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.