Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Sam Shepard's Santa Fe
by Taylor Sheridan
Santa Fe is a place on the way to something. It is a crossroads, in the truest sense. To the south, arid draws and mesas. To the east, the Llano Estacado—the western edge of the Great Plains. To the west, the Rio Grande weaves its way toward Texas and Mexico. And just to the north, mesas give way to mountains— and from here, the Rocky Mountains stretch uninterrupted all the way to Canada.
People, like the land, came to this place, then rested and prepared to go someplace else. Traded here. Summered here. Prayed and danced and celebrated here. There are adobe structures in Santa Fe still standing that were built before the first Pilgrim stepped off a boat.
The people who lived here long before Europeans sought a short cut to Asia had mastered the art of living in this place. They mixed clay and grass and water and forged an earthen womb that kept them warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and withstood the violent winds that brought the monsoons. The same artistry made pots. Made clothing. Made weapons. Art, in this place, is not independent from function. Art is woven into the tool, the blanket, the home. But first, they must serve their purpose.
I can think of no better description of Sam Shepard’s legacy: it is functional art. It is stories with a purpose. To teach us about ourselves. To ask questions about ourselves we are scared to ask. To allow an audience to benefit from an experience without the burden of enduring it. That is the job of a storyteller.
He did not choose to tell these stories on familiar stages. He chose the very edges of our society, the forgotten corners of our world, then held a mirror to it, and wrote what he saw. Whether we were ready to see it or not....
Sam Shepard’s plays were my introduction to the art of storytelling. His were some of the first words I spoke as an actor (not well, I might add, but I spoke them). I learned from him—without knowing I was learning it—the art of nuance, the elegance of understatement, the power of place.
Embedded in my own work are these lessons. I actively seek his restraint and his ability to be simple and profound simultaneously....
But like any crossroads, tragedy and desperation meet here as well. When Spaniards came to this place, they brought disease, war, a new religion, and the horse. All four have left an indelible impression on this place. Nowhere has the war to subjugate been waged longer and without respite.
The Spanish waged war on the Pueblo until the Pueblo waged war on them. Then the Spanish really waged war on the Pueblo. And the Diné. And the Apache. Then the Comanche mastered the horse and waged war on everyone.
Then Mexico and more war. As the Apache mastered both horse and warfare, they took Mexico’s war from the staked plains to Mexico itself. And didn’t stop warring until the twentieth century.
Today, New Mexico is the poorest state in the nation. A disillusioned and drug addicted youth have swarmed this place. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction and violence of every imaginable kind permeate the reservations here, more evidence of the abject failure of the centuries-long policy of forced assimilation.
Crime and desperation have overtaken Albuquerque as the lack of resources, opportunity, and industry presses down on this place like a blanket—the military, the movie business, and tourism are the only industries thriving. Like New Mexico’s history since the first European stood in this enchanted land, dreams and destruction seem to flourish here.
Sam Shepard has wandered this place. Lived here. Loved here. Lost here. Stood at this crossroad. Felt the spirit of this place. Looked into the soul of it. To know his stories of New Mexico is to step into the soul of this beguiling, enchanting land. You will step into his soul as well, and learn a bit of the artists’ need to wander.
Excerpt from Sam Shepard: New Mexico
Available from Galisteo’s own small press, Lawless.
Kevin Costner stars in Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone on Paramount Network.
Taylor Sheridan is the writer and director of a critically acclaimed trilogy of films about the modern American frontier. Sicario, a thriller with Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, focused on the failings of the drug war. Hell or High Water, was a modern Western about the mortgage crisis in rural West Texas, and starred Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The third, Wind River (starring Jeremy Renner) was about undocumented rapes of Native Americans on reservations. In addition to a sequel to Sicario, Sheridan recently finished directing Those Who Wish Me Dead, starring Angelina Jolie, and the television series Yellowstone with Kevin Costner.