Spirit Doll Speaks

Late August in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the monsoon rains held off until early evening so we could take in the wonders of Indian Market. In its 95th year and billed as the preeminent Native arts market in the world, it is nearly overwhelming. As the Southwest Association for Indian Arts says, "There is simply no other time and place in the Native arts world where the impact and influence of Native culture and identity is reinforced, reestablished and reinvented." I cannot judge meaning of the market in the wider world, but I know that every time we visit, the experience brings me circling back on my personal history with Native American culture, and with my pre-occupation with culture as force in our lives.

Growing up as westerner, Native Americans were at the edge of my peripheral vision, sliding into view during visits to the national parks or when we stopped at trading posts on long vacation drives. There was a family story that the only other baby in the Toole Country, Montana hospital where I was born was a Blackfoot girl named Tootsie Stripped Squirrel—a name my family has teasingly called me on occasion.

What brought Native American culture clearly into focus for me was a post-graduate year spent at the University of the Wisconsin, Milwaukee, at the Center for 20th Century Studies(now, of course, the 21st Century.) As a research assistant, I spent the year helping to organize a symposium on ethnopoetics, which explored tribal poetics and their relationship to and influence on modern poetics. Heady stuff. Throughout the year, the poet Jerome Rothenberg brought many of the country's most famous poets to campus—all culminating in a grand weekend event. It was during that period that I came to read and hear not only those who were reinterpreting the tribal verses, but also native poets including the remarkable Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz. Curiously, the proceedings are available online today in Alcheringa.

Tribal poets are, at heart, storytellers and stories are the soul of culture. Now, long-distanced from academic life, the storytellers of my world tend to be the great communicators in design firms. What a gift to be able to tell a story well, to find the narrative arc, the metaphors, the synecdoches or anecdotes that connect the listener to the tale in a memorable and meaningful way. There is magic in it. And New Voodou believes that magic is possible.

So when I saw the beautiful Lakota spirit doll created by Native American craftswoman Olivia Skenandore, she spoke to me. Her buckskin robe covered in pictographs told a story. The beadwork and feathers belong to a culture that is not mine, yet they are the traditional decorations of an ancient talisman. Clearly, she needed to come home with me, where she will remind me of the power of the storyteller to "reinforce, reestablish and reinvent” our cultures.