Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cherie's Food Run Memories

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.

After Linda breathed a sigh of relief that all drivers, cars and supplies had arrived safely, we prepared for the ceremony. Women were to wear their long skirts, which they had brought to wear on the food runs. The Navajo women traditionally wear long skirts, so to respect their culture, this is what the volunteer women wear. The men wear long pants or jeans for the same reason.

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.

The theme for the 2010 fall food runs was Harvest God. We were all asked to contribute our own story about a seed we had planted which could be an idea, a project, an activity, or a practice. There were tears from many in the circle as their stories were told. It felt healing, even in the company of strangers, for as Jay Tavare had told me ’The hearts of everyone have a bond’, and that is especially evident in the ceremony at the commencement of a food run. The ceremony went for about two hours in the picturesque gardens of the hotel, watched over by two mourning doves.

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.

Inside, the women unpacked giveaways and put them on display. Once that was done introductions were done by Bessie, the Navajo translator. It was fantastic to hear her talk. I was introduced as being a volunteer from Australia, and they all seemed shocked! Food certificates from sponsors were given out. A couple of games were played with Linda calling upon Elders. It was hilarious. They seemed to enjoy themselves. It is like a party for them. After all the formalities were done the Elders were given a large plastic bag with which to receive gifts. Volunteers took giveaways which the program had bought such as shampoo, cookies, socks, bandannas, warm jackets, kitchen and laundry items and many other gifts. Then the volunteers served lunch. After lunch there were items for sale such as jewelry and rugs. I bought a few pieces from different sellers and was gifted a cedar bead necklace from a woman I had purchased from. I was touched by her generosity. While the volunteers shopped and cleaned up, Linda and Wendy had purchased items they could sell for the Elders. Meanwhile outside, the men were loading boxes into cars.

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.

We arrived and set up as the previous day; those of us on our first food run, now knew the routine.
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.

The people of Navajo Mountain had a different energy from the Oljato group of Elders. I asked other volunteers if this was typical of other food run destinations. Apparently it is. Each place has a different feel and of course it is in part due to the individuals and their personalities.

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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cherie's Memories

by Cherie Foster

(Note: Cherie, from Perth, Western Australia, came to Salt Lake City August 1st, 2010 and stayed until September 6th. Her story shows how deeply the Program can affect people at a personal level. Those of us who had the privilege of meeting her were inspired by her commitment as well as her adventurous spirit.)

I found Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program towards the end of 2008 on a website of actor Jay Tavare. I was looking to see what other work he had done and find out more about him, as I’d seen him in the television production called Into the West. Jay had written about his association with ANE, which prompted me to investigate why this organization meant so much to him. I perused the ANE website and was impressed with the program and how they helped the Navajo Elders. I had visited the area nineteen years prior, and the Native American culture had fascinated me, not for any particularly explanatory reason. I enjoyed reading about their culture and the different nations. Along with that reading, came the sadness of the hardships and unfortunate circumstances which these first people of the continent that is now America, have had to deal with. The ANE program appeared to be helping substantially to assist the Elders, not just with supplies, but also with human to human contact which included sincere empathy. This was an organization I decided to become involved with as being able to see where donations were dispersed is important to me. In 2010 I was finally able to adopt an Elder and ended up receiving two, a husband and wife. I was thrilled to have an adopted Grandpa and Grandma! When the opportunity arose to travel to the USA in 2010, I was hesitant. Traveling by myself was not my ideal situation. To experience the world, I knew I must more deeply pursue the courage, strength and fortitude that I had discovered in myself a few months previously, thanks to an inspiring Native American of Apache ancestry who had given me inspiration to hope and dream for my future. Thankfully, when organizing the journey, I could not see my traveling to the USA was about to give me challenges that exceeded anything I had encountered before (including a devastating loss about to occur) or I wouldn’t have gone. Such is the mystery of life, sometimes leading down a road seemingly unable to be traversed for the huge boulders strewn in the direction one is going. Gradually the boulders become stones and pebbles as experience and lessons are discovered that are sometimes beneficial beyond recognition at the time of intense emotion and useless had they been revealed before the traveler was ready to listen and learn.

I embarked on my travel to Salt Lake City, Utah, with trepidation, as I knew no one. I had briefly corresponded with Joyce at ANE via the internet, asking advice about accommodations and supermarkets near to the warehouse where I would be volunteering. Joyce has been extremely helpful and enthusiastic, so at least I had one contact. Still it was daunting to be going there alone. I don’t think Americans understand that for foreigners, the USA is like another planet. Even though we all speak English, there are a lot of differences such as driving on the opposite side of the road, tipping, spelling English words differently, the date written differently, zip codes instead of post codes, and trying to understand accents can be difficult too. As I’m sure my Australian accent was challenging for some Americans!

Thankfully I had a friend in California, my dear Laura, whose gentle guidance ensured that I pursued and followed through with my desire to visit ANE. Laura’s persistence in being everything I could need in a friend was priceless on my journey before leaving home and while in the USA. Her constant reassurance and calm assertive attention assisted me in following my dream to visit ANE and its people. Laura’s tremendous gift of wisdom, of which I have been a recipient many times over, has been greatly influenced by her Native American Sioux ancestry. The Lakota culture is beautiful and powerful, of which I am always astounded and grateful that I have had the opportunity of receiving the wisdom that comes my way. When I faced my most difficult challenge just before the important food run, Laura was there as always, guiding me forward, encouraging and empathetic. The perfect example of the definition of friendship that I have been blessed to have in my life started with Laura and as I was about to find out, was about to continue with blessings from new friends coming into my life in Utah.

I arrived in Utah the day before I was to start work at the ANE office/warehouse in Salt Lake City. My first sunset in Utah was spectacular, even viewed from a hotel room overlooking a highway! The first day of work I walked from my hotel to the office on Gregson Ave, which ended up being a not so good idea as it was extremely hot. Joyce had tried to warn me, but I needed to find out for myself. Joyce offered to pick me up every day and drop me off at home as it was on her way to work, so I gratefully accepted! My first day at the office was fascinating. As Joyce showed me around I noticed a colour photograph of my Elders on the notice board! I was thrilled to see the picture from the newsletter in colour. There are wonderful photographs on the walls around the office of volunteers, Elders, and the events of ANE. Also there are many photo albums, which I was finally able to peruse a couple of weeks later. Joyce began to show me straight away what her daily work consisted of. The orders were coming in over the phone and internet for the fall food runs and had to be processed, which was time consuming. I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect time to learn how ANE operated. Actually that wasn’t my intention when I decided to go to ANE to volunteer. I thought I would be in the warehouse working, even on non volunteer days. Joyce had other ideas and once I started, I realized why. The administrative work was out of control! There was so much to do, which was wonderful for me to learn and great for Joyce that she had assistance. Of course she could handle it all herself, but it isn't good to be going at such a frantic pace every day. Joyce had been training volunteers to help her in the office, so I would be working with them in the following weeks. Gina was extremely helpful to me when Joyce was busy. Her smile lights up a room, as does her generous heart. As I was about to find out Joyce was a wealth of knowledge and was kind enough to share it with me in enabling me to learn how the ANE administration operated. Joyce also has a hidden talent. If you ever need a shoulder to cry on, she is able to assist. Her instincts and empathy are a precious gift.

I was nervous and excited about meeting everyone, especially Linda. Her writings in the newsletter frequently had me teary, so I expected that meeting her in person would be an interesting experience. As it happened she was there the second day, as it was Tuesday volunteer day at the warehouse. Linda gave me an embrace as soon as she met me, which took me by surprise as we did not know each other. It was that moment that gave me insight into why this organization was successful.

Everyone started to appear as volunteer hours started, and I had my first introductions. Joyce was fabulous in letting me know who everyone was. I recognized people from their pictures that had been in the newsletters and on the ANE blog website. I met Wendy, Beverly, Gina, Oscar, Cheryl, Elinda, Art, Sandy, Dean, Roger, Ed, Nancy, Sheila, Fientje, and Janet. I left Joyce and headed out back to the warehouse where I was able to help with backpacks for the children. We the volunteers were loading them with school supplies. I was excited to be experiencing what I had seen volunteers do in pictures! Three hours goes quickly and then it was time for everyone to leave. I asked Beverly questions about weaving as I am fascinated as to how it is done. Beverly was patient with my questions and I learnt much from her. When it was quiet again I resumed helping Joyce in the office. The view out the window is spectacular with the huge mountains looming in the distance. After work Joyce took me around Salt Lake City. We drove around with Joyce familiarizing me with the layout of the streets and landmarks. She drove up the top of a mountain where I could overlook the valley and was able to see the entire city. Such a spectacular place and difficult to imagine the roads were on would be covered in snow in a few months! Joyce was my Salt Lake City tour guide and the time I was there we had many days of fun driving around after work having dinner, shopping, talking, laughing and learning about each other. Joyce is amazing and has so much knowledge! We settled into a daily work routine which really consisted of me asking lots of questions about how to do everything Joyce gave me.

Friday of my first week I met further volunteers Sandy, Boyd, Rodger, John, Eileen, Shirley, Mary Anne, Masuda, Betsy and Katie. Friday’s activity was quilting, as quilts were being made for the Grandmas to be presented to them at the rug show in November. There is always something to do at the warehouse. The enthusiasm of the volunteers astounded me. They are willing to give up time as well as use their own money and contacts to help the Elders. No challenge is too great for them.

 One of the volunteers, my new friend Cheryl took me mountain climbing and wildflower viewing on my first Saturday in Utah. The wildflowers were spectacular. Talking to Cheryl I realized why I’d been feeling so tired the first week. Seems the elevation was affecting me. Apparently it takes a while to adjust. I didn’t realize until I left Utah just how affected my health had been by the elevation. I now know I function best at sea level! Cheryl was a fantastic tour guide over many days during my stay in Salt Lake City and took me to a favourite restaurant of her family, where I had the best Mexican I’d ever tasted! She also got me addicted to a Mexican drink called Jarrito and Tony Hillerman books. Cheryl is also responsible for me falling in love. With Harvey her adorable dog!

My second week I was privileged to stay with Linda and Rodger where I was able to work at the ANE Park City office , the farmer’s market, and attend an ANE rug show meeting. I was fascinated to learn about Linda and Rodger’s journey through life, which had brought them to the place they now are. They were generous, kind and thoughtful to me and I will always remember their wonderful hospitality. I like to walk, so spending time walking with Linda was special to me. Her experience and words of wisdom also helped me on my journey. Park City is beautiful and Linda showed me around and what she does, such as picking up the mail, depositing donations at the bank etc. I was pleased to see where the Sundance festival is held and learnt that she had met Robert Redford. Learning different aspects of how ANE administration works at the Park City office was interesting. Much work goes into process of ANE functioning and I hadn’t thought about that until I saw it for myself and was involved in some of it. I was able to have a glimpse of the roles of people at ANE and it was great to see how the Elders are benefiting from time and effort. I was also able to spend more time with Wendy and getting to know how busy her schedule is. ANE and especially Linda are gifted to have her input, knowledge and sweet disposition.

The ANE stall at the farmer’s market was fun. The wind likes the market too, frequently increasing wind speeds unexpectedly to catch people off guard and then laughing at their reactions! Lots of people like the Navajo handmade crafts for sale, especially the jewellry. I was able to purchase a beautiful silver and black bracelet named The Storyteller, which has pictures engraved of Navajo life and the scenery, which now reminds me of my time visiting the Reservation while on the food run. I experienced the unique taste of a Navajo taco while at the farmer’s market. Delicious! Also I had a scrumptious mixed berry ice cream which was a refreshing respite from the heat.

Another volunteer Masuda, also now one of my new friends, was generous with her time, taking me out to eat in various locations in Salt Lake City and Park City and to do quilting with Betsy and Katie. Masuda took me to the location of the rug show at Snow Park Lodge so I was able to identify what I’d seen in newsletters and pictures. Now since I’m familiar with the location it will mean more when I see the rug show pictures. We had a marvelous brunch in Park City, some of the best food I’ve ever tasted and drawing on the tablecloth was something I’d never done before! Sometimes experiences shared cannot be put into words and sometimes no words need be spoken. Such is this unexpected friendship, which surprised me and came to me exactly when I needed it most.

John and Virginia were also wonderful to me. Long time volunteers, they are much involved with ANE. John’s photographs have been influential in my wish to get to ANE and experience it for myself as he manages to capture the essence of the program. It is a gift to be able to do that with words and pictures. So, thanks to John, someone in a land far away was able to grasp the essential meaning of Adopt-A-Native-Elder program. Virginia, with her sparkling, vibrant eyes took me to her home, so I was able to add to my experience of seeing how Utahns live! The three of us had a wonderful day talking and touring exquisite gardens in the city. I shall always remember the most delicious authentic Lebanese I’ve ever had.

Beverly, a long time volunteer at ANE was gracious in giving me rides to ANE events. She told me about her ancestry, of which I was fascinated. Her laugh makes me smile even now remembering the sound. Beverly is always busy, yet maintains calm and I’ll always have a visual memory of her working, surrounded by the wonderful rainbow colours of yarn.

I drove with another new friend Fientje on the food run. When I say drive, I didn’t drive at all, only as a passenger. There was no way I was attempted to drive on the opposite side of the road. It was scary enough being a passenger and not because Fientje’s driving was bad! We had a fantastic time on the food run, talking, laughing, crying, and for me, learning from her. Upon our return Fientje invited me to stay at her cabin north of Salt Lake City. I saw wild moose for the first time and wild deer. I hand fed a doe and was able to touch her mouth and tongue. It was a magical moment for me as my name means ‘dear one’ in French. While cruising around searching for wildlife I was astounded (and nearly fell off my seat) to see a road sign named ‘Apache Way’. An astonishing sight for me personally as it was a remarkable Apache, who had been influential in me traveling from the other side of the world to arrive to that moment in time in front of the road sign. Life sure is strange. I had gotten well into being homesick by this time and miraculously Fientje had Vegemite at the cabin. Most people don’t like the taste of vegemite. It is an Australian acquired taste, children grow up with it in sandwiches for school, and I was pleased to see my old friend and the best toast I’d had since leaving home! Fientje also introduced me to the namesake of the city where I stayed for five weeks. The Great Salt Lake was a vision of the like which I had not seen before. Fientje’s generosity is endless.

On my last weekend I spent a day at the sheepdog trials at Soldier Hollow where ANE had a tent with volunteers working, displaying rugs, jewelry, etc for purchase. Some Navajo weavers were there, giving weaving demonstrations, which was fascinating for me to see, as I have purchased a few rugs and while there, realized that I’m not the only one with that addiction!

Everyone I spent time with associated with ANE, when we were not working, told me about their connection with the program, how they had become involved, what they do to assist. It became apparent to me that helping the Elders and their families has become an integral part of their lives, like another family member. For such is their dedication and heartfelt compassion, respect and love for the Navajo that this is now normal and they do what needs to be done to help these unique people in the best ways possible to keep their traditions alive.

I’m grateful to Linda for allowing me to participate in the daily processes of the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program. I’m grateful to Joyce for her patience in allowing me to learn and teaching me how ANE functions. I’m grateful for everyone for their assistance and patience in showing me what to do in the warehouse and help on the food run. Lastly, I’m grateful for the friendships I have been blessed to make, for without friends the journey would not have been as magnificent as it was. It was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of hearts and souls at Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program.

Thank you!