Friday, June 3, 2011

Looking for Indians

Coming out of Gallup on the Devil’s Highway heading north, any romantic tourist in a rented car surely finds the landscape disheartening. Gallup itself is satisfying enough: you exit I-40 onto the old Route 66, and if you’re smart, you eat at the lunchroom down the street from Richardson’s Trading Post—enchiladas, perhaps, or huevos rancheros, while the 6 year old son of the waitress races up and down the aisle between the tables and the dinettes against the wall. Chances are, everyone else in there is Navajo, in town from the reservation you’re heading to.

Richardson’s is one of the last large-scale Navajo-pawn trading posts around, and its display windows are full of Acoma pottery that would be illegal to sell under the Antiquities Act; some of it looks like it might even be Anasazi. If you need a late-19th century saddle, you can buy one out of pawn; the Navajo out-of-pawn jewelry is spectacular and appropriately priced—meaning, way outside your range, even were you bold enough to wear a piece of silver and turquoise weighing upwards of two pounds. Then there’s the ethics of buying someone’s out-of-pawn: bad fortune kept them from redeeming it, and they’ll never raise the cash now, but it still seems tainted to the touch. There’s not a lot of tourist junk at Richardson’s—it’s more like a museum than a souvenir shop. If you want fake kachina dolls and turquoise-dust rings, you’d best go down the block.

You head west on old Route 66 to Munoz Drive; if you’re unlucky, you wait while one of those hundred-car freight trains rumbles past you at the grade crossing. Munoz turns into the Devil’s Highway just north of the interstate, past the Applebee’s. For the next mile, you pass pretty much every chain eatery in America. In order: first the Lotaburger; then Pizza Hut; Denny's; Sizzler; Wendy’s; the Sonic Drive-In; Church’s Chicken. After the Dairy Queen, you’re in the land of used cars and payday loan sharks, though there’s still the King Dragon Chinese place in front of Somethin’ Wild, the tattoo joint. The road’s divided for quite a ways, past Path of Renewal Road, White Smoke Wash Road, China Springs Road, all the way into the town of Yah-Ta-Hey. That’s the first town with a full-on Navajo-language name, but it won’t be the last. You’re in the Navajo Nation. You might guess it if you know the history of the town: Yah-Ta-Hey is the white man’s name, a bit of stolen language (in Navajo, it means something like “hello: how are you?”) for a settlement that grew up around J.B. Tanner’s old trading post; the actual Navajo name, Tʼáá Bííchʼį́įdii, translates, roughly, to that White devil’s place or, more politely, as the Devil’s, or maybe the Devil you say.

You’re on the Devil’s Highway, but not because it passes the White devil’s trading post. Until a few years ago, it was US 666—the Mark of the Devil’s number from Revelations. And if you’re driving a rented Ford Focus or equivalent, as they say at Budget Rent-a-Car, Hertz and the rest—a bland, new compact you wouldn’t buy on your own, you’d probably have discovered that the FM radio wasn’t picking up much but bad top-40 C&W, radio evangelical drives, and Rush Limbaugh. There isn’t much to see if you’re hoping for scenery. You won’t find a tree till the cottonwoods by the river in Shiprock—well, if you look west toward the hills around Naschitti, you’ll see some scrub pine. Outside of that, it’s just grey earth and stunted mesas.

You might forgive yourself for thinking you’re in hell, especially if Rush is in one of those rants of his that lead him to a sort of linguistic stutter, in which words come out a-tumble, but they cancel themselves out, leaving a space as devoid of meaning as the landscape seems devoid of scenery.

But you’ve despaired way too early. First of all, switch from FM to AM. Roll the tuning knob slowly down. You’ll find a Navajo station with a dj who announces only in Navajo, and sends out mix-tape combinations of hiphop and traditional Navajo singing. With that to remind you that you’re in someone else’s country, look more carefully at the land on either side. You’ll pass platform trucks and pickups driving on the shoulder, with big white plastic tanks in the back: that’s water for the sheep. When the truck turns off, follow its dusty trail up the dirt road to the where the winter hogans are. The summer places aren’t going to be near the road; they’re off to the west, behind the low hills.

If you came up here to see Shiprock—the formation, not the town—you probably have reservations at the motel in Cortez, a nice little fly-fishing Anglo town just up into Colorado. You won’t have time to turn west just before Sheep Springs, on BIA/Indian Service 32. If you did, and it wasn’t in the midst of drought season, you’d wind your way westward, up into the hills, where the trees are, and the grazing grounds.

That’s when you’d see the hogan compounds. If you’re looking for picturesque, you’re in for a disappointment. Typically, a dirt road wanders off 32, and ends in an open area with a few structures around it. If the family is well-settled there, you’ll see a cinderblock HUD house—the sort you’ll see a lot more of as subsidized low-income housing in Shiprock. One-story houses, built to some architect’s idea of an efficient small family dwelling, the HUD houses tend to look like shrunken versions of those ‘70s ranch houses that proliferated in the poorer suburbs around LA—built on a slab, with a low roof and a door that faces, according to HUD standards, squarely north or south. If the family is traditional, that door will be boarded up with plywood, and so will the windows on either side. There’ll be a door knocked out of the window well on the east-facing wall; all the rest of the openings will be boarded up, too. If it’s been a while since the structure was completed, there may now be a new chimney opening cut into the middle of the roof.

That’s how you turn a federally mandated single-family subsidized structure into a makeshift hogan. The place may look abandoned, but it’s probably not. Around it, at discreet distances, are the other generations of hogan. You’ll see very traditional three-fork “male” hogans, with their dirt coverings, and log-constructed “female” hogans, also built up with dirt. The male hogans look like tepees covered in dirt; the female ones are lower, more rounded. These are the oldest hogans, and they may well date to the 19th century. You’ll also see railroad-tie hogans—built from cribbed railroad ties taken from the great piles left by the Santa Fe line when it was under construction. These aren’t usually dirt-covered; they look like octagonal log cabins, usually with a tin-pipe chimney coming out of the center. And you’ll see the most recent form, a Navajo tribal replacement of the much-despised HUD houses: a prefab octagonal hogan, made with Home Depot materials.

Compounds like these describe in dwellings the history of the Navajo. These aren’t the compounds you’ll see in a PBS or Discovery Channel documentary. You also won’t see the Chevy Silverado or the Dodge Ram. The camera man will shy away from the six or eight or ten abandoned vehicles—they speak of the realities of life at this isolated distance from the dealership and the junkyard. Try finding the money to tow that dead Fairlane eighty miles; there’s not enough pawn to pay for it.

You aren’t welcome here, by the way. You’re staring. You stopped your car, and someone knows it. Put it back in drive and head on. This land isn't yours, and it doesn't have to live up to your expectations. In Shiprock, at the KFC, you can get an excellent Navajo Taco or some watery mutton stew (Navajo tribal law requires that every eatery serve at least two native dishes) before heading off to see the rock formation looming against the darkening sky at sunset. You can take all the pictures you want before heading up to Cortez, where the Best Western Turquoise Inn & Suites is right on the road to the Walmart.

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