Celebrating the Churro

Sheep-DSCF7494“In our Native way, food is our medicine,” Walter says. “We use the herbs in our ceremonies, we pray with them. Our food is art and it’s our prayer, too.”

The ultra-modern seven-story administration building at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz.—the tallest building on the Navajo Nation—is affectionately referred to as the “lug nut” building for its rounded six-sided shape and metallic reflective finishes. So it’s something of a pleasantly dissonant surprise to pull into its nearby parking lot and hear the sound of bleating sheep.

For the past 21 years, the annual three-day Sheep is Life celebration is held to honor and deepen the long and valued relationship between the Navajo people and the old-time Navajo sheep, or Churro. Sponsored by The Navajo Lifeways nonprofit, or Diné be’ iiná, Inc., the conference and celebration took place this year, and is contracted for the next several, at Diné College in Tsaile, “the place where the stream flows into the canyon.” Canyon de Chelly is about a 30-minute drive away and is the place in the Navajo creation stories where Navajo deity Spider Woman, who taught weaving to her people, lives on a spectacular 800-foot spire. Continue reading

Get Out the Hard Stuff!

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Everywhere I look, trees have thrown off their colorful robes. Crackly piles of yellow leaves lie everywhere, piling up in corners and covering the ground between tree trunks. The afternoons, ever shorter, have a wonderful crisp feel and most days I can smell piñon and cedar fires burning in nearby kivas. Wool sweaters and hats are being pulled down from the top shelves of closets and we’ve all got our eyes on the Santa Fe ski basin, waiting for snow. It’s here: winter has crept up on us. I’ve traded in my salad bowl for the Crock-Pot and likewise it’s time to retire mojitos and mint juleps in favor of darker spirits and warming winter cocktails. I asked some of northern New Mexico’s most talented bartenders for their favorite cold-weather creations. Their original recipes and twists on old classics will have you feeling warm and fuzzy through the holidays and beyond. Continue reading

Native Healing

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.20.33 PMWhen the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, head coach Pete Carroll didn’t talk about strength or power, as one might expect in regards to the brute sport of football. Rather, he cited mindfulness and meditation as two of the key components to his team’s success. In an interview, Carroll summarized, “Simply put, mindfulness occurs when you become more aware of your thoughts.”

Carroll and his team meditated several times a week, as well as coordinated yoga (a mode of mindfulness practice) into their workout schedule. They cultivated the ability to quiet their minds, focus and be fully engaged in the game, and the results were impressive. These types of old teachings are certainly not exclusive to professional athletes; the purity and simplicity of mindfulness is quite democratic—all one needs is a quiet space and a span of time. We’ve all got that, right? Regardless, how many of us choose to spend ten minutes looking at our electronic devices rather than just sit in silence and pay attention to our breath?

Despite stacks of research touting the benefits of meditation, Karen Waconda-Lewis, Director at the Center for Native American Integrative Healing (CNAIH), believes “that root of thought and intention has been lost.” Karen, a healer like her grandparents and their grandparents, has been working in the Albuquerque area for more than 20 years, the past seven at the center’s current location on Dartmouth and Silver (though by the time this article goes to press, it will be at its new location in Old Town). There, she offers a place for spiritual renewal, relaxation and mindfulness, where the Buddhist teachings are blended with Native traditions, as the two indigenous cultures have always integrated meditation as a way “to take you to another level to understand the sacredness of life.” As she further explains, “There are times [that] the medicine of talking out is needed … but a lot of times the body just wants it to be quiet, to go back to what is the root and what is the internal space, because it’s covered up.”

Karen, a licensed massage therapist, has also been trained in Buddhist meditation by Joseph Goldstein, one of the first American vipassana (insight meditation) teachers; he is also co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. People from all ethnicities and cultures come to her for a wide range of ailments: physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. The healing offered is always personal and varied. She gets a lot of calls for either a blessing or a prayer—for, say, young mothers preparing to give birth, for those who have passed or for those moving from the reservations to a new home in the city. It is important to acknowledge these times of transition that happen in everyone’s lives. Those are the times, she says, when we end up using flowers and aromatherapy, modalities that help to connect and ground people.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.20.48 PMThen of course, there are those who are physically ill with cancer or diabetes, muscular aches and pains, migraines or bad dreams. Karen was taught by her mother and grandmother (who are from Laguna Pueblo) about flower essences and essential oils, and for these ailments she uses all her own organic oils. Her grandparents had a huge garden, and she recalls how her grandmother would boil her plants then skim off the oils and use them for healing. Karen also used to spend a lot of time with her grandfather, who is from Isleta Pueblo. As she recalls, “He used to take me to mines across the Southwest, and he’d put a rock in my hand in like, Silver City, the copper mines down there, and he’d say, ‘Close your eyes. What’s the first thing you feel? Don’t think about it, just what’s the first thing?’ And I’d say it, then he’d put another, sandstone, turquoise or whatever, and I’d say it from my body—what I was feeling—and that’s it.” Pretty soon, she was saving her money and traveling to mines all around the world, like Tanzania, which is how she ended up obtaining a lot of her minerals.  As Karen explains it, the sensations she felt from the minerals guided her in knowing which ailments they were used for.

In addition to the many types of integrative healing she practices, Karen also hosts Monday evening sessions at the healing center, when the massage table gets moved aside and folks gather to practice their meditation in a group setting for 30 to 40 minutes. Now and then, she says, “I may bring in other things to meditate with. I may bring in a crystal or an essential oil, a stone or an object, and they can meditate with that if they choose.”

Depending on the depth and breadth of one’s practice, there are also monthly teachings offered at the center, some of which are more specifically focused on the Buddhist perspective. “For example,” Waconda-Lewis explains, “we had an activity where we paired up and asked ‘What inhibits or what blocks your full expression of compassion?’ Whatever the person responds, the partner says, ‘Thank you.’ This exchange is repeated for three minutes, and at first people reveal generic stuff, but then you start really expressing what blocks your compassion. Then the next question is, ‘What fully allows you to express compassion?’ And to have someone just hear you and honor your space without any verbal or nonverbal judgment just opens someone up. They were able to see and feel on different levels what it means to express compassion.”

Four times a year for four days, during the solstice and equinox, there are also retreats, where people from as far away as Japan and gather outside of Albuquerque to sit in silence. Each solstice and equinox is aligned with an element: water, fire, earth or air. The food consumed during the retreats, all vegetarian, is also aligned to cleanse and rejuvenate the organs aligned with the respective element. For example, based on Chinese culture, water was the element for the winter solstice, and dark red, purple and black foods such beans and beets were used to cleanse and rejuvenate the kidneys and bladder.  “We eat in silence as well, and you’re really feeling the movement of chewing and swallowing and walking and sitting and following the breath and knowing the intentions.” This type of mindfulness brings awareness that all beings—whether plants or humans or animals—are all in this together. It simplifies the elements and reminds us that earth, air, fire and water are what we all share.

And the cost for any and all of this integrative healing? If an institution such as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or a hospital, is referring a patient, generally it will pick up the cost for that patient. But with the exception of massages, patients pay strictly by donation, and this, Waconda-Lewis says, is part of the healing for them. “We say, there is no cost with healing, but we also say, whatever comes from your heart, you’ll know that stretch. And don’t stretch it too far, but you’ve got to feel the stretch.” She doesn’t suggest what that “stretch” is (unless requested); she’ll just tell patients, “Whatever comes to you.”

In so many important ways, the healing center serves as a liaison for Native people to access traditional resources that are not typically available in the city. “At first,” Karen admits, “I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted a job, but it’s for the child within ourselves. And if we can learn to detox—we often think of detoxing our body, but we can learn to detox the mind and get to our pure nature.”

The pull to be a part of that healing process for others seemed to be something she could not deny. She also understood the difficulty of getting back to the reservation, and so, she says, “Here’s a place to turn to when there’s illness or when there’s transition. It’s just a place for people to really come back to their true home and their child nature and who they are born for.”

 The Center for Integrative Native American Healing. 505.503.5093. The director, Karen Waconda-Lewis (Isleta/Laguna) can be reached at native2heal@yahoo.com.

Story by Emily Beenen; photos by Kitty Leaken


Darkfire and Arancio…

…A Love Story


I’ve always been a cat person. Cats are me: slinky, mysterious, independent, opinionated, friendly if they feel like it, cranky when crossed, lovers of the night. I’ve had a wonderful long line of serial relationships with cats—mostly black—ever since college. Our current cat is one my son, then 12, brought home as a little Manx kitten from the litter next door and named Darkfire after a ninja from a favorite book.

Then about three years ago, a neighbor of ours had a sudden life-changing issue and had to return home to Italy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take the Rhodesian Ridgeback/pit bull/mutt mix he’d rescued a few years before from an abusive situation in Abiquiú. I was over with some other neighbors helping Luca move the day before his flight when he learned that the home he thought he’d found in Madrid for Arancio had fallen through. One of the friends asked him, “What’s your Plan B?” and Luca said, “I don’t have one. But I’m not worried. The right person will appear.” And that’s when I opened my mouth and heard myself say, “We’ll take him!”

Immediately afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I say that for?” It’s not that I disliked dogs, I just thought of them as slobbery and excitable, the Jim Carreys of the animal world. I felt about dogs kind of like grandparents feel about their grandkids: glad to spend time with them, happy at the end of the day to wave goodbye. But it was, of course, too late for me to take back my offer. And, knowing what I know now, I think it was Arancio himself who put those words in my mouth. He’s a Trickster crossed with the Dalai Lama. “Arancio” means orange in Italian—Luca, an artist, sees the world in colors. I asked him how Arancio got along with cats. “Oh, no problem,” Luca assured me. “You will see.”

Sure enough, as soon as Arancio stepped in the door, nails clicking loudly, Darkfire sprang from sound sleep to warrior stance, his back arched, face contorted with fury, hissing. Whereupon Arancio, looking both worried and also inordinately sad at being so badly misunderstood, turned around, sat with his back to the bristly cat and stared fixedly at the opposite corner of the room.

This “what cat?” attitude plus keeping a wide birth were Arancio’s strategies for months to come. But Darkfire at his best is the quintessential Clown. So, as time went on and the dog remained a happy, calm presence no matter what, Darkfire relaxed back into himself. His whole appearance is comical. Being a Manx means he’s tailless, so he’s built like a sumo wrestler to compensate for lack of balance; he also has double-jointed hips, allowing him to lie on his belly with his back legs stretched straight out behind him. His fur is white with a few grey spots, including one on the top of his head resembling a center-parted toupée that’s slipping slightly, and he often sits upright, human-style, looking over his belly at you, complacent as a couch potato.

They could’ve reached a simple coexistence status and left it at that, but Darkfire wanted more. Arancio is his hero. Darkfire now thinks of himself as a dog, too. If Arancio gets a treat, Darkfire wants one; when Arancio goes out with me for walks, Darkfire comes, too. And Darkfire began, little by little, to ease closer to Arancio, lying next to the wood stove. Now Darkfire snugs right up against “his” dog, both of them with their front paws crossed.

And, I have to say, Darkfire has impeccable taste. Arancio, that handsome gent, is, in my totally unbiased opinion, an evolved being. A happy dog, a Wonder Dog. Master of a multitude of subtle facial expressions, a lover of people. But not all people, just the ones he’s chosen. For them, he races up, doing an excited dance around their knees and feet, his whole big triangular pit bull head exuding grin. He dances with his best dog buddies, too, both of them leaping into the air when they meet, exuberantly clapping paws. When he’s out for a walk or a hike, he trots lightly on his feet, à la Fred Astaire, his ears bouncing. He has the greatest sense of humor, too, sensing when it’s too cold out and I’ve had enough and reversing direction in mid-stride, charging right at me, grinning, so I’ll turn back around, too. And when the occasion calls for calm, he’s the essence of zen.

Of course, both Arancio and Darkfire also have their faults. Arancio, the prince of diplomacy when encountering a canine enemy on foot, barks like some fierce junkyard dog when he’s safely inside the car. He’s also so terrified of thunder, he shakes uncontrollably, running to escape it. And he’s a whore for food, any food, whatever you’ve got. And Darkfire? He pees on the kitchen rug to punish me when I’m away for extended periods; once, to register his supreme displeasure about our move to our new house, he craftily waited until I’d finished making up the bed that first night, then squatted on my pillow, soaking it completely through the middle. And he’s an inveterate whiner, in an earsplitting Siamese-like voice.

But all of this just reminds me of that bumper sticker, “God, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” Before, when I was dog-less, I assumed what that meant was that dogs, being not exactly the brightest animals on the ark, were incapable of seeing their humans realistically, beyond the idealized version they pledge their doggy allegiance to. But animals don’t lie, especially to themselves. Animals know who exactly who we are.

What I think that bumper sticker really is saying is, “Please help me see myself the way my dog—and my cat—see me.” That is, without judgment. It’s the judgment that’s so hard for us humans to shake. Arancio and Darkfire know I’m lazy. They know I’m selfish, I get mad, I’m afraid no one likes me, I’m afraid I’m no fun. They know that sometimes life just totally overwhelms me. They don’t have opinions about any of that. Because they also know my best sides, including the parts that I’m too self-conscious to show most other humans, like laughing at my own corny jokes, making up embarrassing love songs to sing to them at the top of my voice or dancing goofily around them and chasing them through the house. Crying against their fur when I’m feeling hurt, streaming snot and getting red in the face, till I’m all cried out.

To paraphrase poet Mary Oliver, all we have to do, my dog, my cat and me, is “let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.” There’s enormous grace in that, as well as the allowance to be all of who we potentially—really—are. Treasure the deepening of your own animal relationships this Valentine’s Day as you move forward, unwinding together the mystery of the profound love you share.

This story is dedicated to Michelle’s beloved Pearl.

Story by Gail Snyder

The Quiet Side

By the time the end of the year rolls around, my secret fantasy is just to unplug. As holiday distractions beat a final retreat and winter lumbers its lugubrious self in for real, I’d love to rip the January page right out of the calendar and hunker down by the wood stove. Let the wind howl, the snow pile up till it buries my car —I’m inside.


Photo by Kitty Leaken

Is it Friday? Sunday? Who cares? I could eat luxurious breakfasts, spread art projects across the table, read, write, follow the meandering of my thoughts. Periodically my dog and I would venture out, he tearing around joyously marking all the chamisa bushes, me walking meditatively down the arroyo amongst coyote and rabbit tracks, pulling frozen air deep into my lungs and studying the map of sky. Shivering more deeply into my coat as the chill seeps in, I’d hurry us back homeward across the mesa. Stoke the stove, pull up a cushion and, over dinner, in the flickering firelight, I’d sit, eyes unfocused, dreaming shapes in the flames. Shadows lengthen, time blurs, a comforting silence envelops and my witness self begins whispering messages of encouragement, nourishment, possibility. Until, at last, sated, I’d wander off to bed beneath stars, hard and bright outside my window. Wrapped in a cocoon of flannel and down, I’d drift into a childhood realm of magic, as fantastical creations come alive behind my eyelids, luring new sides of myself out to play. Continue reading