Rise of the Thunderbird

by Paul Robear,  President of the Cuyamungue Institute

Hall of the Thunderbird Photo Gallery

This story begins with the decision to construct a new building at the Institute in anticipation of the Centennial. First, we had received an anonymous donation to help build a dance platform.  At the 2012 board meeting, I had proposed to get this built in time for the Centennial, and while we were at it, to add walls and a roof. The more I thought about it the more I dreamed of an enclosed building…  and why not build a structure large enough to comfortably accommodate all those who may show up? I’ve had this dream of adding a building since my first visit to the Institute in the early 1990’s. Easier said than done, and of course significant fundraising is necessary, but I felt the time is now, got the Board of Directors approval and began construction.

The project began in earnest when I returned to CI in early April of 2013. My wife Laura was delayed for several weeks on other business, the first workshop was two months away, and I knew this was my opportunity to get going on this dream. I started by walking the land, until one particular site seemed to call to me. It was backed by a tall hill, facing east, at the edge of a deep arroyo, just off the entrance to the dance court. There was a very few remnants of the past sweat lodge that was located in this area years ago and the sense of a strong presence lingered even now.

The next question was, what kind of structure? I had long been intrigued by the traditional Navajo Hogans, an eight side structure made of wood logs packed with mud.  Then I saw modern-day versions of the traditional hogans at Crow Canyon in Cortez Colorado. That inspired me to look at how to build a hogan using the building materials of today. I spent days researching construction techniques and ideas on how to build such a structure from scratch. Finally a Google search on building a hogan turned up a hogan bracket kit. Directly inspired by the simplicity and utility of the traditional Navajo hogan, this make and provides a pre-engineered way to build an 8-sided building using brackets designed by an engineer. Perfect!

At the chosen site I laid out test boards to determine the size for our hogan. The goal is to build the largest diameter without needing heavy equipment like a crane etc… I need a to flatten the space so fortunately I had been working with Lynn Brewer with his small “bobcat” for clearing out the arroyo adjacent to Kiva East, to prevent the occasional torrential rains from depositing so much silt on entryway as to prevent the door from opening. The soil was so dry it had the consistency of flour, from the ongoing drought. The arid conditions made it easy to store building materials and tools, but of course we hoped for eventual rain. We choose a direct path to minimize traffic on the land but before we can get to the proposed site we needed to widen the entrance in front of the student building to allow access.  This project alone was a pretty big project, done mostly by hand with local helpers I hired to dig and build a rock wall from rocks gathered on the land. Every step of the way we were careful to preserve the delicate ecosystem.  Finally Lynn leveled our new building site.  I hired a local carpenter, Dave Fassenbacher to help with the construction and I was very fortunate to have a volunteer, Peter Lipa join us for several weeks to help out. We nailed together a 25-foot diameter, eight-sided octagon, making the outer rim of the foundation. After installing the foundation the next design challenge was how to layout the floor joists in a pattern that would support the floor but also enhance the geometric shape.  Drawing from mythology and the web of life, I came up with a “spider web” design as the most practical and beautiful.

Drawing on local wisdom, to make this a stable, solid, and rodent-scorpion-snake-proof foundation, we backfilled the spaces in the foundation, knowing that water mixed with packed earth would harden into an adobe like mass. We were all shoveling dirt back into the foundation, when Peter noticed something in the dirt, and pulled out a large pottery shard, a frog. We were all thankful that the shard had survived the trip in Lynn’s bobcat, to be safely and gently deposited where we would find it. The frog was different then the pueblo shards we usually find but more on that later.

The next step was to lay out the wood floor. Wood was the best choice for our multi-purpose space, to better accommodate all the activities to come: yoga and dance, as well as celebrations and gatherings. With more geometrical calculations, we cut out eight large pie-shaped plywood wedges to fit over the web.

Now that we had a floor, we could install the uprights of the eight walls. This was the easy part. The next, and biggest challenge was how to raise the roof. I assessed the situation carefully. Peter had left and Dave was my only helper. I had little equipment — certainly no (Hoisting thing?) . And one very heavy roof ring to somehow hoist into position! Laura suggested we consult the engineer who had designed the brackets and roof ring. He shared a few ways that his other customers had raised the ring, but encouraged us do our own research. We will have to wait in this decision. We  had to cease construction to conduct the seasons’ first workshop, Initiatory Training. Laura and I were delighted to see the current open floor put to good use as attendee Margi Shindler offered morning yoga and most of the dozen of us stretched just after sunrise. Also as part of the workshop we initiated the floor as we conducted a dance under the full moon on the summer solstice.

After the workshop, it was back to work on the building.

As the project unfolded, I often sent pictures to board members, fellow instructors and friends, including my trusted friend David Nighteagle who has a background in alternative construction techniques. Knowing the sacredness of the land and the intended use of the structure, David asked me a very important question… “Are you smudging and doing ritual at the site?”  Every day at the Institute, I honor the sunrise, walking up to the ridge that overlooked the valley to the east, and the valley to the west. Felicitas had chosen well, for this ridge offered clear views of both sunrise and sunset. But now during construction I welcomed the sun’s rise at the building site. I had oriented the entry to face the eastern ridge, and I stood in the doorway-to-be, honoring the directions, I also asked the spirits of the land to inspire and guide me; to show me how to safely raise the roof beams.

And then it came to me. First Dave Fassenbacher  and I built a scaffolding tower, and put it off to one side. Then we put the ring on its side and bolted onto the central ring two rafters, on opposite sides. We used a long length of rope to pull it up, and stand it in position. It took a good heave-ho, but we were able to stand it up on the two “legs”. We added safety ropes to make sure it didn’t go all the way over and and come crashing down on us. It was so inspiring to finally see the ring in the air. We then slid the scaffold to the center to provide a work platform for bolting each rafter to the center ring. We knew we had to quickly anchor this, bolting additional rafters, in opposing sets of two for balance, until we had all sectors of the roof secured.

Suddenly, the wind picked up, and In the distance we could see dark clouds scuttling towards us, soon followed by claps of thunder. In the Southwest, any rain is good rain. Since my arrival, I had seen no actual rain, just a few drops and mere hints of rain. So was it actually going to rain or not, we wondered? We picked up our pace, knowing that with thunder comes lightning, for sure. After each rafter was secured, I asked Dave if we should call it a day and get off the roof. “Just one more,” he replied. , We secured a few more rafters in place as the thunder got louder — and closer. There was electricity in the air as the winds picked up and thunder boomed ever closer. As rain began to fall, I yelled back to the sky, in answer, from atop our new roof. The lightning was now too close for comfort — and safety — so finally we relented, satisfied with what we had accomplished.

The next morning over coffee, I picked up a book that Laura Lee, my wife, had recently purchased on a trip to the Santa Fe Habitat for Humanity Restore. This was a frequent stop for me, whenever I drove by. I had greatly stretched our meager remodel budget by finding just the right pieces at this store, and Laura would patiently peruse the used-book shelves while I hunted and gathered. This book, “Wisdom of the Elders: Native Traditions on the Northwest Coast” by Ruth Kirk turned out to be a timely find. As I opened the book, the pages fell open to this story (referencing another title, “Smoke from Their Fires” by anthropologist Chellan S. Ford)

“Southern Kwakiuti Chief Charles Nowell tells how the man, starting to build a house, was startled by a Thunderbird, which came and sat beside him. The man had been very worrying about raising the roof beams, so he said to the Thunderbird:

“How I wished you were a man to help put up my beams,” and the Thunderbird turned his head and there was a human face showing and he said “why I am a man. I’ve come for that reason, to help you with your work.”  And he put back his head and caught the beam with his claw and flew up and put it on to this post. And after the work was done he flew back and sat on the log and the man said “I wish you would not depart. Come and build your house by mine and we will be brothers.”

This gave me chills!  Yesterday, as we finally lifted our beams, and so much more easily than I had dared hope, I had to wonder — had Brother Thunderbird had visited us as well?

This spurred me to seek more information on the Thunderbird. I found that the Thunderbird mythology is part of many North American native cultures. A very large supernatural bird of strength and power that is capable of creating storms and thunder during flight. Clouds are combined by its wingbeats, and wings clapping make the sound of rolling thunder. It could shoot lightning from its eyes and when it blinks, individual lightning bolts are made by the glowing snakes that accompany it. In masks, it is multi-colored, with two curling horns, and teeth within its beak. It’s home is on mountain tops, and as servant to the great Spirit, it delivers messages from one spirit to another.  It seems the Thunderbird stirred it up, as we were blessed from that day on with daily thunderstorms……for the next three weeks! These were torrential downpours, flash floods, thunder, lighting … I loved it and most importantly, the land loved it.

With all 32 roof beams in place, Dave asked if we wanted to add any type of design to the the rafter tails. What else could make its mark on this new building but the Thunderbird? I drew its profile, and together Dave and I drew them on the ends of the beams, and cut them out. This building is now under the protection of the Thunderbird. It’s the Hall of the Thunderbird.

All that rain was not the best thing for the newly installed floor, covered only by open rafters. We kept a broom handy for daily sweeps of standing water. It was a good grade of exterior plywood, but it was starting to warp and delaminate in places. As soon as the floor dried out, I rolled on a gallon of wood stain in hopes of making it a bit more waterproof, and this helped, but where the cut corners came together was particularly vulnerable to swelling. And the rains continued, daily, until the soil turned from flour, to flowers, and even a large bullfrog made an appearance.

Speaking of frogs, Dave showed a photo of the large frog shard to his friends at a nearby pueblo who analyzed the photo, then said that similar looking frogs are still made to this day, with upturned, open throats to call, and catch, the rain. We still are not able to verify the age but either way it represents to us another synchronistic event that adds to the mythology of this location.

The Thunderbird continued to make his presence known throughout the summer. In preparation for facilitating the season’s Masked Trance Dance (MTD), Laura and I were re-reading Dr. Goodman’s accounts of preparing for her first event MTD at CI. On page 96-97 of “Where the Spirits Ride the Wind” she recounts the visions of two helpers who were tasked with finding the locations of the sweat lodge to be used in the dance. It would seem our experiences in 2013 were a continuation of their 1986 visions. In particular, Krissie’s vision began with Grandfather Frog, who entreated her to include him. An eagle danced, then turned into a flower. She saw a lot of light, the setting sun, a mushroom cloud, and rain. Again, they were led to build the sweat lodge with a hill behind, at the edge of a deep arroyo (the very spot I was led to). In her vision, Krissie saw the group dancing (our building started with a donation for a dance platform).

And Felicitas notes that “A cloud did gather during that dance, but most remarkably only above our sweat lodge. We were indeed rained on, and there was thunder and lightning.” And then the cloud turned pink, and was girded by a rainbow from end to end.

You can imagine my amazement when at the very same spot the Thunderbird and Frog made such an unusual appearance. Of course I have to ask myself, is this my just my imagination and a desire to connect the dots, because my intellect tells me that Thunderbird is just a myth and Santa Fe does have a monsoon season. Yes, I do draw freely upon my imagination, it does make life so much more interesting.  As Albert Einstein said “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

So, In the meantime, I will continue to believe in the power and presence of the Thunderbird.

Paul Robear

Prologue: Hall of the Thunderbird… completion

Lynn loaned us his cement mixer, and we built a long sloping ramp with a large platform to accommodate shoes at the entry, then capped it with flagstone. With the rafters in place, we hastened to get the roofing material on. Wanting the ceiling to showcase the geometry of the building, I chose to roof it in decking, so we could look up and see the individual boards aligned around the octagon. Luckily Dave has  experience roofing, so he spent several days nailing the boards, he went half way up from the bottom up, then carefully cut off the excess, then flipped it over and continued up the pie shape wedge. 8 times.

Now the only rain infiltration was through the open ring at the center of the roof, and during driving rains, through the open walls. I had been thinking about how natural airflow could ventilate, and how daylight could best illuminate this large building that had only one electric plug. I wanted to put the open ring to good use with a skylight, and for added ventilation, to install it over a vented cupola. Octagonal cupolas and skylights proved to be an expensive proposition, I discovered, and not in our meager budget. I would need to build my own.

By this time it was July, and Laura and I were out celebrating her birthday. We drove by a Habitat Restore. I wouldn’t have gone in, but Laura insisted (she knows me well). I found a $5 octagonal piece of glass, big enough to cover the roof ring, and a couple of window shutters. When I cut the shutters up into even pieces, they perfectly encased the glass. With glue and a few nails, lined with bit of mesh to keep out the bugs, I had my cupola, which Dave quickly installed.

We also added permanent crossbeams for added support to the roof, and further to lock all the “legs” together and prevent the high winds from blowing down the whole structure. I wanted the permanent crossbeams, which looked like geometrical tree branches, to show through the finished wall, and I was reluctant to remove my temporary crossbeams until the rigidity of the exterior panels took their place. I needed to rethink the traditional building process, which would have required cutting a lot of sheetrock around the beams I wanted to showcase on the finished wall. I decided to sandwich all the layers simultaneously, working from the outside, installing first whole panels of pre-painted sheetrock, then the insulation, the vapor barrier, and lastly, the exterior panels, completing one wall section before going to the next. That saved a lot of time and labor. I chose an exterior paint color to match the red soil of the land, and volunteer Ryan Headrick spent a long day painting. We used the traditional looking, roughly hewn round poles at the eight corners of the new building.  We sanded, patched a bit, sanded some more, and got the floors smooth and even, and the mottling of the stain that remained made an even more interesting pattern. And we watched how the journey of the sun’s rays shining through the open ring at the top of the roof made its shadow and light dance upon the floor, too.

Thank you for your support.  If you feel inspired to want to make a donation specific to help with the cost of this building, remember the Cuyamungue Institute is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity under the United States Internal Revenue Code, so your donation is tax-deductible.  Here is more information.

 Hall of the Thunderbird Photo Gallery