (shown left), was in a sleek demonstration kitchen in midtown New York City. He and fellow chefs from the Phoenix-area resort, an AAA Five Diamond property managed by Starwood, were showing their innovative, heritage-food-based cuisine to food and travel journalists.

Many of the dishes included ingredients that were cultivated or gathered in the desert by the Akimel O’otham (also called Pima) and Pee Posh (or Maricopa) members of the Gila River Indian Community, which owns the resort, or obtained from other indigenous enterprises. The rich, tender buffalo in the tartare was from grass-fed animals raised on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation; tribal elders had taught Strong to make the soft-textured wheat tortillas, called chumath; and children at Gila Crossing Community School, a tribal elementary school, had grown the I’itoi heritage onions that flavored the diminutive breads.

As Strong assembled the cones, Michael O’Dowd, executive chef of the resort’s several restaurants, gently fried quail eggs and deposited them, sunny-side up, on top of the tartare. The tiny construction was almost too adorable to eat, yet one bite later, I understood its logic, as the silkiness of the egg smoothed over the assertive edges of the tartare. Synesthesia ruled another offering — a cold, chile-laced corn soup. The bright heat of the chiles mingled in the mouth with the cool pale-yellow purée, confounding the brain: which sensations derived from sight, which from taste, which from feeling?

As the assembled journalists admired the cholla buds, mesquite honey and other indigenous specialties, Strong heaped the glossy dark pearls of ossetra caviar on, saying, “And this caviar is from sturgeon swimming in our rivers.”

“Really?” gasped one viewer. “No!” laughed Strong, shaking his head. As he worked, Strong radiated energy and delight. “To be a Native chef doing Native cuisine with a supportive executive chef is amazing,” he said. “I’m in such a fun place. Almost every day at Kai, we get in new ingredients and experiment with them. We push the envelope in every way. Chef O’Dowd always says, ‘Let’s wow some people. Let’s make an impact.’”

Consulting chef Janos Wilder, a James Beard Award winner, has called Kai’s cuisine “a nod to the past and a look to the future…familiar, yet intriguing.” O’Dowd and Strong call it “Native American with world accents.”

After the demonstration, Strong and his colleagues did what chefs like to do when they’re not cooking. They ate out. They chose one of New York’s most elegant restaurants, Jean Georges, where the food is both seasonal and sophisticated. “We had an amazing twelve-course meal that lasted four hours,” said Strong. The Arizonans didn’t hold back; at the end of the evening, each consumed four to six desserts.

Strong grew up on the Siletz reservation, near the Oregon coast. Making meals for his grandparents, who raised him, was his introduction to cooking. “I got my creativity from my mother,” Strong said. “I lost her in a car accident when I was four, but I know she did a lot of cooking and baking. We were poor, so she often used her imagination to stretch food, but she also made things like homemade pizza. That was unusual for Oregon in those days.”

A high-school job at a local fish house, a tribal internship program that allowed him to work during his senior year in a nearby resort’s professional kitchen, then culinary school in Eugene, Oregon, developed his skills. His subsequent career encompassed working as an executive chef in a fine-dining eatery in Eugene and two years as sous chef of the celebrated Southwestern-style Windows on the Green restaurant at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2006, he moved to Kai.

The work done at Kai (which means “seed” in the Pima language) and in the resort as a whole resonates throughout the tribal community. Strong, O’Dowd and other staffers attend career fairs at local schools. Because the Gila Crossing school garden sells produce to the resort, children learn that agriculture — the centerpiece of their heritage — provides a viable way to make a living, as well as a meaningful one. The resort is also a customer of Gila River Farms, a 16,000-acre tribal operation that purveys citrus fruits, olives and olive oil, among other items.

 O’Dowd, who has been at Wild Horse Pass since it opened in 2002, is working with the facility’s cultural concierge, Ginger Martin, Pima, to develop a farmers market. “The community has just received a large water settlement, and with the greater availability of irrigation, we’re hoping to encourage more individuals to garden and sell us their heirloom crops,” said O’Dowd. “We want to help make the area an agricultural powerhouse.”

Food like Kai’s can’t be created hastily or in vast quantities. “We usually do just seventy covers [individual meals] per night, with the first guests arriving at about six o’clock and another group at about nine,” said Strong. “Most people spend at least two hours and have five to seven courses.”

In the future, he and O’Dowd plan to offer even longer tasting menus, with just one group of diners spending the entire evening on a meal. “We want people to walk away talking about the experience,” said Strong. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos courtesy Kai restaurant.

Book reviews — Earthworks: Native American Writing

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2007.

The power of storytelling permeates Earthworks, a two-year-old paperback book series featuring Native American writers from Salt Publishing, in Cambridge, Great Britain. The recent arrival in bookstores of the 2006 offerings brings the number of published volumes to 13, with more to come in the years ahead, according to series editor Janet McAdams, Alabama Creek, a poet and a faculty member at Kenyon College.

On the cover of one of the books — Carter Revard’s How the Songs Come Down — an endorsement from revered Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz emphasizes the importance of the telling of tales and their function as lifelines from the past to the present. Ortiz describes Revard’s work as “fine, fine poetry, of course, but they’re stories too [that] sustain us and our land, culture and community.” 

In Revard’s poems, the past may be a truly ancient one. With a conversational tone that makes his erudition seem effortless, Revard ranges over vast territory and time. A geode sliced in two, polished and used to support books on a shelf inspires verses that circle from the moment of the rock’s creation through geologic eons to the present day and thence back to Creation. The birth of an individual being and the universe conflate: “… the Word, made slowly//slowly, in-//to Stone.”

In The Fork-in-the-Road Indian Poetry Store, by Phillip Carroll Morgan, Choctaw/Chickasaw, the crops he grows on his farm are the repository of life-saving narratives. Morgan writes: “… yes they and the vine beans//and the squash the pumpkins//and the corn//tell me these stories//which they remember//and cannot forget// …”. By describing the plants that the indigenous people of this hemisphere have bred for millennia as a source of both physical and cultural sustenance, Morgan expresses a belief held by many Native communities.

The books inevitably examine violence and loss. In Walking with Ghosts: Poems, Qwo-Li Driskill considers an event that occurred some five centuries in the poem, “The Leading Causes of Death Among American Indians.” Driskill writes: “The first is heart disease,//followed by accidental death.//The original accident was Columbus//bumping into this place,//… I am tired of all these accidents.//I am drunk on anger,//driving head on into a wall called America//praying one day//the leading cause of death among American Indians//will be that we are old.”

Readers will find more intersections of the historical and the personal in Rooms: New and Selected Poems, by Diane Glancy, Cherokee; The Zen of La Llorona, by Deborah A. Miranda, Esselen/Chumash; Apprenticed to Justice, by Kimberly Blaeser, White Earth Anishnaabe; A Bridge Dead in the Water, by James Thomas Stevens, Mohawk; and Almost Ashore: Selected Poems, by Gerald Vizenor, White Earth Anishnaabe. About the last, Glancy has written: “These poems go down like butter, but there are barbs in the smoothness of Vizenor’s writing.”

Though Earthworks is primarily a poetry collection, several offerings include prose as well. One volume, Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey, by Philip H. Red Eagle, Dakota, is made up of two novellas. “Rigid genre divisions tend not to be important to Native writers,” said McAdams, “They usually don’t identify themselves as strictly a poet or a fiction writer, for example, and many are accomplished in different forms.”

Some Earthworks contributors are also visual artists. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Cherokee/Huron, supplied the photograph on the cover of her book, Blood Run: Free Verse Play; a quilt by Cheryl Savageau, Abenaki, was used for her work, Mother/Land.

According to McAdams, the series is selling well, and individual books have garnered awards in the United States, the Great Britain and Australia. “Universities want to teach this material,” she said. She added that nevertheless American academia has a long way to go in understanding its significance: “It’s shocking that you can earn a degree in American Studies without ever studying the culture of the people whose land this is. Works by white writers make up the default canon, while indigenous writers are seen as ornamentation.”

Contributors to Earthworks have reported to McAdams that the books are also selling in their own communities. “So we have a mixed Native and non-Native, academic and non-academic readership,” McAdams said.

Eventually, Earthworks will include textbooks using Native material to teach creative writing, as well as themed sets with works by several authors from one community. The series will also embrace indigenous writing from elsewhere in the world, such as the circumpolar or Pacific regions. “We’re in an activist moment, with indigenous people around the globe making connections,” McAdams explained. “Right now, I’m educating myself about other literatures, and there will be a time when it feels right to include them. Meanwhile, so many great Native American manuscripts keep turning up. I wish there were more hours in the day.”

The Native literary establishment has been supportive of the Earthworks project. Widely known American Indian authors, such as Ortiz and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and scholar Scott Momaday, Kiowa, provided endorsements. The statement that best-selling Spokane/Coeur D’Alene writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie wrote for the cover of Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose, by Leanne Howe, Choctaw, could serve the entire series: “For years, I’ve hoped that we Native writers would build a twenty-first century rocket and blast off into brand new space. Leanne Howe…has done exactly that.”

About The Mother’s Tongue, by Heid E. Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway, Alexie declared: “Buy this book now.”

Photos by Stephanie Woodard were taken on or near Indian reservations, but did not figure in the books; article copyright Stephanie Woodard.