ELKO — Three Westerners shared their own powerful stories of timeless values from the Elko Convention Center auditorium stage Feb. 1 during the keynote address of the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
“[We] rural people often feel misunderstood by the rest of the world,” said Kristin Windbigler. Twenty years ago, the Western Folklife Center executive director began attending gatherings, where she recognized in cowboy poetry her own culture as a rural northern Californian. Through ordinary people’s extraordinary stories, she also recognized the power of expression.
Speakers Eric Trigg, Emily Nielson and Nephi Craig embraced that power onstage to express what matters to a ranching family, how poetry inspires courage in rural teenagers and why Native American cuisine promotes healing.
Although from vastly different backgrounds as a ranch owner and commercial airline pilot, high school English teacher, and Native American chef, the three share a Western heritage and the ability to identify the values important to their situations.
For Trigg’s family, keeping their 50,000-acre New Mexico ranch intact and in the family was more valuable than the money they’d gain by selling it.
“How could we put a price on owning such a vast piece of land that is so remote there’s no cellphone service, and the stars are brighter than you have ever imagined?” Trigg said.
The third-generation ranchers then put the land in a trust owned by the heirs and wrote up rules stating that 85 percent of the family had to agree before the ranch would ever be sold or divided. They agreed that all profits would go back into the ranch or be donated to charity. Perhaps most important, the family stays involved by helping with the “annual family work week” to conquer a large ranch project, and share food and fellowship.
“This has been a great way to get to know each other, and it gets everyone involved — a sense of belonging to the ranch,” Trigg said.
By making changes to the ownership structure and management, and working together as a family, the Triggs hope to preserve what they value most and that the ranch will stand the test of time.
Students of Nielson at Elko High School faced a different kind of test. When the “outside-the-textbook English teacher” asked a high-schooler to memorize poetry for a competition, she was asking the young girl to take a risk in order to learn and grow.
“I have seen firsthand how poetry can change the lives of my students,” Nielson said. “I would love for you to leave here today with an understanding of how poetry connects us all.”
After the young girl, once a self-professed “poetry hater,” won third in the national Poetry Out Loud competition, she became a poetry lover. The conversion led Nielson and collaborators including cowboy poets and colleagues to reimagine how to teach poetry.
“As instructors, we have learned to teach the art of making poetry personal, and then once that’s accomplished, performing it onstage, lights glaring and judges watching,” Nielson said. “… I recognize that it is the poetry that empowers them.”
The results extend beyond a textbook knowledge of poetry. The experience fosters additional time-tested values that teachers cherish: students’ better understanding of themselves, the creation of a community and the blossoming of confidence.
“They are sharing more than a poem,” Nielson said. “They are sharing their courage to be heard.”
In seeking to answer the question, “Why is there no Native American cuisine?” Craig learned about what he values in his culture and gained the courage to help lead what he calls a “dignified resurgence.”
Looking to his ancestors and immediate family from the Apache and Navajo tribes, Craig saw examples of trials and recovery. He acknowledged that he “stands on the shoulders of giants” and that “we are a continuation of our ancestors, that the strength and courage and tenacity flows through our bloodlines.”
His ancestors encountered challenges that continue to affect people today, he said. Craig reflected on some highlights of American history including the California Gold Rush and the Louisiana Purchase, saying each story left out the indigenous experience.
“It was a very different experience for us on the other side of these benchmarks,” Craig said, explaining that indigenous culture was interrupted for hundreds of years. “Those are just a few examples of why we don’t see Native American restaurants.”
Through his Café Gozhóó, a Western Apache café and learning center in Whiteriver, Arizona, Craig aims to help lead a “dignified resurgence” and “intelligent coexistence” through training, cooking and recovery. He said the Apache word “Gozhóó” means, “happy,” “balance, ”“harmony,” “love.”
“What we think Western Apache cuisine and cooking will be built on is a priority of healing people, of healing the landscape, of reconnecting so that we can have an intelligent response to historical trauma in that recovery process.”
That’s important, he said, “because there is much more at stake. Think about your families and the legacy we create, because it has the chance and opportunity to stand the test of time.”
As Gail Steiger said in the introduction, the world — and West — is in the midst of fast-changing times.
“Change can be hard for lots of folks,” he said, but then reminded listeners that the key is to hold strong to values, so they will continue to stand the test of time.