A southwestern drama of love and racial awakening on a New Mexico Indian pueblo. Dueweke integrates the Pueblo Indian culture into every twist of their challenging romance. The Jemez customs, language, and philosophies come alive in Priona's poems, in the widening racial gap between them, and in the contest of long distance running skills Ben is drawn into with one of Priona's brothers.
PRIONA is a story of love, poetry, and racial awakening set in the Jemez Pueblo of New Mexico in 1959. Ben is seventeen, Priona sixteen. She wants to be the philosopher-poet of the Native Americans and has run away to follow her dream in New York. Ben meets her on a train and is confounded by his feelings for this beautiful dark-skinned girl from a culture he never even knew existed. She sure wouldn't fit into the culture he grew up in —1950s white Midwest suburbia. Priona's energizing poetry and Ben's oboe virtuosity act as catalysts to bring them together. Priona teaches Ben that Indians need acceptance from Anglos to survive in their hybrid Indian-Anglo world. But in his several days at the pueblo, Ben is the one struggling for acceptance, and not just from her mother and brothers. The Jemez are the most secretive and racially arrogant of the pueblo cultures. What a test for an Anglo boy from Detroit. What a test of their love.
PRIONA examines a culture that most Americans hardly know exists. And yet it is rightfully as much a part of America as George Washington. This book is an introduction to that secretive culture which will captivate and enlighten every American reader.
When Junior and I emerged, Priona and Tulea were finishing cleaning up the kitchen and their mother was pressing and baking tortillas at the stove. Junior went out to the car for something.
“Sure is a neat house,” I said with exaggerated enthusiasm. “Never saw walls this thick before.”
Tulea looked up and smiled at me.
“But then we don’t have much adobe in Detroit.” I laughed at my wit. “That was an excellent lunch … or supper. I’m not sure what you would call it.”
“Ne’tsa’qua’u,” Mrs. Montoños said without looking up as she slid a sheet of steaming flour tortillas out of the oven.
“It’s just a meal,” Tulea said. “We just call it a meal.”
“I see. Well, it was a great meal.”
“Hung’tsa,” said their mother to a pile of tortillas.
“Hung’tsa,” I tried to repeat. “Hung’tsa very much to you.”
“You’re very welcome, Ben,” Tulea said. “If you’d like some more iced tea, it’s right in the refrigerator.”
“No … Hung’tsa,” I said.
“If you want anything,” Tulea said, “just let us know.”
I walked over to the refrigerator. “This is just like one we used to have when I was little.”
“It’s the first refrigerator we’ve ever had,” Tulea said. “We just got it two years ago.”
“What did you do without a refrigerator all those years?”
“We never thought about it,” Tulea said.
I walked over to the window and tried to get a glimpse at Priona’s face to see if she was angry at something. I should have known better. There was no hint of any emotion. She seemed to concentrate on her task to the exclusion of everything else. I knew that washing dishes occupied only a small part of her attention, but what else? Did I figure in a part of it or was it Michael Armijo? What went on before Junior and I were invited into the house?
Just then, Junior appeared in the kitchen doorway. Mrs. Montoños saw him standing there and smiled to him and offered him a seat near the stove. Junior smiled and accepted the seat. Just as he was about to sit, Mrs. Montoños said, “Wait.” She took a dish towel and slapped some flour off the seat. “There, now it is clean for you.”
Junior brushed his hand over the seat and said, “It would match my pants just fine.”
Mrs. Montoños smiled as she wiped her hands on her apron.
Junior reached into a paper bag he carried and pulled out a baseball cap and handed it to her. She looked at it in his hand and then looked at him and said, “Just like yours.” She took it and placed it on her head and looked toward her daughters. They both smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Junior. Thank you very much.” She placed the gray cap on her head and showed it off to her daughters.
“It’s already been blessed by Gin’che’nung,” Tulea said, pointing to the two flour smudges on its bill.
Mrs. Montoños opened the oven door and pulled two trays of tortillas out, humming all the while.
“That’s a great hat, Mrs. Montoños,” I said “It’s from the newspaper where Junior works.”
She looked up at me and nodded. She offered Junior a fresh tortilla and then offered one to me.
“Michael Armijo seems very important,” I said. “Is he the chief of the pueblo?”
“No,” Tulea said. “He is the head of the Society of Clowns.”
“Clowns?” I said with a grin. “But he didn’t even have a red nose.” No sooner had the words left my mouth than I realized I’d blundered over something that should not be taken lightly — something sacred to the Jemez. I tried to cover it with my most sincere smile.
My three hostesses stopped in synch what they were doing. Priona’s eyes closed. Her lips pursed. Tulea looked at the floor as if trying to think of some way to rescue me. Mrs. Montoños turned her head toward me and, for the first time since I arrived, looked straight into my eyes. Then she went back to work as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened. In that brief glance, I read a reproach born of hundreds of years of history — a history to which I was a novice, a history which had ambushed me enough times in just a few days that a more prudent, a more mature person, might have developed a greater respect for its consequences, its nuances, its holy places.
“The Clowns are a very important society in our pueblo,” Priona said. “They represent authority, and they are responsible for making sure that each of us does what is proper, that we do not slip into the vulgar ways of Anglos and Hispanics.” She paused as Tulea put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Michael Armijo was here to remind me who I am and to … encourage me to bring honor to my people. Outsiders might think that the Society of Clowns is a funny name, but …”
There followed a silence punctuated only by a squeak of the oven door.
“I’m sorry, Pri. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was being … just an Anglo.”
Tulea looked at me and smiled. Priona stared at a plate she’d nearly worn out. Their mother put a stack of tortillas in a paper bag. The crackle of the bag seemed to accent the tension saturating the air — a tension pulling Anglos and Indians always further apart.