Fissures and Crenellations
First published in Solstice, Winter, 2019
How do the stories we tell about ourselves in relationship to place shape our perceptions of place?
~ Terry Tempest Williams, Red
We drove across endless white alkaline flats into the Navajo Nation. It was the first time. No trees, just a few gray saltbushes, some sage, shocks of platinum grass. We drove over dried-up washes that looked like long, narrow jigsaw puzzles. Across the plains to our left ran the blue-black Chuska Range, the off-center spine of the Nation. Far away on the right, tiny rust, orange, and purple boxes lined the horizon; I would learn to call them mesas. Overhead, all around us, wherever land met sky and into the distance above, rose the brilliant, inverted blue bowl. It was 1952. I was four years old.
We rode in the big green Chevrolet Carryall, a forerunner to today's Suburban. My father drove, and my mother sat in the back seat with me and my younger brother and baby sister. We were on our way to what my parents called God's Work. Missionary work. I would be proud of their work until I began to understand how it was an integral part of the devastation that is colonization; then I would take on a task that could return some measure of what proselytizing had taken away.
Somewhere between Naschitti—the Place of the Badger—and Sheep Springs, my father stopped the car to let a flock of sheep cross the road. While we waited for them, my mother pointed to a small, domed structure made of logs and earth. "It's a hogan," she said.
"What's a hogan?"
"It's a Navajo home."
I liked how its roundness hugged the flat land, small and cozy looking. "Are we going to live in a hogan?"
"No. If you live in a hogan you have to chop wood and haul water. You have to do everything by hand—wash clothes, butcher sheep for food, herd sheep—like that lady is doing." She pointed to the woman who followed the flock we waited for—a woman wearing a long dark green satin skirt, a gray jacket, and a paisley scarf tied tight under her chin. "There wouldn't be any time left for Daddy to do God's Work," my mother added.
In an afterthought she said, "They sleep on a dirt floor on sheepskins."
The idea of sleeping on a sheepskin on the floor stirred my imagination. Wanting to live in a hogan became the first inkling of what would grow into my longing to become other, to belong to this place and its people.
The sheep, their herder and a small yellow dog finished their trek across the road, and we started up again. As we neared the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, the mountain range disappeared. Nothing but flatness surrounded us until, out of nowhere, the giant brown volcanic plug for which the town is named thrust its jagged peaks into the sky. I grew still in the face of something ancient, unshakeable, everlasting.
Then, "What is it?" I asked.
"Shiprock," my father said.
Looking back, I understand why my young self was confused. I knew we were going to live in a place called Shiprock, but living within this massive rock, folded into its mysterious crenellations, seemed impossible and also frightening. I asked my father, "Are we going to live there?"
He laughed in the way that can humiliate a child. "No. This is the rock named Shiprock. We're living in the town that's named after it."
The town of Shiprock lies close to where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. On the lip of a hill, on the east end of the village, stood a two-story, square house made of gray blocks. It looked nothing like a hogan; it would be our first home in Dinétah. From then on, no matter where on Earth I find myself, I am always living on the edges of Navajo Country, just as this foreign house stood on the edge of that hill. If not physically, I will always live on those margins in the geography of my mind.
The hilltop was covered in large, smooth river rocks, left from the time when water covered vast expanses of this part of the world. The water had shrunken now to the brown flow of the San Juan River. Enormous gnarled cottonwoods populated the banks, and willow switches waved there—gold-green in spring, scarlet in winter. Diné farmers used the water to irrigate fields and orchards.
Up there on the hill, beside the garden where my father grew corn, string beans, squash, tomatoes and peppers, I played with Bobby and Rudy Yellowhair, my first playmates in Dinétah. Most days we crouched on the ground between the garden and the garage. My father had placed peaches, cut in half, onto window screens on the garage roof so the sun could dry them. Their peachy smell came down to us while we made little Diné homesteads in the soft dirt we stole from the squash hills—hogans, sheep corrals, summer shelters, sweat lodges. This was something Diné children had been doing for years and years, centuries probably.
© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.
To be continued on Friday, January 12.
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