Monday, May 26, 2008

A Navajo Man

Since April 25th, I have been on a ranch in New Mexico, enrolled in a three week Permaculture Design Course. As I drove from Provo, Utah to Las Vegas, New Mexico, I passed through a number of Native American reservations. Growing up in Orange County California, Native American issues were practically unknown to me. The native populations of the South Coast we all but wiped out by disease, slave labor, and forced integration. So, in traveling through many Native American reservations, I began to see that in many cases the third world we romanticize as being in Latin America or Africa is really in our own back yard. Conditions were squalor, and the air was filled with depression and hopelessness. How is it that my culture could simply roll over these first peoples with such reckless abandon?

I offer no easy answer. But when I arrived at the Wind River Ranch, I noticed there was a Navajo man in our class. I have been to Latin America, and have spent many hours in the presence of the First Peoples of Guatemala, but there was something very personal about being in the presence of a Navajo man. It was my ancestors that conquered his. During the first week of the course, we learned each other’s names, covered the course material, and dug our hands into the soft red sandy soil of a grass land flood plain. In our class discussions, the Navajo man would make long, slow, and deliberate commentary related to his people and to Native Americans in general. His insights were good, and everyone respected him; but I could not bring myself to talk with him. One day as we were both in the kitchen on separate tasks, he spoke to me in a quiet voice, asking where I would go next. I replied, and we started a conversation. At one point I told him about a friend that was doing her field work for her anthropology degree on the Navajo reservation. I told him that I was an anthropologist, and wondered what he thought of them. He took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling. He was kind, and said that there were some that are good, but that some take without asking, and disturb things that were not meant to be disturbed. I asked how I, as a white person could be in closer solidarity with Native American movements. To this, there was no easy answer, and in response he began to recount to me his journey, one that would take him through a small kitchen in New Mexico, talking to an ignorant white kid from California.

He had grown up on the reservation. And as a young man realized that he had quite a talent for baseball, he could run fast and hit far. But whenever his team would play border towns—meaning towns on the border with the reservation—he would always ask himself why the other teams had bleachers, dugouts, clean uniforms, and nice equipment. All he ever had was a dusty field. He would ask his parents and his grandparents why, and they would simply reply that that was the way things were. Gerry had more questions, and only ever received “I don’t know” answers. All these unanswered questions led him to doubt the wisdom of his people. He began to notice how the blacks and the Latinos were treated by the whites, and began to understand. This was something he felt was real, and he began to direct his hatred toward whites, and started getting into fights. He showed me the scar on his wrist, his nose, and his eye brow. He felt that his situation was hopeless, and began to drink heavily. He was in and out of jail many times, and had to rely on family members to bail him out. At some point he began to tire of the never ending cycle of destruction that he had put himself in, and one night while in jail, made a promise to God that he would turn his life around in order to help others. He faced many trials along the way, but eventually gave up alcohol and drugs, fighting, and most of all hatred. He began to understand why things were the way they were, and began looking for ways to make them better.

The Navajo man’s pedagogy utilized his whole body and face to express the emotions of others, and to illustrate his frustration. I didn’t really get a straight answer to my question that day, but we had many more conversations throughout the two week course and the wisdom of his stories became apparent. Solidarity is understanding the other so that they do not seem so other anymore. It was teaching me his ways. He had taken a life that was destined for ruin, and turned it into one that was successful. He shifted from draining society, to regenerating it; a paradigm of consumption, to one of production. Which is illustrated perfectly by something he said one day in class when we were getting a little apocalyptic. My Navajo friend raised his hand and said: we may be surrounded by shit, but it is our job to turn it into compost. His life is a perfect example of what Permaculture is all about. Shepparding a society that is on a crash course with disaster, to one that is sane, rational, and above all sustainable.

One night we kneeled over stones and made hurricanes with our hands to make fire in the ancient way. In my mind, a hand drill was almost fictional, could anyone really actually do that? But he could, with large calloused hands he drew smoke from the charring wood beneath his drill and turned it into fire. When I tried it, well, there was less smoke and no fire.

One day when the class had planned a day hike to see some petro glyphs in a nearby cave, my friend decided to stay behind out of respect for the tribes that had left them. I approached him quietly, and asked if it offended him that we were going. He was kind, and said no, that for us it was a learning experience. But for him, he had been taught that there are places one must not go. That there are spaces that are sacred, a concern that must have been at the heart of his ambivalence toward anthropologists; they came in handy sometimes, but mostly they were just whites looking for an adventure, a place to dig, a people to study. Sacredness and boundaries really are foreign concepts to the Western mind, which is dominated by a history of frontier, discovery, and invention.

At the end of the two weeks, I was grateful for my Navajo friend’s wisdom though still unsure how to proceed. I told him that perhaps I could help raise some money for the ailing schools, or for the local baseball teams. He smiled and nodded appreciating the effort. As we said our goodbyes, I looked at him and said, ‘The irony of the situation is that for 400 years whites have been trying to save your people in one way or another. But when the shit hits the fan, it will be your people who save us.’ He liked this idea, laughed, and disappeared into his large Dodge truck.