The More Things Change
Part IV in a series.
There are a lot of times during my days, walking through this world, where I have small flashbacks or quick images that come into my brain. Not a hallucination, just a snapshot of a moment or a place or person.
A lot of the time the photostream of my brain shows me something about New Mexico. Some little atom or quark that is a building block of who I am. Meant to ground me, I think.
One image that seems to show up on rotation is being in either Old Town Albuquerque or at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe and buying beautiful handmade jewelry from the Native American artisans who display their wares on beautiful blankets.
Heck, in the early days (like the 1970’s) you would also find Native American artisans selling beautiful jewelry at the airport in Albuquerque. This was well before anyone called it a Sunport.
On this trip I made to Santa Fe at the end of last month, one thing I definitely wanted to do was see the Palace of the Governors and visit the row of Native American artisans with hand woven blankets laid out, selling handcrafted jewelry. I can remember being a fairly young kid and negotiating for beautiful pieces of silver, turquoise and coral.
The one moment I remember most was being something like nine or ten and using my allowance money to buy a really pretty green malachite ring set in silver.
I remember that the artisan was dressed in traditional Navajo clothing with her hair wrapped in leather and a huge and gorgeous turquoise bracelet on her arm. She either didn’t speak much English or chose not to. She was quite stoic, I recall, but I had watched my mom buy jewelry so I emulated her way, right down to the speech pattern.
I found the ring, tried it on, and liked it very much. I caught the artisan’s eye, held up the ring and asked, “How much?” I think she said ten dollars. I replied, “Would you take eight?” and she nodded. Thus, I now owned a beautiful handmade silver ring.
I wore it for many, many years.
In fact, I still have it.
This is it:
The ring is so tiny, it barely fits on my pinky finger. As you can see, the stone has a small nick. I really did wear this ring everyday for a long time. I loved it. I still love it.
So on that sunny Spring day on the Plaza a few weeks ago, after stuffing ourselves to the gills at the India Palace buffet, I was ready to walk around and my best friend and her girls were ready to sit.
They found a bench in the bustling center of the Plaza and I walked with purpose to the line of artisans with their creations on blankets.
My heart raced a little because I was excited. I mentally calculated how much cash I had on hand and what budget I would allow. I love beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry.
I had heard a few years back that there was some controversy about people who were not of Native American heritage selling jewelry on the Plaza, so I wasn’t sure what I expected.
I was pleased to see that indeed, the majority of the artisans seemed to be Native American. They wore modern dress, but the look, the speech pattern, the very vibe of the artisans let me know these were my New Mexico Native people, and I was happy.
As I walked down the row, I became less happy.
The quality of the jewelry I saw was not what I had hoped. The beautiful hand crafted chunky silver and turquoise, coral, jade and malachite jewelry had given way to items that were cheap looking, manufactured not handcrafted, meager and not bold and beautiful.
In some cases, I half expected to pick up a piece and see a stamp showing me it was manufactured in another country.
To be honest, not even the blankets seemed to be handmade. The image, the memory, it all looked the same as I crossed the street, but under the adobe and vigas of the Palace, everything really had changed.
On the plus side, I noticed that the artisans were very friendly with all of the tourists, inviting them to pick up pieces and try them on. Asking where they were from and how they liked New Mexico. The stoic artisan seems to be a thing of the past as I’m sure being a bit friendly sells more items. Even as I type that it feels a little like selling out.
So there was a plus and a minus to the experience. I ended up buying a pair of earrings from a vendor across the street on the plaza. They are small inexpensive dragonflies and I hold no illusions that they are genuine Native handcrafted.
I walked away a bit depressed and I remembered that I get a catalog from Southwest Indian Foundation, and they call the style of jewelry that I love “pawn style.”
Pawn style. There were some people that I knew who got really amazing deals on Native American crafted jewelry from the rows and rows of pawn shops in Gallup and other New Mexico towns. I never did that. I shopped a few times, but couldn’t get over the sad feeling in my gut. These pieces of jewelry were given up because someone needed fast money.
As I made a loop around the Santa Fe Plaza, I saw a shop that claimed to have old pawn jewelry, so I went inside.
They weren’t kidding. Inside the huge retail space half of the store was quite literally filled with pawn jewelry. The shop buys dead items (meaning the time has expired and no one was able to come back and claim the pieces) and resells them.
Resells them at a gigantic markup.
I found a case full of earrings and at a quick glance found three pairs that I either own the exact pair or something very, very similar.
Earrings that I know I paid somewhere between fifteen and forty dollars for were now marked anywhere from $125 to over $200.
I felt a little sick to my stomach. On the one hand I thought, “Hell, I should get out all of my old jewelry and sell it!” and of course I knew I’d never part with it. On the other hand my heart broke as progress has to come to all things, even Native American jewelry.
In my personal collection is my mother’s stunning New Mexico Native American handcrafted squash blossom necklace. Would I ever sell this? Hell no.
This is a really profound piece of jewelry. My mother often wore it and she was always beautiful wearing it, too. The turquoise is quite rough and each individual squash blossom is different, to match the stone.
But I wish I could have strolled the Palace of the Governors and seen pieces more like that chunky squash blossom for sale. The product of training, silversmithing, craftsmanship, and a deep Native American tradition.
Alas no, like that hammered tin clock that used to hang over the Albuquerque Airport, my memories are only nostalgia. Museum pieces. They no longer represent what is meaningful for today’s children growing up in New Mexico.
I guess I understand now. Sometimes as a kid I used to jokingly say that New Mexico was forgotten, wasn’t important, backward. Now I know it really was something good. I got to grow up in a beautiful culture and a beautiful state that is like nowhere else in the world.
I am hardly the only person who has ever come to realize this about the time and place that they were born and raised. It’s a common lesson. You really can never go back. I can be in New Mexico again, and I can love it, but it’s never going to be what I hold in my memories.
That hurts inside. I yearn for something that doesn’t really exist anymore, except in my mind and have to find a way to be okay with that. As of today, right this moment, I’m not okay. Not yet.
I suppose the answer is that I need to spend more time back home in New Mexico. I have to learn to know what she was once and love her as she is now.
It’s my failure that it’s been so long since I was back home. I hope to improve a lot over the coming years.
There is so much I know about New Mexico, and so much I have left to learn.
Up next, the conclusion: Part V, The Roots of My Raising Run Deep
Images Copyright © 2014 Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page. Taken with an iPhone5 and the Camera+ app.