Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Foreigners in Monument Valley

Rebecca Solnit posted on her Facebook page a picture of hands clenched on a steering wheel, with the formations of Monument Valley visible beyond the rolled-up windows.  I’ve never been through Monument Valley in a car;  every trip has been in a Herrera Bus Company MCI luxury coach, up from Albuquerque with 30 foreigners, and Alicia, our queen of travel and dispenser of medications, and Karl or Maureen or Neil or, way back at the beginning, Eva, to help me count heads, and to supervise while I shepherded someone to the emergency room, and to sit in the back of the bus and doze with the rest of them while I talked about the topography of the lower Rockies, the history of mining in the Durango area, the cosmology of the Mormons, or about Navajo hogan architecture, and water rights in the arid regions.  

Or I’ve been on a bike, ice water in my bottle cages, extra water in my jersey, a tiny circular mirror attached to my helmet to watch as the Navajo water trucks lumber up behind me, their white polypropolene tanks bulging over the sides of the back flatbed. As they’d pass me, pushing up the grades into the stiff, hot wind, I might see the passengers looking at me sidelong, maybe sometimes raising up their arms a bit, letting go of the chrome outside mirror to give me the smallest semblance of a wave—men, women, or children, in western shirts and blue jeans, acknowledging the foolhardiness of a white man with a cyclist’s tan in black shorts and a garish team jersey, blue and yellow, with the emblem of the Chicago Police Department on each shoulder, grinding up US163, only a third of the way between Kayenta and Bluff, with the sun already starting to touch the tops of the mesas.

Most of the time, though, I was leading international education tours of the US, an American authority providing insight for the foreigners who’d been picked to spend the summer studying American culture and life, for the purpose of returning to write textbooks, revise curricula, teach seminars, train other teachers, drawing on the weeks of lectures and the guided tours, the boxes of books and articles we had guided them through (The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, 1852; Sister Carrie, 1900; There Are No Children Here, 1991…), the encounters they’d had with Americans and with each other.

In the Navajo Nation, I am a foreigner myself.  Why deny it? When the bus turns left onto the side road that leads to Goulding’s Lodge, the degrees of alienation multiply.  Toyan, from Mongolia, laughing at something her roommate has said, two rows behind me on the bus, is far closer to native than I am.  Her DNA may record her kinship to the Navajo; the contours of her face are akin to those of the Navajo woman in a Navajo costume seated at a loom in the tricked-up hogan that’s part of the guided tour;  their native tribal tongues are both derived from Athabaskan, the root language of those Americans who crossed the Bering Strait so many millennia ago, and migrated southward.  Some of them stayed here, before the Long Walk that forced the Navajo into internment camps, and returned after that disastrous policy was traded for another equally as cruel, ignorant, arrogant.

The Navajo that live here now, the older ones, are legatees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School era, when they were taken from their families, often by force, forbidden to speak their language, taught the English language and the usual skills designed to make them good servants and good employees when they left school at 18 or 19.  The ones who speak the Navajo language, the ones who continue to farm and herd, who migrate between summer hogans and winter hogans:  most of them were hidden from the BIA officials, and they received their educations from their grandparents and the members of their born to and born for clans. They had to learn their English later, and they did, in order to write the letters of appeal protesting water-rights expropriation, or get their GED down in Gallup or over in St. George, or pass the driver’s test in Arizona or Utah, getting the commercial license after that, and perhaps the certification that legitimated them as tourist guides outside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo guides at Goulding’s don’t like us, any of us, but we are tolerated for our group tickets on the Monument Valley tour, and our tips at the end.  Some of the foreigners try to engage the guide in conversation during the breaks when the cut-down and converted flatbed trucks, with their rows of seats under aluminum or galvanized canopies,  disgorge our dusty group to wander around in the epic scenery, taking pictures of Honeymoon Arch, or the Thumb, drinking ice water from the cooler mounted to the back of the truck, next to the folding stairs. Some of the guides are more taciturn than others, but none in my years have ever been direct, or garrulous, save, perhaps, one.  They have set spiels, some better than others, by which I mean, more ingratiating to white people, aliens.  But even the funniest or most outgoing guides stick to their scripts.  Riita from Finland asks the guide about his family:  what do they do?  where do they live?, thinking of the family structures I’d laid out in my talk on the bus—she was awake, taking notes.  He is resolutely, politely evasive.  She knows better than to push much harder than that, and leaves it be. 

The names of the rock features reflect a similar resistance veiled in accommodation to the Bilagáana, the white people (some translate it:  white devils), accommodating the anthropomorphism of the Bilagáanakʼehgo, the white man’s style of thinking.  Just inside the Navajo Tribal Park, at the beginning of the circle tour you can take with your own car, you’ll see Merrick and Mitchell Buttes, named after two partnering prospectors, one of whom was shot by the Paiutes and, legend has it, managed to drag himself three miles or so to the butte bearing his name, before he died of his wounds. The Paiute had been there for many centuries; they traded with the Navajo in an often-uneasy relationship, the differences rendered moot when white usurpers and idolators like Mitchell and Merrick arrived, defiling the sacred mountains looking for gold and silver.
Next up:  The Mittens, articles of clothing unlikely to have been found among either the Navajo or the Paiute, unlikely to have come to mind when the first peoples were here, looking at the mesas and buttes that jutted up from the desert floor. It was white people who named this place Monument Valley;  for the Navajo, it was Place of Rocks.

 Further in, past Elephant Butte and John Ford’s Point, you arrive at the pseudo-Indian names—Rain God Mesa, Spearhead Mesa, Totem Pole.  By this point, that Bilagáana talent for lumping all things Indian in with all things exotic begins to take on the tenor of an imperialism borrowed from England’s follies—Elephant Butte and Camel Butte describe formations that look like images from tourist photographs of the 19th century incursions into Egypt, Nubia, the Nile and, eventually, India.  Totem Pole: that’s a moniker based in some visitor’s conversance with the Vanishing Tribe fuzzygraphs of Edward Curtis. It’s not some racial memory of long-abandoned ritual sculpture by an ancient Athabaskan bloodline linking Kwakiutl Indians with the Piute and Jicarilla and the Navajo.

I call them Indians for many reasons, not least of which is:  this is what they call themselves to white people these days.  Native American is a term invented by Western academics, as if to say so would erase the heritage of brutality and self-assurance that won the West for the whites.  One night, at the Best Western owned by the Jicarilla Apache, one of the tribal officers told our group: that term:  just the most modern of the ways other people name us.  We keep our names to ourselves.  When we talk to the white man, it’s better to use the words that sting with their disrespect for us. Indian is better that way, don’t you think? Some of the Europeans didn’t understand his meaning, but the participants from Africa and the one from Pakistan nodded their heads and leaned forward a bit in their chairs, giving him their renewed attention.

Past the fuzzy-mitten stage, past the Hollywood Indian stage of the Monument Valley self-guided tour, the circular route turns back, and the vacationers in their Ford Explorers and their Chevy Tahoes lumber back up the dry dirt road to the Visitor Center, where they can buy a Navajo kachina at the gift shop without having to know that the Navajo have no kachinas in their cosmogeny.  For a tenth the price, they can also buy a Chinese-made kachina doll, or a dream-catcher to hang from the rear-view mirror as they drive out to the motel in Mexican Hat, or head toward the Grand Canyon for their next dose of superior sublimity.  The Navajo don’t trade in what is authentic to them; anything in that gift shop is trade goods, the reverse equivalent of what Wetherill or Goulding sold in their trading posts in exchange for silverwork and turquoise when they set up shop here more than a century ago.

If you took one of the Navajo-sanctioned guided tours, as we always did, you went out past the end of the self-guided loop;  the driver stopped to switch the transmission to 4-wheel drive and activated the locking hubs before dipping down into the sandpits and dry washes.

Out there, the names change.  Yei Bi Chei is a formation of conjoined vertical rocks, consistent with the collection of spirit figures for which the formation is named.  Then there’s Tse Biyi Yazzie past that.  The truck roars and lumbers, tilting alarmingly at times, and everyone tends to fall silent at that point.  The guide is guide no more; he, or she, is all driver, and the microphone is firmly shoved into its receptacle on the dashboard of the cab that isolates her from you.  At the far end of the long tour Alicia always arranged for us, there’s a stop at Big Hogan, or Hidden Arch, before the driver heads back.  Usually the tour disembarks at the Visitor Center, but for us the trucks head out of the Tribal Park, crossing US 163 to deposit us at Goulding’s Lodge where John Ford and John Wayne and the film crews stayed on location and, in the years when the USIA and then the State Department released the funding early enough, Alicia would arrange for us to stay.  Covered in red dust, sunburned and exhausted, the 33 of us would tumble out of our two tour vehicles, sternly enjoined to tip the guides before heading in to the rooms to shower before dinner. 

Once in a while, some concatenation of circumstances would change our relations with the guide.  When Toyan was with us, so also was a woman from Kamchatka Krai, not one of the European Russians who dominate that peninsula, but someone of decidedly Aleut lineage. Alyeska and Toyan had hung together throughout the Institute—both were ethnic-subculture Russians at a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union was still a relatively new event, and they felt themselves to be eyed as exotic specimens by the participants from France, Germany, Belgium, Italy. During one of the breaks of the tour, the guide approached them to comment on the striking resemblance among the three.  Soon they were laughing; Toyan’s sense of irony, already finely honed, found its match in the Navajo guide’s, and by the time we headed back their informality had graciously enveloped all of us.  Much of what little I know of the real Navajo world began with that encounter. 

That  was the time of the sudden storm and the flash flood that swept down one of dry arroyos, taking with it a Lincoln Navigator, its driver trying to grab traction as the current pushed the huge black block parallel to the banks, quickly eroding the sandy soil on either side of the big wheels and rendering each maneuver a little more treacherous, as the water rose higher and the current grew stronger.  A rented subcompact with a family of German tourists burst down the bank, hit the water, and floated down, coming to rest on the grill of the Navigator.  Watching from above, waiting her opportunity, our guide took up the microphone again, and began to narrate a play-by-play, switching between the pompous sports anchor and the color commentator with unerring skill.  By then we were all drenched, for we’d pushed aside the plastic drop-down walls the better to see the comedy with cars below us, and our worry evaporated into antic laughter. 

The two hapless tourist cars formed a momentary dam of sorts, and our guide saw her chance. In a moment we were grinding down the embankment, and she yelled to us to hold on to anything we could.  With a roar and a great splash, we hit the stream, which was cold and powerful, cresting over the side of the flatbed and sinking us nearly to our waists. Then we were coming up the other bank, threading our way past the minivans and the rentals that were hub-deep in the mud, burning out their transmissions in a panic of inexpertise and lost hubris

When we got to Gouldings, we were all giddy; we emerged from the back, down the folding stairs she had deployed for us;  she was dry, immaculate, beautiful, her Tony Lamas hardly dusty, her red bandana with its paisley pattern jaunty around her neck.  Toyan and Alyeska were the last, and when they hugged her, they left wet, red-clay imprints on her perfectly starched Western shirt, with its mother-of-pearl snaps and cowboy pattern.  They saw their affront and begged forgiveness;  it was nothing, our guide laughed—she was off work now and would be headed back to her place.  She’d be muddier than this by dusk, she promised, and she waved to all of us as she roared off, just as the rain she'd raced us past struck us there, in the parking lot at Goulding’s Lodge. 

It was hours before the second truck arrived with the rest of our group;  they were silent, wet, and exhausted, while we were showered clean, still exuberant, watching the brilliant sunset behind John Wayne's old cabin, the one he'd stayed in when they filmed Stagecoach. Late that night, a little drunk, perhaps, we laid down in the road to watch the stars wheel above us in a silence broken only by our breathing.

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