After having breakfast with Ellena and Zoë, sharing our milk with the kittens, I visited Monument Valley Tribal Park, an area of red sand desert known for its towering sandstone formations. The Park is located within the Navajo Nation, the largest mass of land retained by a Native American tribe, covering 17 million acres in portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Being on the “res,” as it’s know by locals, felt significant to me in ways both positive and negative.
A few miles into my drive through the Nation, I felt a heightened awareness that took me by surprise. It was as if all of my senses were suddenly wider awake than they’d been before. Sights seemed more vivid and sounds clearer. In general, I felt more in tune with my surroundings…and the feeling seemed to have come out of nowhere.
The landscape was breathtaking, but it was the human features that drew my attention. I was struck by the condition of the land and the dwellings dotting it. In every direction, I saw litter – trash generally and lots of beer cans and booze bottles specifically. Even within the park itself, in areas not frequented by tourists, I saw evidence of the imbibing and alcoholism I know to be common among native populations. Most of the homes I saw were trailers, some with ramshackle additions that looked to be made of plywood and other random materials. I was surprised to see American flags flying in a number of yards, then campaign signs along the roads, evidence of upcoming Navajo Nation Council elections. Everywhere it seemed there were cars, trucks, and myriad vehicles in various states of use and disrepair. I estimated the ratio of vehicles to dwellings to be 4:1.
The sociologist in me thought “This is what abject poverty looks like.”
I felt sad. I felt angry. I felt confused. I felt…white guilt. And white guilt doesn’t do a damn bit of good for anyone (does it?), so I tried to fight it…but I couldn’t. I drove through the reservation thinking “My ancestors made this mess.” I could only imagine what the landscape look like before the Europeans came along with their guns and disease. I tried to envision what the lives of the native peoples looked like then – and juxtapose that vision with the one I saw before me. I don’t know what life would have looked like for the Navajo people if white people had never come along, put their children in boarding schools, and [eventually] resettled what remained of their population to reservations, but what I saw made my stomach churn.
I can’t help but believe the “awakening” I felt early on in this space came from the spirit of the land and the history of the people living on it. There’s still a sacredness here, of this I am certain. There is also much sadness and despair. And I’m at a loss for words and a greater loss for what in the world I might do to make any difference.
I can only hope the spirit wins out over the sadness, theirs and mine.