Remembering Frank Waters

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a personal reminiscence of the Southwestern author who once lived in Tucson.

A wiry man, a lock of gray hair over the left side of a face that held twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile, walked out of his adobe home to greet my family in the fall of 1971. We soon found that this warm, sensitive man would hold three young boys captivated for three hours with his stories and interest in them. That was my introduction to Frank Waters, then a well-known Southwest author. Over the next 25 years, his warm spirit and deep faith in people enriched my life.

In his book People of the Valley, Frank gave us a glimpse of how he felt about people. "There are no tribes, no races, no peoples separated by the color of their eyes, their hair and skin. There is only mankind. All men are brothers. Each has the same passions, thirsts and hungers."

Frank was a man who appreciated the connections of the spirit of life to all creation. His values were centered in people, the land and how the two interacted to form cultures. This no doubt came from his affinity for Native Americans. His father was Cheyenne, and Frank spent two years during his youth on the Navajo reservation. Stories of growing up in Colorado Springs, where the Ute Nation came each year for an encampment, filled many an evening conversation.

Once I asked Frank about his collection of eagle feathers. He had feathers in jars, vases, pots and hanging from the Cheyenne war shield attached to a verge in his bedroom. "What do feathers mean for you," I asked. As he told of eagles in the ceremonies of the New Mexico Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo Indians, I began to see how his spirit was like an eagle soaring high above the mountains.

Some claimed Frank was the trickster coyote but I think of him as the free spirit of an eagle. His pulse was the mountains but his spirit is the eagle. The eagle feather he gave me swings above my head even as I write this. His spirit is always with me, helping to connect me with creation.

A quiet man who never sought fame or fortune, Frank was also a private man. He found more joy in visiting with friends than being in the limelight. He would much rather talk about the people he knew from the border town of Mexicali, which he wrote about in The Yogi of Cockroach Court, or his Hispanic friends in Mora Valley, than famous people or places.

In his letters he would remind me to trust both in myself and in the higher power. Institutional religion was not a part of his life but he had a deep faith in the Creator. In his book The Man Who Killed the Deer he talked about churches, "Let us speak of churches as churches are meant to be spoken of. Not as building, neither adobes with bills, or tepees. Let us speak of churches as those edifices of the spirit from which comes all the blessings of life."

He once came to hear me preach after I returned from three years in Zambia as a missionary. His comment to me over lunch that day was, "Peggy, we believe in the same God but I was disappointed you did not share more about how the Zambians view God." We did talk about Zambians another evening.

On his last trip to Taos from a winter in Tucson I was driving the car and Frank was asleep beside me. As we topped out of the Rio Grande canyon and could see the Taos Mountains I woke him and said, "Frank, there are your beloved Taos Mountains." With moist eyes he replied, "Home, home at last. I wondered if I would make it." He died in his home the next afternoon.

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