May 5, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
In the American Southwest nothing looks to be of a piece but the landscape and the infinity of sky overhead. The vast frame of the earth and the geomorphic scheme that shaped it lie plainly revealed through a scrim of sparse vegetation so that a single landmark is sufficient to supply, organize, and integrate in the imagination a multitude of associated topographic features enabling it to reconstruct the sweeps of geological space that at once separate and connect them. The Southwestern landscape is not only recognizably coherent, it can be held as such within the mind.
The Navajo Reservation, home of the Dineh (meaning “Earth People”), comprises 26 million acres across three states between four peaks rising from the four points of the compass: Debentsa in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado; an elevation between Colorado’s Blanco Peak and Pelado in the Jemez Range in New Mexico; Mt. Taylor near present-day Grants, New Mexico; and the San Francisco Mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona–all of them believed by the Navajo to be formed of earth brought up from the under-world by the Dineh and their elder brothers who in ancient times wore the shapes of men, after their emergence into the upper one in the vicinity of the modern town of Silverton, Colorado. The Papago Reservation is as lovely but, being much smaller, offers far less variety of terrain and vegetation.
As the highway north from Flagstaff descended the forested benches that pedestal the San Franciscos, the heat increased with the stony aridity of the country. Dust devils spun beside the road and a column of pink dust, incandescent in the afternoon sun and taller than Elijah’s whirlwind, rose thousands of feet into a cyanic sky. At intervals a trailer home appeared or a modest house built of cinder block, each surrounded by a brush corral and the sacred hogan built as a representation of the cosmos, its door facing toward the rising sun. Some of the hogans were no more than poles covered with dirt and resembling gigantic anthills, others octagons of carefully fitted planks and logs, a few sheeted over with tar paper. Late-model pickup trucks stood parked on the packed dirt around the front doors, and beside every third or fourth house a satellite dish cupped itself to the clairvoyant sky like a patient attentive ear. Few sheep and range cattle wandered in this country the color of blood, half submerged in the pink drifting sand of its own pulverizing rock; a single pitiably starved horse stood along the right-of-way with its penis extended, looking near death. Where booths of brush and board painted JEWELRY leaned against the fencelines, the belagaana tourists (some students believe the word represents the Navajos’ early approximation of “American”) in play clothes pawed among silver and turquoise trinkets under the deadpan faces of the traditionally dressed Indian women.
Tuba City had been described to me as “the biggest Third World City in the Southwest” by someone who obviously had never visited the place. The town was founded in the latter part of the 19th century by Mormon pioneers invited to the site by a Hopi from the village of Oraibi named Tuvi (meaning “Outcast”), who wished to make his own settlement at nearby Moencopi secure against the Paiutes. It was originally called Koechaktewa (White Sands), but the Mormons changed the name to Tuba City in honor of their good friend Tuvi. Today, Tuba City is a collection of mobile homes arranged irregularly among the sand dunes along a four-lane highway with turnouts to the shopping centers, gas stations, and nationally franchised eateries patronized by the hordes of Illinoisans, Californians, and Virginians who pass through every summer on their way to visit the Grand Canyon, which appears dramatically in cross-section on the Western horizon. Having 5,000 residents, Tuba City is slightly larger than the Navajo capital of Window Rock at the opposite eastern end of the reservation. At the Ya-Tah-Ay chain store close by the city dump, I placed a call to George Hardeen for directions to his trailer house at the edge of town.
George Hardeen said, ”I’m really hooked on this part of the country. Everybody’s poor here, nobody has any money. And I like the isolation of the res.” George had on biking shorts and shoes, and his backpack lay on the carpet with its contents spread around his feet. The bay window in the side of the trailer faced the Tuba City Airport’s single runway, where an incoming ambulance plane had recently crashed after hitting two horses (in Navajo, “those that men live by”) and decapitating one of them. George explained that the Navajos are uncooperative in keeping their livestock off the runway but expert at shooting out the landing lights along the strip. Before moving onto the reservation to work for the Navajo Times in Window Rock and later for the Gallup Independent in Gallup, New Mexico, he’d been a newspaperman in Page, Arizona, whence he’d migrated from a previous newspaper job in Missoula, Montana. By birth, he is a Connecticut Yankee. His parents came out from Connecticut for his wedding in Tuba City and have not been back since. “’On account of the heat,’ they say.”
It was not in late June very hot yet, but a hard wind out of the stretched blue sky beat against the tin skin of the trailer. While Lena Hardeen washed the breakfast dishes her cousin, a tall keen-faced young Navajo, put aside the books he’d been studying in preparation for his college examinations to sit at the dining table with the baby Christopher on his lap. The framed photograph on the wall behind him showed Annie Dodge Wannetka, a Navajo stateswoman to whom President Kennedy awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom and for whom Lena had once worked as an intern.
George and I were trying to get away together on a hiking trip, but there had been delays. Another of Lena’s relatives, also a young man earning college money by working construction on a chocolate factory going up in Las Vegas, had stopped by; finally a slim and pretty woman named Bette—the journalist who had broken the Big Boquillas Ranch story that launched the payoff scandal that forced Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald from office–showed up, and Lena brewed a pot of fresh coffee. George had begun to refill the pack with the items we needed for the trip when a shabby brown Toyota sedan pulled in beside the trailer. “It’s Lena’s mom,” he said around the bungee cord he held in his teeth.
“Don’t you have to be somewhere just now?”
“What do you mean?”
“The mother-in-law taboo.”
In traditional Navajo culture, mother-and son-in-law are not permitted each other’s company or even vicinity, and they are not supposed to look at each other at all. George laughed. “We like to kid each other about that.”
The old lady entered from the little porch, followed by a tall slender boy with very long bare brown legs. She was dressed in the traditional style, wearing the many-layered skirt of pale gray silk, green velvet blouse (worn, as the men wear the black felt reservation hat, through the hottest days of summer) pinned with a large silver and coral brooch, and white leather moccasins. Lena came with the baby from the kitchen space to introduce us. Her mother had almost no English, but her manner was extremely gracious and the boy, whose name was Shane, seemed friendly. She sat on the center cushion of the sofa, Lena taking a place to her right and Shane to her left, and crooned to her grandson while she stroked his head.
The Navajo language is considered almost impossibly difficult for outsiders to master; during World War II, American intelligence used Navajos speaking in their native tongue as an alternative to code. It is also supposed to be unpleasant to listen to, but as spoken by Lena and her mother it sounded soft and sibilant. George attempted to learn Navajo after he and Lena were married but she always ended by laughing at him, and after a time he quit trying.
The boy Shane leaned across his mother to speak to the baby, also addressing him in Navajo. He’d been grinning all the time since his arrival, displaying his strong white teeth more broadly until his dark Mongolian eyes almost disappeared behind his round cheeks. He had on a black T-shirt with the legend WE ARE THE OVERLORDS printed across the back, and from under the black beanie cap his black glossy hair fanned out across his shoulders. Lena’s mother had nine children, the youngest of whom was ten years old; five were already married. She owned a house in the government development at Red Lake, in addition to the ranch at White Mesa where Shane had spent the past nine days herding sheep and sleeping out on a high wooden scaffold to be away from snakes.
George slapped him on the leg. “Good for you, Dude,” he said. “Looking after sheep is a big responsibility.” Shane gave me a sideways look, still grinning. Then he stretched his long legs on the carpet, pulled the bill of his cap over his eyes, and leaned back against the cushions. “It’s boring, man,” he said above folded arms. “Nine days without seeing nobody, without nobody to talk to, without no shower.” He pushed the cap back from his eyes again and went on grinning at me.
“It doesn’t sound boring to me.” George bent to lace his boots. “As a matter of fact, we’re getting ready to go climbing on White Mesa right now.” Lena was carefully tying Christopher onto the cradleboard of a type used by Navajo mothers since the tribe’s nomadic days some hundreds of years ago. “Why don’t you guys take Shane with you?” she asked, glancing at her brother. “I think he could probably do with a change.”
We stopped at the Yah-Tah-Ay, where bland impassive faces stared through the stranger and floated past him with as little human recognition as if he were invisible, for the mail, beer, and soft drinks. The store was stocked to satisfy a Westchester County housewife, and in the video shop a crowd of adolescent Navajos in belagaana dress picked through the latest Hollywood films. Then we drove on to the landfill, where George deposited a bag of trash and Shane called my attention to Avon Lady, a very old woman seated in a folding chair and huddled under blankets in the hot sun while she sniffed fingernail polish from a discarded bottle. Around her, a man scavenged in a painstaking way from one pile of garbage to another. Shane said he was looking for copper to trade for liquor at the bootlegger’s. Trash blew out of the dump, across the road, and into the desert beyond it. George claimed that Tuba City had been a very clean place before it started to grow, but nobody wanted to take the time anymore to fill in over the garbage. “It’s interesting that people who consider the land to be sacred should be guilty of trashing it this way, but it’s a real problem here.”
Shane sat with his knees drawn up on the foldaway seat in the back of the Datsun pickup’s cramped cab as we drove north on Highway 160 toward Red Lake. The morning was clear and warm but the same hard wind drove in unremittingly from the west. Ahead the tilted bulk of Black Mesa lifted away to the northeast, and in the northwest White Mesa gradually clarified itself in the dusty desert light. Old women shrouded in their long skirts and heavy blouses herded sheep on foot and on noisy four-wheelers. A hundred yards from the highway, men wearing black hats and sunglasses struggled to raise a canvas tent on the booming wind beside a sign hand-lettered REVIVAL MEETING. George drove very fast on the shoulder of the washboarded reservation road, the truck canted at an angle of 15 degrees and towing a long parachute of pale bentonite dust.
As we approached White Mesa he pointed to the great buttressing arch outstanding from the cliff. Lena, who grew up out here, had been taught as a girl to avoid arches. She is of the last generation to have been raised in the traditional Navajo life, including its rituals and beliefs: without television, telephone, or radio; barefoot, lacking motorized transport and store-bought groceries, with the exception of a few canned goods. “Everybody was poor,” George said. “Nobody knew what poverty was–nobody had so much as heard the word. Of course there was always some guy around with 4,000 head of sheep, but then, next to him there was you, and everybody else.” He turned abruptly from the clay road into a dusty trail running straight at the mesa, twisting among the juniper trees before it began to climb the chalky walls where cliff swallows swooped and darted against a sky that purpled toward the zenith.
The juniper forest crowded the road, the dark boughs brushing the truck with an odorous rub, and presently clearings appeared where people from the summer hogans had been cutting firewood. When George could maneuver no farther, he halted at the crest of a steep sand dune and set the hand brake.
“Wait until you see this,” he said. His voice was almost a whisper. In silence, we unfolded ourselves from the truck, drank from the water bottles, shouldered the packs, and walked off in deep sand among the stunted, twisted trees.
(This article was first published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)