I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.
Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)
Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.
And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.
So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.
I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.
And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.
Whenever I see “Calendar Girls” I think of the hilarious British movie by that name, but in this case, it means a group of (girl?) book bloggers who treat a different bookish theme during each month of the calendar. (So we will not be posing. I am sure you are relieved.) And this month, December, I was actually able to think of a book that fulfills the theme!
Calendar Girls is hosted by NeverNotReading, who says of this month’s theme, “What I really like about this theme is it allows you to interpret diversity in whatever way is meaningful to you. Racial or ethnic representation, LGBTQ diversity, neurodiversity, whatever you’re passionate about, we want to read it too!”
Picking a book with a diverse cast felt somewhat arbitrary because so many of my faves have casts that are diverse in one way or another. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women springs to mind, as do Ursula le Guin’s novellas set on the planet of Yeowe (navy-blue colored upper class, grey-blue colored underclass, red-brown foreigners with a very different culture coming from distant Hain). Even the very Nordic Lord of the Rings has a main cast of four different species and minor characters that are even more diverse (Ents, anyone?). And then there’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which features Neanderthals as main characters.
But here is the book I have settled on: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman.
Clowns is part of Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. It’s a mystery/police procedural series set in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, which straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. Chee and Leaphorn both work for the Navajo Tribal police. Because of the way jurisdiction on Indian reservations is handled, they frequently have to work on their cases with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or Utah State police and/or with the FBI.
Books in this series usually take place on the Navajo reservations and the plot often turns on Navajo culture. That’s already “diverse” to an outsider like me. But it quickly gets deeper. Chee and Leaphorn have each had a different experience of being Navajo. Leaphorn was of the generation that was sent away to boarding schools right around the time their adult vocabulary would have been developing. Consequently, his grasp on the Navajo language is a little shaky, and he thinks like a modern, secular white man. He doesn’t, in his bones, believe in Navajo cosmology. Chee, a younger man, was raised at home and enculturated, as per tradition, by his mother’s brother. He is a fully spiritual Navajo and wants to become a haatalii, or traditional healer, like his uncle (though Leaphorn, and others, feel the demands of being a hataalii would not mix well with a policeman’s schedule).
Sacred Clowns is even more diverse than the average Leaphorn and Chee book because in this case, the mystery takes place in Hopi culture, which is different from Navajo culture. (For example, Navajos tend to invite everyone to their religious ceremonies, whereas Hopi ceremonies are held in secret and never talked about.) In the opening scene, Chee is attending a Hopi cultural event that features clowns, which are supposed to show people their own folly. At one point, a Hopi clown mimes selling cultural artifacts to an outsider for a lot of money. He is clearly criticizing this practice, but Chee senses “there’s something I’m missing.” When the clown first drags his little wagon of artifacts out into the middle of the square, the Hopi crowd falls silent. Chee wants to find out why, and this will get him digging into local politics and ultimately solving the case.
Chee isn’t at the top of his game
during the event, however, because he is also there sort of on a date with Janet
Pete. Janet’s father was Navajo, but she was raised on the East Coast by her
Scottish-American mother. Chee really likes Janet, and he spends most of the
book trying to find out whether it would be OK for him to get involved with
her. The Navajo have an elaborate system of incest laws which prohibit you from
marrying anyone whose clans have a historical connection to your own clans. Janet
doesn’t know her father’s clans, and anyway the maternal clans are considered
Meanwhile, Leaphorn, a widower, is planning a trip to China with his lady friend, who is a white anthropologist (Lousia Bourbonette – a French name: more diversity, and a romance between older people!). He wants to visit Mongolia, because he’s read that his ancestors probably originated there.
And cramming in as many cultures as
possible, there is another tribal cop, Harold Blizzard, who is Cheyenne. About halfway through the book there’s a great
scene where Chee and Janet Pete are at a drive-in movie, and Blizzard is there,
sort of as a third wheel. The movie is an old Western called Cheyenne Autumn, which is a cult classic
among the Navajo because the “Cheyenne”
characters in the movie were actually played by Navajos. When they are
supposedly speaking Cheyenne
in the movie, they are actually speaking Navajo, and of course saying crude and
saracastic things that were not in the script. Chee, as the only person in the car who speaks
Navajo, has to translate for Janet and Harold so they can understand why certain
supposedly solemn lines are funny and why all the other (Navajo) moviegoers are
laughing and honking their car horns. It’s this experience that gets Chee thinking
about how much outsiders to a culture miss, and wondering what he was missing at
the Hopi gathering.
Finally, when Chee consults some
elders about Janet’s father’s clans, he gets an earful from them about how
young people aren’t traditional enough. They are referring to the way that hataalii of Chee’s generation will sometimes
break up the weeklong Navajo healing ceremonies over a couple of weekends so that
people who work 9-to-5 jobs can attend them. According to the elders, this is
not acceptable, but Chee will probably have to do it if he becomes a healer. He
must struggle with how much he can adapt his ancestors’ culture and still
All of Hillerman’s books do a great job exploring themes of culture and identity, but in this book he really outdoes himself.
I am Dutch-American. What I got out of it was good bone structure, “Kraklen” cookies (sogood!), a fondness for black licorice, a few mild swear words such as swatakat (translation: “black cat”), curly hair (more on that later), and the phrase, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”
That last one is tongue-in-cheek, of course. After all, we are Dutch American. But if you look at history, it does neatly encapsulate the national attitude.
One Cheer for the Dutch
The Dutch had their national moment, as it were, during the seventeenth century (1600s). They provided a refuge of religious freedom for the Pilgrims, mostly because at that time the Dutch didn’t care about separatism nearly as much as King James did.
In North America, they set up a trading post at New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island), but made the mistake of fixing upon a feudal-style system where only Dutch West India Company members could own land, and their serfs were forbidden by law from leaving. This did not encourage growth, and the place struggled until the English conquered it, re-named it New York, and allowed English things like local control of government, free immigration and trade, and land ownership for everyone. After that it really took off, and … well, you see it today.
the Dutch East India Company was distinguishing itself in
Indonesia, where in order to ensure its own access to spices, it
would eventually become a harsh colonial power and rule for
centuries, until its grip was weakened by Japan (on-site) and Hitler
in Indonesia, the Dutch did manage to get a monkey named after them.
The Indonesians called the proboscis monkey kera Belanda, i.e.
“Dutch monkey,” because of its big nose and reddish skin.
don’t think the Dutch sent their nicest people to Indonesia. Or to
Manhattan. But, during this same period, Holland did have some
amazing citizens. For example, they had Rembrandt.
“Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leyden, Holland [the same city where the Pilgrims took refuge] in 1606. He was one of nine children and the son of a miller [and so they probably had a windmill!]. His family was Calvinist by faith … Rembrandt married Saskia, a Dutch woman whom he dearly loved. For a short period they enjoyed a life of happiness and prosperity and many were acclaiming him to be the greatest artist of the century. But Rembrandt never displayed an exalted opinion of himself… During the early years of success, he obtained a studio in the ghetto where he spent much of his time painting the impoverished people of Amsterdam. The ghetto was where he found his characters for biblical paintings, such as Abraham, Isaac, and many of the old prophets. Meanwhile, Saskia enjoyed the luxury that came with her husband’s success. Unfortunately, all this was short lived.
would have two daughters who died during infancy. Then, there was
good news as they gave birth to a healthy son whom they named Titus.
Shortly thereafter, Saskia fell ill and died. Rembrandt was greatly
grieved by these family losses, and never remarried. It wasn’t long
after these tragedies that he had to declare bankruptcy, losing
everything he owned, including his great art collection. All that was
spared him were his paints and brushes. Then, one year before his own
death, the only remaining member of his family, Titus, died at the
age of 27.
“Truly Rembrandt was a man of sorrows. But none of his emotions or energy went for naught, as he continued to paint with all the fervor of his youth. During his deep moments of suffering, he would always revert back to doing paintings of Jesus Christ. These biblical stories were done more for his own satisfaction [than for sale], as there were over seventy biblical paintings in his possession just a few years before his death.” (God & the History of Art, pp. 65 – 68)
Rembrandt did approximately 100 self-portraits, which brings me to what this Dutch-American blogger has in common with him besides the national origin and, of course, the crazy talent. If you want to see a few of them (and they are delightful), follow this link to the Human Pages site.
Of course there are so many things to love about these portraits, especially the Impressionist-looking one where an aged Rembrandt is smiling at the camera. (That must have been fun to paint.) But one thing that struck me about them was the curly hair. Look at that curly hair! In the very young self-portrait, it shades his face in a hood of frizz. Perhaps he had just washed it.
I have hair of about the same texture. When treated well (i.e. not washed for while), it settles into loose curls. When treated poorly, it frizzes. I got this curly hair from my Dutch American grandfather. Never got to see it on his head, because he went bald before I was born, so I didn’t know what was coming. But the hair lives on in me and in several other members of my family. It wasn’t until I saw these self-portraits of Rembrandt that I realized these are genuine, trademark Dutch curls.
Every nationality has things to be ashamed of and things to be proud of. I am proud of Rembrandt (though I can’t take any credit for him), and I am happy to share, if nothing else, his hair.
Gary, et. al. Building a City on a Hill. American Vision,
Inc., 1997, rev. ed. 2005. Chapter 25: “New Netherland Becomes New
York,” p. 289 ff.
Barry. God & the History of Art I, 2nd ed. How
Great Thou ART publications, 2001.
G.K. Chesterton has addressed the important question of what paganism really is and how it relates to being human in his book The Everlasting Man. So I was going to do a brand-new post about paganism drawing on that book. I was going to discuss how not everything in pagan practice is what we would strictly call religion, because it includes local history, genealogy, cosmology, entertainment, medicine, etc., etc. I was going to mention that all human beings need rituals, ways of dealing with illness, ways to mark the seasons, times of mourning and times of play, that literally every human practice was developed first by pagans and blah blah blah.
But I wasn’t able to get access to G.K. Chesterton’s book so as to write a brand-new post on all of this. Besides, conveniently, I have already written one.
The rule is, your Hallowe’en costume should be either be a horror creature, or else something clever and funny and preferably inanimate. Be a deer or a demon or an avocado or a donut or a steak. Don’t dress up as any kind of a person.
The only time you may dress up as a person is when you already look exactly like that kind of person, in which case, depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be much of a costume, but I digress.
A year ago I broke this rule and
here’s what happened.
I am a middle-aged blond woman. I went as Mario from Super Mario Bros. My costume consisted of a fake black mustache and the trademark Mario hat. (It was a costume of convenience. My kids had developed an interest in Mario and Luigi, and had already acquired the props.) It was a not terribly convincing costume, since with my shocking white skin and light-colored, curly hair poking out from under the hat, there was no disguising that I was a lady of Dutch ancestry. Also, I don’t own any blue coveralls.
Trick-or-treating in our then neighborhood was the most fun I’ve ever had trick-or-treating. People decorate their houses, come outside, and sit in lawn chairs in costume, holding bowls of candy, sometimes flanked by a glowing brazier or a bowl of dry ice. The streets throng with families. All the little kids and many of the parents are excitedly complimenting one another’s costumes. Cars, if they venture out at all, drive at 2 mph. Everyone is feeling happy and excited. No one is drunk, but their inhibitions are down. It’s a real party atmosphere.
(The year my one son was two, he was so cute that people kept giving him extra candy. After an hour, his trick-or-treat bucket was so heavy that he couldn’t carry it. But I’m digressing again.)
When I showed up in my Mario costume, it was immediately recognized by a mustachioed, curly-haired man about my own age. He pointed at me and yelled at the top of his voice,
“Look! It’s an older Greek woman!”
Then as I doubled over in laughter, he added, “That’s how we tease our Grandmas.”
Darn. I was trying to appropriate Italian culture.
Several years ago now, I found
myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a
small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them. Although I knew Christian believers in that
group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local
We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him. He was very passionate about our topic of discussion. He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up. Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.
He spoke thus:
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you
that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do
(slam) believe in God. But we also
(slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”
This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being. They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.
This view is also reflected in the
governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the
top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces.
Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each
responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village
Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families.
It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the
ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show
respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.
My pagan friend went on,
“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect
the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you
might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how
many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly
be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”
His point was that showing
disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring
Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.
This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.
Local Religions Ground but also Divide
I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this. You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.
United by One God
I could probably write another
1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it. So instead, listen to the words of Paul,
Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even
found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship
as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and
everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples
built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything,
because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one
man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and
He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should
(You wouldn’t think “He determined
the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard
that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that
no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)
“God did this so that people would
seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one
of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own
poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”
(By the way, notice how he alludes to the
wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t
finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”
Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
The Lovas [Hungary] find [of an ochre mine dated to 30,000 years ago] … appears unexpectedly, out of nothing, as it were. [It] consisted of tools suited to quarry red paint — a purely ‘luxury’ article, according to our present outlook. The quantity and perfect finish of the tools, together with the difficulties involved in obtaining the raw material, demanded an astonishing degree of concentration … on the part of primitive man. Such qualities are not usually associated with palaeolithic man who is regarded as being unable to concentrate his attention, rather clumsy and heavy in his cerebral activities except those connected with the fundamental functions of self-preservation and the propagation of the race.
Mészáros and Vertes, quoted in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, pp. 179 – 180
This academic-ese for, “Gee, we thought that paleolithic people were stupid brutes, but now it turns out they were people after all.”
I especially love the snooty euphemisms except those connected with the fundamental functions of self-preservation and the propagation of the race. It might be couched in academic terms, but this is clearly a reference to our mental picture of a cave man clubbing a saber-toothed tiger and then dragging some poor woman away by her hair.