Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Food Run To Navajo Mountain

by John Aldrich

This article is part of a series describing the various food runs that the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program conducts to eleven different locations around the Navajo Reservation. These locations are served in groups of two or three sites per trip. The articles will hopefully be of general interest but also serve as an orientation for prospective food run volunteers and for those who have signed up for a particular food run.

The Navajo Mountain food run is one of a pair, the other being Oljato. This food run set is the first of the spring and fall seasons and takes place about a month earlier than the remaining food runs. In the spring it occurs in late April and in the fall, late August. These are the most recent of the locations to be added to the areas we serve.

The first Navajo Mountain food run took place in August of 2008. Like Oljato, it is supported by a generous grant from American Express who wanted to support areas in the Utah portion of the reservation. The following map* shows the Navajo Reservation with particular reference to the location of the food run at Navajo Mountain and the lodging base for this run which is Kayenta. You can click on the map to see a larger view.
As one can see from a careful look at the map, Navajo Mountain is in Utah, but just barely. To get there is a circuitous journey from Oljato. A crow would find the distance to be around 35 miles, whereas if one is limited to a car, the trip by road is well over two hours. If you've never been to the Colorado Plateau, it's difficult to imagine the labyrinth of canyons that protect the terrestrial approach to this location.

It's this remoteness that gives Navajo Mountain an important role in the history of the Navajo people. In the 1860's when Kit Carson was rounding up as many Navajos as he could for their forced march to Fort Sumner, many were able to escape and find refuge in this isolated area.

For the food run to Navajo Mountain we spend the night in relative comfort at the Wetherill Inn in Kayenta.
Kayenta is one of the larger towns on the reservation, but as such, it is still none too large. However, it does offer a grocery store and several dining options. When we arrive here after the Oljato food run, volunteers remain free to do as they wish.

The following morning we make an early departure for Navajo Mountain because of the length of the drive. There is time for a quick motel breakfast, and then we must be on the road. For me, at least, this drive is both relaxing and  fascinating because of the beauty of the land we pass through. When we turn off the major highway, U.S. 160, Navajo Mountain looms in the distance.
The unmistakeable dome shape of this landform is a familiar bearing for those traveling in this part of the country. From some vantage points it can be seen from as far as 100 miles away. As the terrain rises we enter the typical pinon juniper forest of this part of the world and the landscape is more clearly defined by canyons.
If we're lucky on the August food run, we will pass through masses of wildflowers along the roadside brought to bloom by the unpredictable summer rains.
All too soon, we arrive at the Navajo Mountain chapter house, the location for this food run.
The people of this area have been more isolated from the rest of the world than most on the reservation. Remoteness is definitely a factor, but in addition, the road to this spot was a notoriously rough dirt track until just before we began our food runs here in 2008. This may help to explain why the people of Navajo Mountain seem to be unusually welcoming to us when we arrive.

The Rainbow Circle of food boxes has a unique addition to each set at this food run. Navajo Mountain has had a very unreliable water source over the years with all of their culinary water derived from one spring which at times doesn't function properly. In honor of this special situation and hardship, each Elder receives two cases of drinking water.

At this particular food run in 2011 each Elder also received the gift of a shovel.
One of the big setup jobs before the program starts is arranging all of the ANE giveaways on a table at the front of the room. This is done under Wendy's supervision and always results in a very colorful display.

Once the preparations are finished, volunteers gather in the front of the room as Linda and Wendy address the Elders. At Navajo Mountain, Mary Robertson Begay serves as our translator. Mary makes a drive of over two hours to help us and often brings her husband, Harry, whose strong arms are most welcome moving boxes outside.
Our coordinator at this food run is Ruby Burns. She is in charge of the Senior Center and has great love and regard for the elderly Navajos in her area.
One of the "games" that Linda plays with the Elders involves counting backwards from over a hundred and honoring those who respond when their age is mentioned. The prize is a box of Cracker Jacks and lots of smiles.
The giveaway portion of the food run program is especially moving at this location. When Linda provides the chance for any of the Elders who wish to present a gift to come forward, there is always a large number who step up with rugs, jewelry, and other crafts. Some of the gifts are donations to the Program, some are intended for sponsors, and many of the gifts are bestowed upon the volunteers in attendance.
One of the most unique giveaways from an Elder was skeins of wool that had been hand cleaned, carded, and spun by the Elder from her own sheep.
Navajo Mountain is one of two food run sites (the other being Oljato) where basket weaving is a prevalent skill. This gift of a ceremonial basket was made to the Program.
When it's time for the Program and volunteer giveaways, each Elder receives a plastic bag into which the giveaways are placed. This peek into one of the bags shows some of the special things that have been received.
As the gifts flow back and forth, it is easy to feel that gulf between cultures is being diminished by the feelings of mutual love and respect.
Following the giveaways and the meal, it's time to load the Elders' vehicles. The men once more swing into action as the cars and trucks file past the Rainbow Circle to be loaded.
A happy Elder will look forward to looking through his boxes and giveaway bag when he reaches home.
As each set of food run begins with a ceremony, each ends with a closing circle. This is an opportunity for a brief farewell and expression of gratitude.
The food run is over typically between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon. Volunteers are then on their own to begin their travels home. The drive back down the mountain is just as beautiful. For those who wish to spend a little extra time, the historic Shonto trading post is only a few miles off the route and is well worth a visit to get a glimpse of what one of these outposts was like a hundred years ago.

*This map is adapted from the wonderful Indian Country Map published by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Overlays have been created to show the borders of the Navajo Reservation as well as the food run sites (red) and lodging locations (turquoise) utilized by the food runs. Some of the road information is out of date (the roads to Navajo Mountain and the Big Mountain Food Run sites are now paved. Also, the reservation extends considerably further east into New Mexico than is shown on this map.


  1. We did not know of the Adopt a Native Elder Program. Researching Dine` language and terms to make sure my current novel trilogy is spot on, Google presented me with this website.

    We, darling bride and I, are blessed to discover a new treasure. Our giving has always been two directions - Native children and injured military veterans.

    Now we have a third direction. As I read the Program's website and then this blog "as you have done unto the least of these, ye have done unto me" filled my mind.

    We will participate. We're in.

    Michael & Laura


  2. Sure wish I was going this year!
    The wonderful photos bring back memories, and I can't wait to do this again one day.
    Blessings to all the volunteers who are helping this fall.