Transcribed from Jemez Thunder, Feb. 15, 2002
About 500 people crowded into the Jemez Valley High School auditorium on Feb. 2 for the symposium featuring New Mexico authors Tony Hillerman, Rudolfo Anaya and N. Scott Momaday. The state’s three literary giants had never appeared on the same stage before, and people came from as far away as Seattle specifically to attend the event. The Albuquerque Journal covered the event, and radio station KUNM made a tape recording for possible future broadcast on National Public Radio.
Morris Taylor of Cañon organized the symposium as a celebration of New Mexico’s tri-cultural heritage Anglo, Chicano and Indian – as well as showcasing the literary talents of the state. The Friends of the Library helped sponsor and promote the event. Kathleen Wiegner, editor of the Jemez Thunder, acted as moderator. Hillerman is best-known for his novels about Navajo policemen working in the Four Corners area; Anaya is the author of Bless Me Ultima, and Zia Summer, among others; and Momaday, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is a resident of Jemez Springs whose works include House Made of Dawn and The Way To Rainy Mountain. Books were provided by Bookworks of Albuquerque, which the authors were happy to autograph for their readers, a portion of the book sales going to the Friends of the Library. There was no charge to attend the symposium.
Jemez Springs Librarian Judith Isaacs welcomed everyone to the symposium and introduced Johnnie Garcia, the Mayor of Jemez Springs, and Paul Tosa, Governor of the Pueblo of Jemez, both of whom gave welcoming addresses.
Each author began with a brief statement of introduction. Tony Hillerman responded to what he called an “FAQ” – a frequently asked question – about “Why is some redneck white guy writing about Navajo Indians?” He said that he grew up with Indians and attended Indian school. He said that society was divided into “us vs. them,” though the division was not racial or ethnic, but the difference between town kids and country kids. Hillerman said he was a country kid then, and still feels like one to this day. He said he always felt at home with the Navajos and admires their value system. Rudolfo Anaya spoke of his childhood in Santa Rosa on the Pecos River, and how he always felt closer to river valleys than to mountains. Some years ago, he bought a little house in Jemez Springs and raises fruit trees and corn on the property. It occurred to him that, in a way, he had returned to the river valley of his childhood, many years later, in the Jemez Valley.
Scott Momaday spoke of spending most of his life in Indian cultures, with the Kiowas in Oklahoma, the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area, and the Pueblo of Jemez. When he moved to the Jemez Pueblo, he said, “I woke up and beheld a new world. Marco Polo had nothing on me. I had come to my greatest adventure, my growing up.” He spoke of the Buffalo Trust, which he founded four years ago to help Native American children regain and preserve their Indian identity.
When asked about where they had learned their storytelling abilities, both Momaday and Anaya cited the oral traditions of their own cultures. “I grew up with stories, the cuentos of the Spanish tradition,” said Anaya. “Listening to them as a child was very formative. Later I loved reading them.” However, said Anaya, the oral tradition is getting lost. He said that it was important to collect the stories into books and to get them into the classroom. Momaday talked about how his father was a storyteller and told the stories of the Kiowa. “I write in the oral tradition and I also teach in that tradition,” said Momaday. “Writing gives us a false sense of security. In the oral tradition, everything is just one step removed from extinction.” Hillerman remembered his childhood in a tiny town in Oklahoma where his family were farmers and his father ran a sort of general store. “People would come to the store and tell stories,” said Hillerman. “I discovered that if you could spin a yarn, people would pay attention.”
Momaday said that he did not think of himself as an Indian writer. “I don’t know what that means,” he continued. “Literature is literature. Categories don’t mean that much to me.” Anaya, however, told the audience that he strongly identifies with being a Chicano writer. “It has been very exciting to be a part of a movement.” Hillerman said he did not think of either Momaday or Anaya as “a hyphenate” but as great writers. He said he thought of Momaday as a poet and that when he thinks of Anaya he thinks of his characters who are ” good country people, genuine human beings.”
When asked about how New Mexico had inspired them as writers, both Momaday and Hillerman talked about the state’s varied and spectacular landscape. “I like the variety of this state,” said Hillerman, “and I like a state full of empty spaces.” Anaya, however, said that if he had to make a choice between places and people, he would say that his inspiration comes from the people.
The authors then took questions from the audience, talking about their writing habits, future projects and what they read. Momaday had the audience laughing when he told them that everyone should say they have “a work in progress.” It’s like a credit card you can draw on, he said. Anaya revealed that the “Spring” book in the novels he has been writing with seasons of the year in the titles might be called “Jemez Springs.” Hillerman also amused the audience with his discussion of a pig launcher, part of the research on pipelines he is doing for a book he is working on.
The final question concerned how the events of Sept. 11 had affected each author. Hillerman got a loud ovation when he said he was concerned that the government would respond by “ripping up our Constitution. Anaya said that when he saw the towers topple, he thought of all the souls who had died unprepared. “I pray for those people,” he said. Momaday concluded by saying that the events “have made us think of human life, the planet, and our souls in a new light.”