The Navajo Reservation is awash in contradictions: it is a Navajo state stretched across three states (Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado); there are nearly as many churches/missions per capita (maybe more) in the Bible Belt capital of Hendersonville, Tennessee, yet alcoholism, drug abuse and gang graffiti are everywhere; the Navajo are proud members of Navajo Nation, yet they are some of the most patriotic Americans I have ever met.
How can I explain this? I might better ask, what business do I have explaining a complex and ancient culture based upon three days on the Reservation (despite the scores of reservations in the American West, when you say, "The Rez," out here, it can only refer to the monstrous Navajo Reservation the size of West Virginia or England).
Within an hour of our arrival, John had taken the kids and me out on his pastoral rounds, visiting two far-flung members (each lived about 45 minutes away from each other). The first compound was about15 miles from the highway on a wide road of red dirt. On Tuesday a terrible forest fire had ripped through this area (which is in the middle of a three-year drought) and burned everything. When we arrived, we found the houses safe but their inhabitants were not yet returned from the mandatory evacuation.
Navajo compounds are interesting. There is always a small, prefabricated 600-square-foot house (I would estimate that over 70% of the homes on the Rez are trailers or prefabricated houses). Next to some houses is a hogan (pronounced ho-gahn) of either six or eight sides, depending upon whether it was built by the son or daughter respectively.
Traditionally, Navajo property is matrilineal. A young man will move in with his wife's family at marriage--or he will build a hogan on their property.
I would guess that the average distance between homes/hogans once you get off road on The Rez is about eight miles. These people support themselves with sheep farming and subsistance agriculture. There is no electricity, no running water. One could call it abject poverty. One could also proudly call it an ancient way of life that has has been proudly preserved. I will suspend judgment. John says that 90% of the roads on The Rez are dirt roads. John has a 4X4 Surburban that certainly comes in handy with visits and picking up parishoners for church.
Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation. It's a town of no more than 12,000, set at the base of a number of spectacular red rock pillars. A natural arch north of town gives Window Rock its name.
Our first stop in Window Rock Friday was the Navajo Zoo. It's a small zoo, and all of the animals were native to the Southwest. The kids really enjoyed the bear and the bobcat. A male turkey took a particular liking to Ellie and Brooke (John's daughter) displaying its tailfeathers and gobbling loudly. We spied a poor porcupine who was beset by wild prairie dogs--who snuck under the fence into his cage and raided his food. As we arrived, they retreated to the safety of the desert, and the porcupine desperately tried to finish his meal without having another bite stolen. There are two hogans at the zoo--one made of mud and another of logs--and the kids climbed in and around each one.
Our second stop was the Window Rock Flea Market. This is a colorful experience with all kinds of wares on display, from used clothes and books to Navajo blankets, jewelry, and native medicines. The kids all got snow cones, and Ellie really emerged into her element, carefully perusing the booths and finally selecting a beautiful eagle-feather necklace. I also bought some gifts, but the fun part was just looking around, trying pinion nuts for the first time, shepherding the kids through the crowds, and watching Navajo being Navajo (including the guy who hit me up for a "donation" as I was leaving).
Today we worshipped at the Window Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church. I sang special music, and Ellie found herself up front leading out in the song service with some other kids. One of the songs she sang was "Jesus Loves Me" in Navajo, and it was really neat to see her getting her own taste of this fascinating culture. The director of Native Ministries from the North American Division spoke for church, and many church members had come in native costumes (which they quickly shed for T-shirts and jeans before potluck).
I have three more days on The Rez before continuing on our trip. Jenny arrives Tuesday, and we will set off Wednesday for some more AZ adventures. Keep checking in!