Universal: How Terry Tempest Williams turns Native American Culture into a Universal Culture in “Perfect Kiva”, by Kristina Wiles

In the chapter “Perfect Kiva” from her book Red, Terry Tempest Williams introduces the idea of cultural preservation, but in a very interesting way. Instead of explaining the importance of the kiva and going in depth into why it needs to be preserved, she sets it in a tale about six men who take it upon themselves to preserve it. She mentions the purpose of the kiva in passing, saying: “The six remained captive to their own meanderings, each individual absorbing what he was in need of” (49). Throughout the entire story she keeps the reader in secret about who the men are and what the kiva is and why it’s so important to them. There should be little doubt as to whether or not the kiva is Indian. It’s one of a few things Williams really expounds on in the story, mentioning moons and serpents on the walls while saying the ladder was an Anasazi ladder (49-50). While some could argue that she hints at the men being Indian, since the kiva does appear to have Indian markings around it, Williams makes the choice to not reveal their race or ethnicity or why the kiva is so important to them. It’s her choice to keep the reader in secret that shows how important the kiva is and why it should be preserved – for her, it does not matter who, what, when, or why: it’s a cultural artifact that needs to be saved so future generations can learn from it and study it. The combination of knowing the kiva is Indian yet being left to guess the ethnicity of the men shows how Williams wants the reader to know it’s important to keep all culture alive, even it it’s not their own. The absence of details from “Perfect Kiva” create a sense of universal culture that encourages everyone to work together to keep all culture intact and appreciate all culture.

Williams is Anglo, yet she appreciates the culture and shows she knows enough about the culture to write a story about how everyone should appreciate it, setting a precedence in her story just by being the one to write it. Her message becomes apparent just when thinking about her writing the story. If an Anglo can write such a meaningful and quiet essay about the kiva, then it clearly shows just how important it is for everyone, not just Indians. While the story would still have an impact if the author were Native American, the fact that the author is not Native American actually speaks more to the cultural importance the kiva has. A Native American author could potentially be seen as having bias – of course they would want to save their own culture. Who wouldn’t? As said before, it could still be a powerful story, but Williams being what could be called an outsider to the culture makes the culture seem that much more important. Even people who did not grow up with the culture, as the reader might assume, feel the need to have a call to arms to protect it from being shoved in a museum.

Williams never mentions the race or ethnicity of the men, supporting the idea that it’s not important who helps to preserve the culture, it’s the fact that it’s getting protected. It also helps to enforce the universality of the story – these men could be anyone: Anglo, Native American, Mexican, etc. They band together to help protect this sacred spot because it needs to be protected. They went on a journey while in the kiva and saw how important it was, showing that it does not matter where someone is from, they can find something they need in another culture. As mentioned before, the men could be Indian, but the beginning of the story suggests otherwise. The man who has to get directions from the woman in the restaurant has to tell the others it’s called Perfect Kiva, which suggests that they are not all that familiar with the place or culture (46). Yet even though they do not appear to know the exact importance of the kiva, they quickly become very protective of it when they learn the ladder is in the museum (50). The man with the map was protective of the kiva before since he purposely led the other men across the desert in a confusing way (47), and after all the men experience the kiva they become as protective as him. Williams uses the men to suggest that once someone experiences the culture for himself or herself, they can connect to it more. Not only is the ending a suggestion that all culture can be universal, but that all culture can be important to someone if they simply take the time to experience it and appreciate it.

Despite never explaining exactly what a kiva is for, Williams makes the reader understand how important it is through the actions of the men as well as giving it certain universal characteristics. She makes the reader appreciate the culture even if they don’t understand it by keeping the kiva ceremony a secret. When the men finally reach the kiva, Williams describes it as a very meaningful moment. The kiva gets almost magical properties, saying, “The six sat outside the circle until calm. The kiva seemed to ask that of them.” (49). Once again, Williams constructs the kiva as this very important, magical place without ever telling why the men were there or what it’s purpose was. The fact that the kiva let “each individual [absorb] what he was in need of” also helps to make the purpose of the kiva universal and make the men, as well as the readers, appreciate the culture that built it and surrounds it. No matter who someone is or what he or she wants, the kiva can provide it for him or her.

In conclusion, Williams creates a mystical space in order to make the reader understand why culture should be preserved. By omitting details, Williams actually makes the kiva more universal. She suggests that anyone can find something special in the culture of another. The story is only 6 pages long, yet Williams captures so much cultural importance in so short a space. She encourages the reader to be more like the six men – to seek out another’s culture and bond with it.

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