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  Issue Date: 5 / 2017  

The Old Ways?

Andrew Taggart
       Not everything she said lined up. We had driven north from Winslow, Arizona, to the Hopi Reservation to view Hopi artists at work in their studios. It might have been an appreciative reference to Frank Water’s The Book of the Hopi lurking somewhere in the fog of memory but more likely or more recently our perusing a Wikipedia entry on the Hopi people that led us to believe that here was an intact, viable indigenous culture. Apparently, industrial civilization had not reached everyone and everywhere, and the Hopi, unlike the Crow Nation whose tragic fate had been thoroughly discussed by Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, would disclose a beautiful life following the traditional ways.
       Except that that’s not what we saw and, as often as not, it’s a painful yet crucial gift to have one’s delusions brought to light in the glaring discrepancy between word and sight.
       We pulled into the White Bear Gallery, and Evelyn, our well-paid guide who would be tasked with showing us around the Hopi artist studios, was wearing a North Face vest and sporting an iPhone in her right hand. Her artist friend presumably had stopped by the gallery to discuss her work as well as that of some of the other artists whose crafts were being exhibited. Was this Evelyn's gallery, or just some visible place where we could meet her?
       After using the port-a-potty outside, we hopped into her newish Toyota Tacoma and headed off. There, in one nondescript ranch house we met Ramon, a silversmith, in his dusty studio. He had very little work to show us, he said, and he was “slowing down,” Evelyn said. After letting us see how he carved into a piece of silver, he took us to his showroom. He was noticeably crestfallen when we didn’t buy anything from him.
       At a gallery, also on Third Mesa, we met Alberta, a weaver selling baskets handwoven from yucca at remarkable prices. One between the size of a golf ball and a baseball was going for $385, others for $1000 and up. Her husband, also a silversmith, was selling men’s bracelets for $400-1000. At a second studio and the third and final stop, this one a potter’s, we learned a little about her artistic process (which was relatively interesting) before being offered small clay tiles for $65-125. A thimble-sized pot, a mere scrap she’d put her thumb into at the last minute before it went into the kiln, rang in at $35. Frankly, I was not under the impression that we’d be in the position to buy, let alone in cash, and it felt strange to be paying a hefty fee to be guided to places where we could spend more. Did she have a clue that we have a general antipathy toward the market?
       I’ve never been on a tour where I’ve had to spend so much money in order to have the privilege to spend so much more. The whole arrangement was painful for each and all. Each of us—the white, purportedly wealthy foreigners and the purportedly traditional Hopi artists still working in the "old ways"—were following scripts not of our devising, and it was distinctly painful to be reliving American history in dramatic form, here and now.
       As Evelyn drove us around, we saw Hopi villages, consisting of ranch houses and manufactured-looking homes, that looked beatdown and dilapidated. Here was a small plot where corn seeds were planted. There was a mud plot where a ceremony was to take place, yet it looked ill-kempt, not at all sacred. Here and there, yes, were small plots of land where they were growing corn, but it didn’t seem to me that, however “socialist” the Hope people were, in Evelyn’s phrasing, food grown on such small plots of land could be distributed very far, especially after 40 years of drought, not to mention the introduction of invasive species, had ravaged this region. Would this be enough to support a family, let alone a community? My hunch is that some, if not many, had gotten jobs outside the reservation in Tuba City or at one of the nicer health care centers in the area; some were also probably living on welfare. The artists, meanwhile, were trying to sell their wares at the touristy art shows popping up each year in Tucson, Phoenix, and Santa Fe.
       I saw evidence of cars, electricity, satellite dishes, and rundown manufactured houses. I saw little evidence of viable community, no places where people were congregating or working together. Where was living Hopi? Where were the tribal members in community while we were in the heart of the reservation for four, five hours? A story about Ramon’s son seemed to me typical. After high school graduation, he went off and joined the marines, did his tour of duty, came back and was educated to be a police officer, and now, on the GI Bill, is going to college at Arizona State University to work in law enforcement or possibly for the FBI. Ramon seemed very proud of him, of all his son had accomplished. No mention was made of his son returning to the reservation.
       I realize that so far I’ve said next to nothing of our guide Evelyn. Our questions about Hopi religion and cosmology revealed little more than what, I surmised, she’d learned as a child. I’ve noticed that if you spend enough time with someone caught in unresolved mental conflicts, you also see how a number of statements don't stack up. In my memory, I can now piece together certain details that together suggest that 2007 was a pivotal year for her. Initially, she told us that she had returned to the Hopi Reservation in 2007 to care for her ailing aunt. Later on, we learned that she’d been married and had lived in Santa Fe for many years. 2007, I deduced, was also the year of her divorce, the year she spoke of the housing crisis (though many peg the bubble to 2008-09). In 2007, if not before, her life, her world fell apart and so she retreated to a place of last resort.
       As we were concluding our tour, Alexandra asked her whether she would return to Santa Fe. No, it was "too gentrified." She had made up her mind. Then we spoke of our living there for four months starting in July and swiftly did she change her tone of voice. Second only to New York, she said, was the art scene in Santa Fe. And, she said, despite the growth and the wealth and the homogeneity, where she had lived was still quiet and quaint, though close to downtown. In fact, “I don’t know how much money you have, but…” we might be interested--who knows?--in purchasing her property. She (and her divorced husband?) had already sold the other half to a man named James (whom I’ll come to in a moment), but the other half, this half may suit us, given our artistic proclivities, quite well.
       She spoke of vacillating between not selling it in order to possibly turn it into an Airbnb and selling it. Why? Because she hadn’t yet found the “right people” to live there, ones who would appreciate the area, perhaps building an addition or a home that was modest and in keeping with the land.
       “Look,” she wrote on our grocery receipt with a ballpoint pen we’d offered her, “for the mailbox.” It’s “500 square feet,” and it’s made of “adobe wall, unstuccoed gray.” (Most completed adobes are stuccoed.) We should call James. This small, unstuccoed, gray artist studio is without a toilet and perhaps without plumbing. We deduced from Google Earth that the 2 ½ acre property probably sat on a dramatically downsloping piece of land upon which it would be difficult to build larger homes. While she claimed to be looking for the "right people" (maybe we could add a toilet and make it work, she hinted) because of its sentimental value, the more likely explanation is that she's been unable to sell it to a more bourgeois or yuppie family looking for certain comforts, amenities, and assurances. In retrospect, the truth is manifest: Evelyn is cash poor. Either she’s stuck with a property that she wants a lot more for, or she can sell it for very little and lose her shirt on the deal.

       Here, as we sat in the car in the White Bear Gallery parking lot, was an extended chapter in the history of the American West: shotty real estate deals set up between unsuspecting naifs and desperate salespersons.
       Right, so where does James come into the story? James, likely a 60-something ex-hippie, was once Evelyn’s neighbor, and, perhaps just before the housing bubble, he bought Evelyn and her ex-husband’s home from her, the other half of the property alluded to. But James also, it seems, lost his shirt during the housing crisis, ended up getting a divorce, losing his business, and turning his house, which, recall, was once Evelyn’s main house, into an Airbnb. In his rambling self-description of himself as a host on Airbnb, he tells of his itinerant life, of his travels in Europe, of his life spent searching and then comes to this strange realization:
       Here in Santa fe [sic] I created and owned for 15 years my interior finishing company with 25 full time employees, creating physical beauty with italian [sic] plaster and antique finishes in some of the most amazing homes I've ever seen. Then 2008 happened...perfect opportunity to change...!
       Only one way to say it......10 years ago I decided to go on a love affair with myself and see if I could find joy appeared that I lost it.....and I wanted joy back..... that is how I created this next chapter in my life. I had more questions.
       After the economic crash I closed down my company and I had some of the biggest questions in my life so I wanted to learn about how the inside of our human being bodies work, physically.
       James, a man who longs for a return to the simplicity and wholesomeness of his childhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a man who struggles with a market system he both accepts and rejects, and Evelyn, the woman who grew up on the Hopi Reservation and left it, only to return not of her own choice, are lost souls.
       Alexandra and I were caught too, as she was, in the crosshairs of history, place, and culture. For as much as Evelyn railed against the horrors and destructiveness of capitalism, she was a part of this system, as were we. She accepted the cash we gave her for her second-rate service; no doubt she needed it; perhaps she’d arranged with the other Hopi artists to receive a cut on any sale they made from the tourists she brought them. And for as much as we felt pushed into roles that didn't fit us, we can't deny that Evelyn was tragically, perhaps hopelessly stuck between the old ways that had fallen away and the Western ways that Alexandra and I are also skeptical of.
       What illusions had we, Alexandra and I, clung to as we came into the reservation? Could Evelyn, who initially cast her life story as a matter of choice, leave the reservation even if she wanted to? Could she, an older woman, a sculptor, a person without viable skills or competencies in today’s brutal economy, survive in the market system? But then what is there of viable community left on the Hopi Reservation? Shreds? Shards? Memories? And who would look after this aging woman whose children had been seduced by the spell of having careers out there far away and worlds apart from the reservation? At least Alexandra and I, being Bohemian artists, being seasonal nomads, being seekers yearning for Home, were free to leave, pursue, to dream.
       She thanked us for the money. We turned on the engine and left for Moab.

Andrew Taggart, Ph.D., is a practical philosopher who teaches individuals and organizations throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe how to inquire into the things that matter most. He lives a seasonally nomadic life with his wife Alexandra. They are spending this spring in Boulder, Colorado.
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