A Christmas tradition pueblo-style

  At age 79, Vidal Aragon is moving strongly into his second century as perhaps the premier silver smith in the 12 pueblos of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. He signs his jewelry with the bear paw and "VA" merged together. His name commands top prices with the Santa Fe trade. He doesn't have to sit on the portico at the Palace of the Governors hawking his wares with his brothers and sisters from other pueblos. He comes to town every two weeks, where he delivers his latest creations to his own special display case inside the oldest of the Indian trading outfits, Packards.

Vidal and his family are part of my heritage, thanks to my mother. When I was young, I would go with my mother to see Vidal and his family at Santo Domingo Pueblo. It was such a treat to go there on feast days, to listen to the singers and watch the dances. Vidal and his brother Mateo, both now former governors of the pueblo (Mateo died years ago), would dance or sing in the tradition of their centuries-old religion. The modern world does creep in. One year they honored Jack Kennedy by wearing Kennedy half-dollars on their moccasins. But it is one of the few pueblos that has successfully resisted the temptation to build a casino.

Vidal's home is filled with the finest of Indian art. He traded to Plains tribes for beadwork and to the Navajos for blankets. He traded with the Chippewa and the Nez Perce. A few years ago, somebody broke into his home in the middle of the pueblo and stole two very large and special pots. Santo Domingo artists long dead had made the pots before the gringos came. Now, Vidal locks everything up, and the blankets that used to line his walls are in safe keeping.

Last year, the pueblo condemned Vidal's home. Even adobe fails with the centuries. The tribe moved Vidal to a new place for a year and built him a new home on the same spot as his old one. His niece, Irene, raised by Vidal as a daughter, and his grandchildren, Ed and Sonja (not actually his grandchildren but really his cousins who needed a dad), and his great grandson, Mateo (who may be his great-grandson though it doesn't seem to matter in a culture that takes care of children no matter what the circumstances), all live in the new house.

I was in Vidal's home with my oldest daughter and my grandchildren and my friend, Laurie, to honor him and to keep the tradition of our friendship alive. Grandson Ed invited us to come out to watch him dance and feast with the family. His sister, Sonja, doesn't dance. "She doesn't practice her religion," Ed said. "She practices the white man's religion." "It's easier," Sonja said, without apology. Sonja has just completed four years of her engineering degree at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Ed is studying to be a lawyer.

We brought food with us, freshly cooked chili and bread and Krispy Kreme doughnuts and fresh flowers and coffee. We sat together and caught up on all the news of our families. Vidal's mother and my mother became great friends over the years. At 90, Mrs. Aragon spoke no English and preferred her own language, which is still spoken in their home today. My mother taught her the only English she ever knew -- how to sing "Happy Birthday" and to say "Hello. Hello. Come in. Sit down." That's how she'd greet the many international visitors who Mom brought to see Vidal and to learn about los Indios of New Mexico. My mother was on the New Mexico Border Commission and made it her lifework to bring people together in the tri-cultural Rio Grande Valley.

I have never gone to see Vidal after calling in advance. I just show up and there he is. He only recently acquired a phone. There is living history in that place, where the wind sweeps the streets and people have danced and prayed for 800 years. I'll go back this Christmas, and maybe my children will, and we'll listen to the old songs and eat posole and thank God for the blessings of our lives and the season.

Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a veteran of 21 years with the Forest Service in the West and worked for five years with Potlatch Corp. in Idaho and Minnesota.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.