Well it’s now almost November and the brief sleet storm which just hit us in Cornfields on the Diné (pronounced “Din-ay” and the more polite name for “Navajo”) Reservation is a definite testament to the oncoming winter. In the past couple of weeks, we have travelled from Diné College to Canyon de Chelly and to Ganado and Cornfields, two of the 126 chapters which make up the Diné Reservation.
Our time at Diné College consisted of working with a community outreach program of the school where we constructed erosion-control systems, rainwater catchment systems, among other environmentally sustainable efforts which are vital in this semi-arid land. When we weren’t working, we greatly enjoyed the dorms we stayed in complete with indoor plumbing, hot showers, kitchens, the works. When you’ve been camping outside, haven’t showered for a week, and you’ve been using an outhouse in occasionally 20 or 30 degree weather, trust me, a modern bathroom is a Godsend.
After a couple days at the college, we returned to Canyon de Chelly. The canyon is somewhat “V-shaped” so the last time we were there we hiked along the Spider Rock side. This time, we ventured into the Canyon del Muerto (“Canyon of the Dead”), so-named after Spanish soldiers massacred hundreds of Diné women and children in the area. Despite its macabre history, the canyon is extremely beautiful, rich with vegetation and ruins of both the Ancestral Puebloans (more often referred to as “Anasazi”) and the Diné. The Ancestral Puebloans are the ancestors of the Pueblo tribes in the southwest U.S. and may also be the ancestors of the Diné though that point is disputed. Anyway, we were led into and out of the canyon by a Diné elder who walks with a cane but manages to climb canyon walls better than many individuals in their 20’s today. She filled us in on much of the canyon’s history as well as her own family’s history of moving into the canyon after returning from Fort Defiance following the Long Walk. Such individuals of any people who possess such an immense historical and cultural knowledge ought to be regarded with the utmost respect and admiration. Our two days in the canyon were immensely informative and knowledgeable and I know that I at least would return in a heartbeat.
We then ventured onward to Ganado, a Presbyterian mission compound founded in 1901. I say compound due to the fact that within the boundaries of the mission lies both the original church as well as the modern church, two separate buildings for clinical medical care and an ER, a former high school now a library, numerous dormitories as well as houses for staff, and more. Though the mission is still impressive to outsiders, for many who grew up in or around the mission, it is now merely a depressing memory due to the fact that many buildings and the land are now run down whereas in its heyday, the land was very green and the buildings very well maintained. And while as recently as the later-half of the twentieth century many boarding schools implemented physical, mental, and sexual torture in order to decimate tribal identities among Indigenous children, the boarding school at Ganado was one of the more humane ones which resulted in many children desiring to attend that school rather than to risk being kidnapped by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and being sent to one of the more sadistic institutions. While we stayed in one of the century-old dormitories, we worked on local homes with members of the chapter house of the now city of Ganado. Not only did we repair a wheelchair ramp for which the owner was immensely grateful but we also installed sheetrock and attic insulation to a different home. Basically, we returned to the dorm every day filthy, itchy, and in desperate need of showers. But the gratitude of the people we worked for definitely made it worth it.
Finally, we travelled to our current location of Cornfields. We have been living in the chapter house here since our arrival only leaving to go out and chop wood for elders in the community in preparation for the coming winter. Many of these elders speak only Diné or very little English which means that we typically require a translator with us to explain our reasoning for showing up at homes in a graffiti-ed van and carrying axes. But as with Ganado, the elders’ gratitude for the work we do makes it all worth it regardless of how tired we may be toward the end of the day. Tomorrow we depart for the Zuni Nation where new adventures await. And in leaving the Diné Nation, I take with me the phrase “Ho’zhoo’doo:” “In beauty I walk, in harmony I walk.”
Tom, the Bearded Wonder