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Kachinas, Spirit Beings

March 1, 2015 , , , ,

Alex Seotewa was our guide to the mission church he had painted in Zuni pueblo.  We had driven there to see the interior of the mission church with the spectacular kachina murals which I had seen once briefly with a Catholic priest.  My fascination with this epic work of art started when I saw a television special, maybe even the program above, about Zuni, kachinas, and Alex.  I convinced my erstwhile father-in-law to land his private plane in Zuni to see the mural.  At that time the church was locked and there was a heavy smell of smoke damage because there had been a fire in the building.  I guess that was about 1988.  A priest had the key and showed us the inside of church for about 10 minutes, with no background information.  There were buffalo heads on sides of the altar. It struck me as not only amazing art but a highly sacred place.  It was obviously not in use, and the priest did not expect it would be used in the future.

I tried to see it once again, while driving back to Tucson from a ski trip in Colorado.  I jumped out of the car in my pink fluffy ski jumpsuit and asked the people at the convenience store at the turn off for Zuni on the highway for directions to get to the church to see the interior.  They insisted there was no church with kachinas.  I was adamant that I had been to it.   They became highly annoyed with me.  I finally got the message that I had behaved badly in that culture and was not welcome.  I was confused, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.  The mystery of the access to the kachinas in that mission church continued to intrigue me.  On my third visit the kachinas themselves must have arranged special treats for us.  We had a loft bedroom at a small hotel run by a French guy who runs the general store.  We arrived in the late evening.  At the tourist office in town I asked the young woman at the desk how I could see the kachina mural in the mission church. She said she had never seen it, so I had little chance of being so lucky.  This was a real surprise, since she was a member of the tribe about 20 years old.  I wondered why it was so difficult.

In the morning I headed downstairs for coffee and encountered fellow residents gearing up to go hunting with a Zuni guide.  They were eating breakfast, so I joined them for a cup of coffee.  The group had flown in from Atlanta for the privilege of hunting there.  They were all excited because they would be in the company of the local expert, which one of them had done previously.  I asked this hunting guide if he had any idea how I could arrange to see the inside of the mission, since that was our mission.  He made a phone call to his wife and arranged for his father, Alex Seotewa, to meet us at the church and give us a tour.  He left us a phone number to reach his father later, since it was only about 6 am, then took the happy hunters off in his truck. I knew this intervention had to be a special reward for holding the images of the kachinas in my mind for so many years.  They must have answered my desire to see them again.

Alex was in poor health, but obviously enjoyed telling the story of his art work, his tribal culture, and his calling to preserve his traditional heritage.  He spent about an hour with us answering questions and telling us about his life and work.  I will cherish the time we spent in his presence because the kachinas came to life with his explanations.  There has been controversy and dissent within the community between Catholic and traditional use of the mission.   When Alex’s father was a child the church was in disrepair, but it had punitive kachinas painted on the walls.  An agreement was made to restore the images between Alex and a priest who thought it was a good idea.  Subsequent Catholic clerics have not been as enthusiastic about preserving Zuni religious practice within, or consecutively with their own practices. Alex stopped attending services held by Catholics, but continued to feel his work depicting the kachinas was eucharistic, and a gift given from above.  He was a buffalo dancer in ceremony.  He described choosing the buffalo to kill and creating the heavy mask he wore for hours.  He told us what the importance of the buffalo was to his people, and why it was his responsibility not just to wear that mask, but to become a buffalo in spirit to keep his religion alive.  I have a strong memory of the authenticity of his thinking, his truly welcoming appreciation of our visit, and of the moment he showed us his spirit as a buffalo.  The old man turned his head away from us then slowly brought his upper body to face us with a steady, fierce gaze.  This was not an impersonation of an animal spirit…it was the spirit inside the man.  It was touched and grateful to be given the special gift. I consider our time with Alex to be a kind of miracle.  Have you ever had an experience of an extraordinary spiritual nature?

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I remember Kachina dolls! I had a couple that my grandmother bought me. I remember in school that one of my teachers required us to do some projects on the Hopi and Zuni.. It is a very special culture and one that the US should hold onto.. bec once no longer shared or no longer allowing non-Indians to share in the awareness of that culture, it will disappear. You are very lucky to have seen them twice and have this man share his beliefs


Stevie Wilson (@LAStory)

March 2, 2015

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