The Dignity of Silence

When I find myself in a beautiful or extreme setting, a recurring thought will often flit through my mind: I should take a picture of this.

But the embarrassing part of this confession is the photo is not for a picture album or way to store a memory. Instead, it’s for my Instagram account. Or Facebook. Or whatever social media platform fits the situation.

I know it’s not just me. Social media attention has become an obsession in our world. What witty/insightful/compelling thing can I say that will get me some new likes on my Facebook page? What jaw dropping shot can I photograph to catch people’s attention on Instagram? What if I don’t do/think anything interesting for a few weeks? Or, even worse, what if I put myself out there with something I think is cool, but get absolutely no response?

That’s a lot of emotional energy to expend and gather from a virtual world.

What what would it be like to live in a culture that didn’t publicize life, that valued privacy over recognition? One that actively discouraged me from sharing my most deeply held beliefs or moments of profound beauty?

You may think this mindset went extinct a few decades ago (ah, the glorious ‘80s!), but a glimmer of it continues to exist in the American Indian Pueblo communities of New Mexico.

As some of the only Indian nations in the United States that never signed a peace treaty with the federal government, the tribes are fiercely independent and continue to live on much of their ancestral lands. The Pueblo nations were already old hats at dealing with European encroachment (Spanish contact began in the mid-1500s) by the time American expansion knocked on their door. They had devised a shrewd three-fold policy of protection.

First, they developed the ability to live in desert locations that the U.S. government considered pretty much unlivable, so there wasn’t a lot of motivation to disperse lands to westward moving settlers. Second, the Pueblos’ highly complex agricultural societies were more familiar to the mindset of European Americans and therefore less threatening.

Lastly and most intriguingly, the Pueblo Nations were (and are) fiercely protective of their culture and religious beliefs, many of which are still not clearly understood by anyone outside the Pueblo. This policy of privacy protected members by creating a cohesive sense of identity when the outside world tried to infiltrate and dilute them. One researcher put it this way when considering the Hopi Pueblo: “This degree of cultural preservation is a remarkable achievement, facilitated by isolation, secrecy, and a community that remains essentially closed to outsiders.”

Many ceremonial dances, feasts and sings of the Pueblos are still completely closed to visitors. During the ceremonies where outsiders are allowed, observers must follow a strict code of rules, one of which is no photography without permission. Breaking this rule means that cameras and cell phone will be confiscated by tribal police.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to tour the Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. I was fascinated to hear our guide, a college-aged member of the tribe, answer the tourists’ questions about the Pueblo. While she was very forthcoming about the history of her people, her cagey, often cryptic responses to questions about religion and culture had a fascinating effect.

By communicating that there were many details of her Pueblo that we were not entitled to know, she elevated her community from a tourist site to a place that we were privileged to observe. It reframed the entire experience.

The Pueblo’s demand for and expectation of privacy engendered outsiders’ respect. And that lead me to this question, what would the world be like--what would my life look like--if more of us followed this example?

After a similar experience while visiting the Taos Pueblo, I decided that I wanted to use a comparable setting for Desert of the Damned, the sequel to Valley of the Broken. But, out of respect for Pueblo Nations’ privacy, this desire requires the delicate dance of being inspired by the setting rather than plagiarizing these communities.

On a deeper level, the experience has challenged me to be more intentional about my presence on social media. While I can’t exist outside the reality of these platforms, especially because of my career, I can choose what to share, and even more importantly, what not to share.

In this day and age, most people (myself included) wear our beliefs on our sleeve and are quick to voice why our political/social/religious ideologies are the right one. I am stopped in my tracks by a group of people who do the opposite. It’s my hope that emulating their restraint will create an atmosphere of respect from which I can operate and exist.