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The International Writers Magazine: From Our Archives

Navajo School
• Duncan Shaw
Faith is the bird that feels the light,
and sings when the dawn is still dark
- Rabindranath Tagore

School Bus

Four-year-old Rachel hugged me around the leg and smiled up – a round, brown face with the eyes of her ancestors. She was telling me she loved me, and I let the Navajo girl know she was one of the most wonderful people I had ever met.

My first glimpse of modern Native American life was a portrait less cheerful. It occurred in the summer of 1987 on a dry, hot day. Driving through the Bad Lands of South Dakota, USA, I was heading to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation and Wounded Knee, where, in the winter of 1890, an estimated 200 Sioux women and children were returned to the earth with the aid of four rapid-firing Hotchkiss cannon.

Along the road to Wounded Knee, the things you see tell stories. Scattered in the grass, I remember, were disintegrating paper labels with names like "Thunderbird" and "Boones Farm", and the shoulder was littered with metal and glass. On the brown, sunburned land was a rusted chassis being used by a group of Sioux kids as a kind of jungle gym.

Reaching my destination, the monument on the grassy knoll that marks the mass grave, I was approached by a young Sioux guy – 30ish – wearing shades, black hair long and shiny, and a tattoo on his upper arm that read "Oglala". He told me the story of "the occupation" of Pine Ridge in the spring of 1973, when the FBI and tribal police fought American Indian Movement (AIM) activists, and for his tale I bought from him a beaded key chain – three bucks.

Leaving the grave and getting back on that road, a group of raging, aging youths in a forlorn convertible nearly rear-ended me, as if driving some trespasser from their private chaos. My eyes fixed on the road out, at some point I realized that I had crossed a border. And I felt relieved to see this rural ghetto receding in the mirror.

That experience at Pine Ridge has never left me. It remains imprinted within. In my mind's eye I have often returned to the grassy knoll beneath sky of the Great Plains, and to the eyes behind the shades, wanting to return to the world of the reservations to see if the situation there is as desperate as it seemed. And I wanted also to see New Mexico again, a place I was enchanted by when I first visited years ago. Satisfying these longings and others, my wife Jenny and I spent a year as teachers at a Catholic mission school for Navajo children in the town of Thoreau, N.M., on the edge of the Navajo Indian reservation. I taught high school sciences and P.E.; my wife, Montessori preschool and kindergarten.

The desert Southwest is an elemental landscape of space, light, rock and wind – a place beautifully evoked by writers like Edward Abbey and Tony Hillerman. And the Navajo characters rendered in Hillerman's novels are almost as interesting as the real thing. That late author by the way was such a fan of this mission school that he gave its commencement speech one year and dedicated his book, "Sacred Clowns", to its teachers.

Our experience with the Navajo people was both wonderful and harsh. We were enamored with some of their qualities – their dignity, gentleness, and spirituality included. But we were a witness to their poverty and the general travail of their lives.

The Navajo Nation, home to about 175,000 Navajos, occupies a reservation the size of West Virginia, the largest in the U.S. A huge amount of its residents live in poverty, due in part to a huge unemployment rate. The Navajo people are widely scattered over their 26,000 square miles of arid land. Much of this land is inaccessible except by horse or four-wheel-drive vehicle. The traditional Navajo dwelling, the hogan, is a roundish structure with only one room. Reflecting spiritual beliefs, its lone entrance faces east toward the rising, cleansing sun.

For a year our surrogate home, the town of Thoreau is a meager bit of civilization. We arrived there five days after pulling out of my in-laws' driveway in Greensboro, North Carolina, a place, which on seeing Thoreau for the first time, I almost wished I had never left. The town is predominantly Anglo, with most of its 900 residents living in trailers. The Navajo live outside of Thoreau among the red sandstone mesas overlooking town. There is one grocery store, one gas station, seven bars, a couple of trading posts and a handful of other small businesses including most notably, Pinky's Hair Salon, Thoreau's main purveyor of perms. Thoreau

Surrounding Thoreau, however, is a wealth of magnificent scenery. Backing the town to the north is a range of stair-stepped mesas dotted with juniper and pinon trees.

Navajo nation At the foot of these mesas are buttes with names like Castle Rock and Pig Face and Navajo Woman's Skirt. In the early evening, just when the sun disappears in the direction of Gallup, New Mexico and unfurls from the horizon a tapestry of copper, orange, pink and lavender hues, Jenny and I would take long walks on the outskirts of town, down a paved remnant of old Route 66 which later becomes dirt and vanishes in a field of sagebrush. And during these twilight jaunts, as pastel rays arch like streamers over the land, the buttes behind Thoreau appear to incandesce red.

South of town is the Cibola National Forest, which has stands of aspen hidden among the more abundant ponderosa pines. With the coming of fall, their secret presence is revealed as autumnal streaks of gold on a canvas of evergreen.

To the east is the broad, undulating profile of Mt. Taylor. A peak sacred to the Navajo, Mt. Taylor resembles a sleeping dragon, all stretched out with its chin resting on the ground.

Our residence in Thoreau was a trailer, a filthy tin box of a place which at least remained standing when the winds of spring sandblasted the high desert, leaving less stout structures in tatters. It didn't provide a person much physical comfort but it was a refuge of sorts: a place where we went to shut out the demands of our work, and to leisurely roll over in our mind and across our tongue the cultural stew in which we found ourselves.

However the trailer was also a window through which we viewed the bloodshot wound in modern Native American life. Bearing desperate eyes, the countless drunks who came knocking and pressed against that window amounted to a yearlong procession of pain and despair.

To live in Thoreau is to feel the great unspoken sadness present on Indian reservations. Out there, alcoholism destroys families and people with a numbing frequency. Alcohol-related death and dysfunction contribute to both a life expectancy for Navajos of less than the national average and a reservation epidemic of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Columbus's arrival began the decline of Native Americans. And like an ocean of thriving human experience reduced to stagnant pools of bitter water, they were decimated and exiled to the reservations.

During our year in Thoreau, though, we were inspired by the sight of an occasional flower breaching the desert soil. For Jenny and me, the Navajo children we taught will forever be our sown seeds of hope.

Our work as teachers at a mission school is undoubtedly the most gratifying either of us has ever done. However, the teaching involved some wearying struggles that tested us often and, at times, nearly broke our will to continue.

The classroom where I taught sciences was a dilapidated trailer with shoddy plumbing which on occasion would spring a leak, covering the floor in an inch of water. The place would also take in water during autumn's frequent, drenching rainstorms. And on those days in March and April when it was violently windy – that is, nearly every day – the classroom floor and counters would become coated with sand that had blown in, and the trailer would turn frigid because its furnace pilot light had blown out.

These problems of physical environment, though doubtless exasperating to me, were manageable and are even comical in retrospect. What was extraordinarily difficult was working with a group of kids who spent much of their lives accumulating wound after emotional wound.

Of the 40 students I taught, only a few lived with both birth parents. Among their families, alcoholism was rampant.

My students brought their pain into the classroom every day, and I was there to absorb the verbal (and on one occasion, physical) blows. Things might have been easier if the school had a principal, but he got sick and had to leave early in the school year. So another teacher and I split some of the duties of principal in addition to each teaching a full load of classes.

Coming through this kind of ordeal, though, you often find that by the end of it, you have acquired a deep affection, perhaps even a love, for the object of your exertions. That was certainly the case for my wife and me. In many ways our Navajo students were wonderful kids. Though inured to a life of hard knocks, they showed an exuberance for many things in their life, including the beautiful scenery that surrounded them, and the silverwork and horses many of them crafted and raised. Jerry, one of my seniors, was able to shed a drug habit and became an acclaimed artist and traditional dancer. My favorite among Jenny's preschoolers, Rachel, was a girl who normally brimmed with laughter. But on the last day of school she showed me a different side. Knowing I was returning to North Carolina and would no longer be living in Thoreau, Rachel, catching me completely by surprise, ran up and hugged me for the last time – her face marked with dried streaks.

As a teacher, it's common to run into your students outside of school. When I taught at Chapel Hill High School, Franklin Street is where I would see them. Here in New Mexico, the flea market in Gallup was one of their haunts.

However the market is a venue where we saw more than just our students. The first time you go you are transfixed by the Navajo grandmothers: proud, sturdy traditionals dripping with silver and turquoise, the stalwart of their families. And there is delicious food to sample like fry bread and mutton stew and Navajo tacos.

The most vivid scene I recall had a Navajo medicine man at its center. A crowd made up of patrons and curious onlookers gathered around him as he dispensed his remedies and touted their merits. Adults and children alike, including kids in Bart Simpson T-shirts, craned their necks for a look at the old man, his wizened face and leathery skin browned from decades in the Southwestern sun. The crowd listened intently as he spoke his mysterious language and gestured with his hands – those very old hands.

We were permanently transformed by our year amid the red rock mesas of Navajo country. Not only did Jenny and I learn much about the Navajo people, we came to understand ourselves better both as individuals and as a married couple (we went to New Mexico newly married).

Of all our experiences with the Navajo, perhaps the one that most affected us was a wedding powwow we attended one cold, starry night. Jenny and I and a few other teachers were invited by our friend Harrison, a school employee and traditional gourd dancer, who would be dancing at the powwow along with Jerry and some other people we knew.

We arrived at about 7 p.m., wending our way along a rutted dirt road lined on both sides by bushes of yellow-flowered chamisa. Turning left down a similar road, I rolled down my window and was greeted by the flash of a young Navajo girl's smile. She was romping with two other kids in an adjacent field of sagebrush – a portrait of insouciance beneath the darkening sky of dusk.

Getting out of my car and walking up to the powwow, I noticed the circle of pick-up trucks, their front ends pointing inward, that marked the dance area. And in the center was a small group of drummers who would lead the singing that evening.

The Navajo universe, according to traditional beliefs, is represented by the circle, a shape with no corners and thus no weak points, a figure of perfect harmony, and I thought of this as I viewed the configuration before me.

The air was cooling rapidly now, and the sky glow from the recently departed sun was also leaving, slowly transforming to inky darkness overhead. And mesas that had been silhouetted were now fading, blending, becoming one with this cobalt background.

At some announced time, Harrison and the other dancers began their performance. They moved slowly, in rhythm with the drummers, taking small steps in a circular path around them. And Jenny and I and the other teachers present looked on in fascination as Harrison, our school custodian by day, became to us all at that moment something mysterious, a chanting figure beneath the starry vault of night sky.

Later in the evening, we teachers were invited to join Harrison and the others in a round dance, at which time everyone at the powwow linked up with the human circle, assuming its speed and rhythm, moving around and around. And dancing about us, like some orbiting jewel, was a young fancy-shawl dancer dressed in lavender and blue and wearing a long black braid. She moved expertly, twirling and whirling, a dervish in the dark.

On this same evening, at locations around the globe, wars raged and children died, the sun rose and poets dreamed. And on a spec of the earth's surface, at an anonymous point in space and time, a self-conscious group of Anglos merged briefly with the Navajo Circle, feeling a part of something strange and beautiful.
© Duncan Shaw September 2013
duncmshaw at

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