Monthly Archives: May 2018

Neither Wolf Nor Dog…Or When a Calling Comes

This is less of a review and more of a story about how I came to learn of the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and then my process through attempts to understand its full, often uncomfortable meaning.

WolfNorDog

About this time a year ago I received an invitation, really it was delivered as a demand, from a Lakota elder that I come to South Dakota to receive teachings. It came at a time I was continually traveling, barely home but longing to be. When I thanked him and attempted to arrange a time that made it easier for me, he became insistent. We finally settled on a time. For me, it meant giving up the only travel-free week I’d had in some time. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, and didn’t know the elder. The prior contact we’d had was relatively brief, a long phone call. I finally decided it was something I was being called to do.

I would like to say it was a meaningful journey and a great sharing passed between us. Instead, our time ended abruptly. I left with even more confusion than I’d periodically felt over those days and a high level of frustration, angry at myself that I’d been talked into coming. Clearly, there was much he kept tightly wrapped. Although, it sometimes emerged in ways I wasn’t used to dealing with, much less how to respond adequately. But I was going directly to another commitment, one that mattered a lot to me. So I tucked the strong emotions away and chalked the whole thing up to a mystery of the Universe.

Before I made that trip to South Dakota, I’d mentioned it to a friend. She said there was a book she thought would be good for me to read. I dutifully ordered Neither Wolf Nor Dog but didn’t have time to read it before I left. It found its place on my bookshelf where it languished. I hadn’t known it was made into a movie. Some months later it was being shown where I live, and I followed the strong urge to see it.

The film hadn’t progressed very far when I began to get the eerie feeling of dejá vu. An author from Minnesota, Kent Nerburn, received a cryptic phone call out of the blue from a woman saying her Lakota grandfather wanted to see him. No reason given but delivered with a sense of urgency. Some months later, Nerburn—as he came to be called—finally was able to free up some time to make the long trip to the isolated place the elder Dan called home.  There were few explanations given to Nerburn, punctuated with a lot of silences. Quickly, Dan’s younger Lakota friend Grover was introduced into the story, a caustic individual with barely contained anger frequently directed toward Nerburn in clipped tones and looks. Frankly, I wondered why Nerburn stayed around. I think he did, too. He wrestled with his own responses and ultimately decided to let things play out. Plus, he had the nice guy syndrome going.

I experienced repeated slaps in the face watching all this. It was visceral. When Dan and Grover threw Nerburn in the car and took off on a little explained, exhaustive trip across the Dakotas, my forearms puckered into chicken skin that didn’t go away until the film ended. There were just too many parallels. The places they went, the flavor of the discourse. Showing rather than telling. When Dan broke silences to hold forth on what he wanted Nerburn to learn of the Lakota people…what he wanted Nerburn to put out there in writing… Well, I don’t have words for what I felt.

Clearly, I was not going to be allowed to tuck away my still strong emotions and bewilderment about the journey I took to the Dakotas. I can only believe unseen forces were taking me by the hand to engage with all of it.

So I started to read the book. It was not easy going for me. I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I’d have to digest the contents. Most of the things covered in Neither Wolf Nor Dog I knew about in some form: the atrocities done to Native peoples by whites, cultural differences in beliefs and values…and then there’s appropriation of Native traditions by white people searching to find spiritual grounding…or those who seek to do good but hold a hidden agenda. But I hadn’t found anything to the depth or in the frame presented by Dan, and even Grover, in this writing. The book naturally goes much deeper than the movie ever could.

It took me over two months to read Neither Wolf Nor Dog. I stepped back numerous times to examine the level of my own assumptions and awareness, as well as my motivations behind the work I’ve devoted twenty years of my life. It was a necessary, intensive process. I can’t say it’s over. Instead, it’s all percolating some place inside. I don’t know what will finally emerge.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is book one of a trilogy that recounts the story of an Indian elder, the surrounding Lakota community, and the white man who somehow has been called to be part of the Truth-naming. The Wolf at Twilight is about Dan’s search for his long-lost sister Yellow Bird who, kidnapped from her home some eighty years before, never returned from the Indian boarding school. The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo brings back the things many have forgotten: the meaning of dreams, the abilities to engage with nature and speak with animals. Sadly, it uncovers the existence of a secret asylum and events that took place there.

Kent Nerburn says these books are fictional accounts of actual events. The truths are in each sentence and have global application. This isn’t merely history. It’s today.

The books are available on Amazon or elsewhere. The movie may still be making the rounds in theaters. Hopefully, it will be offered streaming soon.

***

With many thanks to Karen Marchetti who turned me on to Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Without this guidebook I may never integrate the odyssey I was strangely called to undertake.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Global Consciousness, Indigenous Rights, Indigenous Wisdom | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Art Preserves a Legacy

Written in collaboration with Tat Apab’yan Tew.

In February, I traveled to southern Guatemala with Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew to put the final touches on the spiritual travel program we would lead in that region and Chiapas, Mexico in January 2019. When we stopped at Lake Atitlan for several days, I made sure to revisit La Galeria in Panajachel. I retained fond memories from twelve years before when my friend Will Crim and I stumbled upon the place while wandering the streets of Pana.

Carla-Vintage-a

Vintage. ©2006 Carla Woody.

We were first attracted by the vintage Mercedes planted in the garden, and then became enchanted after entering the gallery. While making our way around the exhibition, a spare man engaged us about the artwork and offered us an expresso. We took him up on his offer and got to hear Thomas Schäfer Cuz’ stories about his mother, German-Guatemalan bohemian artist Nan Cuz, for hours. We were even invited into the inner sanctum to view his grandfather’s collection of Maya folk art. I was fascinated. This time was much the same, but we also met Sabine Völcker, Thomas’ wife, who was equally as hospitable.

This article could go in any number of directions. For now I’m going to focus on the artwork and background of Rosa Elena Curruchich ⎯ and why such works are important. In the main gallery, there was a grouping of Naïve art that caught my eye. At first glance, these miniature paintings looked simple. But beyond their style became complex, quite detailed, and there was a narrative to each one. Only that grouping was up for display at that point.

We returned a couple of days later, invited by Thomas and Sabine when they would start cataloging the entire collection. They had received boxes upon boxes of the tiny paintings to be sold on behalf of the family of a collector, possibly Anna Paddington, who had recently passed.

Rosa Elena Curruchich was the first female painter in San Juan Comalpa, a highlands town known for its artists. Her grandfather, Kaqchikel painter Andrés Curruchich, started the tradition of oil painting there in the 1930s documenting celebrations, ceremonies and lifeways. Rosa Elena followed in his footsteps. Based on her grandfather’s teachings, the subject matter explains the detail of the pieces. The more you look, the more is revealed.

But most of Rosa Elena’s are just 4”x4” or 6”x6” – none larger. Why so small? Here is the story she told her benefactor, as it was passed on to Sabine and Thomas. She was married to a prominent, authoritarian husband who forbade her to paint. So she would sneak off to paint in secrecy and limited the sizes to what she could slip into her pocket to hide. Then she would make trips to the old capitol Antigua Guatemala and try to sell them in the market. After she sold the first one to the collector, this woman became almost her sole buyer.

Another story told by Rosa Elena that I uncovered through research said after she got her first exhibition in Guatemala City, the male painters in San Juan Comalpa were jealous. She received threats and fled to Chimaltenango, about 10 miles away, to live.

The common theme being oppression by men. Sabine had already told me the story about Rosa Elena’s husband may be questionable, told in the hopes of increasing sales. The same is said of the second story. It’s called survival.

The important thing though is what Rosa Elena Curruchich and all those who followed her grandfather have done. Through their artwork, they’re documenting ways of life that are precious, many threatened. I’m a fan of narrative art. In the true sense of artistry, they are preserving what’s important. A meaningful story, an emotion, ordinary things that have a deeper meaning.

It was quite exciting to me to go into the inner sanctum of La Galeria that day Apab’yan and I were invited back. There all laid out on two tables, side by side, were about 60 or more of Rosa Elena’s works. Several boxes were still unpacked, totally about 200 in all.

As Apab’yan examined them, he began sorting the pieces into an order…each ceremony as they fell according to the calendar. It was remarkable, really. Others he separated out having to do with daily activities. I ended up purchasing 3 pieces depicting ceremonies, and wished it could have been all that fell around the calendar. Below you will see them with Apab’yan’s explanations. He told me the ones I chose depict ceremonies that are nearly gone.

Rosa-2

This painting is showing a private celebration inside the cofradia house. In here we can see a woman and man making an offering to the patron saint. There is incense and food offerings as payment. The patron saint image is dressed as a full high-ranking member in the cofradia hierarchy. Inside the house there are the special objects to perform ceremony and celebration: a big drum, incense burners, paintings, old textiles. Cofradia members are holders of ancient ways of Maya spirituality, beyond the image of a western cult. There is always a nawal, or spirit, related to some aspect of nature.

Rosa-1

Once again we are inside the cofradia house. In here we can see the healing of a baby. By burning specified dried herbs and exposing the baby eyes and breath to the incense burner, she or he is going to recover. We call this awas, meaning secret or taboo. It is hidden ancient knowledge preserved by cofradia members. This practice is becoming extinct except in the far away mountains where elders from a direct Maya background continue to keep a huge quantity of spiritual and medicine knowledge.

Rosa-3

This is a celebration. There is fiesta and dance, food is prepared and musicians playing chirimia flute instruments.

Thomas told me directly this was a very important ritual done if a baby reached the age of 8 days. Infant mortality is high. This ceremony reinforced the health of the baby, who you can see laying on top of the mother, and that it would live to be an adult. The next marker was at 3 months, I believe.

This work is Rosa Elena’s legacy. Not only her own but that of her people. She passed too young at 46 in 2005, complications of diabetes.

We will be making another visit to La Galeria in January 2019, and I’m looking forward to it.

 

Categories: cultural interests, Maya, Spiritual Travel, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: