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The Studio

By June 15, 2012 No Comments

Way back when, I remember Richard Mouw once saying that the whole Christian world would be better off if we’d take seriously ye olde Sunday School line, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.”  His line sticks because it had amazingly adhesive power, even though, for the most part, I don’t think I am, by nature or practice, a man whose treasures are stored up in barns.  Right now, going into retirement, I might well face a more comfortable future had I cared more about what will finance what is to come in this life.

No matter.  I know my sins.  And were the old lyric somehow messed with, like this:  “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or turquoise,” Mouw’s admonition would probably have even more sting, given my love for southwestern jewelry. I’m capable of leaving rings and bracelets or watch fobs behind whenever I leave New Mexico, but not without some gritted teeth.  I don’t know why I’ve always loved it, but I do.

But yesterday, for the first time, I saw it being made in the home of a silversmith in Zuni, New Mexico, by a woman who said her work paid for her children’s Christian school tuition.  I’m told by reliable sources that a really goodly percentage of the Indian jewelry sold in Santa Fe, in Taos, in Albuquerque and Buffalo and Minneapolis and London and Melbourne–which is to say around the world–is created right there in the pueblo or its environs, where silversmithing of a particular kind–Zuni, inlaid–is the major means of making a living.

Never before had I seen it being made.  Never before had I been in a pueblo home where Mom cuts and welds and grinds and glues and polishes and buffs, until what you see in some fancy showroom in San Fran or wherever it is gloriously sold.

Zuni is, as are many reservations in North America, among the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, a fact which, in this particular case, may well be as stunningly ironic as it is tragic.  The caged bird sings beautifully in Zuni–the jewelry locals turn out is as gorgeous as anything created by individual craftsmen and women anywhere in the world; but the day-to-day life of so many in the pueblo is nothing like anything you see on TV, save on a documentary–or unlike anything most of America can even imagine from a redwood deck patio.  Here lives something we might call immense, grinding poverty, if it weren’t such a horrible pun.

You can call the people victims–after all, conscienceless traders have taken advantage of them for decades.  You can call them shiftless–often enough many of them could create far more income than they are getting with just a little bit more time in what you might call the studio.  Poverty has many roots and many faces, and those who think it simply attributable to this cause or another are plain fools.

But I came away from this woman’s kitchen, the heart of her family life, and a table cluttered with her materials and tools, thinking of Richard Mouw and his particular take on that old Sunday School ditty–not as it applies to her, but as it still applies to me.  He wasn’t wrong, even when I tell myself I’m certainly no hoarder.

By the way, I’m not leaving empty-handed.  I bought some, as usual. 

But the great gift of yesterday’s momentary experience amid the life and times of this Zuni silversmith was not the some regal necklace or perfect pendant, but a picture–not unlike the one above–that I’ll carry with me now, something really precious yet unseen.

Perhaps I understand a little better than I ever did, and that’s an immense gift.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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