A Story of Lost Love and Lost Art: “The Return of the Raven”
John Moser was a man who knew at an early age that he wanted to be either an Indian or a cowboy. He was born in St. Louis in 1924 to an educated family. But John didn’t like school and preferred to hang out with the various Indian tribes then clustered in St. Louis, sometimes returning home dressed in feathers and skins, sometimes inviting his new friends to the dinner table—much to his mother’s dismay.
His mother, an author, took the family to Cuernavaca, Mexico in the 1930s where he learned to ride and rope with the vaqueros.
He became afflicted with that "Big Hat Fever" and at 16, he left home and struck out for the West. The cowboy life suited him well and he became an accomplished rider and ranch hand. He worked on several ranches in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, including the famous San Cristobal Ranch where D.H. Lawrence once hung his hat. He befriended runaways and criminals, and for his 19th birthday, a Black camp cook named Festus Bland made him an angel food cake in a dutch oven. It was his favorite desert for the rest of his life.
During this time, he expanded his passion for American Indians and their art.
He was fascinated with Navajo weaving, pots, baskets, silver and other Southwest arts, but the most unique piece of art that he purchased didn't come from a Southwest tribe. It was a Tlingit rattle. The Tlingit people are made up of several tribes living in the Northwest United States, up through Canada and into Alaska.
His family does not know who sold him the rattle, but Moser said he purchased it from a man who had just returned to New Mexico from Alaska in 1943. He reportedly paid $25 for the piece, which was a lot for a working cowboy. Heck, in 1943 it was a lot for most people, but particularly for a man who made his living taking care of cattle on the open range.
Moser lived around Santa Fe at the time and was seeing a woman whose family had been involved in New Mexico's pioneer days. Her uncle was an attorney who was killed in an Apache raid while traveling to Arizona in 1882. Aline Janis was a beautiful, dark haired, dark eyed girl who obviously captured Moser's heart.
It was 1944 and we were at war. Moser went into the army, and before he left, he gave the rattle to Aline, telling her that he would return for it and for her after the war. If he didn't make it back, she should keep the rattle. It meant a lot to him as did Aline.
He went to war and served in the U. S. Army’s cavalry unit during the occupation of Germany. When he returned, Aline was gone. She had married Alfredo Herrera and they had left Santa Fe.
Moser went on with his life, eventually bringing Marlis Haas, a women he had met in Germany, to the United States to be his wife. He worked on cattle ranches throughout Arizona until the couple settled in Tucson where he got a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arizona. His daughter, Suzy, was born in 1949.
Moser worked in banking for a while but pursued his ranching love, owning spreads in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon until he "retired" and opened up Moser's Indian Art store in Las Vegas. After 27 years of marriage, he and Marlis divorced and he returned to Arizona finally settling in Sun City in 1991.
John continued to ride on friend's ranches and collected and sold Navajo rugs, Indian baskets and other arts. He also began to search out and restore old frames. At almost 80 years of age, he began to paint. His subjects were often the memory landscapes of the ranch lands he so loved. He became a member of the Oil Painter of America.
Aline was never forgotten and in 2003, he was surprised with a call from her daughter, Caroline Herrera. Caroline, told him her mother was still alive, but was not doing well and was blind. Caroline had tracked him down and one day sent him a package. It contained the Raven rattle he had left with Aline 59 years before!
He and Aline had some telephone conversations but she died shortly after they reconnected. In 2015, Moser passed away. The rattle was inherited by his daughter.
While the rattle was purchased by Moser in 1943, it was old at the time, dating to the early 1900's. Moser, who was an accomplished woodworker, created the stand that it sits in after it was returned to him.
These rattles are special. The sound of the rattles during ceremonies opens communication to the Spirit world for the Tlingit people. The Rhode Island School of Design has an excellent example of a Raven rattle in their museum and they describe it well:
"The raven rattle was an important component of the ceremonial costume for chiefs in traditional Northwest Coast cultures. A small sphere held in the raven’s partially open beak symbolizes the sun and refers to a legend describing how the raven stole the sun and brought light to the world. A human figure reclines on its back. The human (probably a Shaman) and a bird share an extended tongue, which probably represents the transfer of power from a spirit to a human."
The bottom of the rattle depicts a supernatural creature, probably to give aid to the Shaman.
This rattle is in excellent condition. It has been lovingly cared for over the years and is absolutely beautiful. No one will ever know what possessed John Moser to purchase the rattle, why he valued it so highly that it was the one thing he gave the woman he loved, or why, after all of those years, Caroline and Aline decided to track him down and return it.
If you are looking for something that is incredibly beautiful and unique and whose beauty has held the secrets of a love never lost for all those years, this might be for you.
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