Our hostess was Lupita McClanahan, a Navajo or Diné woman who has a summer home in the Canyon. (Navajo is the name given to the Diné tribe by the Spanish. The word Diné is pronounced Dee-nay, with the emphasis on the second syllable).
Since the Canyon has no electric power and is free from cell phone interference, our evenings were spent around the camp fire, often listening to Lupita tell stories about her culture and her history. Oh, the stories she can tell!
After everyone was settled in their camping chair and the fire threw a soft light over our faces, she began. She spoke about the four clans by which each Diné identifies him- or herself, her father who had two wives (who were sisters) and her many siblings. She explained family relationships and tribal ways, talked about the main ceremonies in a women’s life: Birth, Puberty, Marriage, and Menopause.
We learned about Diné cosmology, the Holy People (called the Yei-be-che), especially Talking God and Spider Woman. For the Diné, everything is alive: the Rocks, the Clouds, the Rain (there is a male and a female rain), the Rivers, the Wind, and the Plants. Being in alignment with the Gods and natural forces around us is called following the Beauty Way.
You never knew how long Lupita’s storytelling would last. Each story took its own meandering course, un-ruled by Western time concepts. Sometimes she would pause and let more memories come to her, then continue her story. Her eyes looked into the far distance, as if she was reading her tribal memories from a large book somewhere in the skies. Sometimes, she would drop into her native Navajo language, perhaps to remind herself of the essence of what she wanted to say before translating it into English, her second language.
I loved the sound of Navajo even though I couldn’t understand a word. There were even a few click sounds in it. By the end of our stay, we all knew to say “Ya-a-te” (a greeting) and “Hagonee” (“Walk in Beauty” as a goodbye).
While the stories of Navajo (or Diné) culture were fascinating, our emotions were truly tested when Lupita told us about the historical events that happened to her people through several centuries of first Spanish, then US government, persecution and attempted genocide. Stories of homes and crops being burnt, people butchered when they resisted, orchard trees cut down, and people being starved to the point where they either threw themselves off the cliffs or surrendered to the white soldiers on horses. During “The Long Walk” (1864-68), about 8 or 9,000 Navajos were marched 400 miles to a place called Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, and kept imprisoned there. Many people could not adjust to the meager rations of unfamiliar foods or grow their familiar crops in the arid ground and died. When the government didn’t know what to do with the dwindling group of survivors, they gave them a few tools and animals and sent them back to their native land. Only a small number returned to the Canyon. Many couldn’t bear the sight of their homes and crop lands destroyed and settled elsewhere.
But the people re-built and expanded their numbers. Today, there are over 300,000 Navajos living on a large reservation territory. Many more moved away and live in other states.
Lupita’s story of the Long Walk was difficult to listen to – shame, guilt, anger, and sadness shadowed our faces as we listened intently to her story which has been passed down the generations for close to 150 years now. This was so very different from reading about these events in a history book. This story was told with understated passion but with palpable sorrow and an underlying question mark: Why did this happen? What was the point of it all?
Even after the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland, they were never safe from the clutches of the Government. Lupita told of being snatched away from her grandparents’ home when she was about 7 years old. A green truck came into the Canyon and took all the young children they could find. Lupita’s grandmother had hidden her successfully for two full years, but this time, they caught her.
The children were driven to boarding schools, some as far away as Oklahoma or California. Their long hair was cut, they were given white people’s clothing, white people’s food, and punished when they spoke their native language. Lupita said that this was one of the worst times in her life. She was kept in boarding school for 3 years and, throughout that time, did not know when she would be allowed to return home. Sometimes she felt like she would die because she was so homesick for her beloved Canyon home.
One of her sisters, at age 6, was placed in a boarding school near the Canyon. She hated it so much that she ran away and found her way home, walking through the night and chanting songs to protect herself against wild animals.
Some of Lupita’s siblings were gone for 10 or more years. When they finally returned, they no longer looked and behaved like Navajos. However, Lupita was determined to return to her culture and share it with anyone who was interested and would listen to her stories.
Mainly, now, she wants to teach young people about the Diné culture. Like everywhere else, Navajo kids are exposed to TV and smart phones. Some of them only speak English and cannot understand their Elders communicating in the Diné language. Lupita dreams of taking a group of youngsters into the Canyon for the summer and teaching them to grow traditional foods, speak their native language, and learn the secrets of the Beauty Way. She would be their main teacher, guide, and story teller.
If only there was a grant that could help her fulfill her vision!
More information about Lupita McClanahan and her work is available at http://www.footpathjourneys.com.
More writings on Lost Arts can be found at The Daily Post’s Writing Challenge: Lost Arts.