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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

A holiday blend: Pueblo Indian Christmas


Every year, for more than 30 years, our family entered the world of Pueblo Christmas, unlike any that other Americans celebrated. At San Felipe Pueblo, a short distance north of our home in Albuquerque, we joined our Pueblo friends in their unique celebration. While many Americans blend family traditions in their modern families, the Pueblos have done this for centuries. The Spaniards “converted” the Pueblos in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They forbade any Native religions for several decades, but after a violent Pueblo revolt, they stepped back and the Pueblos were able to bring back their Native practices in the context of Catholicism.

Those Native ways often overpower the Christian ones, beginning on Christmas Eve. In the small mission church of San Felipe, midnight mass ends, the priest leaves. And then the first of the Native dancers enters the church, almost to remind everyone just who is  Read More 
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Indians and Thanksgiving


Americans can easily recite the story of the first Thanksgiving. In 1621, a group of 53 colonists at Plymouth, MA, after enduring a harsh winter, sat with nearby American Indians - Wampanoag - for a harvest feast. Chief Massasoit himself and some of his men hunted for some deer that they brought to the feast.

What followed the arrival of the Europeans in North America, though, was not quite so festive. As many as 90 percent of the thousands of Wampanoags in Massachusetts and the offshore islands had already succumbed to disease, at first thought to be small pox but subsequently determined to be some other fever condition. By 1621, although they were as weakened as the colonists, they continued to welcome the outsiders. Then in the 1670s, their resistance to conquest led to the near obliteration of the tribes. The English confiscated their lands and enslaved the survivors.  Read More 
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Blood and American Indians: Part 2


Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, finds herself caught in the dilemma of “blood quantum.” Most white Americans don’t know what this term means, but it is the hottest issue in Indian country, because it raised the question, “Who is Indian?” Warren just doesn’t have the “paper,” the “proof” of her Cherokee/Osage ancestry.

Whites imposed “blood quantum” on Indian identity in the nineteenth century, and through Elizabeth Warren, other Americans know more about it. As Native resistance to American conquest unleashed brutal battles across the West, the federal government  Read More 
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Blood and American Indians: Part I


Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, is in the hot seat. In a document she filed some years ago with Harvard, her employer, she said that she had some American Indian ancestry. Warren did not provide proof of tribal membership - such as "blood quantum" - but referred to family conversations. Scott Brown, her Republican opponent, said that Warren wasn't American Indian because she did not "look Indian."

Warren is the not the only American with Indian ancestry but without "papers." Brown is not the only white American to fall into the stereotype of Indians as having dark skin, high cheekbones, etc. Half of the four million American Indians come from mixed ancestry, and a number are as fair and light-skinned as Warren.

An overriding definition of membership in one of the 500-plus  Read More 
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Spain the Global Power

Cabrillo exploration

We think of globalization as a new phenomenon, but 500 years ago, great powers competed for resources across the Americas, in what we call the United States today. In the New World, European nations sought minerals (especially gold), furs, access to trade routes, sea lanes, and land.

Spain had a head start, with its colony in Mexico. In the 1530s, she launched a campaign designed to counter the Russians moving down the from the Pacific Northwest coast, the French from the North (Canada) and the English from the East. Three well-equipped Spanish expeditions headed into what is today the United States. At the eastern end of the continent, Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba, landing at present-day Tampa in 1539. During the next three years, he used the Panhandle as a base to survey the area from the Carolinas to Texas. Native peoples resisted, and  Read More 
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American Indians Have Strong Voices


Wherever I give presentations about my book, I invite people to contribute their thoughts about American Indians today. I reach into the Native American community wherever I am and ask them to tell their stories as a way of expanding the impact of All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos), which was recently published.

In Portland, OR, the events coordinator of the Barnes and Noble store in Lloyd Center made it easy for me to find those people. From the moment I contacted Steve Chandler and told him about my goal, he had an idea in mind - a Saturday book fair devoted to American Indians with activities throughout the day and my book as the centerpiece at an afternoon author's event. A portion of the proceeds of sales throughout the store that day would go to a Native organization serving family and youth. He would get the word out to the American Indian community.

Working with Steve at long distance in San Francisco, I contacted Karen Kitchen, the head of the Indian program in the Portland Public Schools and asked her to collaborate with me for a program on education for urban Indians, a topic I cover in one of my chapters. She rounded up a Native high schooler in  Read More 
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American Indians Are Your Neighbors


Do you know where American Indians live? Most Americans think that Indians live on reservations, but they live everywhere. American Indians are your neighbors, as you can see on a census map. At the 500 Nations web site or through your favorite search engine you can find tribal web sites. Tribal sites have historical information, calendars of events that are open to the public, and places to visit on the reservation.

Let's look at a few. We can start with the Great Sioux Nation; the word "Sioux" is what Whites used to describe these Native people. Today, the Sioux are actually 20,000 people in seven groups living across five central and north central states. The Black Hills of South Dakota are their most important  Read More 
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The Past Was Looted; Now It’s Saved

The ancestors come home to Pecos. Photo by Cary Herz.

In the early 1900s, Harvard archaeologist Ted Kidder was pulling so many bodies out of ancient Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico that he worried he might run out of money for his "dig." It was one of the biggest and most important archaeological projects in the United States, and he ended up spending more than a decade on it. He shipped the 2000 bodies he found back east, and for 80 years, they sat on shelves, one body per box - at Harvard's Peabody Museum. During that time, the old pueblo became  Read More 
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Contemporary American Indian Arts

The Chapel of Pablo Tac

Contemporary American Indian arts are now undergoing "a galactic explosion" of native artists as individuals, says Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi innovator in fiber. For more than a century, Americans and Europeans have gobbled up the "traditional" menu of Plains buckskin shirts, Navajo jewelry, and Northwestern masks, for instance. But today, American Indian artists are venturing into dramatically new directions. As I show in my book All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos) this is an exciting time for American Indian arts.  Read More 
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Travel writers are your best friends


If you travel for any reason—business or pleasure—a great travel writer will be your best friend. You will probably consult a book or article or web site for some useful information like hotel bargains, best roads or public transportation, places to go with children. But travel writing is so much more than that. Peeking into how travel writers work can help you find the best of what they have to offer.

I did that and more when I joined about 70 other writers for the 21st annual Travel Writers and Photographers Conference that Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA sponsored.

I went to the four-day conference in early August, because my next project will require me to show readers a region and its people, and I thought that the travel writer’s skills would be important. I learned that travel writing requires more than descriptions of places, routes and hotel bargains. Travel writing should transport the reader to feelings, ideas and characters as much as, if not more than, any piece of fiction.

Organizers reserved the conference’s three mornings for long-form discussions in each of four tracks: personal essays and memoirs, newspaper and magazine articles, advanced travel writing, and “service” pieces that deliver practical information. I had chosen the advanced class, and for three hours each morning, we bored into each other’s pieces, not only offering specific critiques but also using our samples to arrive at some general comments on writing. Our leader was David Farley, who writes extensively for leading outlets such as New York Magazineand gadling.com. Because he kept the group limited to ten writers, the work was up-close, intense and exhausting.

“Lust in Translation” was the title of one of the panels that met during the afternoons. Some were strictly utilitarian—for instance, blogging, social media, making a living as a travel writer, and enhancing web sites. The faculty for the panels came from the top of the industry. For instance, the one on writing guidebooks included Robert Reid (Lonely Planet), Pauline Frommer (Travel Guide Series) and Grace Fujimoto (Moon Travel Guides).

Others, however, explored other topics, like turning your travel writing into fiction, the art of setting the scene, and developing story blocks. For instance, the speakers for one panel urged us to consider new ways of seeing. Don George, the senior editor of National Geographic Traveler, said that he despaired when he received an assignment to write about Muir Woods. So many writers had written about the subject, he wondered what he could. His solution: he put on a blindfold when he went into the woods and experienced them through his other senses—a new way of “seeing.”

Georgia Hesse was the founding editor of the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle’s travel section and is still going strong! She suggested that we pay attention various ways of seeing. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming has a geological explanation, but some say the devil built it. Indians believe that bears tried to grab some sisters playing on top of a rock, but the Great Spirit transformed the rock into a tower. As the tower rose, the bears unsuccessfully tried to claw their way onto it, leaving behind the distinctive marks we see on its sides. With the tower’s ascent, the girls reached the heavens and became the Pleiades.

Finally, in the evenings, we listened in as a star-studded lineup of writers conducted conversations with each other. Don George talked with New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, whose book Rin Tin Tin reached the New York Times Best Seller list as soon as it hit stores in November. George stepped back and allowed Orlean to spin a tale of how she wrote about Midland in Texas’ Permian Basin and other out-of-the-way places that challenged her assumptions. (The Midland story had special relevance for me, because I had written about another Permian Basin town across the state line in New Mexico, a similarly remote and agonizingly hard place.) Actor/Writer Andrew McCarthy interviewed Don who told the story of how he moved serendipitously from minor writing tasks to travel writer and editor, allowing the “flow” to carry him along.

Among the editors and agents who also appeared on panels were Loren Mooney, the travel editor of Sunset. Tip: the magazine’s staff is currently making over all the sections. Julia Cosgrove, of the successful new travel magazine Afar, said she hasn’t noticed a fall-off in travel habits in hard times; about 90% of Afar’s readership have passports, in contrast to about 30% of Americans generally. Agents Amy Rennert and Kimberley Cameron reminded us that a good agent is important to selling work, but the quality of the material that appears on the page is the first consideration.

As you would expect in California, the conference covered food and wine writing and blogging which have become part of the travel literature world. On a related note, participants raved about the wonderful meals and snacks served out of Book Passage’s café. Throughout the conference, faculty members like San Francisco Chronicle travel editor Spud Hilton, writer Phil Cousineau (The Art of Pilgrimage), and former USA Today travel editor Chris Gray Faust also conducted 30-minute one-on-one sessions, stayed around for chatting, and joined in the late-night socials and karaoke on the patio. The conference ended with awards for the annual contest’s photography and writing entries and a champagne and chocolate feast.

Elaine Petrocelli, the president of Book Passage, and her staff were welcoming presences throughout the conference; her daughter Kathryn Petrocelli kept it running smoothly. Don George was the conference chair and Bob Holmes, voted Travel Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers, was the coordinator on the photography side.

Of course, just meeting and talking shop with the participants—some of whom came from as far away as Ireland and Italy—was exhilirating.If you're a writer, next year’s conference will be on Aug. 8 through 11. With early discounts through Aug. 31, the cost is $535 and through Dec. 31, $585. After Jan. 1, 2013, the full cost will be $635. Read More 
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