Every summer we made the drive to New Mexico and Colorado. During the first nine years of my life it was to visit my Grandmother's family and after 12 it was to visit my Grandfather's. We'd pack the old 1970s Nova with three on the tree and I'd take my spot, standing on the front bucket seat with my mom to my left, steering and my Grandma on my right giving directions. We'd pack our food and drive straight, hitting the desert at night, eyes wide as the windows were open. No air condition. No stopping. Just my mom singing, "hey noni ding dong, alang, alang, alang."
I didn't know much about nothing then, like why we were here, in San Francisco, and why they were there. It was just something like air; and we seemed to take it for granted. When we got there we'd slip into their lives, like ours was a dream and upon waking it was over. After two weeks or three months we'd get back to San Francisco and reverse the process: work, rent, phone calls and the dueling banjos that were my Grandma and Grandpa.
Our house was a mad dog we lived inside of.
Around the corner we had the Rodriguez', Augustin and Josephine. Indians from Chihuahua, Old Mexico. Theirs was an open door to us, the kitchen warm. Mamacita was my Grandma's best friend and Papacito was my Grandfather's. They were Indians like us, except from Chihuahua. Mamacita didn't speak English and we didn't speak Mexican.
The life of my knowledge comes from them, those trips and the way we tried to hold ourselves together, making a meaningful whole from parts, like magnets, that faced opposite directions.
The problem was one of orientation and in some small way the summer journeys would sooth our souls struggling so profoundly with place—especially our place in this world of the City.
It is said that we, the Diné, live in the center of the world, and from here— we each stand surefooted in the middle of ourselves, our ancestors and Gods—we make hózhó—in our mind souls, with our bodies, for our families, with the land and our movement across it. We move. We move for work. We move with the seasons. We move with marriage, for ceremony, to gather, and as we move we remember to take what is essential: clothes, ponies, pollen pouch and hand drum.
Nothing is more essential than ourselves, this perspective, so that moving does not become a going away, but a taking with. From the earliest times, as the children of Changing Woman returned home, they came upon those who remained and recognized something—a familiarity of voice, something in the eye, a word, a way of approaching—perhaps something as simple as their shared humanity. Life. Upon meeting these strangers, who were familiar, they said, Who are you? How have you been surviving? They told their stories; one side to the other. They listened; one side to the other and in the end they said, can we join you? And if it was agreed they did. In this way we grew, through memory, through a storied recognition of the real in someone else and most importantly in a solid understanding of who we were and how—in detail— we had taken the shape we had.
It was not the trip in itself so much as the simple but all encompassing fact of our making it. In taking the time from work and saving throughout the year, those visits to my grandmother's brothers and my grandfather's sisters revealed their belief, individually, that there was something to be handed down. Something beyond the daily skills we grew up integrating into our urban life: cultivating our own food, butchering our own meat, making our own clothes—always with the guiding principles: doo ajiníi da, doo ajít'íi da.
For my Grandma that something included a knowledge of the Colorado River, the Pueblos and horses and for my Grandfather it was always his beloved mountains and the plant people who were rooted to them. What was handed down through the journey was a belief in self. A "Survival This Way."
Survival, I know how this way.
This way, I know.
Mountains and canyons and plants
We traveled this way,
gauged our distance by stories
and loved our children.
We taught them
to love their births.
We told ourselves over and over
"We shall survive this way."
(Simon J. Ortiz)
We do live by staying alive (D'Arcy McNickle) and while the pressures—ancestral, familial, historical—weighed on each of my grandparents uniquely as man, shizhé'é, as woman, shimá, manifesting itself in a self hatred only the colonized can know, they each made their own estimation of the best way to deal with being who they were. And they each, in turn, showed us who we were in San Francisco, California. Shimásani turned to the Roman Catholic Church, while he turned to any wine available.
Choices. We all make our own, and I've looked to both the Catholic Church and to alcohol as a way to dress the wounds myself. When the answer has been and continues to be standing in the center of oneself—a self that prioritizes the roots, the routes, and the memory of what it is to be more beautiful than broken.
We are leaving today to Market, taking 40 through Albuquerque up to Santa Fe. That famous trade trail from Chihuahua up to the Northern plains. Many have made the same journey for generations. And as we pack (paintings, beadwork, writing paper and pens) I am happy to hear Diné Bizaad flow smooth, happy to see others who have chosen to remain whole , those I respect, not only for their commitment to our nation (Tom and Melissa Barnes of Durango Custom Hats and Saddles, Virginia Boone and Leonard Markus of Medicine of the People, and Eli and Trina Secody of Runway Beauty) but for their willingness to hazard their fiscal health and well being as a consequence of that choice.
"The tribes have seen a thousand changes and yet remain who they are. . . so we sing, have reason to sing of our people's lives and experiences. By our very existence, our birth—individual and collective, we cannot help but sing."
(Anna Lee Walters)
- ► 2009 (13)