The final week of the project was split between taking volunteers and team members to the airport, organizing a basket-weaving workshop, cleaning the grounds and the house and preparing our trips back home.
But first, there was the fourth of July. I came back from my week long return to California I took for health reasons just in time. I wanted to see Magdalena before she left! Ryan’s mother arrived for a visit on July 3rd, and we sat around the dinner table while she told us stories about the house we were living in and her family. We stayed up late into the night, so it was a slow start on the 4th. We gathered lazily in the late morning around cups of instant coffee and toast to plan how to spend this day. Magdalena, being from the Czech Republic, had never experienced a fourth of July, so we wanted to make sure she felt what we thought were important aspects of the holiday: the country we have the privilege of living in, the magnificent landscape of the country, and the friends and families that make up the communities we get to be a part of.
Ryan’s aunt Cassandra invited us to her grandsons 4th of July birthday in Kayenta, which was 2 hours away and a beautiful drive through the landscape. We decided this adventure would be perfect. We piled into the car and listened to American Rock and Roll as we drove past through the canyons and steep hills of Utah and Arizona. We were driving down a road with steep rocks on either side of us and turned a corner and all of the sudden, there was Kayenta, sprawling across the landscape.
The birthday party was lovely; we had fry bread, hamburgers, cake and conversations. We got to be around people we loved and cared about. It was hot outside so we all melted onto the couches and did not want to leave. But evening rolled around and it was time to head back to Navajo Mountain. When we were 10 minutes from the house, when we heard the first fireworks. A crack and bang outside the car window. At that point it had become dark and the sky was densely dusted in stars. We pulled the car over. Janis Joplin serenaded us and we climbed on the roof of the car or leaned against it, watching the fireworks sparkle. The breeze felt cool in the hot air, and the crickets were chirping. You could hear the occasional dog bark in surprise at the noises and colors in the sky. It was the most beautiful firework experience I have ever had. We stayed until it was over, and then slowly drove home the rest of the way. It was that night that the heaviness of departure really settled onto our shoulders., and the next day it was time for John and Magdalena to leave.
We drove our team member Magdalena, and volunteer John, who had been a part of the project for most of the summer down to the Phoenix airport together. When I first arrived at Navajo Mountain even a 45 minutes car ride seemed like a long time. I learned quickly that when you live in the desert, 45 minutes is the minimum to get to a small store. If you want a large grocery store, you will be driving for 2 hours, if you want a city with organic produce, large convenient stores and hardware stores, you can count on driving 3 to 4 hours. Access and time have been put sharply into focus.
Anyway, the drives to Phoenix no longer fazed me. What was another 5 hours? We drove through red rocks and the air was so hot that it shimmered pink behind the long armed cacti. John and Magdalena were dropped off at the airport and Graeme’s sister, Leah, was picked up. She would be a part of our little team for the last week of the project.
The grounds around the school had been cleared so we just had to clean the rubble and supplies and lock everything away. Our big project for the final week was organizing a basket-weaving workshop with Jenny Crank. Jenny is a high-demand basket-weaving master. She learned from her mother and her grandmother. She was once a student at the boarding school. We were extremely grateful when she agreed to teach an afternoon workshop.
The Chapter House generously donated chairs and a table. We set up snacks, Navajo tea and coffee. Jenny brought in reeds and a bucket of water, she placed them next to her chair on a blanket, at the front of the room. Her children, grand children and great grand children arrived as well as some community members. Jenny showed us how to start a basket and how to split reed with our mouths. She lets us come and try and we all had an extremely hard time. She laughed and helped us.
After she demonstrated basket weaving, she told us stories of how she learned her craft. How it was passed on through her family and how important it was for her that her children learned as well. She told us about her time at the school and how it was to grow up and live on the reservation. We sat together and listened and drank tea.
After Jenny and all the participants departed, it was just the team left. We could not believe we had just witnessed a class in the boarding school we had spent so long clearing and cleaning. Yes, there is still a lot of work to do on the buildings, but the fact that a class took place for the first time in 20 years, was a huge deal. It was the first gesture for a new use.
We don’t know what the buildings will be used for ultimately. Will they become a monument? Or will they become a historical site for visitors and community members to come and learn about the BIA schooling system? They could be a place for classes like the one Jenny taught, or a language arts center? We leave that up to the community.
The buildings have begun their evolution. We left Navajo Mountain early on the 12th of July. We packed the car and slipped into our seats. On our way to the airport, Ryan dropped the keys to the locks on the doors of the boarding schools at the Chapter House. The trajectory of the buildings is open and in the hands of the community. There is more clear space and room for growth. We drove off and watched the mountain recede into the distance.
The ground was mahogany interspersed with shocks of mud as my highlander flew across the desert floor, rain more like sheets on millions of clotheslines hammering my window as we drove threw them, past the juniper trees emitting their strange acidic and savory-sweet scent. Lightning cracked and thunder rolled, as my partner gave his own cry in response; I wanted to be enveloped in the storm’s energy, swept away and cleansed.
I stopped the car and ran outside, towards the canyon rim, screaming and feeling thousands of raindrops over my whole body, my senses engaged in a way that only the electric energy and sounds and colors of a microburst could.
It was the end of one of the hardest weeks any of us had experienced.
My body ached from the constant construction; Ella had given herself time by going back to California for a week, after overseeing the men who helped us, nonstop, for a marathon build. Everyone was exhausted, physically and mentally.
In a way, it was fitting that we started the week with a thunderstorm.
It left myself, Graeme, and Magdalena cleansed of the stresses and anxieties of the week prior, re-energized and ready for some self-care and a healthy dose of urban adventures.
My grandmother is 93 years old and living in a care facility in Mesa, AZ.
She is tiny; at 90 pounds, with a cloud of white hair surrounding her face framed with enormous glasses.
When she speaks, there’s a familiarity and a warmth. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete stranger, her child, her brother, her grand-child---the same crinkled smile, the surprisingly energized laugh and the signature clapping of hands awaits whenever we get to see her again.
And her stories.
She mostly remembers when she was a little girl, going through the boarding school system; the arc of the narrative can be hard to follow, but it always ends with her favorite story of her performing her favorite song to a school full of church-goers sometime in the 1940’s.
I watched my partner lean down and take her hand; two people who had never met each other before in their lives, but were so comfortable together. We listened to her sing Amazing Grace to the entire room.
I closed my eyes and tried to wipe away a tear before it had a chance to steal down my cheek. She doesn’t remember who I am. She does, however, hold this beautiful universal love for all people, and the warmth and genuine kindness is the same as I remember it from when I was little, when she would walk out and greet our car at the gate, oftentimes at midnight after the 12-hour car ride from Los Angeles.
The gate is the same as it has always been. My grandmother is the only way to see the passing of time.
We get up to leave, and my grandmother takes Graeme’s hand.
“I remember you when you were just this big!”
She holds her hand about two feet from the floor.
“You’ve become so handsome.”
We sat on the floor, side by side, in a Holiday Inn Express in Scottsdale, AZ. Taking turns to apply tubes of gold glitter to each other’s faces, my cousin Savannah and I couldn’t help but crack up.
On the other side of the bathroom, her fiance applied rainbow stickers across his face, painting his lips and cheeks with lipstick and rouge while Graeme helped Magdalena decorate her body with gold paint.
An hour later, we were crammed amongst a crowd of an equally be-glittered crowd while PWR BTTM from Brooklyn, a queer-punk rock duo with anthems about otherness, queerness and the lonely joy of self expression, set fire to the stage with guitar rifs and energy that matched the crowd’s. I closed my eyes and felt the music carry me out of my body, over the terra-cotta roofs of Phoenix, AZ, into the home that exists beyond the self, shared by every human.
After the show, Ben Hopkins (guitar, drums, vocals) came up to us and volunteered to give us access to whatever music from PWR BTTM, to use for our documentary and project. They’re my favorite band. I lost my sh_t.
We went to Phoenix twice that week. The car-ride back down was a sorrowful experience; we knew we had to say goodbye to Magdalena, who was leaving for the czech republic and didn’t know if she was coming back to complete her 2nd year in our MFA program. In the same Holiday Inn in scottsdale, where, days before, we decorated each other with glitter and stickers, we sat on the bed and said our goodbyes.
It was a great week. We all needed that mental break, a time to come back to ourselves, into our bodies after giving so much of ourselves to the Boarding School buildings, to Navajo Mountain.
As we drove Magdalena to the Airport, I truly hoped that the change that was coming would be good. I quickly said a prayer as the sun set, and asked for its blessings.
Nizhónígo jooba' diits'a'
Yóó'ííyáá nít'éé,' k'ad shénáhoosdzin
Doo eesh'íi da nít'éé.'
Jooba' shijéí shá neineeztáá'
T'áá bí shá ak'eh deesdlíí'
Ílíigo bijooba' yiitsá
T'óó yisisdlaad yéedáá'
Walk in Beauty
The boarding schools have experienced two weeks of intensive building. Last week we received support from the Navajo Mountain Chapter House by having experienced construction hired for us to complete renovation efforts. As of right now, we have completely sealed the roof of the buildings, cleared out the insides from detritus and debris down to the sandstone, and completely power washed the buildings. The buildings are now ready for contracted labor, for electrical infrastructure, windows and some structural repairs for rotted logs. We were so grateful to receive a donation of the Chapter House’s backhoe, and I’m overjoyed to say that the grounds have been leveled, filled and cleared of dead tree and growth. The buildings have experienced a complete transformation from when we arrived three weeks ago.
Now that the building goals we set out to do have been met, we can once again focus on the heart and soul of the project; sharing stories, generating visibility, engaging the community and creating a game plan to move forward after the feedback we have received and what we have seen.
We have truly grown with this project already; through the extensive interviews with the community we have learned so much about the buildings and the personal experiences of the students, faculty and workers who lived the reality of the BIA school system.
Speaking personally, it has been painful to hear of the abuses that have happened. The stories of the physical abuse, of the forceful separation from families experienced as recently as the 1950’s my members of the community and by my family, led me to very dark places in my mind. It left me very depressed, to the point where I even considered leaving the buildings to be as they are, as monuments to the end of the BIA school era.
However, this project was originally conceived as a means to heal. Already, the act of people sharing the stories of their time here and by being listened to has started that healing process. The people in my community still want the buildings as a place of memory, of mourning and of educating the outside world about the nature of the BIA school era. At the same time the buildings can be a site for arts and culture, for education for that which was taken fro us: our language and our identity. With this in our hearts, we continue onwards, as artists, as people thinking now with our hearts and souls.
Within the next ten days we will organize a cultural workshop with a local crafts woman to take place inside the restored classroom buildings. We will also really think about the buildings as a memorial site while we do final touches on the breezeway and the grounds. Our documentary will also continue to get footage as we focus our efforts on the visibility of the social and economic issues faced.
I am so incredibly proud of both my team, who has given up so much of their personal time, to be away from their families and homes, and proud of my community who has been brave enough to talk about the good times and also the very hard times their experienced at the school. Vulnerability is a scary thing, so often its considered weakness. For me, it has been the greatest strength of this project. It gives me hope. Onwards!