Schultheis: Completing the Circle | Dispatches
by Rob Schultheis
May 25, 2007 | 373 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print

The land was ours before we were the land's...

– Robert Frost

Back in the summer of 1971,  I worked as a researcher down on the Navajo Reservation,  commuting from Boulder and spending a week or two at a time in the field. The research project was an attempt to find out how young Navajos were doing economically and socially, and the anthropology professor running the thing had a list of hundreds of recent

graduates from high schools on the Reservation; my job was to track them down and

persuade them to answer a list of questions like "Do you have a job or not?", "Are you happy with your life?",  and "How do you think things will be for you in the future?" 

The questions were not that bad in and of themselves, but the fact was, no one was going to do anything useful with the answers, which were more often than not depressing,

reflecting the lack of job opportunities and chances for higher education in Navajo country. It was an embarassing job;  I felt like I was collaborating in yet another white man's scam inflicted on the long-suffering Dineh', though I wasn't exactly prospering in the process. My pay was gas money, five dollars a day for food, and fifteen dollars for each successful interview,  and I was lucky to knock off four or five in a week.

Still,  I found myself loving the time I spent on the Rez,  driving the backroads through remote little trading post towns like Shonto, Chilchinbito, Rough Rock and Inscription House. I had several Native American friends up at CU, including a couple of hip Navajos who were majoring in anthropology, and the Rez had a vibe that drew me in: the incandescent other-landscape, the intricate and musical sounds of the Dineh' language, the Navajos' ability to poke fun at the many lame elements in Anglo culture.  

I had plenty of time to think on my way down from Boulder and back,  driving my old VW Bug through the green heart of the summertime Rockies, and after several trips I found myself feeling more and more at home when I was on the Reservation, and more and more estranged when I wasn't there.  

I began to realize that a lot of it had to do with the land, the earth beneath my wheels. To the Navajos, the place they lived was sacred, alive: they talked to it, listened to it,  kept it in the center of their hearts and minds. 

When I left the Reservation, driving north by northeast, everything changed: the earth was mere real estate to the white people who lived on it,  dead dirt whose only value was measured in money. From Cortez to the Front Range, the mountains were festooned with "For Sale" signs, carved up by developers' roads that led nowhere.

Even if you weren't a Navajo,  you could sense the gods and spirits out there in the stones and sands of the Rez; but the deities that once dwelled in the white man's mountains were long gone, leaving a tremendous yawning emptiness in their place.

I thought about that summer a week and a half ago, when the news came out that we Telluriders had done the nearly-impossible and raised the money to pay for the Valley Floor. We proved that the place we call home means more to us than dollars and cents;  that to us it is something living, something worth saving – not only worth saving,  but something that had to be saved, because if we lost it we would lose ourselves, too.

It may be my imagination, but when I look out at the valley and the guardian summits surrounding it, I feel something like I did that summer on the Rez: that there are still

gods and spirits here, and that they know what we did, and are glad; and that we have proved we truly belong here, and that only great things will come of that in the future, in the form of a million rainbows, a million million wildflowers, and the best and happiest seasons human beings have ever enjoyed on this planet.

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