It was in April 1939 by current reckoning that Hendrine Naranjo was born into the family of Rose and Michael Naranjo in the Santa Clara Pueblo, along the western bank of the Río Grande, the Great River known in the Tewa language as P’osonghe. She came to be called Rina and was one of several siblings. Young Rina gradually absorbed the spirit of the Tewa World into her own consciousness to the extent that she became one with place, kindred to all she beheld. She became intimate with hidden crannies of Santa Clara Canyon that score the piedmont of the eastern aspect of the Jémez Mountains and drain into the Río Grande. She watched the clouds. She breathed in the swirling air. She drank from the waters that nurtured both her body and soul. She developed an exquisitely refined consciousness that she maintained throughout the course of her life.
In 1959, she gave birth to her son, Cleo Naranjo, who is presently employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Then, in 1960, she met and married Ralph Swentzell, who was to become a highly regarded tutor at St. John’s College, in Santa Fe. With Ralph, she gave birth to three daughters: Athena, Roxanne and Poem. During the 1960s, when the shockwave of counterculture rippled through much of world culture, the burgeoning Swentzell family spent much of their time living in the backcountry of northern New Mexico, camping in their VW bus.
Rina and Ralph attended New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, where Rina earned her bachelor’s degree in education. She later attended the University of New Mexico, where she received her master’s degree in architecture in 1976, and was awarded her doctorate in American studies in 1982. Thereafter, she became widely recognized as an author, lecturer, potter and historian. She remained ever rooted in the Tewa World.
I am honored to have known Rina as a dear friend. Our conversations have deeply influenced my own thinking. Rina epitomized what bioregionalism attempts to encompass. Rather than trying to describe who Rina was, it seems far more appropriate to present a partial composite of her perspective in her own words. Over the decades, I had the privilege of recording a few of our many conversations. I’m including excerpts from a conversation we had in the Swentzell home in Santa Fe, in 1996.
In the words of Rina Swentzell:
“We have gotten to the point of too small a definition of community. I go back to the Pueblo thinking because their community was not just the human community. It included the place within which we lived. The mountains were part of community. The water was part of community. Trees, water, rocks, plants. You know, you couldn’t have moved through any day in that old world, even when I was growing up, without knowing that you were part of that whole community of trees, rocks, people. Today, what we do is just talk about human community. It gets to be such a small thing within the larger scope of things. I think that that is part of the demise of our modern lives today. We keep making the world smaller and smaller until it is nothing but us. Just human beings out of our natural context. Out of our cosmological context. We have become so small in our view of the world, our world is simply us—human beings. And that is a crucial thing that we need to get beyond and move back again to seeing ourselves within context.
“Trees are living beings. Rocks are living beings. Water. The spirit moves through the water. An incredible word that we have for the source of life is something that we talk about as the P’owaha. The water-wind-breath. It is there in the water and in the wind that we can see the spirit, that we can see life moving, there where the life force is visible. As well as in the clouds, of course. We don’t take the life force and put it in a super-human being, as Christians do with God. That already begins to show us the focus on humans and human beings. When you put the life force in a super-human creature, God is in super-human form. But we [Puebloans] keep it within the trees, within the water, within the wind, within the clouds. And we are to move through that context, with the water, the wind, and breathe the same breath. To say ‘we are breathing the same breath that the rocks do, that the wind does’ gives you a totally different feeling. This is it. There is no other reality. We don’t go to heaven. We don’t leave this dirty world to go to a golden clean heaven. We are here. This is it. This is the world. It doesn’t get any better than this. And if we don’t honor it in the sense that this is the best, the most beautiful as it is ever going to be, then we can’t take care of it, if we think that it is a place to be shunned and that we have better things to look forward to. Then we can’t walk respectfully, where we are at this moment, and take care of things and touch things with honor. And breathe each breath. That is what that ‘water-wind- breath’ is about. Because, I mean, my goodness, here it is. And every second I can breathe it in and become a part of this world and know in uncertain terms I am a part of this world that I live in every second—I believe it every second.
“When we see on that scale of seeing in the way of the old Pueblo people, they were trying to make sense of what was around them. You know, here, especially in the Southwest, you look around you, and you see that 360-degree horizon around you. And then you see that blue with the clouds going over you. And the sense they made of it— you are the center. At any point that you stand in the Southwest, you are in containment. That is you at the center. The Pueblo people really picked up on that and said, ‘Look, we live within the earth bowl. This is where we dwell. And wherever we are, we are at the center.’ Which is literally true. That is what we experience in a very central way every day. And being at the center, seeing that far horizon with the mountains that contain us in this earth bowl, and all of the symbolic kiva bowls that the Pueblo make, with the mountains along the rim, that is all about that. And then the Earth is covered by the sky basket.
“You were talking about the marriage between the Earth and Sky. That is exactly what they were talking about. But it was not in terms so much of male and female as it was father and mother, which is a very different concept. Male and female then become included within father and mother. And that is a very different meaning than saying the male Sky and the female Earth, which brings in an explicit sexuality, which the Pueblo people weren’t so much interested in, as in the parental nature within which creation happens. Because it is only when the male and female come together as father and mother, and children are produced, that creation really happens. So this is the creation right now because those two have come around us. And in that sense, then, Pueblo people talk about community as having mothers and fathers and children. The oldest people are usually talked about as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in that community whether they are your mothers or not. But then everybody else are children, and those people are also children. There’s flexibility of roles in that way. The notion of having people who are responsible and nurturing and caring about the entire context that one lives in. It is that kind of model that was taken from the way they saw the cosmos as being structured, as the way the cosmos was ordered. That is what is in that context.”
“The old ancestral people moved through this region for thousands of years, and the intimacy that they developed with the land is what I think has kept them going for so long, in such a place. Even today, I think that that is what has helped our people survive for so long—that intimacy we have with the land, with the place, with the rocks, the mountains. Part of that intimacy, of course, especially in this region, is to know where the water areas are. The water is seen as being absolutely important for life. Without it, creation doesn’t happen. It is the semen of the father that keeps creation going, the water snaking through this region, the Río Grande. And, of course, throughout all of Pueblo mythology, the lakes are very important. All water places are extremely important. Because without water, we don’t survive here. And it is so sparse that they do have to become very special places. But they are also places where the energy of the world is very strong because they are also places to go into the underworlds—other levels of existence. They are openings into the other world.
“The Río Grande is a place that is also frightening to the Pueblo people. It is frightening because it comes with incredible power. And that is why I think that we talk about the ‘water-wind-breath’ because the power of all of creation is there. It can be in the wind, and it is certainly in the water. And especially in that strong flowing water. In Tewa, the word for Río Grande is P’osongeh, the large water place. It is seen as a place where the water goes. It is actually seen as a place, which always interests me. It is not just there. It is a place.”
“I think that tradition and community go hand-in-hand. You really can’t have one without the other because tradition is really about rootedness. It is about a group of people having been alive within a place for a long period of time, and having set up certain ways of behaving, certain ways of doing things. All of that is tradition. And that takes time. It takes a long time for people to feel comfortable with being in a certain place. I have to wake up every single morning, be aware of where the Sun comes up over those mountains and be careful about watching. ‘Oh now, it’s this time. It should be coming up right over that peak right there.’ And what does that mean? It means a whole lot for me because, every morning, I am in connection with that Sun out there, in the sense that here is my world right here. And depending on where that Sun comes up this morning, I know whether I am going to have to build a fire or not. If you see a direct connection to you in that way, then I don’t know what else it’s about. It’s not about much more than just really seeing those elements come to create a place for you, within which you feel comfortable and safe. What if that Sun doesn’t come out where it is supposed to come out? I mean the place would fall apart. Literally. There would be no more place. If those rhythms that we just take for granted, those traditional rhythms or whatever they are—if I don’t know that my grandmother is not going to be there and have a pot of beans going, as a child, then it does start falling apart. And there are rhythms. Having a grandmother is as natural a rhythm as having the Sun come up every day.
“You know, the linear way of doing things, getting up, going to school every day, is a continual process of being pulled away from natural patterns and natural rhythms. How can we even relate to the natural things around us? The mountains and the trees? We are continuously being pulled out of them, out of relationship with them, and not feeling the rhythms that come with them.”
“You know, one of the amazing things is that the basic Pueblo beliefs aren’t language specific. The Hopis and Zunis, for instance, speak totally different languages from us. And, yet, the major ideals of what we call the Pueblo World are the same in spite of very different languages. So it really makes me feel that that relationship to land, to place, which all of us experience together—we all have that basic relationship. And we talk about it in essentially the same way. Father Sky, Mother Earth, children—the need for connecting relationship. But, yet, the languages are very, very different. They are not even related languages like with the Hopi. And, yet, the ideas that grew out of the land are very much the same.
“It was the land that dictated what we were to believe and how we were to behave. And, you know, language now is being made a big thing because it is the one thing that people can hold on to. They say, ‘That will take us back into our traditions.’ Yes, it is an avenue. It is a way to do it. But the more basic thing is thought. What is the relationship to place? That is what brought up the traditions in the first place, and that is what brought up the language anyway. And the language expresses it. But it is not a dependency on language. It is something more basic. I think that [it is] the universal human need that the Pueblo people were responding to. And I think that that is what we need to return to. It is a need that you have as an Anglo person and I have as an Indian person. And I can speak Tewa, but I have no doubt that you have your need to feel connected and be a careful, considerate person in community. It is a need, something that I can recognize in myself as well.”
“I think that one thing that education does is to make people feel more confident in dealing with that large monoculture, call it Western culture—whatever it is—that thing that we all live in. The ocean that we swim around in. If you are dealing with an unknown—and I think that that is what has happened with Indian people before—we didn’t know what that world was about. And it is a very intimidating world. It is such a fast-moving, aggressive kind of world, and you can get very, very intimidated by it.
“You know that Western culture really does feel like swimming in an ocean. It is everywhere. It is sleeping in every corner. It is sleeping in every crack there is. It’s coming in. And there is no way to make that ocean around us go away. Look at Albuquerque. And look at the Indian reservations. The only free lands that Albuquerque can’t develop now are the Indian reservations that surround it. What happens almost on a daily basis is the encroachment. Not just of physical boundaries, but encroachment of that insidious value system. Even if we were successful in keeping Albuquerque at bay with Indian reservations, what is happening internally, I feel, is wrong. I don’t think that it is possible to keep it at bay. Not just physical boundaries, but all that it means. And granted, that the land does give reprieve when we go take a walk in a beautiful place that has not been touched by development. But what do we carry to that place? I feel like the best survival for me is to take a deep breath and take care of the small world that I can take care of. And that doesn’t help anybody anywhere, but it helps me and those people close to me.
“I always go back to thinking that all anyone really can do is, you know, all I can do, is look at the Sun. The shadows. And really be happy that I am here at this moment. And act accordingly. If I am thankful, then I better act accordingly.”
Rina Swentzell was absorbed into the flow of Nature on the morning of Oct.30, 2015. With her words and actions, she bequeathed to us a portal into that level of consciousness so vital to our collective understanding of our place in Nature. Her voice belonged to that greater community of life that she loved. Indeed, Rina Swentzell tended a garden of consciousness as beautiful to behold as the clear night sky of winter over our Río Grande homeland. Long may she linger. Long may we heed.
Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, author and radio producer whose perspective includes bioregionalism and systems-thinking. He is just completing a 10-part documentary radio series entitled “Encounters with Consciousness.” www.loreoftheland.org