This September a short movie about our project that you can see here was featured at a conference Architecture Connects: Strategies for the Co-Production of Architectural Knowledge, organized by the Association of Architectural Educators in Oxford, UK.
We are happy to announce, that we have been shortlisted by the organizers to write an essay for the annual AAE publication Charrette that will come out in fall 2018.
Transcript of Magdalena J. Härtelova's part of the Navajo Mountain School Project presentation at the annual social practice conference, Open Engagement, in Chicago, spring 2017.
On becoming with the community, rendering capable, empathy, and what is "success" in a social practice art project
I would like to take the last three minutes to talk a bit about two of the words that we use while thinking about working with, becoming with and thinking with the community at Navajo Mountain.
Because I believe that it matters what thoughts think thoughts, what stories constitute stories. That in order to think right, in order to be able to act consciously, we have to have the right words.
I think that one of the logics of agency that can surpass the dominant, colonialist, capitalist, heteronormative system, is the logic of rendering capable. Rendering capable rather than rendering visible.
In rendering visible somebody decided who or what is worth being seen.. It keeps the power and hierarchy strictly in line. Even if we are very open and liberal about rendering visible, because the power hierarchy is set, it will always offer only limited options. The spotlight only reaches certain space where the subject can move and be visible. If they make a gesture that reaches past the spotlight, that is not included in the vision of them that the person operating the light has, they become invisible again. Most definitely, what is lost with only rendering visible is the potential for surprise. On the other hand, when practicing rendering capable, I constantly distribute the power and offer tools. Rendering capable is teaching the partner how to operate the spotlight system, so they themselves can decide what is seen.
The other word that becomes key to me when doing a social practice project it empathy. And I would like to make us think here a bit what this often used word actually means. Because -think we must! So I'd like to make an important distinction between empathy and sympathy.
In sympathy, I project myself on the surface of the other. In empathy, I try to visit the specific intersection where the other is standing. When we perform sympathy, we hold our knowledge firmly and without change. For example, “it is important to document history in a linear narrative.” “It is important that two stories don't contradict each other.” “It is important to save all the buildings…” When we want to empathize, when we want to understand and come close to somebody/something, we can't stand where we are, we have to move from our position and make present for ourselves as best as we can the reality of the other. Especially as I'm not part of the community, mostly for the simple reason that I don't live there. As a visitor, I want to approach the subject with knowledge that they are not who/what one expected, and at the same time that I am not who/what was expected. Therefore, I have to open my heart to be tender. Even when it hurts. Even when the change initiated by such encounter alters my identity. But one of the tasks of a social practice artist, for me, is making oneself big enough so all I encountered can live within me.
This, to me, leads to radical re-evaluation of what is success and what is a failure in such project.
In many ways we failed number and number of times already during the course of the project. And we probably will -fail to find money, fail to save everything that “should be saved.” But that is failure viewed through the logic of efficiency. Rather than telling the community on the Mountain what is worth seeing, we want to offer them tools, if they decide for something to be seen, to, first and foremost, make it seen in whatever light they want to. And only secondly, give them access to the normative ways of visibility, in case they are necessary. Such as for instance is the secondary opportunity of the archive to gain future government funding.
A success doesn't also mean what we planned will happen.
I want to think about the role of a mother, that offers without asking for compensation.
How better could we fight the hegemonic system than by caring -which means giving a surplus, being in nature anti-Capitalistic.
Transcript of Ella Shoefer-Wulf's part of the Navajo Mountain School Project presentation at the annual social practice conference, Open Engagement, in Chicago, spring 2017.
On the next steps of the project and the premises of its archive
When we came to the mountains we began our dialogues with community members we began to realize more and more the variety of stories told about the buildings we were working in. Ranging from cultural eradication, incompetent and aggressive teachers from the outside to compassionate and caring teachers from the communities and stories of friendship and joy, we encountered a dimensionality of community articulation we had not had before arriving at the project site. The colonial effort of erasure of indigenous and histories and, more importantly, indigenous presence, became more stark and palpable.
And while the buildings themselves will continue to develop as the community determines how they will be used, the urgency of emphasizing the stories and history at Navajo Mountain and the boarding schools became clear. I believe it is the responsibility of social practice artist, especially myself as a white woman who is privileged by this system that silences, gaslights, and delegitimizes non white hetero historical narratives, to work to emphasize intersectional histories and the presence and narratives of marginalized communities.
So as a team we began to investigate forms for our project to take to support the communities needs to tell and make visible its history and presence.
We are now working on how we can create a historical archive by and for the community, for the local high school and to put online. An archive that does not water-down or compromise the stories of indigenous communities and serves both the communities from which the stories come, and people who want to educate themselves on the intersectionalities of U.S. histories and gain perspective on the violence and erasure imposed upon marginalized communities.
The archive will include the community’s ideas about the future use of the boarding school and in this way become an action-oriented archive. As we continue on this project of an action oriented historical archive we ask ourselves: how do we make sure the archive, in its form, doesn’t just serve academia, as academia has been an imperative tool for the colonial enterprise? How can we ensure compensation for the local archivists? How do we make sure the archive doesn’t just novelize the pain and anguish of oppression, but serves to also highlight the resilience, strength, culture and joy that drives, more than anything, the lives of communities that survive despite neo colonial efforts? How do we make the archive a catalyst for future actions?
Only now am I slowly finding words to talk about this. There can and should be a lot written about the conditions that motivate projects like ours. However, in my blog post, I want to write about what it means to come back.
In a way, about what one is up against personally. Because one doesn't only navigate the very complicated ethics of social practice projects, the practical difficulties, problems of team-work, or navigating oppress systems. Doing such a project right also means opening yourself, listening in the first place and being vulnerable. And it changes you.
As I believe many of you do, I'm following the actions of the Standing Rock in opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline. I'm actually hoping to somehow come to the resources that would allow our team to help a little bit. Maybe even be able to go and see like one of our volunteers, Sarah, did.
My heart is overflowing with sadness and awe towards the people in the camp. I see the strength their fight requires. I know it is not just the money and time it costs them. Not just all that the desperation of having to fight for their life, being oppressed by those who promised to take care of them, having these people continue to take from them. There is a day-to-day struggle for meaning. And there will be scars left on each one of them that will cost them so much more than they already have to pay. Even if there was an immediate happy ending, there has been so much trauma inflicted and re-opened.
When I went back home to Prague from Navajo Mountain, I expected the shock. I also came to terms with the fact that there is very little of that life-changing experience, that others will be able to understand and so I'll have to be alone with it. We talked about all of this before I left. It didn't make it easier but it helped. However, those were not the epicenters of most of our struggle, or, to put it bluntly, the depression we faced upon our return from the project.
It was hard to go back to the studios, to lectures, to writing papers and talking about theory, when suddenly it felt somehow artificial, not real enough and at points meaningless. There were times when I felt like Ella and Ryan are the only ones that I could talk to. Even about my every-day life. Not because my other friends, peers, and teachers wouldn't want to or couldn't understand but because I had no words. Because I didn't know what was happening to me. I reached some very low points.
Slowly, I realized that throughout the project I soaked in so many stories. Allowing myself to have a very tender heart throughout and after the project meant the stories of injustice, Ryan's, Ella's and Graeme's stories, the buildings' history, the indescribable beauty of the land and Ryan's family, all lived inside me now. The spirit of the Mountain is with me always. And sometimes it helps me through the day. Sometimes, all the stories feel too much to bear. Now, I don't claim to know anything of the weight that is being Native American in present United States. I have just the barest touch with a surface of very few local experiences. I still had all my privileges, all my securities. But there are no instructions on how to come to terms with your failures, or the scale of the change that happens to you.
I felt like I’d be a failure if I don't make sense of what happened. Yet it seemed entirely impossible to make sense of it. I’m starting to think it actually is.
When I felt like I was hitting the bottom, I asked a teacher and friend of mine, Brian Conley, a brilliant artist and thinker, for help. We have continued to talk. And I'm not in any way done with coming to terms. But I want to share with you a bit of what he told me. There is only one thing to do when you don't want to hide, push the stories away, or deny them or your experience. You have to make yourself big enough, big enough so it can all live in you. All the contradictions, the reality that is always ambiguous, complicated, unsolvable, rarely makes any sense, your helplessness, your actions, your failure together with the small victories, the people you love in their complexity, the complications of social practice, your team. The way out, to me at least, isn't summarizing or choosing a filter to see through, it is thinking critically, in entangled relations, in complexities and specificities, all at once, personally.
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!
I’m always apprehensive sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper or Word document, but today more than other days. It’s the Monday after the Strawberry full moon of June and the summer solstice. Yesterday the sun screamed down onto the red desert on one of the hottest days thus far. The kind of sun that makes you shudder to think of living without shelter, shade or water. Of course that was the day I left my hat at home in my enthusiasm to go on a small group excursion Page, Arizona, and got heat stroke. I was walking up a hill with the yellow rays blasting down on me when all of the sudden every muscle in my body started giving out. If I hadn’t sat myself down, my body would have done it for me. Ryan, Magdalena and Graeme stood with their backs to the sun and shaded me. Not once, but twice did I have to sit by the side of the trail until I could make it to a small roof shelter, human built, because in terms of natural shade there was nothing far and wide. Ryan and Graeme raced to the car for water. Fortunatly, while they were gone, some strangers saw my bright red, maybe almost purple face, and gave me water. Magdalena stood watch until the boys were back and Ryan poured water on my head. It was pretty funny by the time I was in the car with two bottles of Gatorade and ice cubes down my shirt and on my ears (seriously, if you ever get heat stroke, but cold on your ears, those temperature regulators really get you back on track!) but the whole experience was a little unnerving. I’m not used to my body giving out unless I’m sick…but I guess I could bring up those Carne Asada tacos I had eaten two days before that gave me a stomach flu…
I know why I was apprehensive to start: so much has happened! It feels like we have been here six months, but also only a few days. Everything blends together, but I will try to pick it apart.
The first project that the volunteers and team took on was cleaning up the grounds and school enough to make space for a community dinner at the boarding school where we would present the project and hopefully meet people who had been a part of the school: students, teachers or any other workers, who might be interested in giving interviews, sharing stories and helping us expand our archive on the boarding school history.
The volunteers who came with us from California were Grace, Sarah John and Sitou. Ryan’s cousin and her fiancé Savannah and Sage arrived with two bellowing black dogs from Blanding, Arizona to offer helping hands along with Ryan’s aunts Cassandra and Anne.
Together we went to work: we cleared the shrubs in front of, and around, the school building, exposing a large and deep fireplace out front of-- and a walkway to --the schoolhouse. We cleared out the buildings and collected the metal scraps and trash from the grounds. We went to Flagstaff, AZ and got a car full of groceries for the community dinner. We paint matched the original color of the doors and windows (a beautiful Sage green) and repainted them. We sorted through old books and stacked them in boxes and shelves. We took lots of water breaks. We scarfed down lunches and flopped down on couches exhausted. We looked at each other and said: This is hard. We looked at each other and said: What does this all mean. We heard about the shooting in Orlando and cried. We discussed our positionality and what it means to be in dialogue with a community. We went to look at stars from tall, red mesa flats. We drove with the wind blowing in the windows singing. We collected sage. We washed dishes and did laundry. All of the sudden it was the day before the community dinner. The Navajo Times had done a write up, people had inquired and had been invited, and it was time to prepare the food.
When it came to the food Auntie Cassandra and Anne came to the rescue is a monumental fashion. We had some vague ideas on how to make mutton stew and fry bread for sixty people, how much we needed and how to serve the food. They had the real knowledge.
The community dinner was set for Monday at 5:30. Sunday Auntie Anne took a group of us down to the bottom of the canyon, where Ryan’s great-grandmother used to live, to collect Navajo Tea. She taught us how to wrap it and roast it. By the evening Auntie Cassandra and Anne had three legs of lamb in the slow cookers, some of us were baking brownies, others were roasting tea. Then it was time to sleep.
By eight on Monday morning the house was bustling: the Aunties and a group of us chopping and peeling veggies and starting the fry bread. But wait! Emergency! We were out of baking soda, a key ingredient for fry bread! Ryan raced to the store, 45 minutes away, and returned triumphant. Making the dough for fry bread requires active hand movements that mix the flour, baking soda, milk powder, salt and water. You try to keep the dough fluffy and soft. The Aunties produced cloud like dough while we produced dough balls with varying degrees of cement consistency. Fortunately the Aunties always knew little tricks to save the dough from utter failure. At one point I had to pass on a gob of dough that felt like a baseball and Auntie Cassandra grabbed it, laughed and worked it back to a cloud-like texture. Our instructions for making the fry bread didn’t come in metric measurements, but it palm-fulls, pinches and movement demonstrations. All the while we heard stories about the family and the house we are living in.
Some of the group went down to the school to give the grounds the final touch for the dinner. Ryan hung strings of lights in the building and set up chairs and a projector with historic photos from the school. The outdoor was set up with picnic tables and a large hot fire was built in the deep pit (later when the Auntie’s asked why the pit was so extremely deep Sage, John and Ryan looked at each other and laughed: “well I guess this is what happens when you give three boys a shovel and say dig.”)
We set up hot coals under stones upon which we heat up oil in large deep pans, we patted the fry bread into patties and passed them to the aunties, who carefully sank them, one by one, into the bubbling oil where they turned them with sticks until they turned fluffy and golden. From there, the bread was placed into a large aluminum tray lined with napkins (that only caught fire once! And was quickly saved by the aunties while we stood by and dumbly yelled FIRE!).
Then it was time for the presentation of the project. The community had arrived and we greeted everyone and tried not to let our intimidation show too visibly on our faces. We were all greatly humbled by the presence of the community elders.
We all introduced ourselves in front of our seated guests, then Ryan presented the project. When he finished, auntie Anne stood up and translated everything into Navajo. It was then that I teared up. I’m tearing up writing this now. There are many things I could write now on the intensity of the experiences I have had here. But one that stood out in that moment and continues to stand out is a powerful feeling of shame for every single one of the times I have said that the US is an English speaking country or haven’t intervened when others have said it. I am so sorry I didn’t check my language earlier on in my life. Though I have always been aware that there are many other languages other than English in the US, and languages that have been here much longer, it was during that moment that my own violence hit me. Again and again in my life I realize how I participate in a violent hegemonic rhetoric. This was one of those moments.
The tenderness of the moment not only came from the powerful feeling I get when I realize, yet again, how much I don’t know, but also just the feeling of gratitude for a community that is creating a project with us. I was so grateful for Ryan and his family and everyone in the room. I was grateful for the buildings and the landscape and all the helping hands and patience that were being extended towards us. I am so much on the receiving end of things here.
After Auntie Anne finished her translation, some audience members raised their hands to share their stories or identify themselves in connection with the school. Then the Navajo Mountain Chapter Vice President offered a prayer to our meal and everyone headed outside to get eating. The stew had been heated over the fire and we brought bowls of dumpling or veggie (or both) stew to our guests, and passed around the fry bread. We ate and listened to stories. Graeme, who is heading the documentary, filmed, and all of us, after asking permission, did some audio recordings of our conversations. Of course there were many unrecorded conversations. Names and information were exchanged and after the stew was finished, we enjoyed brownies and Navajo tea. The crowd slowly departed and by the time dusk settled onto Navajo Mountain, it was just the team and volunteers, the aunties, Sage and Savannah around the fire.
We pulled out the guitar and ukulele. Graeme played the Beatles and auntie Anne sang along. Grace did an upbeat rendition of Creep by Radiohead on the ukulele until we were all crying with laughter. Sage and John went at the big logs of wood with their axes and impressed the aunties with their chopping skills. But when they started going for a tree trunk, the aunties went over and offered advice. They have helpful hints for everything.
The night rolled in and the fire burned down low. The aunties headed home and eventually we did as well. A group of us walked the forty-five minutes under the stars from the boarding school to the house. We saw shooting stars and constellations, though I can’t, for the life of me, find Orion’s Belt.
After the community dinner there was a lot of sleep to catch up on. We discovered Ryan’s family collection of VCR’s and John’s enthusiasm for Patrick Swayze and there was a popcorn Swayze double feature night with Point Break and Dirty Dancing. During the days following the community dinner, we focused on interviews with Ryan’s family and ripping the peeling linoleum off the classroom floors (it was the most frustrating and satisfying part of the project for me so far, some pieces of linoleum stuck to the floor for dear life while others could be removed from the floor in one piece with a satisfying crunch). We took trips to the small waterfall that spouts out of the mountain and sooner than you know it the first group of volunteers were heading back to California. Graeme, Ryan and I drove them out to Phoenix. Before their flights out, we all visited Ryan’s grandmother, Stella Drake. We are living in her house and she and her late husband, Ryan’s grandfather, were active and loved members of the Navajo Mountain community. Whenever their names are brought up, flashes of recognition and appreciation appear on peoples faces. Talking to someone I’ve heard so much about was magical. I missed my own grandmother. We all listened to Stella tell stories and thought about our families.
Then the volunteers were off. First Sarah, then John, then Grace. John will be back in a week, which is wonderful. The other two are missed and loved.
The day after they left we took the afternoon off. This was the day we drove to Page, Arizona and went to Horseshoe bend where, after gaping and running around in awe of the magnificent green Colorado river curving around the red rocks, I had my heat stroke adventure.
We remedied our burning hot bodies post Horseshoe Bend by going to Lake Powell for a swim. The politics of Lake Powell are quite devastating. These are things we hold in our hearts and keep in our minds as we navigate our activity in the world. But it was lovely being submerged in water. We swam out to a tall buoy, held hands, and jumped. The sun was setting on our right over the desert plains, and on our left, by Navajo Mountain, next to the red mesas, the full strawberry moon rose in a lavender sky. When I say it was one of the most beautiful things any of us had ever seen it still will not capture how spectacular and gentle the experience was: the water rippling the gold from the sunset and the purple from the moonrise, meeting where we were, floating in the water, singing to the sky.
Today we started the next phase of construction. The Navajo Mountain Chapter House hired five workers to help us peel plaster and mud off the walls and use the backhoe to dig the buildings out of sand drifts and remove dead trees that are a safety and fire hazard. Things are moving faster than before. Soon contractors will be able to come in for specialized work. Soon the mud roof will be up.
There are interviews to be done and footage to be edited.
Even as we move forward I like to take moments to think about last week, when the group of us sat outside and listened to the album Nashville Skyline while auntie Cassandra told us stories and made us feel like family. Sage and Savannah standing arm in arm with the dogs at their feet. John and Magdalena, Ryan and Graeme, Grace and Sarah, all of us together on those warm desert evenings. I’m excited for this week. I’m excited for the volunteers that will pass through and all the things we will accomplish. But I’m also tender and grateful because I’m here and I get to think about memories that are magical.
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.