Monday, October 29, 2012
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico
I needed to be able to see it. I'd read about it--and its importance--in Cry of the Night, an old Depression-era novel by Casey Kuipers. The place called Ojo Caliente played a role in the novel, and my own cultural blinders made it hard for me to see what on earth Kuipers was talking about--a sort of summer home to loads of Zuni people, a place called "sheep camp."
I just didn't get the whole concept of "sheep camp"; it sounded too much like "summer camp," and it was impossible for me to imagine Native people having summer homes, summer gardens, and summer fun.
Frequently, Kuipers's novels have prototypes, characters he creates from very real people, Native and Anglo, who once walked around the Zuni mission. From history, I knew that a real-life battle had gone on about Ojo Caliente, a battle the missionaries had waged because the Zuni people weren't thrilled with the Anglo Christians coming out to their sheep camp. After all, they already had a place just across the river, not that far from the heart of the pueblo. Stay the heck out of Ojo.
What happened in real life had created some bitterness. Mission work at the Zuni pueblo, circa 1920, was often tougher than the idealism and zeal some young missionaries carried.
I needed to be able to see that place, Ojo Caliente, so I got myself a great tour guide, a retired Zuni couple who still keep a little place out there, and off we went. See that picture above?--the long, grassy landscape could pass for the Great Plains, but it isn't; it's where the Zuni pastured sheep. Soon enough, I began to understand. Come June, the desert was green, and the people could leave the stuffiness of the pueblo, get some air outside of town. No wonder the people loved "sheep camp."
And then we came to the Ojo itself--or what was once Ojo. Here's what there:
Here's what's left of the sheep camp at Ojo, the summer home of dozens and dozens of Zuni families.
The truth is, there's really nothing there but a museum of what once was.
Ghost towns are open-air history that tell stories with a kind of vividness novels aspire to. This one, Ojo Caliente--a Spanish name that likely descends from the Conquistadors who came here in the 16th century looking for gold, as most humans do--is no different. The people are gone, but the place is somehow redolent with the story.
I kept thinking of Casey Kuipers because once upon a time there was a battle here between Anglos and Native people, between Christian and traditional Zunis too, a battle that left scars upon the history of the mission, a tale told, in part, a white missionary who, oddly enough, was born at the turn of the century in Orange City, Iowa, not all that far from where I'm sitting right now.
Today, Ojo is gone. There's a sweet little reservoir where a dozen Zuni families were fishing the day we went out there. But the summer camp belongs to history and story, the long fields of prairie grass left ungrazed because no one farms here anymore, in part because no one farms. The community is gone, as is a way of life.
For hundreds of years Ojo was a summer joy. It was a place at the heart of cultural life, and once the site of a spiritual battle. Now it's a wasteland, a ghost town.
It was mid-day, late summer, the sun burning like a firebrand; but the place still seemed haunted with very human voices simply asking to be heard.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:39 AM