Sunday, December 08, 2019

Eric Schwennesen: Return to the Navajo

Recently I made a long-delayed revisit to some old stomping grounds: the Navajo Nation. It was not a whimsical trip.  A tragedy had pushed it to the top of the list and heading that direction was enough to start recalling the deep feelings I had carried away when I left in 1980. The Navajo has had that effect on many of us: a deep sense of being a part of something much closer to real human existence than modern life generally offers.

It is a perspective that has the look and feel of timelessness. The land is vast beyond imagining, created by forces impossibly old and yet comfortably near; landscapes sculpted in bright colors, in terraces and mesas that cover the horizon and make even the clouds look small. The Diné, the People, have existed here for many generations, bridging a past with origins and language a continent away; one wonders what provoked their ancient migration. In any case, the Diné recognized the value of what they found, and learned to stay.

In my time there, I also learned something of the need to stay. Being there it was possible to imagine being the First People; the Earth was a landscape without boundaries, waiting for a human's grasp of what lay in offering. Somewhere in that discovery Navajos learned the value of solitude. Wordlessly this value was passed along through the generations. Most of what we were living in the 20th Century would have been recognized and approved of by those of three centuries ago. "Civilization" as the modern world promotes it, was a senseless, meaningless term.

Not any more. Forty years ago horse-drawn wagons and battered pickups still often made their patient, rare visits to "town", usually once a year. It was an event for all; a social obligation that fitted with the rhythm of solitary life. It took days, possibly weeks, to make the trek, allowing the People to appreciate their lands with fresh eyes. The horizon was the boundary of the day's travel.

Modern civilization has struck the Dinetah with the subtlety of freeway construction: bulldozers are the instruments of preference for advancing civilization. High-speed is the watchword to justify every effort to push the past aside. New blacktop and paint have replaced ancient wagon ruts through the sands. Powerlines string out for miles, connecting the scattered dwellings and solitary hogans to a new reliance on electricity which few thought they needed a generation ago. The universe of the night sky is blurred by new stands of yard lights; prefabricated "homes" are clustered around the hand-built dwellings of the ancients.

Many of the principal crossroads are enveloped in shopping centers, parking lots and giant neon signs. The horse-drawn wagons and pickup trucks have been replaced by shiny new sports cars incapable of quitting modern pavement, and which traverse the vast, ancient landscape in new terms: (previous) days per hour. The far horizon is a brief hour away, unappreciated and unearned.

I stopped overnight in Chinle and felt compelled to ask the Navajo girl at the desk of a big new motel what she thought of all this, trying to recall enough words to express myself. She looked puzzled. "I don't speak Navajo", she confessed.

Eric Schwennesen is a commercial beef rancher in the Mogollon Rim country. He grew up in Belgium, cowboyed in Nevada, and helped Navajos and many African peoples with rangeland conflicts for over 35 years. He recently published "The Field Journals: Adventures in Pastoralism" about his experiences. 

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