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.