Longtime followers of this blog know that’s how I often refer to it—as a window on my world. During the pandemic, my world shrank right along with everyone else’s, so much so that the high points of any given week might well be whatever showed up in my email. Surprisingly enough, that’s how things stand this week as well.
A reader named Michael Walsh from Lindenhurst, New York, wrote to tell me how much he had enjoyed reading Blessing of the Lost Girls. He went on to say how much he appreciated my illustrating how “Native American traditions and culture are and always will be part of the fabric of our history.”
That statement really touched me because, when I set out to write the first Walker Book in the late eighties, I wanted to make reservation life accessible to people to who would never come to Arizona much less visit an Indian reservation. The person I kept in my mind back then was that proverbial little old lady reader from upstate New York. Now here I was hearing from a living breathing reader from downstate rather than upstate New York, letting me know that I had succeeded.
After reading his message, I started crafting a reply to him, letting him know why his note meant so much to me. In the process I realized that perhaps my blog readers might be interested in knowing that story as well. It’s something I told in live events while I was touring for Blessing, but clearly not everyone has an opportunity to attend live events. And so, as my mother Evie Busk would say, if I’m chewing my cabbage twice, I trust you’ll forgive me.
In my twenties, my first husband and I spent five years on the Tohono O’odham reservation where he was a teacher and I served as a K-12 librarian. I went there knowing absolutely nothing about the Desert People who have occupied that portion of the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. I found them to be welcoming, kind, loving, generous, and humorous.
When I began writing Hour of the Hunter, the first Walker Family book, I wove the Tohono O’odham stories I had learned and told during my time as a librarian into the background of the book. By the time I was writing it, I had been away from the reservation for twenty years, but the people I had met and the things I had learned there were still engraved on my heart.
Fifteen years later l when Queen of the Night, Walker #4, was published, I was asked to come to the reservation to do a book signing at the tribal museum in Topawa. By then I had been away from the reservation for more than thirty years. On the 70 mile drive from Tucson to Topawa, I was very nervous. I felt as though I had treated the Desert People’s way of life with respect in my books and that I had honored their belief systems, but I had no idea how they felt about me.
When my second husband and I arrived in the museum’s parking lot on that cold, blustery March Saturday morning, I was astonished to find any number of out-of-state vehicles—cars from Michigan, Montana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—waiting there. It turns out some of my snowbird fans had seen the event posted on my website and had driven 140 miles round trip to see what it was all about.
The program began with the emcee asking a medicine man to do the invocation. It was done in TO, and he was very longwinded. I know that he was talking about me part of the time because occasionally he used the word “Librarian.” Obviously there’s no word for “library” in the Tohono O’odham language.
After the invocation, the emcee announced that a group of young people were going to come out and do a circle dance. We were advised that this was a sacred dance and that we were not allowed to take photos during it. “However,” he said, “once we open it up for social dancing, you’re welcome to take photos, and you’re also welcome to come down and join the circle.”
So I sat there watching the circle dance, but the whole time I was thinking about something else. In 1973, our last year on the reservation, my first husband and I were invited to come to the wine dance. The wine in question is made from the fruit of the saguaro cactus. The Desert People use ribs of dead saguaros to knock the fruit down from the top of those giant plants. Then they collect the fruit in baskets and take it home where they boil it, mash it, and ferment it. The resulting beverage has the color and consistency of tomato juice with the wallop of tequila.
Wine dances generally take place in August. Attendees sit in a circle around a bonfire. Why a bonfire in August in Arizona? In cities with lots of cement and asphalt, those hard surfaces retain the heat, but out in the mesquite-covered desert, once the sun goes down, it can be bitterly cold. When the dance starts, the wine is poured into a cup that is passed from hand to hand with each person taking a sip before sending it along to the next one. That continues until sunup or until everyone in the circle is falling-down drunk and barfing into the dirt.
That idea may be offensive to our Milghan (Anglo) sensibilities, but if you think about it, that makes sense because it’s taking the fruit from the top of the saguaro and returning it to the earth, thus closing the circle.
As I said, my first husband and I were invited to attend the dance that year, but the problem was, by then we had a baby, so my husband went to the wine dance while I stayed home with the little one. From that day on, until his death from chronic alcoholism at age forty-two a decade later, my husband rubbed my nose in the fact that he gotten to sit in the circle and I hadn’t.
That’s what I was thinking about as I watched the circle dance on that cold March morning. And the thought that was going through my head at the time was this: “Judy, you’ve bitched about this for more than thirty years. Isn’t it about time you put your money where your mouth is?”
So when the emcee opened the dance to social dancing, I stood up to go down and join the circle. That’s when something wonderful happened. The Desert People in attendance gave me a standing ovation. You can’t see the goosebumps that appeared on my leg as I wrote those words, but trust me, they were there.
As I reached the circle and joined hands with the people on either side of me to start dancing, the thought going through my head was this: “My life will never be any better than this!” But then, miraculously enough, a moment later, it did get better, because all those Milghan ladies from all those out-of-state vehicles came down and danced in the circle, too!
That’s when I knew I had succeeded in making reservation life come alive for my readers. That moment was then and remains to this day the high point of my literary career! In 2000 the University of Arizona awarded me an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, but that ceremony doesn’t hold a candle to dancing in the circle at Topawa!
So this blog is a public thank you to Michael Walsh from downstate New York for letting me know that I actually succeeded in doing what I set out to do all those years ago.
The window on my world really doesn’t get any better than that.