Sunday, October 24, 2010

Navajo Country

I spent two nights in Thoreau, New Mexico with my friend Erin and her fiancée Patrick.  Seeing as we both had the same kindergarten teacher, sweet old Mrs. Thurlow, I guess it would be fair to call Erin my oldest friend.  They live in a teacherage, a tiny community for the teachers that serve the area's public schools.  Thoreau (pronounced almost like "through," and not named after the poet) is a town of nearly 2000 on the southeast border of Navajo territory.  What few white people which reside there are usually either educators or missionaries from the approximately dozen churches established to convert those natives which remain savages (incredibly enough, some zealous bloggers still use the term).

I was invited to sit in during a lesson on Paul Revere's midnight ride, and was introduced as an expert on Paul Revere to explain my presence.  After the lesson and before the bell's ringing, Erin encouraged the students to teach me some Navajo.  I turned out to be a miserable student.  Most of the expressions I tried to mimic involved peculiar compound vowel sounds I had never heard or tried to make myself.  At least the kids found my efforts entertaining.

Erin and Patrick had adopted one of the countless stray dogs which hover around the streets of Thoreau looking for scraps, a handsome and energetic puppy they named Razz.  We took him for a hike in neighboring canyon, where he teased a rabbit out of a bush and left it nearly dead and panting wide-eyed.  I scurried to find a rock and put it out of its misery.

Navajo lore speaks of a sort of a boogie man they call a skin-walker: a shape-shifter usually taking form between a man and a coyote, cursed for past atrocities and with a disposition for causing random mischief during the moonlit hours.  This legend actually receives some fulfillment.  Evidently, certain drunks will spend days in the wilderness at a time, even wearing coyotes pelts and causing the exact kind of devilry normally attributed to skin-walkers.

The sale of liquor is illegal on reservations, but that doesn't keep a shady prohibition style underground economy from flourishing - nor empty bottles and cans off the sides of the roads.  Though the practice of using every part of a slaughtered sheep is still upheld, the same reverence for the environment sadly fails to show elsewhere, as garbage builds up just about anywhere people are.

Upon departing, I made time to explore a pretty extensive network of Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon: massive and numerous thousand year old settlements of sandstone, once an important trading hub for surrounding tribal communities.  Macaw skeletons and other goods from tropical Mexico have been excavated from the sites, helping describe the vastness of the trade network.

I was also able to visit Pueblo de Taos which, despite also being 1000 years old, has been continually inhabited by natives since.  I couldn't help but feel an intruder wandering around with my fancy clothes and a camera, but it became increasingly clear to me the community depends on tourism, with most of the buildings facing the main square converted to shops selling jewelry, leatherware, and baked goods to outsiders.  80% of the community have been baptized as Christians, but all maintain the ceremonies and traditions passed down from the centuries.

As is becoming more and more usual, I left New Mexico wishing I had more time to explore, and yet eager for what came next.  I spent 20 hours driving in less than 48 hours, in the middle of which I spent an evening sleeping in the cramped back of my car in Lubbock, Texas.  My ass is terribly sore.  

Now I'm in Austin, kicking it with my friend Laura and loving the sunshine.  

Matthew out.


Terri L said...

I only hope that you lived up to the Native American's example and you ATE THAT BUNNY after you killed it.

Terri L said...

Matthew is hunting wabbit!