The remarkable Living
Treasures program, which originated in Santa Fe in 1984 and now
has spread to dozens of American communities, is one of those
simple ideas you wish you'd thought of sooner.
In 1984, a group of us
formed an organization called the Network for the Common Good.
We were tired of protest, against the ballooning arms budget,
against talk of winnable nuclear wars, against attacks on welfare
mothers. We longed to be for something. We had in mind
Gandhi's advice: "You must be the change you wish to see in the
It didn't take long to
find what we were all in favor of: members of the older generation
who had made a difference-our elders, living longer than ever
before in human history, and doing so with grace and spirit and
enthusiasm and undiminished energy for good works. But somehow
they seemed off to one side, marginalized in this country that
worships youth, power and novelty. Our winner-take-all society
provides few prizes to men and women in their 70s and older.
It wasn't this way in
other cultures, we knew. In the pueblos of New Mexico, the elders
are the bearers of tradition, religious belief and native language.
In Hispanic culture, the extended family is paramount; grandparents
get respect. In Asian cultures too, the elders are heeded. A Japanese
tradition of honoring folk artists gave us the model for Living
Now twice a year, in
spring and autumn, this program honors three older New Mexicans.
When we phone to tell them they've been named Living Treasures,
they invariably protest, with typical modesty, "Why me? I don't
deserve it. Others have done a whole lot more." But we push past
that, and treat them as celebrities.
Celebrity is strenuous.
We ask them to submit to a long interview-an oral history-which
is taped and archived at the Santa Fe Public Library. A superb
photographer-first Joanne Rijmes and now Steve Northup-spends
hours, sometimes all day, with each living Treasure. Then we fete
them at a ceremony to which the whole town is invited.
Without pomp or circumstance,
we sit in a sunlit room at the Museum of International Folk Art
and reminisce. Friends and neighbors of the honorees tell old,
forgotten stories. We laugh, we're moved to tears. Reverence is
not required. This event is part tribute, part send-up. At times
it's a class reunion, as when St. Catherine Indian School art
teacher Robert Chavez's former pupils-the artists, athletes, teachers
and others to whom he gave a start in life-showed up en masse
to thank him. At times it's a living memorial.
After everyone else has
spoken, our Living Treasures respond with a little talk of their
own. The formerly small town of Santa Fe-now grown in some aspects
beyond recognition-shrinks back to human size. The ceremony strengthens
old ties and creates new ones. It binds the community together.
The Living Treasures
represent almost every field of human endeavor: medicine, art,
education, the military, the environment, religion, architecture,
literature and journalism, racial and cultural relations, politics,
economics and business, music, theater, farming and gardening,
charitable works, athletics, storytelling, philosophy, weaving,
the Santa Fe Fiesta, and dozens of other walks through life. And
always, of course, the human spirit.
The Living Treasures
is always improvising. We make and break rules, of which there
are few to begin with. We've branched out into the schools, encouraging
children to learn history from their grandparents and other seniors.
In our sixth year we planted 36 trees-honoring the 36 Living Treasures
at that time-in a local park. The number of Treasures now totals
The first 10 years of
Living Treasures were gathered into a book published in 1997.
In words and photographs, the book honors these remarkable people,
and is full of surprises. One is its sheer reach in time. The
elders remember their own parents and grandparents, as well as
their grandchildren, to give us a multigenerational saga.
The entire century is
tucked into these pages: Geronimo's surrender, the Bataan Death
March, the Manhattan Project, the founding of the United Nations,
the nation's Bicentennial. But also-that's the beauty of oral
history-births, deaths, marriages, gardens, picnics, banjos, motorcycles,
private life and public service.
Who are we? Where are
we Going? What do we owe ourselves and others? In a chorus of
voices, the Living Treasures program asks these questions-and
gives answers. Beyond the wisdom of individual lives, it offers
the collective wisdom of a century.
Lou Cook is recognized as the founder of the Living Treasures
program. A calligrapher, author, teacher, minister and community
peace worker, she has received numerous international, national
and community honors for leadership.
To learn more about
Santa Fe's Living Treasures program, visit its beautiful Web site