Questions in Kayenta

Trip Start Apr 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 05, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Arizona
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

As we pass through state after state - visiting parks and towns, and reading pamphlets along the way, we are gaining an understanding of many significant pieces of America's ethnic and cultural history - but the nuances of its present are far more difficult to discern. Over the course of this drive, I have often found myself wondering about the lives of the First Nation peoples of the US.

Most of you reading this likely know that I teach at a private girls’ school in the suburbs of Montreal. What you may not know is that about 10% of the student body is composed of girls hailing from Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve just south of the island of Montreal. Having taught quite a few Kahnawake girls over the past few years, I have learned a bit about both the beauty and the struggles of life in the Mohawk community – as well as life outside of it. Teaching in this environment has been interesting, often enlightening and joyful, and occasionally heart wrenching.

Maybe it’s these recent experiences at school, or maybe it’s simply the fact that the First Nations presence is so tangible across this drive, especially here in the Southwest, that I have been wondering what life holds for the indigenous peoples in these parts.

We have had the honour of viewing – and even entering – the ancient homes of the Ancestral Puebloans, still carefully kept and honoured through the joint efforts of the National Parks Service and the Affiliated Pueblo Committee. We have driven through vast tracks of Navajo and Hopi lands – sometimes becoming quite intimately acquainted with parts of the land I doubt many people ever see. Monument Valley, which I will be writing about shortly after this entry, is a spectacular stretch of stunning rock formations owned and operated entirely by the Navajo Nation separate from any federal organization. The Valley is both a thriving enterprise and a well preserved tract of sacred lands. No doubt we have seen a great deal of the wide, wondrous lands and proud achievements of the people who settled here first.

But several times, we have sensed the other side…Many reserves welcome you not only with colourful signs in their native tongue, but also glaring placards for cheap cigarettes and fireworks – with little other local business evident anywhere. Highway billboards sometimes plead the community to Stop Drug Use Now and Get Out of Alcohol’s Shadow. Most tragically, when we stopped for gas in Kayenta – a tiny town with a stunning mountain backdrop – the newspaper by the counter announced an appalling attack in Farmington (which we had passed about 150 miles back). Two young white locals had attacked and brutally beaten a 22 year old intellectually challenged Navajo man, cutting swastikas into his hair and skin.

I really wonder where all these events, both beautiful and terrible, lie on the spectrum that defines the First Nation experience in modern day America.
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