RiverWomen (tentative play title) began dreaming of itself during my first trip to Taos. Mid-retreat, after a night of watching a movie about hamburger, I walked out of the classroom into a dark night, snow up to my knees. A row of dead Indians was watching me as I walked back to my room. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “This woman is crazy! I didn’t know they allowed drugs at these writing retreats?!?!?!” But, dear Readers, I assure you, I saw that row of dead Indians, no drugs needed. They didn’t say anything. They just watched me. What were a bunch of dead Taos Pueblo Indians doing watching a live Umatilla Indian on writing retreat? I didn’t know, but I can’t say I was surprised. This wasn’t my first encounter with ghosts and it was definitely not the first strange appearance on the trip.
As I was running out of my apartment for the airport, overfilled suitcase in hand, I had the sudden desire to pull a tarot card. I grabbed the nearest deck (yes, I possess several) and after a few quick shuffles drew a puzzling image. It was a man dressed in black and white stripes, with black and white tufts emanating from his head. I shoved the card back into the deck and ran out the door. This image haunted me all the way to Taos. It haunted me on my first night, when I dreamed that three of these men were dancing in front of me, taunting me, scaring me. On my second day in Taos, I took a walk around the historic house where I was staying and stopped short when I saw the striped man’s image hanging on the wall. There was a large painting of him in the stairwell and another, smaller picture above the stairs. I went to the front desk and asked, “Who is that striped man?!?!?!” Hano Clown is a supernatural being, often depicted by dancers of the Southwest tribes. He reminds us to be open and free and let life be what it is without trying to control it, but he also shows us for who we really are. He is lewd and loud, obnoxious and sometimes frightening. He serves to wake us up and forces us to pay attention to the reality of our lives. He certainly had my attention.
And then there was the row of dead Indians. Looking back, I think they were checking me out. I think they were reporting back to my own ancestors, letting them know whether or not I would take notice. I think Hano Clown and those dead Indians were preparing me for the spiritual awakening that was headed my direction. For the Indian relatives, both living and dead, who were about to enter my life and the stories they would bring with them. Hano and his tribe of ghosts needed to be sure I would not be tossed away by things I did not understand and that I would stick around long enough to pass along the stories I heard.
RiverWomen is a play about four generations of Umatilla/Columbia River women. It is their story. I wield the pen, but it is their voices shining through. I am grateful to the ancestors of Taos Pueblo for waking me up to the presence of my own ancestors. It was in their desert, in view of their sacred mountain, in the company of their ghosts that I was opened enough to listen to the voices of my own birth family.