Daily Archives: 5 February 2005

A Navajo Uprooted, Then Rerooted

“I was born in 1952 on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona,” Boone said. “I was part of the generation of Navajo young people torn from our traditions by the federal government. We were made to feel ashamed of everything Indian–of our language and tribal identity–in a failed attempt to make Indians like white people.” Boone said he had been forcibly sent to an American boarding school at an early age, then placed in a foster family of Mormons from Malibu, California, a painful irony given that the Mormons and Navajos had fought a protracted guerrilla war in the second half of the nineteenth century. “I was baptized into the Mormon Church. I rebelled and went through four foster homes. I did not complete high school. It was often hard for me to talk as a kid. What I remember most about my youth is silences and embarrassments. Eventually, the Mormons excommunicated me. In 1980, I went back to the Navajo reservation, where I lived in a hogan. I asked my grandfather, a medicine man, Dan Chee, to teach me everything he knew before he dies.

“I built the sweat lodge here in 1992. According to strict Navajo tradition, there are no co-ed sweats, but we’ve made concessions to modern life. About fifteen of us, men and women, some Indians, some Mexican Americans, some Anglos, sweat together. We wear light clothes, of course; it’s not a commune. While the fire purifies us of negative energy, each of us talks about our past, where we come from, who our parents are, what our home lives as children were like. Many of us don’t want to remember our home lives, and at a certain point we stop talking. I’ve heard awful stories inside this lodge. And when I do, then would come the silence.

“Too many of us are hovering off the ground with no firm foundation beneath us. Take my own family, for instance. Half of my relatives died from alcoholism. I grew up with nothing, in a desert, with no running water, with family problems followed by a series of foster homes that completely alienated me from whatever traditions I had. But I’ll tell you something: compared to the white trash I encounter in the places where I go to install cable TV, I am pretty well rooted, actually.[“]

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 180-181

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A Navajo Veterans’ Cemetery

The veterans’ cemetery in Shiprock sprawled across a long hillside that overlooked the High Desert. The [Veterans Day] ceremony was over by the time we had arrived. It didn’t matter. I was moved in a way that I had not expected to be. There was no fence, no landscaping, just tufts of gama grass and tumbleweed amid some hundred or so graves scattered beneath a vast curvature of blue sky. The graves were not orderly, and there were no stone markers. The raised dirt mounds were decorated with red plastic pinwheels and empty beer cans arranged in rectangular or circular patterns. American flags of many sizes had been stuck into each mount: some were plastic, some wooden and painted red, white, and blue. More flapped in the stiff wind. Over a few mounds where family groups stood in silence, full-size American flags had been laid out. Chili explained that each flag had been wrapped around a coffin on the day of burial; the families unfurl them once a year on Veterans Day. “Indians serve in the military in greater proportion than other ethnic groups,” Chili said, “because we’re defending the land itself more than just the abstract idea of the U.S.A.”

Chili’s wife and children drove up in a truck to meet us, and we all walked through the cemetery together. Because of his missing arm, Chili hadn’t served in the military. He told me he felt bad about that. Otherwise, none of us said much. Looking out over the sharply defined, high-altitude hillside crested with snapping American flags–planted amid beer cans and pinwheels on mounds covering dead soldiers–I thought that whatever America’s destiny, it had already been incorporated into the native religion of these Navajo. Those cheap plastic and cloth flags had a permanent, mythic feel that sent a chill up my spine.

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), p. 207

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