SANTA ANA – Figuratively speaking, Emmett “Shkeme” Garcia has come a long way.
Once thought to be developmentally disabled and treated as a special education student in Bernalillo schools, today he’s an accomplished storyteller, author and singer-songwriter.
Literally, he’s in basically the same place he was as a child, on Santa Ana Pueblo, where he’s on the governing body.
In a recent interview with the Observer, Garcia waves his arm as he sits near a fireplace and says before Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort was built, his father had cattle grazing just north of what is now Twin Warriors Golf Course.
Garcia and his brothers and friends would run all over the current resort’s property back then, and occasionally ride their horses south, returning with stray cattle — those that approached what was once NM 44 (now US 550) — and return them.
And, oh, the stories he would tell, especially from his grandfather, recalling “The nights were long and there wasn’t a lot to do,” and he’d hear stories about his people’s culture, customs and the animals they lived in harmony with. “It was like watching a movie,” Garcia recalled of his grandfather’s storytelling ability.
“The oral history of the tribe was passed down,” Garcia said, hence his pride in his tribe and what he’s done to make sure those stories don’t die. “Every tribe has a creation story,” he added, and Santa Ana Pueblo, he believes, had its origins “from the underworld” — near Mesa Verde, and into this world, then to Canyon de Chelly and then to the northeast side of the Sandia Mountains, not far from what is now Paa Ko Ridge Golf Course, before winding up at its current site.
The late storyteller Joe Sando, Garcia said, had a different version that included an ancestry in the Amazon region of South America, through Cancun, Mexico, and then to what is now Roswell — where artifacts, such as pottery shards, resemble Santa Ana pottery styles.
“We only trace our story back to Mesa Verde,” Garcia said.
His history is interesting, too. It includes a transfer from Bernalillo High School to Valley High School, where he played football and graduated in 1987. From there, Garcia headed to Lawrence, Kan., and attended Haskell Indian Nations University. Although he didn’t graduate — he’s 13 credits away from a sheepskin — he did discover what he thought might be a rewarding career in social work “wasn’t my calling.”
But he really didn’t know what that calling would be: He learned later it wasn’t delivering flowers or in construction, in which he had a job he quit on the spot and walked away one day.
“I started to think about my creative life,” he said. “I had an epiphany — I had to get away.”
So he ran away from the job one day before the workday ended. He realized he thoroughly enjoyed writing — poems and short stories — and maybe this was his calling. Maybe he could have a career in music.
“I decided to teach myself to sing,” he said, but singing in a different style than the style used in storytelling. “I had never sung contemporary.”
In 1997, he joined a band, Native Roots, which bills itself as Christian Reggae — Garcia’s a big Bob Marley fan. He writes a lot of the songs and is the lead singer, playing some percussion as well.
The band had been around a few years, but after Garcia joined it, the first CD was released in 1998.
Since then, and a couple of CDs later, “Native Roots has taken me around the world,” Garcia said. “To the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, New Zealand, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. … (With the music), we express who we are as modern Native American people, celebrate our pride.”
Earlier this century, after Tamaya was built, there was a need for a Native American storyteller to entertain guests, giving them an authentic out-West experience. Garcia snagged that job and has been doing it ever since.
Now, twice a week, and twice each of those nights, Garcia entertains Tamaya guests with stories about Native American life. He’ll even feel free to bring them into the 21st century at times, with references to Walmart, the Internet and Facebook.
“I’ve been here eight years,” he said. He shares his original stories with those he heard as a child at campfire settings. He’s pleased to note that at one such session in 2012, Johnny Depp, in the area to film the new “Lone Ranger” movie, was a listener.
Encouragement to put some of his stories on paper led to his first children’s book, “Coyote and the Sky,” a best-seller in 2006, although it “waited three years,” Garcia said, before he moved it from the initial publisher to UNM Press. (Coyote’s punishment is a lesson in what happens to animals, or people, when they refuse to obey instructions.)
His second children’s book, “Sister Rabbit’s Tricks,” ($18.95) launched earlier this month to much acclaim. (This is a simple fable that teaches a powerful lesson about jokes that go too far.)
And, he beamed, the New Mexico House of Representatives had a special recognition for him last weekend.
“We were surprised,” he said.
“My goal for being a children’s book author is doing a national tour,” Garcia said. He had a signing for his first book at the famous Strand book store in New York City, which would make for a good start on that dream.
Garcia is working on his third children’s book, “Estuwa,” “one of my Indian names — it means ‘arrow,’” he explained. He got the idea and plot line for this book, strangely enough, after seeing a Native American youngster walking around the Indian Market in Santa Fe with a melon atop his head.
Again, Victoria Pringle will add the artwork, and Garcia’s been very happy with what the East Coast artist has done for his first two books.
“We’re grateful for UNM Press, probably the largest publisher in New Mexico, and they feature a lot of Native American authors,” noted Garcia’s girlfriend of 12 years, Melissa Sanchez.
Garcia and Sanchez also run Emergence Productions, which specializes in Native American and indigenous performing arts. She is the president.