I had a baby during a worldwide pandemic. My son’s cultural exposure evaporates with every passing month of life. Ceremonies Tewa babies undergo have been halted, like pausing a moon mid-phase. My son shines like a crescent in the sky, glowing but never reaching fullness. Tewa believe we are not a part of the people until we drink water from the mountain springs. This water is granular, rich in meaning and nutrients, the colostrum of the Earth. My lips touched the same pottery my mother drank from, and her mother before her, and her mother’s hands molded the clay. You can see the danger of drinking from communal pottery and why it was forbidden at the time of my son’s birth.
Since he does not belong to the people, I continue to nurse him in the way the water would. I provide his security, strength, and immunity in these times. But what of my nourishment? My pool is shallow, and I too need to drink from the depths of something ancient. It is hard to have the strength of a village when I am one woman.
My son has his traditional paternal and maternal names, but he does not know the sound of a drum. At 15 months he is off the growth charts, the size of a three-year-old credit to the undisturbed nursing cycle, with long black wild hair. He should have witnessed at least five traditional dances by now coinciding with the summer and winter solstices, and a drumbeat should spark something primal in his heart. While his body has no limits, I fear his internal song will slumber until we are allowed to socialize again.
Because of this, I despise this foreign disease like an invader. We have not paused our culture since the time of the conquistadors, and it feels like an armored attack on all we have fought for. The solstice and orbital rotation instruct us, not state mandates and disease. My interpretations are beyond regular table conversation with my kindergartener and first grader, so it goes unspoken. for them, the tortillas are still round and the chili is still hot so in all urgency the orbit continues.
It could be suggested that I teach my baby as much as I can during my time at home. Yes, how accomplished I would be to embed an entire language I do not know to a yearling on my breast.
My father’s first tongue is Tewa—he still counts this way, and occasionally his sentences are out of order. In school he picked up on Spanish so he could interpret when children were teasing him. When English did not come naturally, he relied on his size. He was kicked out of three elementary schools for fighting, assuming the English-speaking kids were making fun of him. In my father’s time, the pandemic was cultural eradication. Another disease in a different form.
My attempts to harness my language have been insignificant in relation to my life. I have learned how to draw back a bow and hike miles in echoing canyons in pursuit of elk. I know our intricate dance rhythms and the legend of the pottery buried beneath our village. Yet, I cannot grasp my own tongue. our dialect relies on emphasis and implication. Po can mean water, moon, or elk depending on how you say it. Very different prayer results if I get that wrong.
I have been told that our language is poetry: there is not one word for any one thing. There are no clouds, there are dark blue storm clouds, winter snow clouds, fresh rainbow clouds. I respect the notion of my people poetically describing the world around us. our elders knew the importance of mood and tone before the written language was born. But I am a writer trying to lasso words that don’t want to be caught.
What secret technique do linguists carry? Does the language choose the woman? My elders are the keepers of ancestral knowledge, patterns, rituals, ingredients, and magical words. These elders recognized the dwindling language and gathered to generously create a dictionary for the people. That was 39 years ago. Each household was given one copy of the black and white plastic bound booklet. I have marked up each page, created color coded flash cards, bought a label maker and covered all tangible objects. our home looked like a discount store with a tag on all the furniture and appliances. The adhesive is the only thing sticking.
I can only hold my baby tightly and deny my ability to speak my language. My basket is empty of that knowledge. “But I am a storyteller,” hoisting up my basket, full of stars. Some people just can’t grasp that. It comes down to taking our baskets and harvesting the resources left to us while still remaining relevant. I wonder how many other pandemic mothers feel this sense of urgency to wrap our culture in a blanket, strap it to a cradle board, and haul it to safety.
I am defending against this disease by writing my stories. It is isolating work. I have a desire to devolve back into a hunter and gatherer, nestling my children in traditions and songs in a place where mandates do not affect our sovereignty. My power comes from my ability to nurture, mother and nurse. Someone’s magic words brought my baby to me, in Tewa or otherwise and for that I am thankful. The moon continues to phase and orbit despite the pandemic, and I should practice speaking to her more often. She too is constantly changing.