When we first visited the Navajo Mountain Boarding School (NMBS) I was struck by the beautiful octagonal hogans nestled against the hills. The door, placed to greet the rising sun, looks towards the canyon dotted with juniper, sage, cedar and pinion. I struggled to hold this beauty next to the narrative of the boarding schools that I had been taught, where long hair was cut, language forbidden and children were separated from their parents. Looking into the buildings I noticed evidence of Western architecture folded into the traditional Diné design. I thought of my own heritage, growing up in and between two cultures, a location similar to that of Ryan and others of my teammates.
As we began work on the building, returning the thick red dust piles from inside to outside, peeling back layers of paint to reveal the weathered wood, piling books and measuring windows, we could feel the spirit of the place and the people wondering why we were there, paying so much attention and moving so quickly. As we cleared the paths I took some sage and moved through the buildings asking for patience and blessings as we continued down this path which alternately felt as clear as the desert night sky and hazy as the red dust blowing against the sun.
Monday morning we helped to make fry bread and mutton stew; chopping, kneading and laughing our way to the community dinner, where we hoped to get the blessing of the Naatsis'áán Elders for the project. Chairs were set up in one of the cleaned up classrooms and a slide presentation of the old building ran during the gathering time. Ryan's Aunt began by introducing the project and us in the Diné language and then we took turns introducing ourselves. After that Ryan made an introduction to the project and his motivations which was again re-translated into Diné. There was time for questions and a bit of storytelling before gathering around the cottonwood tree for dinner.
During dinner I sat with two elders who had attended the boarding school for their kindergarten and first grade years in the late sixties. As our conversation unfolded, I quickly realized that while most people spoke fondly of their time at the NMBS, this was not the end of their experience with the Federal boarding school system. In fact it was just a kind beginning. The couple I spoke with attended multiple schools, moving every few years from place to place even going as far as Salem, Oregon! Sometimes these moves seemed to be motivated by their parents but sometimes by opportunities to learn trades, to get more resources than families could afford or simply because Naatsis'áán (Navajo Mountain) community was small and didn't have a school that could teach all the levels. At these various schools, unlike at NMBS, students were introduced to corporal punishment: jokingly dubbed "the Board of education," had their hair cut and their mouths washed with soap for speaking their native language--not to mention that they rarely were able to see their family due to the long distance.
As we sat next to the fire that night I had the feeling that this project would unfold in ways that none of us could predict. The more we continue to learn from the stories held in the community the more complex and nuanced the project will become, but for tonight the project has the blessing of the community and we are thankful.
Three days ago we packed up two cars with gear, guitars, bags and books and began our drive to Navajo Mountain to begin the official reconstruction of the boarding schools. One car held the team, Ryan, Graeme, Magdalena, myself: Ella, and a volunteer, Sarah. The other car held three volunteers, Grace, Sitou and John. Everyone was extremely cozy, wedged between what we were transporting and each other. There was a lot of resigning ourselves to the space we had and the fact that we would be driving through the Mojave Desert, and drive through the Mojave we did. That Tuesday the white sand and white-blue skies boasted 106 degrees and every time we stopped for gas or a restroom it felt as if the sky was giving us a tight, hot hug and wouldn’t let go no matter how much you wiggled. Needless to say there was a lot of talk about sunhats and watermelons.
In Ludlow, California, we pulled over to watch a spectacular desert sunset in. It was a chance to take stock of the situation: this is actually happening. We are going to restore the boarding schools. We will be spending a little over a month in the red, high desert of Utah trying to participate in healthy community building and art practices. OK. But what does that mean? We don’t have many answers beyond general dialogical inquiry and listening a lot. We have a lot of questions and thoughts. We are all trying to be brave enough to really look at ourselves and our beliefs and intentions. I think I’m using the word we a little liberally. I’m mostly talking about how I feel: full of a lot of questions and a really tender heart. The sunset helped.
The two cars met up at the notorious EL TROVATORE motel. Is it really notorious? I think it has become notorious in my mind. Three weeks ago Ryan, Magdalena and myself took a treacherous three-day road trip form the East Bay, California to Navajo Mountain in Utah and back, to meet with the Navajo Mountain Chapter Council and discuss our project with them. We managed to get there in one drive (a whooping 18 hours), but had to break up the way back because our sanity was leaving us (we had a mere 22 hours at Navajo Mountain for our meeting, which went wonderfully, and rest between car travel time). We ended up breaking up the drive in Kingman, Arizona, at El Tovatore: a Route 66 themed motel.