Friday, October 6, 2023

In Navajo land's Monument Valley, where the people look to Father Sun for harmony, something often hard to find on a reservation

(Monument Valley)

MONUMENT VALLEY, Navajo Nation, Utah - Navajo guide, philosopher, mystic, musician Duffy Holiday points to the ground and then stretches his hands toward the sky as he explains Navajo thinking to the eight non-Indians standing around his makeshift guide truck.


“We are connected,” he tells them. “At the end of our toes, we have these swirls, and that is how we are connected to the earth.” Then he opens the palms of his hands--“See these swirls?”—and reaches toward the sky. “We are connected to the heavens like that. So when we are standing, we are standing to the east.”


Facing east is important to Navajos. They build their homes facing east so they can greet the sunrise. For the Navajo, Father Sun represents universal harmony, something often difficult to find on an American reservation where poverty is widespread and so is U.S. and state government neglect.


(To the right, Duffy Holiday)


My wife Suzanne and I met Duffy Holiday during a 17-day, 4,400-mile road trip across the Great American West in September. We traveled from Oxford, Mississippi, across the Mississippi River and Arkansas into the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, stopping in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, at the museum dedicated to the great Western character actor Ben Johnson, and on to a wedding in Golden, Colorado, where we also visited Buffalo Bill’s gravesite.


Then we traveled through the Arches, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, the north rim of the  Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park in Utah and Arizona before stopping to visit friends in Mesquite, Nevada. Through the Mohave Desert we drove en route to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. On the road back through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, we took every chance we got to drive Route 66, the Mother Road of the Joads, Tod and Buz, Jack Kerouac, Bobby Troup, Nat King Cole, and the Rolling Stones.


The beauty of the Great American West is breathtaking, and amid the vastness and seeming emptiness of all those mountains, mesas, buttes, bluffs, plateaus, and deserts you find not only millions of years of earthen history but a very important history of the these United States as well.


Some of that history is etched in Duffy Holiday’s sun-darkened face. The grandson of one of the Navajo tribe’s legendary code-talkers (who developed a secret code of communication during World War II that the Japanese could not break), he’s a proud man who makes a point to contrast the Navajo sense of family and community with Western man’s strident individualism.


Also speaking to that history are the small communities that dot the Navajo Nation—a reservation the size of West Virginia that stretches across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  In an overall population of 400,000, 160,000 of whom live on the reservation, the Navajo Nation has 13,500 reservation families who live without electricity—and thus no lights and no refrigeration--and 17,000 homes have no running water.


(A Navajo woman singing at a sandstone formation called "The Sun's Eye" in Monument Valley)

These and other grim statistics, reported by journalist Elyse Wild in a recent edition of the Navajo-Hopi Observer, are reminders of centuries-old greed and lack of concern toward the American Indian. The unemployment rate on the reservation is 50 percent. Half of all adult Navajos suffers from Type 2 diabetes. Their mortality rate—fueled by heart disease--is 31 percent higher than that of the rest of the nation.


With such statistics, of course, come drugs, suicide, domestic violence, crime, and the other ills that always attach themselves to poverty.


“Lack of electricity exacerbates disparities that have long had a foothold in Indian Country,” Wild writes, “driven by a federal legacy of forced removal and assimilation, the U.S. government’s neglect of treaty agreements, and systemic apathy for Native Americans living on reservations.”


The sordid trail of broken agreements with American Indians by the U.S. government is a shameful national legacy that continues today in our nation’s foreign relations—witness the empty boasts of protecting democracy as the CIA supported dictatorial coups in Latin America, the broken promises to Russia not to expand NATO eastward that led to the current war in Ukraine.


The Navajos are resilient, however, a point of pride for Duffy Holiday and his people. “In Navajo, we have this kinship,” Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) official Deenise Becenti told Wild. “We are related to one another through these clan systems. A lot of people I am related to and people that I know don’t have electricity. That is part of what keeps me here.”


A four-year-old “Light Up Navajo” program has brought electricity to 662 families thus far, including 159 just this past summer. Light Up Navajo is a joint operation between the NTUA and a coalition of nonprofit, community-owned utilities called the American Public Power Association. Electrical workers from across the country volunteer to travel to Navajo Nation to help build lines that can finally bring electricity and refrigeration to families on the reservation.


When Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help the poor in regions such as Appalachia, it excluded Indian tribes. Even today, political resistance to Navaho pleas for such basics as water rights can be fierce, particularly in Republican-dominated Arizona, which requires a maze of bureaucratic hurdles to be crossed.


At a time in the United States when newspapers everywhere have either died or shrunken to near worthlessness, this old journalist found two worthy newspapers in Navajo Nation—the Navajo-Hopi Observer and Navajo Times. In the editions I read were well-written, well-researched, longform stories that delved deep into the issues that affect Navajos today, stories also with a keen sense of history.

(My wife Suzanne and me with Duffy Holiday)

For example, Wild’s story on efforts to bring electricity to residents of Monument Valley included a poignant reminder of a past that included the forced migration in 1863 of 10,000 Navajos from their home in the Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner some 300 miles away in what is today New Mexico. In what writer Nicky Leach has called “the first concentration camp on American soil,” these Navajo were held in slave-like conditions without clean water, provisions, or proper shelter. Many died before a public outcry forced the U.S. government to allow them to return home in 1868.


As I scanned the vast and mystical beauty of this amazing landscape—made famous in all those John Ford Westerns starring John Wayne and Ben Johnson—I pondered the story of our American nation and of the Navajo Nation. It’s a sweeping story of courage, resilience, and sacrifice, but also one of the suffering, sadness, and tragedy that violence, selfishness, racism, and greed make inevitable.