The edited version of an essay of mine, reflecting a recent volunteer trip to Navajo County, Ariz., has been featured in the PackratNest. Here’s the text, in full:
For Thanksgiving week 2008, I was on a caravan of work crews to Black Mesa, Arizona, to support the Navajo population in their struggle against coal-mining, which has seen the relocation of thousands. The caravan was organized by Black Mesa Indigenous Support.
I say Arizona but to be honest, that feels inaccurate. When we hit those reservation back-roads, we left the United States–culturally and, arguably, politically. (That’s how we’re trying to keep it, to stop the relocation and culture-eradication; that’s why we were there.)
We arrived on the reservation the night of Saturday, November 22. Very dark. There’s no electricity (or paved roads) for miles; no running water.
The sleeping arrangements were people piled into a hogan; we had to slink amongst sleepers to find our own spot. It was drafty and cold–I kept waking up with it.
Got up, ate breakfast, got an orientation. Repaired an outhouse. Chopped firewood. Rest of the day was spent serving elders, eating, talking.
Deployed. Jenny, Jake, me to Pauline’s, while Anne and Ned went to her neighbor Julia’s. Heard stories about Pauline. She’s the meanest, the most bad-ass. She doesn’t speak English. She’ll yell at you in Navajo. What do I do when that happens? Try harder.
Here’s Pauline, in an article that summarizes the struggle:
– pics: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-whitesinger4feb04-pg,0,6159639.photogallery?1
The hogan pictured (pics 2 & 3) is where we stayed (her homesite now
is up the road).
Chopped firewood all day. That job never ends, especially in winter. It was so quiet in the canyon I could hear a crow’s wings flapping.
The outhouses are a ways away from homes, face away from them, toward the wilderness. One’s euphemism for using the outhouse was to “meditate”.
Today we and another group worked on Pauline’s hogan. This was an illegal hogan; due to the relocation laws, there’s not to be any new buildings constructed, nor repairs done on existing buildings. As I mentioned, Pauline’s a bad-ass.
Pauline’s grandson was visiting, and served as translator, which was lovely and very necessary. We harvested juniper bark off trees, made mud in holes in the ground. The bark was to fill in the cracks in the roof, which was made with hand-carved wood posts. Then the mud was caked over the whole thing. It was intense, hard work; we didn’t quite finish; it got dark and we made our way back to our hogan via flashlight, tripping.
The language barrier–it’s vaguely like being in a different reality. (No eye contact doesn’t help.*) The adamantness with which Pauline speaks to us in Navajo. Raising her voice, getting frustrated, we try and fail and try and think we succeed because rather than yell she dismisses us. She is not just demanding; she is a sweet, thoughtful person and laughs a lot.
(*Eye contact is a bit of a no-no in Navajo culture. A difficult thing for me; I realized how big on that I am, especially with new people and when trying to understand someone.)
Jake herded sheep; Jenny and I went up to Pauline’s. It was just her, no translator. She talked a lot and gestured, we did our best to figure out what she meant. Some we got–finish mudding the hogan. The rest, not quite. She got frustrated, walked away, muttering. We followed her into her house, ended up figuring out that she wanted us to bring firewood inside.
We worked on the hogan. Another group came by to deliver food from the distro. They chopped firewood before their next project, repairing roads that were muddy from rain.
We asked Owen (a white guy who spends most of the year on the rez and is fluent in Navajo) if he could find out from Pauline what else needed to be done on the hogan, details we couldn’t get just by gestures. He was all over the place, and we were both feeling icky, so we said we’d go in the hogan, chill out, until he had a chance to talk to her. He said yes, keep the fire going, take care of yourselves.
Inside there were bed frames and mattress pads; we laid down. Two people brought firewood inside; on the way out, one of them apparently locked us in.
We didn’t notice until after our nap. By then, everyone had left.
We were in there for about 5 hours, until past dark. The door, like outhouses, faced away from the homesite, and we were a good ways from the house. I aimed a flashlight through the screened hole in the roof where the chimney let out. We kept an ear out for vehicles or voices.
Finally, the sound of a truck, a door opening, closing. We yelled, out the top of the roof. Soon enough, Owen rescued us.
Hearing of our being locked in the hogan, Pauline was unhappy. She’d noticed bad omens, her head hurting. Our being trapped, in this particular hogan, carried significance. This illegal hogan was for ceremonies, we’d helped build it, maybe our being non-native, I don’t know, my own thoughts.
Pauline had Chris, a medicine man, come to diagnose the problem. He performed a protection prayer, an incredible traditional ceremony to watch and be part of. We were told to not work that day, to go back to the hogan, relax, cook mutton stew for when Jake returned sheep-herding.
“Do you feel purified?” I was asked. “Like you’re walking on air?” I kind of did. I felt very contemplative, calm.
In the ceremony I felt a wave of upset over the beauty and necessity of this dying culture. Dying at the hands of modern American civilization; the irony of that–a sustainable culture that left alone could flourish for eternity while ours would be a flash in the pan, a bad memory of a society which caused so much destruction upon the earth and its fellow beings it imploded.
Today, our last day, we harvested firewood, then went to the homesite.
Pauline was in the new hogan, listening to the radio, making frybread. This was a relief, because I’d heard if there was bad energy, something weird going on in a hogan, particularly during construction, it might be left empty, never used. But she was satisfied with Chris’ work, who assured her that for the time, nothing more needed to be done; that the space, and she, were cleansed.
Jake had said she needed work-gloves; Jenny gave her a pair and she smiled, said “thank you”. There were a few words in English she knew, that I clung to whenever she uttered them.
She told us what wood to chop (cedar) and what size (small, for her kitchen stove). I was getting used to this form of communication. Why they encourage people to stay longer.
It would get dark soon. Pauline came to us, said we should go before the sun set.
We had our axe, and I told/gestured to her that it was hers. She gasped–“thank you!” and hugged me, which caught me off-guard, as touching is often a no-no in that culture as well.
As we left, she shook our hands, hugged us both. It at once was a great place to leave with her and made me want to stay.
We went to Julia’s. All week Anne and Ned had been staying in a house with an English-speaking family. They didn’t do much physically-demanding work, mostly herded sheep, and got a real taste of the culture because bridges were better built, on the hosts’ side. They had a solar panel and a generator that they turned on at night, electric lights, a TV/DVD player.
Four miles away; drastically different experiences. A microcosm of the struggle. Julia, living less traditionally than Pauline; her children, living less traditionally than her. Julia remains on the land, but modern civilization tempts the younger generations with promises of money, comforts. Relocation and resource-draining has made living on the land more difficult, with less to keep people there.
Personally, based on my brief experience, I like Julia’s idea. Change is happening, like it or not, and while fighting the colonizing aspects of that change, she’s done what she can to stay traditional, close to the earth, while making viable a cultural exchange. Better compromise than death, maybe. Because, as Jake thinks, if this culture dies, our country is fucked. We can’t know how to live in harmony with the earth, instinctively; it must be known, culturally. And this culture is one of the last that knows how to live with the earth, so sustainably. If we can’t learn from them, we are fucked.