A boomer explores and learns about Navajo land

Sure, many of us as baby boomers have time on our hands these days, and many of us travel to fill it. But how many make that travel meaningful? David Henderson, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher, just did. Meaningful and, thanks to his cameras, memorable.

How far back, I wonder, has my curiosity gone… how far back have my questions gone… about the “white man’s” treatment over the centuries of Native Americans?

I remember that as boomers we played “cowboys and Indians,” but I never tried to understand the need to kill or control the “savages.” Yet looking back, that’s what the game was all about. It was a simple-minded and violent children’s game with no rules except that the cowboys were the good guys and the Indians weren’t. I guess it was inspired by the proliferation of Westerns on TV and at the movies.

And now, as a grownup, how much have I learned in the intervening years? How much does any of us learn about the treatment of Native Americans and, while we’re at it, African Americans, without taking the initiative on our own. That was a motivation of my recent trip to the sprawling, 14-million acre Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona.

After linking up with my brother-in-law in Phoenix, we headed north, to the majestic land in and around Monument Valley, and an inspired meeting with Bernard Atene, a Navajo guide.

Bernard Atene, Navajo guide.

On Day One, a clear, cold day in mid-winter, our exploration of Monument Valley began hours before sunrise. With my camera gear and tripod in hand, I hoped to capture the splendor of the legendary land. But, it was still dark and 18-degrees. Bernard showed me to a rock with his flashlight.

“Sit there,” he said, “and point your camera in that direction.”

I did as he said and set the shutter time exposure at 18 seconds. The resulting image exploded in a million stars, with buttes in the foreground.

We got back in his Jeep Renegade and bumped along dirt roads to another location. Bernard quietly pointed the direction.

For the next hour, we were like a small sect of sun worshipers… watching as the day crept up, constantly changing hues of color, until we were surrounded by a shading of gold from magnificent red rock cliffs clear down to the sandy earth beneath our feet.

Bernard held out his right hand and examined the spectacular cliffs on both sides. “See, we Navajo are the color of the land and the sun,” he said proudly. “This is our land.”

And so our conversation began… about Navajo spirituality and Navajo pride, and the sad part: the poverty. Native Americans are some of poorest people in America, and I’ve come to believe it’s human suffering that we all share to some extent as we turn a blind eye.

“Harmony is what we try to live,” he said, explaining that many Navajo like himself strive for harmony in every part of their lives. Harmony with their culture, with each other, with the land, and with the gods they worship.

Navajo spirituality is complex. There is a god of fire and water and the land, and the god in the skies. There is the god Begochidi, the creator of wildlife.

One of several prehistoric cliff dwellings at Mystery Canyon.

Bernard explained how the gods were meticulously arranging constellations in an otherwise empty sky, and using the spots on the back of a fawn as a pattern, when a coyote, a trickster in Navajo lore, came along and frightened the fawn, throwing stars into the sky to form the Milky Way.

We spent 13 hours that day with Bernard, a time I shall never forget. After touring Monument Valley, he took us to remote parts of nearby Mystery Canyon. A place of many prehistoric cliff dwellings dating back to the ancestral Pueblos and Anasazi. It’s located on protected Navajo land. Outsiders are banned except in the company of tour guides.

Atop a butte in Mystery Canyon.

And, all the while, Bernard shared. Yes, he and other Navajo believe in sweat lodges as a form of mind clearing and physical cleansing. And yes, when he’s sick, he would prefer being treated with the plants, herbs, and secrets of Native American medicine men.

Petroglyphs or ancient stone carvings that record Native American history.

Then, Bernard showed us the way to to climb a butte with steep sides. It was part his knowledge and talent as a driver, and part the brawn of the powerful Jeep. Up we went… me holding on for dear life.

Once on top, Bernard fell silent as he looked out at the land… his land… with its streams and buttes below. I wondered what he was thinking, but I respected his quietness.

As we watched during that late afternoon, a low layer of fog appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and just clung to the buttes and cliffs. “There, the spirits of our ancestors have come to visit,” Bernard said quietly.

We all watched in silence.

Our thanks to Bernard Atene and Monument Valley Tours.

All photographs by David Henderson.

8 Comments

    1. Majestic photos. Your guide brought more than history and beautiful sights. He shared the spirit of the Anasazi and Pueblos in a way few experience. Capture more of our Southwest, David.
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  1. Enjoyed this very much! I’ve been on a tour in Monument Valley as well and it was a great experience. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Those are some very amazing photos of an even more amazing landscape. Great story. Brought back memories of when I visited a Navajo reservation in New Mexico back in the 1970s. I had a buddy from college who was an American Indian, named Jay. He had a childhood friend who lived on the reservation, named Sonny. I accompanied Jay when he went to visit his old friend, and it was an experience I won’t forget. Here’s a brief excerpt from my journal about that visit:

    Sonny – driving a brand new Ford F-250 pickup towing a matching horse trailer with large letters stenciled across the side: All Around Champion Indian Rodeo Cowboy – met us near the entrance to the Navajo Reservation, where the macadam quickly diminished to dirt and gravel. Introductions were made. Sonny being one of those types possessing that certain sort of charismatic nature that transcends cultural barriers and makes people feel instantly comfortable in their presence.
    Sonny gave a tour of the reservation not seen, most assuredly, by too many non-Indians. I must have stood out as the whitest face, but never felt the least bit uncomfortable, so long as I was with Jay and Sonny.
    Extreme poverty was prevalent throughout the reservation. Sonny and his wife, Haseya – a tiny, bronze-skinned woman whose cherubic cheeks were spotted with tiny rubies of acne – seemed to be among the wealthiest inhabitants. While many on the reservation lived in traditional dwellings, called hogans, circular mud-like structures, Sonny and Haseya resided in a modern double-wide manufactured home.
    We stayed more than a week on the reservation, turning down Sonny and Haseya’s offer of a guest room in their mobile home, opting instead for the traditional Navajo hogan.
    “Amazing,” I told Jay one night before drifting off to sleep, “we are actually living in a hogan, just like Indians.”
    Jay retorted, “Speak for yourself, pale face. I was born Indian.”
    One evening, to repay Sonny and Haseya for their hospitality, Jay and I invited them to dinner at a restaurant in town. There was a sign in one of the restaurants that read: No Indians Allowed.
    “I didn’t know such discrimination persisted in these modern and enlightened times,” I said, pointing out the sign to Sonny. “After all, this is the 1970s! Haven’t we all experienced the marches for justice and racial equality?” Apparently not out here in Indian country. We ate elsewhere, but I asked Sonny if such a sign bothered him.
    “Nope,” he calmly explained. “The white folks have their places and we have ours. But we are going to get it all back one of these days.” He then went on to explain the Indian philosophy that the white man would ultimately destroy himself and the Indian would regain custody of the earth.

  3. Those are lovely photos David. It is truly beautiful country and I love visiting and hiking across that land and thinking of the history. My father worked on the Navajo Nation in the ’30’s and early ’40’s and until he married my mother, he lived in a hogan. I grew up hearing many stories and looking at not only my fathers photos but many many government photos of most of the reservations and people. In the late ’80s early ’90s my older sister’s work as a speech therapist in New Mexico put her in schools on several pueblos. She tells of watching the children playing indians and cowboys where the “bad guys” fell “dead” having been shot by the “pewwww pewww” of imaginary arrows shot off by the “good guys”!

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