Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Navajo Wisdom

In my role as Indy wandering columnist, the Beautiful Wife and I toured the Navajo Nation—by accident. Traveling with our grandson from a family reunion in Flagstaff, Ariz. (more about that in a later column) to bucolic Midway, Utah, it seemed we had entered a foreign country. We had; we were in the Navajo Nation, bigger than 10 U.S. states with the area of the five smallest states combined. Its the largest of the Indian reservations and unique for largely including their ancestral lands. Our tour was eye opening.

Small humble homes scattered over the arid landscape formed my first impression. They clearly werent trying to impress anyone. My second was the lack of landscaping. Didnt they have the energy for making a nice yard? The third was a succession of simple roadside stands selling Navajo crafts. Trinkets for tourists? On closer view, they told a story.

Stopped at a breath-taking scenic viewpoint over the north end of the Grand Canyon, we wandered over to tables tended by stoic women offering Navajo crafts. A conversation started with one, surprisingly well spoken; her English name was Alicia, her Navajo name remained private. A decorated hollow ball made of white clay was offered as a Christmas tree ornament. The decoration included a hummingbird dipping its beak into a flower. The hummingbird, I learned, is revered by the Navajo for its fierce defense of territory and a symbol of devotion, permanence and eternity. Who could resist?

The ball was inscribed Mitchell Blackhorse Dineh. Mitchell Blackhorse, I learned, was a Navajo boy sent away to school. The English teacher assigns students to write a brief story of their life. Most offer a scribbled page of unique grammar; Blackhorse turns in a series of pages of such sensitive writing the teacher sends them to a publisher. Miracle Hill: The Story of a Navajo Boy recounts his struggle between the Navajo way and modern life. Blackhorse becomes an educator who returns to his Navajo home and becomes an institution.

I asked the Navajo woman what concerned her, what she worried about? Her reply was Laguna-like: No worries.” She did tell of a teenage son studying coding. I recalled the Marine Corps used Navajos to communicate during World War II island invasions, judging their language an unbreakable code. Actually, she explained, he was studying computer programming.

The woman at the next booth was worried about the drought—there wasnt enough grass for their livestock, mostly sheep, forcing them to buy hay. And she was worried about their young girls. I noted how each focused on the children. I later learned a Navajo saying, A man cant get rich if he takes proper care of his family.”

These Navajo women changed my first impressions. Where I saw arid landscape, they saw the sacred land of their ancestors. Those humble homes told of a conscious choice for life made simple. And care of children was more important than building wealth. Theres meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a 50s surfing trip. Hes a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Locals guide to Laguna Beach. Email: [email protected]

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