DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Coyote and Two Gray Hills: The coyote is adaptable, always studying and learning, and her senses are doors to a mind always aware and at work. Here she listens behind and sideways while she looks forward, all the while reading the air with her nose.
The border around her is from a Two Gray Hills Navajo rug made in the first decade of this century. At that time a man named J.B. Moore owned a trading post in the Navajo Reservation, and to boost his trade he published catalogues of local rugs that could be made to order. He influenced local weavers' designs and materials, limiting colors to black, white, gray, red, and blue, and introducing Oriental patterns, among other things. The idea of a bordered rug is Oriental, and became Navajo. The Navajo are adaptable people; much of what we think of as their native culture is a rich pastiche of other cultures selected and changed by them to suit themselves. Two Gray Hills rugs are distinctive in design and color to this day, and no two are ever exactly alike.
Chapter 4: mission
When she was a little girl, Kerita and her sisters used to take the pouch of corn pollen from their mother's purse. They would dip their fingers into it and nibble the pollen, which was as sweet as candy. They lived in a sheep camp in the desert and their mother would be out with the flock all day, so the pouch was easy to borrow, and they would try not to eat so much that their mother would notice. In the bottom of the pouch were pieces of the Spirit Rock hadahonye', and some of the pieces were carved into animals.
Once, they ate all the pollen. One of Kerita's sisters was red in the face from allergy, having eaten so much, and that time their mother was angry.
Whenever her mother prayed she'd take a bit of pollen from the pouch and touch it to her tongue and head -- the top of the head, two inches or so back from the hairline. Kerita does this swift double-touch with an automatic grace when she shows how it is done. Medicine men will put corn pollen on the shoulders, palms, and soles of the person they're healing.
Kerita's mother told her that if she wore jewelry she would never be poor. In the camp they lived in a hogan, but later on her mother insisted on building a real house so the girls would grow up in the modern world. Their father was more traditional, very traditional, she says, but this is a society where women run things, so Kerita's mother got her way. She took the girls to a Christian church because that was the modern way. Kerita went to school, too -- a boarding school because there was no other kind, and still is not, for children who live in sheep camps. She got her name "Kerita" there. She has another name, a Navajo name. She never told me that, and I never asked.
Two years ago her mother's sheep were sold. Kerita and her brothers and sisters sold them because the camp was falling into ruin, their mother was too old to manage the sheep alone, and none of the children wanted to live out there or shepherd the flock. Their mother had supported the family and had put the children through school by weaving her sheep's wool into rugs. She was a famous weaver of Ganado Reds in her time. Tears ran down her face when the sheep were sold, silent tears. Then she began to fall into ruin, too. Now she lives with Kerita. She hardly speaks. She half-lies, half-sits in a corner of Kerita's double-wide trailer like a collapsed sack with a mask for a face; her eyes never move, there is no expression in her mouth, she wears her silver and turquoise jewelry: bracelets, rings, necklaces, collar points, a concha belt. Her skirt is long and the toes of her black shoes poke out from the skirt like shoes that have been placed on the floor.
Kerita is not married and she has no children of her own, but three of her sister's daughters live with her, too. They run in and out and hug the dogs and hug your knees and look up at you, and when you sit down they climb in your lap. One of them is a fetal alcohol syndrome child. She is vague, a little slow. Happy natured, but with a smile that is delayed in coming or fading.
The girls go to a local public school that is an easy walk from the trailer. English is their first language; they understand Navajo but do not speak it. They wear jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers, and have plastic barrettes in their hair. For sweets they buy candy from the store. On Sundays they go with Kerita to the Presbyterian Church of Ganado, the stone church of what was once the Ganado Mission.
The mission was established in 1901, the first Protestant mission on the Navajo Reservation. This is the largest Indian reservation in the world, nearly half the size of New England, taking in parts of northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah and most of northeastern Arizona. Nowadays it has a population of one hundred and eighty thousand Navajo plus forty thousand non-Navajo. The girls are Christians, as Kerita is, as Kerita's mother is, and they will tell you this to your face without being asked. The world of the spirit here -- whatever its identity or denomination -- is like a river open to the air, no subterranean current, but a substance in constant use, a source of vital utility, exactly like a river. Fifteen percent of the people on the reservation are Christian. The rest are Navajo. Navajo means both religion and race at once, something like the meaning of Jew -- which also means both -- and no one is sure what happens when you leave off half that meaning. On Sunday in Ganado half of the hymns are sung in Navajo, half the prayers are said in Navajo, and half the Bible readings are from the Navajo Bible.
Pastor Paul Stone of the Ganado Presbyterian Church is below middle height, white-haired, and walks with a limp like the Greek traveler Odysseus. He travels fifty to sixty thousand miles a year as a representative of the church, visiting his scattered flock on the reservation, going outside the borders to give lectures on the Navajo and gather funds for his mission (the Ganado Presbyterian Church is no longer an official mission church, Presbyterians having decided that missions are for foreign countries and that the Navajo Reservation is not a foreign country; a decision that Pastor Paul takes exception to). His car has 130,000 miles on its odometer, the truck 170,000, the jeep has 180,000. The reservation has fewer paved roads per square mile than Death Valley. The jeep has been towed out of the mud by a horse at three A.M.
Pastor Paul always wears his white pastoral collar and his black suit and the large silver and turquoise cross that was given him as a New Year's present by his congregation. He stands out in a crowd, and means to. He is proud of the fact that he is named for both the great Apostles: Paul, and the rock of the church, Simon Peter, the stone. He reserves his rage for the notion of Manifest Destiny ("The single most destructive philosophy man ever came up with!") and the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs; he can rattle off chapter and verse of their systematic exploitation of Native Americans in general and of the Navajo in particular. He has no love for what are known as the Five Oil Sisters ("They've been cheating the Navajo out of sixty-five percent of their royalties for nineteen years!") and he does not love the border towns.
"You been there? They've got one K-Mart and fifty-six bars, and they call every Navajo they see a 'drunken Injun' just for coming into town to buy their jeans. Heck, one guy did that to a kid right in front of me, then looked me in the eye!"
He has no respect for Arizona's universities:
"One girl from here, a brilliant kid, was the only Indian in her class at ASU. She had one professor who was into high-pressure tactics, firing questions, playing academic hardball. English was a second language for this girl, remember, so maybe she was slow to respond. Anyway, day one, mind you, this professor said: 'I don't know why you Indians don't get back to the reservation and let some intelligent white kid come in here.' The girl was back here in five hours. She was in tears for weeks. The professor's still there. I know. I checked. And the girl never went back to college."
It pleases Pastor Paul that biblical imagery is so apt; it fits the people and landscape here so well. The desert, the shepherds, the sheep, even the "begats" -- ancestry being serious business to the Navajo as it was to the Israelites. Other things, too. The slavery to Pharaoh, the enemy Philistines, the occupying force of Romans. The Navajo have been an occupied people for more than three hundred years. First held by the Spanish military, then by the Anglo military, they have generations of practice in being a subject people. A slave trade in Navajo children went on for fifteen years after the Civil War, New Mexican slave raiders carrying them off through Mexico for export to the aristocracy of Central America and Spain, but always baptizing them first; one reason for the general Navajo distrust of Roman Catholics. As for Philistines, enemy tribes have never been far away, though nowadays the border wars with the Hopi are mostly carried on in law courts and newspapers. Once in a while an intertribal fistfight does break out, between teenagers, mostly, but no one takes that very seriously now.
Miracles are familiar, too. In 1920, with the mission little more than a series of adobe huts, it was time to drill a well. The village gathered on a gravel plain against a soaring butte of naked rock; the well went down and was dry. The Reverend Fred G. Mitchell called a prayer meeting every night from seven to ten. Three more holes went down and were dry. The prayer meetings continued and were well attended, and the fifth hole hit the aquifer, and in minutes the well was filled with water. This is called the Presbyterian Miracle.
With plentiful water and in time, the mission became a campus of stone buildings housing a boarding school, a modern hospital, a stone church with a belfry, all lying in a sward of lawn with lines of trees, like a New England college. Through the scrim of the cottonwoods you can still see the ruddy wall of the butte and the silvery plains of the desert, but here the desert has been beaten back.
"Here, Satan is not as disguised as he is in suburbia," Pastor Paul says one day, when we are driving to Window Rock on an errand, and he says it out of sequence as if he'd got to what he was about, behind the daily struggles with human need: alcoholism, shattered families, orphans, dropouts, hopeful college applicants bracing themselves for a foreign world, all the debris of culture shock. And the rituals: the funerals and christenings and marriages, the Navajo ceremonies that he's taken into the church, like the Ceremony of the First Laugh; the first laugh being the third and final test for a child's humanity. He says:
"Here, Satan doesn't need to be disguised. He appears frequently in undisguised form."
There's a pause.
"And you see him undermine the church. As soon as he sees the goodness and kindness and gentleness of Christian people, that's what he tries to destroy or bring down.
"When I bring new Christians into the church I warn them. That they will be sorely tempted, and soon. That they are still infants in their faith ...
"You learn not to underestimate the power of evil. Evil is the sense that one has the right to hurt, kill ... the blindness of evil ...
"Here you see it unguarded. The malevolent side of medicine men is what is called the skinwalker. You can hire one to put a hex on someone you want to get back at. They can enter a body, animal or human, and control it from the inside. It goes covered in animal skins. Every Navajo has a skinwalker story they tell quietly among themselves."
We drive on; the upland landscape outside has gone cold, the rolling sagebrush like blue-gray wool, like smoke and charcoal, the dark junipers like pointed flames.
"What difference does the desert make, to what you're doing?" I ask, and for a while he says nothing. This is out of character. Then:
"Everything. Everything. It makes every difference."
"Everything is separated and isolated. If you're afraid of wide-open spaces, this country can be terrifying. One girl came on a work camp from a church in the East and would not get out of the bus."
Then he goes silent again. At last he clears his throat. He says:
"So much of their life revolves around the sacredness of the land. The Navajo believe that soul comes from the land. If you leave the land, you leave your soul behind. You have to come back to the land, this land, to regain your soul."
After I've finished my mission work of stuffing envelopes or cleaning dormitory rooms, Kerita and I eat Navajo tacos at Ramon's Cafe -- fry bread loaded up with beans, meat, salsa. The girls eat burgers. My rented car is useful; I've discovered that offering my service as chauffeur is the ticket I need to have company. We go shopping; she buys me a cloth calendar rolled on a stick with all the months written both in misspelled English and in Navajo. The Navajo language is all around, spoken softly, a punctuated murmur, thick with glottal stops and nasal vowels and oddly slurred consonants. Within days my own face -- suddenly pinkly naked and too brightly colored, like my pale hair -- looks strange to me in a mirror. One day we go to the Shiprock Fair, the Northern Navajo Nation Fair, and the two Anglos I see among the thousands of Navajo faces look so peculiar I have to stop myself from staring. We watch a two-hour parade of marching bands, rodeo champions, chiefs and counselors on horseback, hoop-dancing Apaches, elaborate floats made and manned by schools, churches, veterans' groups, Boy Scouts, Navajo police, Army divisions, traditional chanters, gospel singers. We eat grilled mutton and grilled peppers with fry bread and salt. She teaches me Navajo words, but the only one I ever can remember is tee', with the two e syllables, the second one nasal and ending in a glottal stop, meaning: let's go. Let's go: I've had enough to eat, enough parade, enough jewelry sellers and rug merchants and herbalists, the kids are sleepy, enough juniper smoke from ceremonial fires, enough dust.
On other days we drive for miles through the desert looking for her family's camps or sheep ranges, or the churches where she has gone for the fellowship times of gospel "sings" or services or retreats; more often than not we get lost. It doesn't seem to matter. Kerita laughs, she has an attitude of patience that is catching, a kind of waiting, an impassivity behind which is a foreign species of awareness; at those times I believe that she is thinking in Navajo. We're the same age, we get along with ease, she's a teacher of "special children" in the local school and is still studying for a college degree; she talks of autism and fetal alcohol syndrome, and wonders whether her mother has Parkinson's disease or acute depression, or some other malady peculiar to the sale of her sheep that no hospital doctor no Anglo doctor -- could be expected to diagnose or treat. There is collapse and confusion all around, and in spite of the steadiness in her, and her good humor and humorousness, I sometimes sense a pain so tidal and overwhelming that I gasp; I can feel it lapping at my own knees.
On the last night before I leave to go into Hopi country, we visit her uncle Amos. We drive up to the house -- the children are in the back of the car, very quiet, with mischievous smiles; they are always very quiet -- and we stop the car right there and keep the windows rolled up. Dogs boil out from under the porch, growl, howl, bark, race around the car, one yellow dog leaps at the windows with fangs bared; we wait until Amos appears on the porch and peers to see who it is. Then Kerita waves, I wave, the children wave. One by one Amos ties the dogs. The noise they make is, if anything, worse. The yellow one is lashed to the far corner of the porch with a length of rope as thick as my wrist. It leaps, twists, howls, its lips drawn back from its teeth, and we sit until we see that the knots hold. Then we get out and go into the house.
Amos's wife is feeding mutton stew to children in the kitchen; she nods, the children look up and nod before bending to their stew. Amos's daughter-in-law has run off with another man and nowadays the grandchildren are eating here.
"Would you like some stew? There is plenty," Amos says. "Plenty! You want some stew?"
I remember what Pastor Paul has said about the number four being the number of power. Anything really meant is to be said four times, and gathers meaning as it goes. We've already eaten; we thank him and say no. We sit in the living room.
"There is plenty of stew, you want some?" he asks.
"Thank you, we've already eaten," we say.
"We've already eaten," Kerita says again.
"We had dinner already, Uncle Amos," says one of the girls, then covers her mouth and laughs with her eyes.
Gourd rattles hang on the wall, the tables are covered with small rugs, the chairs with quilts and knitted throws. Amos is gray-haired, heavy. His face moves even less than Kerita's, he speaks in a slow orderly purposive way as if stacking the words like blocks, and keeps slipping off into Navajo, which is more expressive and watery, though still spoken with an almost ceremonial order. This is what I hear: a ceremonial order that is a kind of watchfulness. A protection, a virtue. Later, when I meet other Navajo who live off the reservation, I notice first of all the briskness of their speech, the mobility of their expression, most of all the informality of their bodies -- the guarded quality gone -- and they talk about the Navajo way, but it seems to have left them or they have left it; I know they've crossed the boundary. Whatever that boundary is. Of place, culture, spirit -- how can they be separate? I only know that in Amos's house the watchfulness was there.
He shows us a piece of hadahonye' that he is carving in the shape of a bighorn ram. He brings out his box of silver-working tools; he's a silversmith of long experience, though he doesn't do much now. The box is full of delicate pliers, soldering wire and flux, pinked silver for settings, fine and coarse files, buffer wax, molds for drawing wire. He has an acetylene torch. In the old days, he says, they used a forge with bellows; the bellows had a "beak" and a "tail," so it was, in its own way, alive. Animate. That's it: things are animate, they have personality. Motive. Things may not be what they seem.
I ask him again about desert plants. At first he says nothing, talks about other things. I ask him again; specific questions, general questions.
After church on Sunday he sat on the wall and he talked about the desert for a long time, and all the time he kept reaching down and picking up handfuls of fallen cottonwood leaves, picking them apart and crushing them in his hands.
"The plants are alive. Even when dead they are alive. These" he held out a palmful of crushed leaves -- "these make good mulch. Very good mulch."
He said that what is frayed and scattered and dried and blown away can be brought to fruitfulness. He talked back and forth between the Bible and the leaves. He made jokes, in the Navajo way, dry and without a change of expression. He was talking about apparent emptiness, about the desert, where the only emptiness is in your eyes. He was talking about life. Tonight he says:
"Some plants are poison. Very bad. Other plants kill pain, are very good. The medicine men are the ones who know about plants."
"Many plants go away. They stay awhile, and are gone. They come back."
"This drought is terrible. Two years. This rain is too late, will do no good. What will happen to cattle? Cattle eat long grass, with their tongues --" He makes a curling motion with his hands exactly like the tongue of a cow. "This grass is all gone."
They slip off again into Navajo.
"My uncle is talking about the Native American church," says Kerita. He nods.
"Peyote treated as divine," he says, shakes his head, gets up and takes his Bible from a shelf, a heavy silver-bound Bible, and opens and reads from Matthew: "And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many ... " He shakes his head. "These people grow peyote in pots! In pots!"
He sits down again and spreads his hands, spreads all his fingers.
He waits. We wait. His fingers are spread very wide, he is conjuring the desert, the silvery plains and the red buttes, waiting, impassive and wide.
"The mist comes down to earth and sows the seed," he says. "We are very high here, the mist is just clouds, and when it comes down it sows the seed. It does. And when it goes away," he lifts his hands, "then you see plants coming up." He puts his thumbs and forefingers together to show tiny seedlings, and I do see them, pinches of green. "That is the traditional belief. But the mist does come down here. To sow the seed. It does. It does."
Navajo Children Dancing in Traditional Costume, Northern Navajo Nation Fair, Shiprock, New Mexico