In January 2020— before we knew a crippling pandemic was about to hit North America— BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson took a journey he’s looked forward to for years. His destination: Monument Valley, the majestic land on the Navajo reservation of northeastern Arizona which has been hurt disproportionately hard by the coronavirus. It was a trip both 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.