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Dr. Rina Swentzell — Tasting Houses

In my early days in Santa Fe, sometime after I arrived in October 1985, I began to view ¡COLORES! a weekly KNME TV series featuring the works of notable people in New Mexico—artists, writers and creatives. One such person was a woman of striking augustness and calm, Dr. Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo. Dr. Swentzell, who passed away in 2015, was an architect, potter, teacher and activist, and alumna of the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning.

Her story was titled An Understated Sacredness. Dr. Swentzell was referring to how her people and traditions would mark off a place that was regarded with great respect and reverence—the world as sacramental. It would be one major stone, identified as sacred, situated amidst an assemblage of rocks. The stone on the earth is there to remind the people of where they came from.  The stone, found in a field or in an arroyo, is unremarkable—but “it is the center of the world” in Dr. Swentzell’s words—an understatement of sacred places.

I am getting that this is the way of “Pueblo-dwelling peoples,” and please inform me if I am mistaken.

Another example of the eyes with which the people see life as numinous is how they relate to houses and buildings. These have life spans and death, and come and go like other life forms, again in the words of Dr.Swentzell. 

In the ¡COLORES! film Dr. Swentzell tells of an awakening in her childhood. “One day as I was about tasting houses [her exact words] on my way to school, I noticed that there was a crack forming in the wall of one of the better tasting houses—and watched that crack for a couple of days and saw that it was getting bigger. I went home and asked my grandmother why those people weren’t doing something about that crack that was forming in the wall. She shook her finger at me and said ‘It’s none of your concern. That’s been a good house. It’s been fed, it’s been blessed, it’s been healed. It’s been taken care of. It’s served the people well and it’s now time for it to go back into the earth again.’ I stood there for a moment and said, ‘You mean the house is going to die?’ And she said, ‘Yes. And it’s good the house—now it’s time for the house to go back into the earth again.’ That notion again of cycles of life and death—the coming and going out of the earth. And sure enough the house fell down. 

“There is a general acceptance that houses, human bodies, plant forms are temporary  abodes through which the Poh wa ha flows”—through the animate and inanimate.

 During my first visit to Santa Fe to check it out, in a drive north of town, I stopped at a small, box-like adobe building set high and reached by a set of steps. There I met a women who was minding her antiques and sundries shop. Her name was Boletta. 

After moving to stay in Santa Fe, I would pass the little structure while driving. At last I noticed that it was abandoned, boarded up. Then one day I visited the Tesuque Flea Market, formerly known as “Trader” Jack Daniels Flea Market, cheek by jowl with the back lot of the Santa Fe Opera. There I encountered Boletta and her husband who had relocated their shop. I asked about that old building and was told that the roof had begun to leak. The couple had offered to pay for roof repair. But, “No thank you” said the Pueblo and so Boletta set up shop at the Flea.

As years went by, Route 285 was reconstructed as a great high sweep passing the little adobe structure. Now it required a determined glance to the right to catch sight of it as it had been left in a slight ravine. It still stands, barely— the roof now gone, windows and door agape, steps broken down. 

Another Pueblo property, that I frequented a few times on my drives north on 285, is also closed up. It had been a shop selling Mexican pottery and rugs. Eventually the business closed and the property was fenced off, and remains so to this day. In the yard there continue to stand abandoned clay jugs and pots amidst weeds that have taken over— again, the deceased being honored by the Great Spirit. 

My mid-Atlantic, east coast mindset has been woke by the spiritual ways of the Santa Clara Pueblo grandmother.


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