The Return of Ma ah shra true ee, the Giant Serpent

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Leslie Marmon Silko

The old time people always told us kids to be patient, to wait, and then finally, after a long time, what you wish to know will become clear. The Pueblos and their paleo-Indian ancestors have lived continuously in the southwest of North America for twelve thousand years. So when the old-time people speak about “time” or “a long time,” they’re not speaking about a decade, or even a single lifetime; they can mean hundreds of years. And as the elders point out, the Europeans have hardly been on the continents of the Americas five hundred years. Still, they say, the longer Europeans or others live on these continents, the more they will become part of the Americas. The gravity of the continent under their feet begins this connection, which grows slowly in each generation. The process requires not hundreds, but thousands of years.

The prophecies foretelling the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas also say that over this long time, all things European will eventually disappear. The prophecies do not say the European people themselves will disappear, only their customs. The old people say that this has already begun to happen, and that it is a spiritual process that no armies will be able to stop. So the old people laugh when they hear talk about the “desecration” of the earth, because humankind, they know, is nothing in comparison to the earth. Blast it open, dig it up, or cook it with nuclear explosions: the earth remains. Humans desecrate only themselves. The earth is inviolate.

Tse’itsi’nako, Thought Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

She thought of her sisters,
Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,
and together they created the Universe
this world and the four worlds below.

Thought Woman, the spider,
named things and
as she named them
they appeared.

She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I’m telling you the story
she is thinking.

So perhaps it did not seem extraordinary to the old people that a giant stone snake formation was found one morning in the spring of 1980 by two employees of the Jackpile uranium mine. The mine is located near Paguate, one of seven villages in the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. The employees, both Laguna Pueblo men, had been making a routine check of the mine when they discovered the biomorphic configuration near the base of mountainous piles of uranium tailings. The head of the snake was pointed west, its jaws open wide. The stone snake seemed to have always been there. The entire formation was more than thirty feet long and twelve inches high, an eccentric outcrop of yellow sandstone mottled and peppered with darker iron ores, like the stone that had once formed the mesas that had been swallowed up by the open-pit mine.


Reports Of The Snake Formation
were at first met with skepticism. The miners must be joking. People from Paguate village and other Laguna Pueblo people had hunted rabbits and herded sheep in that area for hundreds of years. Over time, wind and rain might uncover rock, but the process required years, not weeks. In any case, Laguna Pueblo people have a name and a story for every oddly-shaped boulder within two hundred miles—no way could anything like this giant stone snake have escaped notice. The mine employees swore they had walked the same route twice each month for inspections and seen nothing, and then suddenly, one morning the stone snake was there, uncoiling about three hundred yards from a Jackpile Mine truck yard. And soon there was a great deal of excitement among Pueblo religious people because the old stories mention a giant snake who is a messenger for the Mother Creator.

Ma ah shra true ee is the giant serpent
the sacred messenger spirit
from the Fourth World below.
He came to live at the Beautiful Lake,
Kawaik,
that was once near Laguna village.
But neighbors got jealous.
They came one night and broke open the
lake
so all the water was lost. The giant snake
went away after that. He has never been
seen since.
That was the great misfortune for us, the
Kawaik’meh,
at Old Laguna.

Before the days of the mining companies, the people of Paguate village had fields of corn and melons and beans scattered throughout the little flood plains below the yellow sandstone mesas southeast of the village. Apple and apricot orchards flourished there too. It was all dry farming in those days, dependent on prayers and ceremonies to call in the rain clouds. Back then, it was a different world, although ancient stories also recount terrible droughts and famines— times of great devastation. When large ura- nium deposits were discovered only a few miles southeast of Paguate village in the late 1940s, the Laguna Pueblo elders declared the earth was the sacred mother of all living things, and blasting her wide open to reach deposits of uranium ore was an act almost beyond imagination. But the advent of the Cold War had made the mining a matter of national security, and the ore deposits at the Jackpile Mine were vast and rich. As wards of the federal government, the small Pueblo tribe could not prevent the mining of their land. Now, the orchards and fields of melons are gone. Nearly all the land to the east and south of Paguate Village has been swallowed by the mine; its open pit gapes within two hundred yards of the village.

Before world uranium prices fell, the mining companies had proposed relocating the entire village to a new site a few miles away because the richest ore deposits lay directly under the old village. The Paguate people refused to trade their old houses for new all-electric ones; they were bound to refuse because there is a small mossy spring that bubbles out of the base of a black lava formation on the west side of Paguate village. This spring is the Emergence Place, the entrance humans and animals used when they first climbed into this, the Fifth World. But the mining companies were not to be stopped; when they couldn’t move the people, they simply sank shafts under the village.

When the mining began, the village elders and traditionalists maintained that no one of their people should work at the mine and participate in the sacrilege. But the early 1950s were drought years, and the Laguna people, who had struggled to live off their fields and herds, found themselves in trouble. Moreover, World War II and the Korean War had ushered in other changes within the community itself. The men who returned from military service had seen the world outside. They had worked for wages in the army, and when they came home to Laguna, they wanted jobs. Consequently, increasing numbers of Laguna men, and later women, began working the mine. Cranky old traditionalists predicted dire results from this desecration of the earth, but they had never been very specific about the terrible consequences. Meanwhile, Laguna Pueblo became one of the few reservations in the United States to enjoy nearly full employment. Twenty-five years passed, and then something strange and very sad began to happen at Paguate village.

“Tonight we’ll see
if you really have magical power,” they told
him.

So that night
Pa’caya’nyi
came with his mountain lion.
He undressed
he painted his body
the whorls of flesh
the soles of his feet
the palms of his hands
the top of his head.

He wore feathers
on each side of his head.

He made an altar
with cactus spines
and purple locoweed flowers.
He lighted four cactus torches
at each corner.
He made the mountain lion lie
down in front and
then he was ready for his magic.

He struck the middle of the north wall.
He took a piece of flint and
he struck the middle of the north wall
and flowed down
toward the south.
He said, “What does that look like?
Is that magic powers?”
He struck the middle of the west wall
and from the east wall
a bear came out.
“What do you call this?”
he said again.

“Yes, it looks like magic all right,”
Ma’see’wi said.
So it was finished
and Ma’see’wi and Ou’yu’ye’wi
and all the people were fooled by
that Ck’o’yo medicine man,
Po ‘caya’nyi.
From that time on
they were
so busy
playing around with that
Ck’o’yo magic
they neglected the Mother Corn altar.
They thought they didn’t have to worry
about anything.

 

Pueblo Communal Systems value cooperation and nonaggression above all else. All problems, including the most serious, are resolved through negotiation by the families or clans of the aggrieved parties. Perhaps the harshness of the high desert plateau with its freezing winters and fierce summer droughts has had something to do with the supreme value the old people place upon cooperation and conciliation. For where margin for error is slender—even during the wet years—a seemingly trivial feud might hinder the mobilization and organization necessary to protect crops threatened by dramatic conditions of nature. Moreover, this system of cooperation extends to all living things, even plants and insects, which Laguna Pueblo elders refer to as sisters and brothers, because none can survive unless all survive.

Photo by John Aldrich

Photo by John Aldrich

Given this emphasis on balance and harmony, it was especially painful and confusing when, in 1973, Paguate became one of the first American communities to cope with the unexpected tragedy of a teenage suicide pact. The boys and girls all had attended Laguna-Acoma High School, and all but one of the suicides lived at Paguate. Some left suicide notes that made reference to an agreement the young people had made secretly. “Cherylyn did it Saturday so now it’s my turn,” for example, was the way the suicide notes read. The Laguna people had already suffered suicides by army veterans sick with alcohol. But the suicide victims at Paguate had been the brightest and most promising students at the school. The usual psychological explanations—unstable family environment, absence of one parent, alienation—don’t seem to apply here, as not one of the students had come from a poor or troubled family, and in fact, most had grown up in the house inhabited by their families for hundreds of years and were surrounded by supportive groups of relatives. While teachers and families tried in vain to learn more about the suicide club, it eventually claimed seven lives.

While suicide took its toll, the Pueblo community was disrupted by another horror, an apparently motiveless murder. A Saturday night party in Paguate turned into a slaughter. Two young men were hacked to death at the kitchen table by their friend, who had invited them to stop by the party after they got off swing shift at the mine. The killer then bullied another friend to drive a car they “borrowed,” and while the friend drove around the reservation, the killer randomly dumped body parts in the weeds along the way. The impulse to pick up the shiny new axe had been irresistible, the killer later said. He could not explain the murder of his two friends.


But The Old People
have their own explanation. According to the elders, destruction of any part of the earth does immediate harm to all living things. Teachers at Indian School would ridicule these ideas; they would laugh and say, “How stupid you Indians are! How can the death of one tree in the jungle pos- sibly affect a person in New York City!” But isn’t it far more obvious these days how important that single tree in the rain forest of Brazil really is to the Manhattanite? And in the same way, the mesas of sandstone seemingly devoured by the uranium mine are as important, as essential. If it has taken environmental catastrophe to reveal to us why we need the rain forest, perhaps we might spare ourselves some tragedy by listening to the message of sand and stone in the form of a giant snake. Perhaps comprehension need not come from obvious catastrophes, like the destruction of the ozone layer, but more through subtle indications, like a stone snake come to remind us that violence in the Americas—against ourselves and against one another—can run as deep, but only as deep, as the deepest shafts with which humankind has pierced the earth.

When I Saw the stone snake in June of 1980, I could hear the clanking and creaking of giant earth movers on the other side of John Aldrich the mounds of tailings. The Jackpile Mine generators roared continuously night and day, seven days a week. At noon, when Jackpile did the blasting, everyone made sure to be indoors because potato-size rocks frequently landed on Paguate doorsteps. (These were the normal, day-to-day living conditions of the Laguna Pueblos in and around Paguate for many years.) Old barbed wire had been loosely strung along a few makeshift juniper posts until someone provided a sagging barrier of chain-link fencing, intended to protect the stone snake from livestock and photographers. Corn meal and pollen, bits of red coral and turquoise had been sprinkled over the snake’s head as offerings of spirit food. Holy people from tribes as far away as Canada and Mexico had come to see the giant snake.

There have been attempts to confine the meaning of the snake to an official story suitable for general consumption. But the Laguna Pueblos go on producing their own rich and continuously developing body of oral and occasionally written stories that reject any decisive conclusion in favor of ever increasing possibilities. This production of  multiple meaning is in keeping with Pueblo cosmology in general. For the old people, no one person or thing is better than another; hierarchies presuming superiority and inferiority are considered absurd. No thing or location on the earth is of greater or lesser value than another. And this means that any location can potentially become a sacred spot.

Thus, outsiders who visit the American southwest are often confused by the places in which they find sacred altars or sites of miraculous appearances of the Blessed Virgin or others (could it be the notion of original sin that causes Europeans to define the sacred as the virginal or pure?). They expect to find the milagros of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in pristine forest grottoes, not on the window glass of a cinder block school building in a Yaqui Indian town; or Jesus’ face in a rainbow above Yosemite Falls, nor on a poor New Mexican woman’s breakfast tortilla. The traditional notion of the wondrous in a splendid setting befitting its claim is subverted here in this landscape where the wondrous can be anywhere and is everywhere. Even in the midst of a strip-mining operation.

Just as the Laguna prophecies say that all things European will eventually pass away, Europeans have, particularly in the last century, predicted the demise of all things Native American. In the late 1960s, anthropologists lugged their tape recorders to the pueblos, so that they might have the elders record stories and songs that would be lost when they passed away. Most of the Laguna elders agreed to make the tape recordings, but a few of the old people took a hard line. They said that what is important to our children and our grandchildren will be remembered; what is forgotten is what is no longer meaningful. What is true will persist. In spite of everything, Ma ah shra true ee, the sacred messenger, will appear again and again. Nothing can stop that. Not even a uranium mine.

The wind stirred the dust.
The people were starving.
“She’s angry with us,”
the people said.
“Maybe because of that
Ck’o’yo magic
we were fooling with.
We better send someone
to ask our forgiveness.”
They noticed hummingbird
was fat and shiny
he had plenty to eat.
They asked how come he
looked so good.

He said
Down below
Three worlds below this one
everything is
green
all the plants are growing
the flowers are blooming
I go down there
and eat.


Leslie Marmon Silko is a novelist, poet, essayist, and former professor at the University of New Mexico, University of Arizona and the Navajo Community College. She has been a major contributor to the Native American literary and artistic renaissance beginning in the 1960s.

From Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. Copyright © 1996 by Leslie Marmon Silko. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

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