I’m here in Bluff. Been here a day but time moves differently in this place and it feels as though I’ve been here for a significant portion of my life. We drove through Monument Valley, by we I mean the priest as his wife. Monument Valley was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Huge rock formations jut up from a flat dusty red ground like old ships, rusted from age laying on the bottom of the ocean floor.
They aren’t ships though, they’re rocks to the common Anglo and to the Navajo they are, well, monuments. The valley is aptly named. Not monuments in the way you might think, not like the designed and well planned out monuments by famous architects you find on the Mall in D.C. These monuments aren’t constructed at all, at least not by any human. They just came to be that way, geologists have an explanation for it I’m sure. I take note to look this up when I get home.
“Anglo”, that’s what I have been called, meaning I’m Caucasian. “Native” is the word I have heard used by the Navajo and other Native Americans here to describe themselves. “Native”. “Anglo”. These are words that I would have thought too plain and objectifying to actually be used, but they are the terms. I am getting used to calling myself “Anglo” and the Native Americans “Natives”. They are, at the very least, honest terms.
Turns out I am just one of many people at St. Christopher’s Mission this week. This place is otherwise very quiet, isolated and sparse I was told, but is currently alive with about 60 middle and high school kids, camp counselors and workshop instructors. I’m one such instructor for both writing and Tai Chi.
I’m staying in one of the “monks’ cells”; one of many small rooms in a pink stucco building that sits up against a bluff wall. My room has just enough space for a twin bed and a dresser. The door to the room leads directly to the outside courtyard where I currently sit in a chair under the hot afternoon sun, watching lizards run up and down the adobe walls as I write.
Some counselors and other instructors, all Native, are sitting under the only trees on the grounds that are actually tall enough to give a space of shade. I look at them and then they look at me. We keep eyeing each other back and forth. I’m watching them because I want to go over and introduce myself, but I’m nervous about what I will say. Worried I’ll be too imposing on their circle of conversation.
They keep eyeing me as I sit here. I know why too. I’m the only insane person sitting in the direct sun at one in the afternoon. Everyone else, Anglos included, are sitting under tents or are inside the church. Not me. I’m sitting out here with my 50 SPF lotion and jug of water in the heat and sun, soaking up as much as I can on the sandy red rocks.
Sure, I look nuts and I don’t really care, I love the way the heat feels. It’s dry here and it’s a heat I’ve decided I like. A sauna with a warm breeze, the sun is like a blanket and my skin feels alive with its rays. I don’t do this to get a tan. I don’t tan, I freckle immensely and my skin turns red. I know it’s not good for me, but I love the way it feels. A lizard sits next to my foot, he knows what I’m talking about.
“You’re cooking yourself.” A lady named Wendy walks up to me.
“Oh I know, but I love the heat.” I say smiling, happy she was able to muster up the courage to say hello. Other than the priest and his wife, I had only really made friends with the lizard.
“You should come sit with us, under the trees over there-” She points to where I know she’s been sitting. I’ve been watching her. She’s been helping the kids make something with colored beads while a man next to her whittles some wood, also making something I haven’t been able to identify. I know her name is Wendy because I heard someone refer to her earlier that day and I took note. She’s a short woman, a Native, with a sweet smile and long dark hair. She was wearing a blue sun visor and sunglasses.
“Only if I won’t be in the way, I’d love to come sit with you.” I say, so relieved to be given the invitation; I make fun of myself later for this strange shyness. I am an extrovert after all, at least that’s what they tell me.
“Oh, sure. Come on. We are making medicine bags and Arthur there is making flutes.” We walk over together, to the shade. As I enter the gray circle the temperature drops significantly, and goosebumps crawl over my skin. Perhaps I had been in the sun too long, the shade felt refreshing.
When I sit down everyone in the circle says hello and introduces themselves. I finally give my introduction, but I decide to leave out the whole “I’m an Episcopalian, visiting the church and mission” and instead just focus on “I”m a writing and Tai Chi instructor”. When they ask me where I’m from they all laugh. “Really?” They wonder at me. “Indiana?” Yes, I assure them they heard me right, Indiana.
“Where’s Indiana?” a kid asks me. “Next to Tennessee right?” Asks another. “No. No. It’s close to Virginia.” Another insists.
My turn to laugh. “Actually it’s close to the Great Lakes… close to Chicago and Kentucky. It’s both northern and southern in a way.” They all nod in agreement, “Right, right…that’s Indiana.”
“Indiana is the German word for Indian.” Arthur, the man making flutes chimes in. He’s wearing sunglasses and a bandanna over his long hair that’s braided down his back.
“I had no idea.” I admit and I take note to look this up when I get home.
But why, he asked, did I come all the way out here from Indiana? Wasn’t that far away? And to come all the way out here? “Yeah, Here?” The others in the group agree. To Bluff? This place? In the middle of the desert? I laugh as I learn I am not the only one somewhat shocked at how sparse of a location Bluff, Utah actually is.
“Yeah, so why?” They repeat. “Well” I pause, “ I also wanted to come out here and visit this church and the other Episcopal Churches out here… the other churches in the reservation.”
“Oh….Episco-?” Wendy asks.
“-palian” I finish.
“Episcopalian.” She says. “So that’s what this mission is?” She points to the church.
“Yep.” I say matter-of-factly. “St. Christopher’s Mission.”
“It’s a beautiful church.” She says as she helps one of the girls tie the strings on her medicine bag. I watch closely as she does this and add, “Yes it is beautiful.”
We are quiet for a time, but it’s not awkward. We are just sitting there, each to their own craft and task, but still in our circle of shade.
“Erin, do you want to make a medicine bag?” I thought she’d never ask. Wendy hands me the pieces I require to make such a thing and she shows me how to string beads along the fringe that lines the bag.
We sit there for two, three, maybe four hours. I’m putting beads on my medicine bag all the while Arthur is talking to me and I’m trying not to miss a word. He’s telling me stories about himself and about the Native Americans.
He’s married to Wendy and they are at the camp because they love the kids and they want help them, “be role models” he says. Wendy tells me they’ve been foster parents to kids in the area. They tell me about the kids and their lives. How tough it is out here. The abuse, the neglect, the sub-par housing, the lack of resources, the drugs, the loss. But they also tell me about the beauty and the tradition.
Arthur tells me about his ancestry and how he’s a Uté native, the tribe from which Utah got its name. He tells me about Wendy’s tribe, the Navajo who are actually called the Diné. I ask him about this and I discover he’s in the camp that believes the word Navajo means “thief”.
Arthur and Wendy each speak their native language but cannot really understand each other’s native language. Their cultures, he tells me, are very different. I ask him more about this, about how they are different. He tells me the languages, the rituals, the customs are all different.
“Utés are warriors”, he says “We fought hard to keep this land, from other Natives, the Spanish, and the Anglos.” But he assures me that in many ways the native tribes are similar too.
Finally, I ask him the question I have been burning to ask. “So, I see there are many churches out here, like this one-” I point to St. Christopher’s behind us, “Is that normal? Do Natives go to these churches?”
Arthur laughed, “Well Natives, some Natives, they can do both. Ya know? They can have the tradition and they can have their American customs too.”
“Do you all….do that?” I’m hesitant to ask “Do you go to church?” because it sounds a little too imposing, “do that” wasn’t much better however.
“Me? No.” Says Arthur, “But Wendy here, she was raised in the Mormon tradition.”
“Yes. My foster parents raised me in the Mormon faith and I still practice with them when we get together. But I practice the Navajo traditions.” Next to Wendy sat an older Navajo woman who turned to Wendy and began to speak Navajo. The two women went back and forth in the language I had never heard before for the next hour we sat there.
After a while Arthur looks at me and says, “I can’t really understand them either.” Laughing he continues to sand down a piece of bamboo he is forming into a flute for a boy, maybe thirteen, who watches intensely.
“Have you been out east?” I ask as I place a black followed by a red bead onto my medicine bag.
“Well, I have passed through Indiana before. And Wendy and I, we went to Germany, maybe-” he stops sanding and looks at Wendy as she continues to speak to the woman next to her. “maybe like, two or three years ago?” he finishes.
“Wow, Germany….of all the places, what made you want to go there?” I asked surprised by this news.
“Well, we have always wanted to see Germany and learn about the culture there. We went to the concentration camps and the Holocaust museums.” Arthur hands the flute to the boy next to him, “Try it.”
The kid takes it from Arthur and blows a high toot. “Too high?” Asks the boy and hands it back to Arthur who promptly takes it back and continues to grind away at the holes.
“Nazi Germany… certainly not a very uplifting part of history.” I add placing a yellow bead followed by a blue on my craft.
“Ya know, we’ve always wanted to go there, to Germany. We wanted to see how the Jews were treated and the others that the Nazis put into camps… Hitler, ya know, he didn’t have any original ideas with his camps.” Arthur hands the flute back to the boy, “Try it now.”
The boy takes the flute again, this time blowing a deeper note and then moving his fingers so a high airy pitch is released and then low again. “Like the eagle.” The boy laughs, “Did it sound like the eagle?”
Arthur smiled and taking the flute back he blew quickly into the small wood pipe an impressive eagle call. We all in the circle paused for a moment at what we were doing to watch, mesmerized by the accuracy. He did it again, and again and then stopping handed the flute over to the boy, “Now you try.”
The boy took it back and began to practice the eagle call. After a few whistle filled tries he hands it back to Arthur, “I can’t.”
“Well, that’s because we aren’t finished yet.” Arthur continued to whittle.
“So, anyway, Hitler….everyone wants to know how and why Hitler came up with his ideas to get rid of a whole race of people. Ya know? Everyone is always saying how terrible he was and his ideas, ya know? But he didn’t do anything new. They were terrible ideas and the things he did were terrible. But his ideas, well, he got them from the way the European Americans wiped out the Natives here.”
Arthur took a torch and burnt the face of the bamboo flute, caramelizing its colors. Then handing the flute back to the boy he showed him how to tie off a piece of leather at the top next to the mouth piece. I stopped beading my medicine bag to watch the process.
After a moment the boy took his flute, “So, it’s done?” Looking at Arthur just as astonished as I was at how quickly an instrument could be constructed.
Smiling Arthur says, “Yeah. Now go try the eagle call.” The boy got up and went to sit on the other side of Wendy as she continued to chat away in Navajo. The boy tried the eagle call, several times, again and again and it became one of the many sounds of the circle in the shade.
“I know what you mean.” I say finally looking back to my medicine bag, “Hitler is famous for his genocide, but genocide is no new thing.”
“Except when the American government fights against it…” Arthur laughs.
“Right.” I say in agreement, astonished at the frank conversation we are having about what my ancestors did to his. We never framed the conversation this way, but I can’t help it. I make the connection in my mind and guilt sits with me in the desert.
“But I’m American. And I’m glad to be an American. Ya know?” Arthur says after a while. “We have some things to work on, but this is a good country.” He laughs and I watch as he begins cutting down another piece of bamboo to be made into a flute.
“Don’t worry, you can make one tomorrow.” Arthur says as I watch, “I’ll be here all week.”
“That would be lovely, thank you so much.” I smile at his kindness.
“Can you play anything?” He asks me.
“Actually I can.”
“Oh yeah?” He says, a little surprised.
“Amazing Grace.” I smile remembering the finger patterns from my 5th grade music class.
Arthur picks up a finished flute from a box and hands it to me, “Play it for us.”
I take the flute, longer than the one I saw him finish for the boy earlier. I blow into it to gather understanding of how the thing makes sound. After a couple of airy notes I place my fingers just so and begin to play. This time the eyes of the circle are on me, smiles all around as I play the familiar song.
“That was good.” Arthur smiles. “I’ll try.” I return the flute to its maker who begins to play the old hymn. It was Amazing Grace but with a faster pace and notes that hung on a bit longer and definitely with more eagle call than my rendition.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.