by Elizabeth R. Rose Photos by Penny Montague
This fall's food run to Sanders, Big Mountain and Teesto was the last of the year for the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program. For the volunteers, 50 strong, who came to Winslow to participate, the food runs turned out to be especially meaningful.
We gathered in Winslow, the struggling railroad town along historic Route 66. I'd say at least half our volunteers had been to this food run location before and some had participated in the previous food run, arriving late on Saturday. As we gathered, I found myself missing Wendy Sanborn very much, and thought of her as she continued in her recovery from a broken leg. I thought of her dedication to the elders and the program and how much she would have enjoyed being with us. We missed her warm and cheerful personality.
Sunday we gathered at a local church for our first meeting. It was great to see Linda and Celeste and meet CJ who was carrying out the tough organizing role usually handled by Ed. I have to say, he did a magnificent job. (But we missed Ed and Judy!). You can see by my writing that those of us who return season after season to volunteer for the food runs become a family of sorts, having twice yearly reunions.
Our luck held, weather-wise, and, as the day dawned we looked forward to seeing the elders in Sanders. It was a sunny day with no wind. These are the elders who were re-located from the Big Mountain area when the boundaries were re-drawn. Ella, the coordinator, requested that the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program visit "her" elders and we are always happy to gather in the little shade house and have time with them.
As the volunteers busily unloaded vehicles and set up, the elders gathered in the shade house. 100% of the elders in the program were there! The sunshine warmed us all and there was an animated, happy atmosphere as we went through the program. When Linda got to the part where she offered Blue Bird flour for any elder willing to sing for us, several brave women got up and sang rhythmic Navajo songs. As I enjoyed the songs, I hoped that they were teaching the songs to their grandchildren so that the culture and the words of the songs would live on.
The singing continued and a tall, stately elder rose to offer her song. Following is what Cindy Devers, volunteer, recalled. We were all moved by what happened next.
"When Alice stood up and spoke in Navajo I thought she would also sing in Navajo. I was stunned when she began singing God Bless America in English, with a clear, beautiful voice. I was thinking of our country's shameful history with the Navajo nation, (and every other Native American nation for that matter), yet she was singing this particular song. When she sang the phrase, land that I love, I was overcome by emotion and tears welled up. It was really touching that other elders and many support people sang along with her and finished the song together. Truly a special, shared moment that I will never forget. It was a gift and a blessing to have been a part of it.
A little later I noticed she was sitting alone so I walked over to thank her for the song. I complimented her on her beautiful voice and how much I enjoyed her singing. She said she had learned the song many years ago in school (a catholic Indian school) And it was the first time she sang it by herself. I told her I had also learned it as a child. She also told me she was part of a group a year or so ago that learned it together again and performed it at a ceremony at Ft. Sumner. I'm thinking that must have been related to the Bosque Redondo Memorial and a commemorative event acknowledging the "long walk". She said she was 84 years old at the time."
As we finished the program and the time came to eat, we did something different. It was so warm, we asked the elders if they would like to eat outside, and most of them did. So we took the tables and chairs outside and the atmosphere continued to be lively and social.... kind of like a garden party! It was nice to have more room to walk around and serve the elders and visit with them.
The gathering at Big Mountain is always impressive and always results in my commitment to return to the Land and the elders. We were blessed with yet another sunny mild day. New volunteers had been told about the size of the group at Big Mountain and the history. John Burrow was joined by his son Bob, from Boston who was clearly enjoying the experience. I knew this day would be special for him.
As always, the elders formed a large circle with the beautiful countryside and sky as their backdrop. It has become traditional for groups of elders to sit in the same place each year. A group of dapper men, all dressed up in fancy boots, bolos, ketohs, western hats... on the left. And a special group of elder women friends on the right, under the big tree. Way down in the circle, as the sun warmed us, a group of women opened colorful umbrellas to shade themselves. This added to the festive atmosphere as items were laid out on the tarp and giveaways stacked neatly on the tables.
The Robertsons had been cooking up a storm and we were greeted with those famous cinnamon rolls. The food is always excellent at Big Mountain!
The program commenced and Big Mountain, too, provided us with food for thought and some inspiring words from the elders. Grace Smith Yellowhammer talked about how important the program was and how we did not forget the elders at Big Mountain. One elder talked about her appreciation for the program, tearing up.
I was impressed with how much our coming means to the elders. This group was dressed for an important occasion. As I made my rounds touching the warm, leathery hands of the elders I noticed beautiful jewelry, colorful silky skirts and matching scarves. We were being honored with their dress. They had carefully chosen what to wear that day.
As we got ready to leave, I remember the image of an elder sitting under a tree and wished I could have painted a picture of her. She had dressed in shades of purple, blue and turquoise. The colors flowed together like a watercolor wash. She was amazingly beautiful.
Our last food run, Teesto, is always like coming home to family. The Jacksons are so welcoming and work hard preparing food and getting the shade house ready for us. I'll never forget the time when the Jacksons proudly showed us the new outhouses. The women's outhouse, labeled Saani, came complete with padded toilet seat, mirror, plastic flowers and hand sanitizer.
This was a smaller food run as compared with Big Mountain, but the elders were equally as excited about our being there and we looked forward to making the rounds, touching their hands and renewing acquaintances. I enjoyed the slower pace and got to talk to some of my friends who come to each food run as volunteers. Our volunteers are special people with amazing life stories as well.
It is always fun to see Anita Jackson and see what she is weaving. She had some of her marvelous snowflake pattern rugs for sale. The weavers at each location are so giving of their talent and donations to both their sponsors and the program. Even seeing and touching these traditionally woven rugs is a gift.
Teesto is also the place to purchase traditional Navajo skirts and blouses. It was fun watching our volunteers from New Zealand choose skirts.
As we gathered for our last circle, we said good-bye to each other. After less than a week, we had become friends and had shared some moving experiences on the Land. I look forward to spring and seeing the elders and the returning staff and volunteers once again.
I decided to make the five hour drive home. I did just fine... guided by the light of a huge harvest moon and remembering how the elders were saying prayers for our journey and blessing us with gratitude for the gifts we had brought.
(Liz is a travel writer and regular volunteer on the Sanders-Big Mountain-Teesto food run. See more about her here.)