Santa Fe's Living Treasures

by Mary Lou Cook

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 world."

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 Treasures.

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 almost 100.

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.

Mary 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 at

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