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