Sunday Driver: Surrounded By Indians
October 25th, 2009
For several weeks over the past three months, my job has taken me to the Four Corners area of New Mexico on the Navajo Indian Reservation. While there, I’ve gotten a small, tentative peak at small snippets of Navajo culture from among my co-workers, the first thing being that they don’t call themselves Navajo. Instead, they call themselves Diné, which just means “The People.” The second thing I learned — and I know this runs the danger of indulging in meaningless stereotypes — is that on the whole, the Diné are a very friendly and humorous people. I am by no means an expert on Native American peoples, nor have I done much extensive traveling on Indian lands, but of the tribes and reservations that I have come in contact with, the Diné have a very different vibe about them. They are both proudly Diné and proudly American. The Diné language is a flourishing, living language, Diné land is breathtakingly beautiful, and all in all — to this outsider at least — there just seems to be this sense of belonging and permanence. That sense that the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
My last business trip happened to coincide with the Northern Navajo Fair, held annually in Shiprock, New Mexico. It’s sort of like a state fair for the Navajo reservation. Since Shiprock was about an hour away from where I was working, and I was going to have to work through the weekend, I decided to take a Saturday evening off and make the two-hour drive to get there. That’s one hour to get to Shiprock, and another hour in traffic through that small town to park and walk to the fairgrounds. I mentioned my plans to one of my Diné co-workers. He smiled and said, “I don’t know. You might yourself surrounded by Indians.”
I did say the Diné have a great sense of humor, didn’t I?
Well, I went and had a great time. The fair itself is much like any other state or county fair. There was a midway with rides, typical fair food of funnel cakes, sausages, and turkey legs, carnies hawking games and other merchandise, livestock and horticulture exhibits, 4H and Future Farmers of America events. And a rodeo, a staple of all fairs in the American West.
And there was dust, dust like you can’t imagine. Gather thousands of people to walk around a few acres of desert, and you will stir up a fine dust that hangs in the air like a giant tan cloud. For that weekend, the Shiprock fairgrounds were without a doubt The Dustiest Place On Earth.
But of course, since this was the Navajo fair, there were several differences from your typical state fair. A traditional Pow-wow was taking place in one corner of the fairgrounds, a series of Diné community singing and dancing contests were held in a central pavilion, and just off the garishly-lit midway was a more humble, dimly-lit area of traditional Diné food vendors. While their operations were considerably simpler than the flashing lights of the corndog trailers, they had at least one huge advantage over their outside competitors: The Diné vendors constructed tents or simple plywood shelters to shield their diners from the dust.
Now each the sheltered areas were typically small, large enough to hold maybe four or five folding tables, which for me presented a small problem because I was feeling conspicuously White. I felt a great deal of trepidation about going into one of those small tents by myself, a White guy interloping among several Diné families enjoying dinner. But I found one vendor which was mostly empty, and so I decided to try that one.
It turned out to be a good choice. This vendor had arranged her tables differently from the others. Her tables were arranged in a U-shape, with diners sitting on the outside of the “U” facing the center. Since I was the only one there, I sat at the bottom of the “U” and gave her my order of roast mutton in frybread and a bottle of water. Soon after I sat down, several others joined me: an elderly couple on the leg of the “U” to my left, and a family of dancers later came in and sat along the leg of the “U” to my right. When my food arrived, two middle-aged sisters sat down to my immediate left, and an elderly gentleman crowded in to my right. Before I knew it, we had a full house.
With the configuration of the tables where everyone is facing everyone else, conversation naturally came easily. And I saw right away how foolish I was to feel out of place. The lady to my left immediately struck up a conversation with me and told me about the things I should see at the fair. She also insisted that I try the Navajo Tea, a traditional tea brewed from the Greenthread herb. So while I was sipping the tea, the elderly gentleman was telling me about himself, his late wife, his son in college, and, of course, the fact that “Navajo” is what White people call them, and that they call themselves Diné. Which I already knew, but I nodded respectfully as one would do for one’s elders, and I carefully inserted the word Diné in my conversation whenever it was appropriate to do so. Meanwhile, the lady at my left explained the grand finale performance that everyone was there to see later that night.
To give you a little bit of background, the fair begins the weekend before with a nine day healing ceremony known as the Ye’ii Bi Chei Ceremony. It is a series of dances performed continuously by several groups of dancers. The Ye’ii Bi Chei culminates with a grand-finale on the last Saturday night of the fair, that very same Saturday night that I happened to there. But because the Ye’ii Bi Chei finale was scheduled to begin at 10:00 p.m. and I was looking at another two-hour drive to get back to the hotel and going to work the next day, I wasn’t able to attend. So that’s one reason why there aren’t any pictures of it. But the other, much more important reason is that photography is strictly forbidden due to the sacred nature of the ceremony.
But as I said, there was so much more to see and experience. So after everyone had finished eating and we took our leave of each other, I walked over to the central pavilion where the singing and dancing contests were being held. Those I could photograph, even though all I had on me was my cell phone. Since taking snapshots is what tourists do, I played my part. Then I pocketed my phone and just stood and watched.
Now I know we’ve all heard “Indian music” in the movies. It’s typically performed as a high-pitched wail set against the beating of a drum. Diné music, in those respects, is no different — at least superficially, and my untrained ears aren’t capable of going beyond the superficial. And when this music is performed in the movies, we White folks can only take so much of it before it becomes annoying. Maybe that’s why they keep those scenes short.
But I noticed something very different as I stood at the edge of the pavilion and listened as groups and families got up to chant and drum, while others gathered to dance in a slow circle. When you hear the drums beating with you right there, they take on the characteristics of a heartbeat. Maybe not literally, and I have no idea whether that’s what they’re intended to do, but they appear as natural and essential as a beating heart, accompanying the groups as they chanted their songs.
And what amazing songs they are. Every other performance I’ve ever attended, I’ve heard what sounds like a consciously planned, written and rehearsed performance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they come off as well-rehearsed — or maybe not so well-rehearsed, as the case may be. But when you go to a concert, that’s generally what you pay to see. And here too, I also witnessed what must have been carefully rehearsed performances as well — these are groups singing in perfect unison, not individuals making it up as they went along — but it didn’t sound like it.
Instead, these songs sounded as if they were not made by human effort, but were the reflection of something much larger, both inside and outside the singers. It’s like the songs welled up from the dusty ground, pushed their way through the singers’ throats, burst forth from out of their mouths and into the cool night air, and swirled up to the stars and the full moon that shined down on the fairgrounds that night. And the songs themselves don’t feel like they are confined to the moment in which they are performed. Instead, they seem to transcend time, never beginning nor ending. They remain permanent, as permanent as the Diné themselves. And all the while there is the steady beat, beat, beat, steady and strong like a heart. Like the world’s heart, giving life to the crisp autumn night, and cutting through the dust and the noise of the carnival barkers and the DJ playing Pitbull’s Calle Ocho off in the distance. It cut through all of that because the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
I pulled my cell phone back out of my pocket and called my partner back home. “Chris,” I said, “you’ve got to hear this…”