Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The wave: Familiarity in rural New Mexico

My father moved from my hometown of Monterey, California to rural New Mexico (the town of Cochiti Lake, population ~2,500) in 2004 or 2005, about a year before I graduated from college. My father's move marked the first time that anyone in my family encountered a rural place for any extended period of time, and the reasons for his move could be the subject of an entirely separate post.

I have only visited him twice since he moved, and both times were some of my only encounters with "rurality." Cochiti Lake is a very small community of non-native people who lease the land on which their homes are built from the Cochiti Pueblo, and who live for all intents and purposes entirely on Cochiti sovereign land.

Cochiti Lake has one gas station, with a convenience store attached. Across the street from the gas station is a golf course. To acquire any additional amenities, most of the non-native people living on the pueblo must travel by car--there are no buses that travel to Cochiti Lake--the forty-five minutes to an hour to reach the outskirts of either Santa Fe (to the North) or Albuquerque (to the South). It is no surprise, therefore, that most of my encounters with space out near my father's home were done by car, specifically sitting in the passenger seat of his red Dodge Ram 2500.

Driving the country roads that connect the pueblo to U.S. Route 85, two things become immediately apparent.

One, many people die on the roads returning to the pueblo. One cannot drive more than a mile without seeing a roadside memorial dedicated to someone. When I asked my father what the cause of the deaths were, he said that some were car accidents, but most were caused by exposure. Apparently because the Cochiti Pueblo has chosen to make their land dry, many people would drive off the Cochiti land to drink alcohol, and try walking back in the freezing winter temperatures, only to succumb to the weather before making it home. Apparently, this happens all over the state of New Mexico on dry, rural pueblo land.

Two, everyone waves. It is hard to explain, but every car we passed on the way out to the pueblo and back, the driver would lift his fingers off of the steering wheel and wave at the driver in the passing car. At first, when I saw my dad do it, I thought perhaps he knew the people we were passing. Eventually, I asked what he was doing. He said that out on pueblo land, the Native Americans--and some non-natives in the know--waved at every passing car. He said that he believed he got waved at so often, initially, because in his large, lifted truck with tinted windows, he looked like he could be Native American himself.

In our travels throughout the state of New Mexico, whenever we drove onto pueblo land, people began to wave. The sociologist in me, of course, has many questions about what this symbolizes to people out in the harsh desert setting of rural New Mexico. Was my dad's observation accurate--that only the native people in New Mexico are firmly attached to the wave? Do the constant reminders of the harsh climate and difficult terrain--embodied in the roadside memorials--create a need in people to connect and affirm each other's humanity? Is the wave a result of some age-old custom that southwestern pueblos used in passing long before the car came into existence? Is the wave something that exists in many rural places, outside of New Mexico and the southwest entirely?


vlshaw said...

I really liked this post. I love the insights into the New Mexico Pueblo way of life. I visited the a pueblo when I was in High school, my family and I traveled down to attend the corn dance ceremony, it was unlike any rural Indian land i had ever been to in California, it was a very unique an special place, good job capturing some of that.

lauren said...

Great post. I've always been a bit fascinated by roadside memorials, but most of the ones I have seen are on coastal highways. I imagine seeing so many along a stretch of road is jarring. When I was in high school I used to visit my friend's cabin on the Russian River often. Her house was in a smaller community at the end of a very narrow, windy road. She would instruct us (when we drove up to visit her) that we needed to waive to anyone we passed on the road. However, it was more of a full, take-your-hand-off-the-wheel wave.

Cinda said...

I am from NM, we all do the wave! Not just the Natives, though it wouldn't surprise me if they we the ones who started it. It's from the heart, that wave is backed with love.