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Spotlight: Winter holidays are upon us

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Submitted Photo "Storyteller Group, 1970s, by Mary M. Shendo (Walatowa/Jemez Pueblo), ceramic, pigment. Gift of Lillian Harvey and Betty Harvey.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

The winter holidays are upon us again. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Las Posadas, or some combination of these holidays, this is the time of year where people gather with friends and family, enjoy marvelous feasts, and remind themselves that the cold, short days of winter are fleeting and spring is not too far away. In this difficult pandemic year, our gatherings may be smaller than we’d hoped for and our feasting may be more moderate, but we know we won’t be separated from our loved ones for much longer, and that’s another wonderful reason to celebrate.

For many Native American peoples, the long nights of winter are the perfect time to sit around a warm fire and tell stories, both for entertainment and to educate the next generation. Helen Cordero (1915-1994), an artist from Cochitli Pueblo in northwest New Mexico, fondly remembered hearing the stories of her grandfather when she was a child. She honored this memory in 1964 by making the first of what is now known as a storyteller group: an arrangement of clay figures with a speaking adult surrounded by several listening children. The ceramic design was wildly popular among tourists, so many Pueblo artists began creating similar designs.

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One of these other artists was Mary M. Shendo from Walatowa (Jemez Pueblo), a pueblo located about 30 miles due west of Cochitli. Her storyteller group — which is now part of the collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center — is only about 4 1/2 inches tall, but brightly colored and charming in its depiction of a mother with three children of different ages. The Walatowa people are historically known for being excellent runners, so their winter tales often revolved around great feats of running or thrilling running competitions. Perhaps this woman is telling her children of the fastest runner in their pueblo or the man who ran the furthest distance?

Other Indigenous groups tell different stories, of course. One magnificent winter tale comes from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, a group of five related indigenous nations from the New York state area. During winter solstice every year, the Iroquois play a game of chance. They take a number of stones and paint them black on one side and white on the other. These are then placed into a bowl, shaken and dumped out. Depending on how many come up black or white, you may gain a point or lose. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the dreidel game that Jewish people play during Hanukkah.

At any rate, according to storyteller Joseph Bruchac, Grandmother Moon looked down on the Earth long ago and was not happy with what she saw. She decided that life on Earth had to end. Now, the Iroquois believe that any person who focuses their thoughts in a kind and loving way can have a strong spirit that is in tune with the Creator. This is known as the Good Mind. So one of the Good Minds, who always defend their people, said to Grandmother Moon, “Grandmother, is there no way we can prevent this from happening? She thought for a moment and then replied, “I will tell you what. We will play the bowl game and the one who wins will decide whether or not life will continue.”

The Good Mind agreed, thought for a while, and then went to speak with the chickadees. He said to them, “My friends, I want you to help me,” and he told them what he needed. They said, “Of course. You can borrow our heads, which are black on one side and white on the other. Put them in the bowl, and we will do what we can.” So the Good Mind returned to Grandmother Moon and played the game. He took his bowl and shook it. The chickadees flew up, their heads flew up, looking just like little black and white stones, singing in mid-air. They flew around and then they landed and gave him a perfect score, winning the game for the Good Mind who decided to let life on Earth continue. That is why, in the middle of the winter, you can hear the chickadees singing and celebrating the continuance of life.

Of course, the tradition of telling stories in winter is not just relegated to Native American peoples. Humans have been telling each other stories since we first developed language and it happens in every corner of the globe. Museums collect and share stories, too. I hope you will take the opportunity to tell a story, be it true or fictional, to your friends or family this holiday season. If you need inspiration, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which represents the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, is featuring a virtual fireside storytelling session every Saturday this December with musical performances and a special Solstice presentation. Check out their free videos at indianpueblo.org/stories-by-the-fireside-a-pueblo-tradition/.

Happy holidays from the Roswell Museum and Art Center!