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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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Connect and Disconnect
Many Native American teens are more into MTV than Mother Earth--some are eager to find their way back
By Judith Fein
March/April 2008

THEY PRESS THEIR NOSES to the trunk of a ponderosa pine and sniff tentatively. The man who led these students into the woods asks a question: "Vanilla or butterscotch?"

A stereotyping romantic might suppose the young Native Americans would be at home beside a stream, beneath these trees. Ian Sanderson, their guide, himself Mohawk, knows that most are as disconnected from the natural world as other 21st-century American teens.

Their home is Santo Domingo Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Keresan people, their people, have lived and farmed here under big rainbow skies since prehistoric times, and this particular pueblo--what would be called a reservation elsewhere--notoriously guards its traditions with ceremonies, indigenous dances, and a high school devoted to Native American culture. But kids are kids. So Sanderson and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Mountain Center, an educational nonprofit, think it's important to lead these students to places, such as this nearby mountain stream, that never fell under the spell of the iPod and Xbox.

Faces to bark, slightly embarrassed, the students inhale deeply, naming aromas.

"Lick it," Sanderson says, grinning. "Lick it!"

Sanderson's goal, and that of the center's Native American "emergence" program, is to encourage young people to listen to the gurgle of streams, whiff the aroma of bark, taste native plants--and then help them understand how fully these sensations informed the lives of their predecessors.

But Sanderson has no patience for the "environmental savior" image non-Native people often impose on those whose ancestors originally inhabited the continent. Once, all humans knew that "we are, in the most profound way, a part of nature, a part of the whole system," he says. Then we began to forget our place.

People of every culture can go back to a time when their ancestors were intimate with trees, creeks, and birdsong, Sanderson says. Some simply forgot sooner. "We would argue that the West disconnected earlier and then forced other people to disconnect in a complicated violating process that's been going on for a long time. Now a lot of people are looking to reconnect."

Sam Lovato, who works with the pueblo's social services program, talks to the hikers about their responsibilities, warning that much of what he is about to say is not for outsiders. Speaking in the group's native Keres language but sprinkling in telling bursts of English--"We take care of our own," "That's how we do it in our village"--he reminds them that they and their families are a part of nature's cycles.

Up the trail, Sanderson unfurls a sheet of paper, kneels in the dirt, and draws shapes: concentric rings, spirals, branches, waves. Then he sends the students fanning out across the mountainside to find those shapes in nature.

A 15-year-old boy with a crew cut and sweatshirt reading "Toughest in the USA" stoops to pick up a slice of tree trunk--concentric circles. A girl, 17, holds up a branch. Another boy raises his arms and undulates from head to toe. "We should make a wave," he shouts.

Sanderson knows how to direct such exuberance. He wants the students to see patterns in themselves--in their fingertips, eyes, muscles, and veins. He also wants them to notice the patterns in the way they live.

"Think about behaviors you do over and over that don't work for you," Sanderson says. "If you know what they are, you can make them better." As he talks, a young man lifts two fingers and makes rabbit ears behind a young woman's head.

On the trail, the hikers crisscross a stream, teetering over logs, wobbling on submerged rocks, discussing their lives as they go.

"My younger brothers and sisters get mad at each other and argue, and I get involved," says Darrell Bailon. "Then they argue with me, and we yell at each other. It's like a pattern that happens every day. Today reminds me that I can do something. I can sit them down and tell them to respect each other." He adds, "I also have a pattern of going around with the wrong crowd. They get me in trouble. I came to this program to stay out of trouble, and I'm doing a lot better in school now. I only see that crowd once in a while."

Dappled sun lights Kalem Aguilar's face. "Everything that I see around me is alive," he says quietly, looking at brown and ochre leaves carpeting the trail. "These leaves are alive, even if other people think they are dead. You gather them together in winter to make a fire, and they keep you warm. You can make smoke signals if you're lost. You speak to the leaves and the fire. As long as you don't say anything negative about them, they help you."

Julianna Garcia's mother and father are jewelers, and she helps them with inlay work and stringing necklaces, a pueblo tradition. But she bemoans Santo Domingo's lack of outdoor activity. Her time at the Mountain Center has her thinking of a career as a forest ranger.

Garrett Bird runs a hand through his slicked-back hair and munches Doritos. His reason for joining the center's program is simple: "I have nothing else to do on weekends. I sit at home and watch TV."

This is the sort of confession that inspired 23-year-old University of New Mexico graduate and lifelong pueblo resident Ventura Lovato (no relation to Sam) to become an educator and recruiter with the center. "I never realized how much I've also adapted to the new fast-paced world," she says. "When we go out on these educational sessions, it brings us back. It's a nice feeling to remember this is how our ancestors lived. How did we lose it to all these electronic devices?"

Rose Chavez is a modern young woman who likes girlie things: "jewelry, sparkly, glittery stuff." The Mountain Center taught her to value other things as well. "I feel most relaxed in nature, away from peer pressures and drugs," she says. "Now I want to get my family to go outdoors instead of staying inside all the time." Before coming to the center, she had never taken a hike.

Sanderson knows that walking a trail can transform thinking by getting people to look at the nature around them and at themselves. "We are part of nature," he tells the students. "We are not separate from the rest of the universe. We Native people once knew that, but we have forgotten."

Judith Fein is a Sante Fe, New Mexico–based writer and performer.

Building Bridges to the Outdoors

The Mountain Center's program with Santo Domingo Pueblo students is made possible by funding from the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors project, whose goal is to give every U.S. child an outdoor experience. For more information on Building Bridges, go to sierra club.org/youth; e-mail building.bridges @sierraclub.org; or call (206) 378-0114, ext. 303. The Chamiza Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Pueblo peoples' traditional culture, also supports the center.


Photos by Michael Clark; used with permission.

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