by Charles Keen
(Note: Charles is a volunteer from Chelmsford, MA who attended his first food run in 2008. He has returned annually since. His initial reference is to an optional sunrise ceremony which is held in conjunction with each food run.)
Sitting on the cold rocks overlooking the depths of Canyon de Chelly in the white light awaiting the arrival of the first yellow rays of the sun Linda Myers posed two existential questions: “Who Am I?” and “Why Am I here?”. The questions are embedded in the cosmology of Navajo creation stories of the Hero Twins, but of course they apply to each of the 40+ members of our circle. We are asked to attempt answers. We struggle with these lifelong imponderables as did the twins in her story; one spent much time seeking wisdom among buffalo and bear elders and was rewarded with deep insights while the other tried a short cut following the trickster coyote and finally recognized his failure. The questions continue to resonate.
Who Am I? I grew up on an Iowa farm with five younger brothers; we fed cattle and raised corn . Dad was a self-taught agricultural economist; business and markets were discussed at every meal. Mother was a teacher with a deep sense of education, history, and genealogy. She insured that we all knew that we were 14th generation from the Mayflower; I later learned that Dad’s paternal ancestors only arrived in the 18th century from Sweden. Both parents insured that all of us had extensive higher education and saw ourselves establishing careers off the farm. We did but with an imbedded sense of the Land.
Age and experience has burnished some of the sharp edges of youth. Marriage, two fine daughters, years in Canada, travel, challenging work building and deploying Internet precursor technology in many countries, and death have been part of my life’s journey. I have sought experience and understanding. I enjoy getting past national politics and propaganda to discover the common elements of family, work, and culture in our individual everyday lives.
Why Am I here? Over the years I have gained a sense of place in several countries and in the American Midwest, Northeast, East, and Pacific Coast. However my sense of the history, culture, and place of the Southwest United States had been shaped only by Westerns and 30+ thousand foot airplane window views. I had some sense of the sorry and sordid history of the treatment of American Indians but with details only from the East.
Exposure to the Adopt-A-Native-Elder organization and the opportunity to go on food runs – I have now done four – has given me a ground level sense of place and the lives the Navajo live. It is a close-up view of agriculture, commerce, health care, diet, housing, culture, history, and intergenerational family life I could never gotten from books. Visiting the Navajo Nation Museum and Zoo at Window Rock gives a sense of the Navajo view of themselves. Stopping at the Hubble trading post at Ganado provides the context for the sources of the colorful rug weaving art practiced today. Spending time with experienced ANE volunteers has given me a sense of the deep respect they share for the Navajo culture and elders they support.
Navajo history now has a distinct shape. One cannot look down into the Canyon de Chelly and not see its walls as the site of their 1862 US military roundup and forced Long Walk to a New Mexico multi-year imprisonment; many died. One then remembers depression era Bureau of Indian Affairs enforced culling of sheep herds and the recent Peabody Coal engineered police enforced family resettlements to clear title and access to rich Indian coal.
ANE food runs provide countless small insights into Navajo life. Diet and medical problems are apparent. Loose sheep, cattle, and horses grazing on street and highways reflect both limited rainfall and an early New England sense of town common grazing lands. (I always shudder at the sight thinking of many youthful, dangerous episodes chasing our escaped farm cattle off the busy US Highway 30.) The sense of common lands is reinforced as homesteads seem plopped in random clusters without separating fences or individual driveways.
Flashes of humor and financial need are apparent during giveaway activities and in the types of supplemental medical supplies some elders receive. The numbers of grandchildren who bring elders to food run sites reflect parents working off the reservation. Noting whether elders speak Navajo or English to the grandchildren gives a hint of the durability of the culture. Carrying supplies into an elder’s trailer, hogan, or house gives an intimate sense of both income and living arrangements.
Details aside, the overwhelming sense one gets from elder faces, smiles, gentle handshakes, or a thank you given in broken English or Navajo is of genuine gratitude. We volunteers are privileged to support a proud people who have lived hard lives with little income in a harsh land that they cherish deeply. We are welcomed as caring outsiders who truly want to help. Food runs, of necessity, are well organized; the pace is hectic and the physical conditions sometimes brutal. Still, I feel privileged to be part of the ANE process; it has given me a sense of a special place and a people whose rural sheep herding traditions are under immense economic and cultural pressures for change from the larger American society. I treasure the time spent on the food runs with these unique People.