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Posts Tagged ‘Native Americans’

Trespassers

Tsegi. That’s what Canyon de Chelly is to the Navajo people. Home.

It’s an odd sort of thing, and a great controversy I might add, that this national park site is also a home. Canyon de Chelly is not only home to many families of Diné (the real tribal name of the Navajo), but several of those families live in a truly traditional, simple manner, quietly farming the fertile soils of the valley floor, shunning modern conveniences and menaces. Thankfully, the Park Service in conjunction with the Navajo Nation restricts visitor access to the valley floor. I’m sure it’s a hard life, but I have great respect for the people who live it. Frankly, there is a lot of appeal in the simple life (and no, I’m not talking about a crappy reality show starring two talentless bimbos). Look at where our complicated lives have led us? Fat, lazy, conceited, arrogant. Perhaps a little simplicity is just what this country needs.

Canyon de Chelly is a gorgeous place. Absolutely stunning. I visited on a cloudy, drizzly day, and it was still a beautiful spot. The sandstone walls interact with daylight and cast a golden hue over the entire canyon. Climbing down to the canyon floor lifts one spirits, troubles are left on the canyon’s rim as you descend in golden splendor to a simpler, wholesome time. Of course, you have to turn around and go back up again, but for a while, you can just revel in the beauty of the spot. It can be downright spiritual (if you believe in such things).

Massacre Cave Overlook © 2006 Scott Speck Fine Art Photography

This place does have “spiritual significance” written all over it. First, there’s the natural beauty. Then there are the old Anasazi ruins sitting in the niches of the canyon walls, direct reminders of native ancestors, ghosts of the past. These aren’t malicious ghosts, the aura given off (again, if you believe in such things) is good, as if these spirits are guarding over the inhabitants of the canyon, guarding over you as well as long as you respect the land on which you trod, as long as you respect the rights of the residents of this land. Then there’s glorious Spider Rock, which has special significance to the Navajo (and, I’m sure, to the tribes who lived in the canyon before them). I know I’m laying in the mysticism really thick here, but such are my memories of my visit to Canyon de Chelly. I’m quite fond of Native American spirituality, that special connection between man and the natural world that most religions pave over as they build their next UberChurch, or blow up with bombs strapped to the waistbands of their children.

Cliff Dwelling © 2006 Scott Speck Fine Art Photography

I do have to say one negative about my visit. This was my first visit to a real Indian reservation, and frankly, I felt really uncomfortable. Although the Navajo reservation is better than most, there is a great deal of poverty and not much opportunity on Indian reservations in America. It’s painful to look at, for this is a people who were truly victimized by the country, and not just some folks who fell on hard times. These people have had hard times for hundreds of years, hard times because they were forced to have hard times by people who were afraid of them. And now we populate their reservations with fast-food outlets & alcohol, yet make such cumbersome rules that industry doesn’t have much of a chance (unless, of course, casinos pay off Congressmen to allow gambling, but that’s another issue).

Looking Towards Cliff Edge © 2006 Scott Speck Fine Art Photography

I, a white suburbanite tourist, was clearly the outsider in the Navajo reservation, and I felt like a trespasser. The locals do look upon you with quiet contempt, contempt passed down through sadness from generation to generation. I don’t begrudge them their contempt, for it’s hard to feel anger at them when their people have faced oppression of some kind or another for hundreds of years. Contempt is part of their very being now, every generation knows full well of the damage inflicted upon previous generations, they are reminded of it on a daily basis as they live their lives. I know I shouldn’t feel guilt for the sins of my fathers, but I can’t help it. It’s my Catholic upbringing, I feel guilty about pretty durn near much everything. At least, in this case, there’s a reason.

I would like to see nothing more than all the native tribes of this country get out of poverty. I’m not a big fan of casinos, for they don’t add any value to the people or the country. I’d love to see clean industries, or efficient agriculture, or cultural attractions, or something viable, sustainable, and effective, in place at all of America’s Indian reservations to bring these folks out of poverty yet keep their cultural identity intact. Why hasn’t this happened yet? In this enlightened day and age, why are there still these pockets of poverty? It’s because no one’s trying, that what I’ll wager. I haven’t researched it fully, but I’m sure there are a lot of stupid rules and regulations about such things happening on Indian lands, and damn it, they should be changed. It’s a national embarrassment, to be frank.

It’s long past time we fixed it.

South View © 2006 Scott Speck Fine Art Photography

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited the Canyon. These photos are taken, with permission, from Scott Speck’s Fine Art Photography. More terrific Canyon pictures, in large-scale glory, are here. He has a real interesting eye for photography, check out his site for more.]

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Links:

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Fine Art Photography by Scott Speck

Navajo Nation Tourism Department (including horseback tours of the canyon)

Google map to Canyon de Chelly

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Several weeks ago, in my Badlands post, I briefly mentioned the Wounded Knee massacre site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I thought my recommendation this time around should go back to that.

I applaud anyone who wants to read more on Native American history. Over the decades since I was a kid, we’ve collectively become more sensitive to their plight. They are no longer depicted as the “savage enemy” in popular culture, but IMO we still don’t understand the full depth & breadth of the trauma these people went through.

For those wishing to embark on an independent study of the Native American, I can recommend no better starting point than Dee Brown’s classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, the first widely read work of its kind: a history of Indians by an Indian.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I have to be totally honest here: Brown isn’t the best writer in the world. His prose isn’t graceful or eloquent, but it is written from the heart, and in a storytelling style that suits the voice of the Native American people. Unlike Europeans, tribal ancestors spoke (or even sang) their histories, passing tales & lessons down in a great, verbal tradition. Brown relates these sad tales of Indian oppression in a similar, conversational style that honors this tradition. Reading “Bury My Heart” is like listening to tales of old, spoken by wise, yet dispirited, elders to wide-eyed youth.

Pick it up & give it a read.

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Peace and Unquiet

I find something magical in the Great Plains. I know, it’s just this big expanse of nuttin’, but I love the big, wide-open spaces. To stand in a spot where you can’t see anything, for miles and miles, feels so mentally and spiritually cleansing. It’s all about space, just experiencing the vastness of all dimensions, it’s … captivating.

View from Agate — © America In Context 2007

My very first experience with the Plains was not so captivating. I was returning from a business trip to San Jose, California. Shortly after the plane passed the Rocky Mountains, we hit a patch of turbulence. Patch? Patch nothing … the plane shook for nearly an hour! I really hate flying, I mean really hate it. We’re talking sheer, white-knuckled terror, and that’s on a good flight! This tumultuous one, well, either the plane was going to crash, or I was going to shake myself apart from the tension. Looking out the window, wide-eyed with fear, I could see the vast, unpopulated plains of Nebraska looming below me. “Anywhere but there”, I said to myself. “I don’t want to die in the middle of Nebraska!”

The pilot then comes on, and blurts out “well, we’re going to try to go up 5,000 more feet, see if it quiets down.” A twitch of the flaps and there we were, smooth as glass. I wanted to go up front and bitch-slap that bastard for waiting so long, but I couldn’t pry my fingers out of the armrests.

Being on the ground in Nebraska is so much better than flying over it.

Back On Topic

Funky Diorama — © America In Context 2007Agate Fossil Beds itself is nothing special. It’s just a couple of knolls in the prairie. But it does tell a fascinating paleontologic story. See, a couple of million years ago, there was this watering hole. Big herbivores loved this watering hole. Then, one day, it dried up. The herbivores started to starve. Then the predators came and ate them all up, but they too started to starve, for there were no more herbivores. Then the scavengers showed up and ate all the dead predators, but then they, too died, for there was nothing left to scavenge. All of them died in this big heap. A few million years later, paleontologists showed up, and wondered just what the hell happened! Was this some cultic suicide, did these Miocene animals drink some prehistoric Kool-Aid at the bidding of a dinosaur with a bad haircut wearing Ray-Bans? Or was it something more natural? It’s a neat story to those so inclined.

Agate does another wonderful thing: it helps preserve Native American culture. Here’s another case of individual bravery in the face of government brutality: a man by the name of James Cook owned a ranch near the fossil beds during the heyday of their excavation. He managed to befriend Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux. He often gave Red Cloud’s people aid and comfort during the painful years of reservation life. Red Cloud honored Cook through gifts of many Sioux-crafted items, all now displayed at Agate Fossil Beds. It’s a small, but quite impressive, collection. They also support Native artisans, and have regular showings of their current works.

It’s quite off the beaten path, but take a few hours to drive there. Lose yourself in the wide expanse that is the Great Plains (I recommend getting out of the car first, though. No zoning out behind the wheel, please).

Hide Painting — © America In Context 2007

[All pictures on this entry are originals by the blog owner.]

See all original photos of Agate Fossil Beds

Links:

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Google map to Agate Fossil Beds

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Just for the heck of it, here’s a picture of a bunny:

Agate Bunny — © America In Context 2007

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