by Cherie Foster
(note: Cherie, from Perth, Western Australia, attended her first food run August 24th-26th, 2010 at Oljato and Navajo Mountain. See her previous blog for reflections on her overall experience coming to Utah and working with ANE.)
I left Salt Lake City for the Oljato-Navajo Mountain fall food run with a deeply saddened heart due to the passing of someone very dear to me three days prior. If it wasn’t for this person I wouldn’t have had the strength, courage and perseverance to end up at a food run in another country. It is no coincidence that this special one, who influenced my life so remarkably, had Native American ancestry. Such is the beauty, majesty and magic of the Native American culture, miracles occurring always around us as a whisper to our souls, if we listen with peace and love in our hearts. On the journey of life people appear and change our lives, often dramatically. This beautiful soul has done this for me, and his memory will always have a special place in my extremely grateful heart.
It took about seven hours drive south of Salt Lake City to arrive at our overnight destination of Mexican Hat. The volunteers, who drive their own cars, meet with food run coordinators Linda and Wendy once everyone is checked in . We all gathered under a large shady tree, a welcome respite from the heat, overlooking the expansive river gorge. On the other side of the gorge, the Navajo Reservation begins.
As we lined up to be smudged by Beverly, a long serving volunteer, a hummingbird hovered over our heads then darted off. I had not experienced one that close, and it was a little intimidating, yet exhilarating! I knew a little of a hummingbird presence meaning 'magic of a joyful heart' in Lakota tradition, and the sighting was confirmation of what I already felt amongst the group.
As we entered the ceremony area, we were to place any items to be blessed on the edge of the skin in the centre. I had recently been gifted four fetishes by another dear friend, Cheryl, so I placed these there. She had given me a horse, turtle, horny toad and a bear, some of which were to appear symbolically later in my journey to teach me lessons.
Dawn the next morning brought forth a glorious full moon, perfect for photographs with the surrounding rock formations. We all assembled for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, anticipation and excitement in the air, especially for those of us attending our first food run. We drove out in convey, in specific order, to enable cars loaded with boxes and supplies for the first food run drop off at Oljato, to be in front. As soon as we crossed the bridge we were on the Reservation and stopped to have the cars smudged again by Beverly.
It was at that moment, waiting to see the smoke from the blessing, that I saw the boxes loaded in the car in front with numbers (indicating particular Elders) with one in my hand writing, I realized that I was about to see the conclusion of the learning I'd done during the three previous weeks at the ANE offices. I'd seen the orders come in on the computer, in the mail, even taken some over the phone, and now was about to experience the final destination of all the work that goes into providing the Navajo Elders with nourishment for their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well being.
Driving to Oljato through Monument Valley was spectacular. The colours of the rock formations are exquisite. Photographs do not give the full scope of this expansive beauty. I think it took around thirty minutes to drive to Oljato. I was enjoying the scenery too much to notice the time! I saw many different crows along the way. I saw dogs guarding and guiding a flock of sheep, which we had to slowly navigate through. Seeing donkeys and horses roaming freely without fencing was wonderful.
We arrived at the Oljato Chapter house, and there were Elders already inside waiting! There was a sign stating only those with invitations only are to attend, as others who aren't in the program do show up sometimes. They are provided with lunch that everyone receives but there are protocols that must be adhered to before an Elder can be accepted in the ANE program.
The cars were unloaded by the men. They do a fantastic job working in the heat. Food, medical, Grandma, Grandpa, and Children’s boxes, Bluebird flour, and some fresh produce such as potatoes and onions are all stacked in cars and vans. Boxes are stacked in numerical order to be marked off with the checking of the name tag that the Elders are given and must be wearing to ensure everything is authenticated.
During the morning I had listened to the Elders greeting each other and talking amongst themselves and sometimes with a sponsor and translator. It is a wonderful experience to see the connection and to listen to the beautiful language. I was thrilled to absorb those moments and tell myself that I really was there, the place I’d been dreaming of being for a couple of years.
In the afternoon we headed to our next overnight destination at Kayenta. Mostly people headed to the Holiday Inn for dinner, but I was excited to have an authentic Navajo taco at the Golden Sands cafe behind our hotel! Locals were everywhere, which made it feel even more special. Fientje, whom I had driven with, has done the food run and many others before, so she knows where to go and has extensive knowledge, which I was eager to listen to. We had a wonderful dinner.
Next morning we headed to our final destination of Navajo Mountain. As I breakfasted outside, enjoying the beauty of sunrise, I again saw a crow fly back and forth. I hadn't seen any since arriving in Salt Lake City, three weeks ago, so was thrilled to have seen so many on the Reservation. We headed to a car park of a shopping centre, where the cars were again smudged by Beverly, which was different to yesterdays scenic smudging! It took longer to reach Navajo Mountain and a different landscape, yet still beautiful.
While waiting for some of the Elders to arrive I greeted some Elders and tried to do my best with the Dine greeting of 'ya at eeh', but I'm not sure how it sounded with an Australian accent!
An Elder woman I met who was accepted to the program on this day started talking to myself and John the photographer ,and when John went to take pictures, we kept talking. She then pulled out two lovely necklaces she had made and said she would like to gift me one and I was to choose. I was surprised and overwhelmed by her kindness! I checked about protocol of being able to accept it or if it was for the program. She had told me before bringing out the necklace that her fingers were getting difficult to work, and this also affected her weaving. The translator this time was Mary who I had met previously in Salt Lake City. She knows of my Elders at Big Mountain, so it was nice to see her again. After I'd been introduced again to the Elders after the formalities, one of the Elders Morris, presented me with a beautiful cedar bead necklace. I couldn't believe it! These people who have so little are extremely generous.
At the end of the day when we did our closing Ceremony circle, one of the Elder women, she was a tiny woman, around the height of a child, came and started talking nonstop in Navajo. She was precious and adorable, even if we could not understand a word of what she said! When we finally located her relative, I asked her age and was astounded when he said eighty nine and she was his mother!
I left Navajo Mountain and the Reservation with renewed vigour of what you can bring to the world and what it can bring to you. Interaction in the world with the gift of giving, helps heal the giver and the recipient.
Fientje, my dear friend and driver, and I reflected on the food run as we drove off the Reservation. She asked me what I was feeling, and I responded that I felt tranquil, serene, and peaceful. Really, the feeling cannot adequately be put into words. She said every time she attends a food run she comes away with this feeling. You need to experience it for yourself. Go on a food run with an open heart, and you will be fulfilled beyond measure. Only you with your individual circumstances and where you are on the journey of your life, can obtain from this extraordinary interaction.