A Kinship That Knows No Boundaries

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juniper branches scratch at our rented RV's aluminum roof, but we manage to edge up the final stretch of this steep, cockeyed dirt road--our toughest driving test yet this summer as we poke around America, searching for insight into the American family.

The first thing the kids spot is a big red, green and blue macaw that's been scrutinizing our ascent from the wispy limb of another tree. I notice a bleached cattle skull, a totem of the New-Age-hugs-Native-America sensibility for which this part of New Mexico has a reputation.

But Gail Russell, the woman who steps through the adobe archway of the Mountain Light Bed and Breakfast, is not of the bliss-makes-everything-better school. According to a tourist-style semiology that came with an arrowhead purchased at Mesa Verde National Park by our 7-year-old son, Robert, a cow skull signifies strength and protection. That seems more like it.

A photographer by trade, Russell first immersed herself in American Indian culture in the 1970s. While shooting a magazine assignment on the Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation, she met a tribal elder named Nellie Red Owl.

Russell learned that "grandmas" like Red Owl traditionally wield great influence in the Lakota communities. But many of those communities seemed to be unraveling right before Russell's camera lens.

It was Red Owl's view that the poverty and substance abuse bedeviling the reservation were tied to the weakening of old family hierarchies. She hinted that Russell, who says she has "just a distant drop" of American Indian blood, might be able to help.

In the meantime, Russell says, her photography of traditional peoples was winning her friends and acquaintances nationwide. So, in the winter of 1986, when three Pine Ridge elders froze to death in their cabins, Russell's phone began ringing.

"I had grandmas talking in one ear saying, 'Help us,' and people from around the country talking in the other ear asking if there wasn't something they could do." Russell got together with Red Owl and six other grandmas. She asked why the programs already in place sometimes floundered, and how the elders would help themselves if they had the resources.

Those discussions evolved into Adopt a Grandparent, which today links about 200 Lakota elders and their families to more than 800 people from across the United States as well as England, Finland, Japan and other countries.

About a third of those supporters actually have adopted Lakota elders, taking direct responsibility for any need, doing everything from shipping used winter clothes to their doorsteps via UPS to sending checks to the local utility to take care of overdue heating bills.

Other supporters contribute gift certificates for food and participate in Christmas toy drives. One supporter recently donated fabric that volunteers used to teach reservation Headstart children to make traditional dance outfits.

"The grandparents are at the center of the family," Russell says. "Everything flows from them." That trickle-down effect means the program now is helping about 3,500 people. And in some cases, the benefits become reciprocal, with elders inviting supporters into their homes and families.

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In 1977, Russell, who had been based in Connecticut, bought a turn-of-the-century adobe house in this high desert town, a patchwork community that seems to blend the Santa Ynez Valley's upscale ostrich ranch style with the scrappier ambience of rural Baja California.

She later converted the home into a photo gallery and B & B, and one room now contains the small, two-computer office from which she and a volunteer board run Adopt a Grandparent.

Gazing out from Russell's deck to a sprawling valley in which buffalo indeed do roam, it's easy to see how the original inhabitants of this area found spiritual strength here, and why it makes so many late arrivals go all mystical.

The almost palpable light and the clean, sage-scented air energize. The quiet coaxes shy thoughts from overloaded brains. For a while, as Russell and I talk, Robert and Emily, 10, feed crackers to Ducky, the macaw, and carrots to Black, Russell's horse. Ashley, our 12-year-old daughter, meets Ashley, the much younger resident goose, and each scrutinizes the other with apparent admiration.

Then, after we've talked for a couple of hours, Russell and a board member who has flown in from San Francisco for the weekend take us to Taos Pueblo, a nearby reservation inhabited for centuries by people speaking the Tiwa language.

We rumble into the village in the RV, with Russell lecturing the children on the ceremony we are to witness, and on Native American etiquette. Then we set out on foot. Before we can see the corn dancers, their drumming and chanting wafts down the creek that carves a green path through the brown village.

The sight of the women and men shuffling in the red dust before their multitiered adobe homes, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background, stuns the children into proper reverence (although Robert struggles mightily with Russell's admonition about the residents' finger-pointing taboo).

As we're leaving, Russell lifts her chin toward an adobe house with a rounded oven outside. An old woman in traditional dress stands in a blue doorway, watching her neighbors dance, listening to the chants resonate from the adobe.

The pueblo's blue doors, Russell says, are meant to keep out evil spirits. But that's probably not why this village, while far from trouble-free, has fared so much better than those in the sprawling Pine Ridge reservation.

For one thing, Russell says, these people never lost their ancestral land. Also, as farmers, they probably had an easier time adapting to change than the Sioux, whose far-ranging hunting lives were crippled by European settlers' land grabs.

The stronger economy that resulted took stress off the family, she speculates, so the elders are still pampered--and, in turn, still nurture.

We leave the pueblo in a stream of tourists. Only Russell is greeted by residents' waves and smiles and small talk--almost as if she were an elder herself.

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Saying goodbye, we drive east through the Sangre de Cristos. The pueblo's chanting and drumming come along for the ride, as if lodged in our muscles and bones.

So, when a big coyote gallops across the road directly in front of us, I catch myself wondering if it's not a sign.

A few miles later, a hawk with a mouse in its beak swoops across the road in the opposite direction, not 10 feet from our windshield.

Then, just outside the town of Las Vegas, I spot a third sign saying something I haven't seen since I was a child: "$5 a car," it reads. On a whim, we pay an elderly woman at a plywood guard shack and pull to the back of the weed-strewn dirt lot. With dusk fading fast, we cook a spaghetti dinner in the RV's kitchen while family-filled pickups and cars packed with adolescents arrange themselves around us in an old and endangered ritual.

Then we haul out our lawn chairs, and as crickets chirp and bolts of lightning skitter into distant mountain peaks, we sit in the warm summer air and watch "Jungle 2 Jungle," a comedy about cross-cultural understanding and the re-tightening of family bonds.

* Next: Rural Oklahoma meets the inner city.

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