Cate Costely from Middlebury College offers a heart wrenching and heartwarming narrative about what she learned while working at St. Anne’s Mission in Klagetoh, Arizona.
To give you a snapshot into our experience, I want to share two stories. The first is a story of discouragement, frustration and resignation. The second is one of joy, friendship, possibility and hope.
Throughout the summer, I struggled to understand how these starkly contrasting ideas could coexist on the reservation. I am still struggling with these realizations. And I think I will continue to struggle in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Today, however, I want to share these stories with you and then offer my current reflections on how to reconcile the despair and hopefulness I experienced.
First, the hard stuff. Grace and I woke early on July 3rd. Our task for the day was to assist a family in their grocery shopping by transporting them in the mission’s van because their 1987 white pick-up truck is not capable of making the trip. Simple enough, it would seem. But I do not think any other project from the summer could so well capture the dysfunction and poverty in which so many Navajo find themselves living.
Picture this: Our day begins by driving with the family seventy miles to the nearest large grocery store in Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup is off the reservation and caters to the needs of Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo communities within a vast radius because there are very few industries or stores on the reservations. On the outskirts of Gallup, pawnshops and pay-day loan businesses line the highway. We stop at one and the grandmother of the family disappears into the dark building, reemerging with crisp $100 dollar bills tucked into her purse. I do not know what she pawned; I do not know what interest rate she will be paying in the months ahead.
Next, we pull into the parking lot of Super Wal-Mart, where there is not a space to be found. It is the beginning of the month, and therefore the store is packed with Navajo families – from teenage moms to elderly couples – spending their government assistance money on the food, clothing and other products that they will need for the coming month.
Inside the massive store, it is barely-contained chaos. We grab two carts and spend the next three and a half hours filling them. Into the cart goes Spam, Choco-Fruity Puffs, Orange Soda and Kraft cheese. Into the cart goes anything and everything the family will need for the month of July because they won’t have another chance to shop. At the check-out, the grandma pays with a combination of cash and her EBT card. She does not have a bank account. Then it’s off to Burger King for lunch. At the fast-food restaurant, we see a Navajo man passed out on the sidewalk, presumably from drinking. A Navajo woman with a bruised and cut-up face approaches me and asks for some change, and it’s all I can do to not break down and cry right then and there.
Instead, we all pile back into the van and return to the reservation, seventy miles away.
And it’s only when Grace and I had unloaded the van, said good-bye to the family and made it back to the mission that I cried.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed and hollow-out and sad. No matter what aspect of the day I thought about, I saw deeply-entrenched problems.
Transportation issues, scarcity of resources on the reservation, poor nutrition, reliance on government assistance, unemployment, alcoholism, hopelessness.
Wave upon wave of poverty crashing down, relentlessly.
And for me, this was just one day. But for many people, this is their life.
I went to bed that night feeling low. When I awoke the next morning, however, the big, beautiful Arizona sky greeted me. To me, that sky speaks of possibility and hope. It renews my motivation and optimism.
With this in mind, I now want to share the second story:
The day dawned bright, clear and hot. It was, without a doubt, the perfect day for an excursion to the swimming hole.
And so, by 9 AM, the big red van was packed with fifteen Navajo kids. Grace was in the driver’s seat; I was riding shotgun, and away we went.
108 miles later, we arrived at the creek – an incredible oasis of greenery and freshwater in the middle of a parched, arid landscape.
We tumbled out of the van. Very few of the kids had bathing suits; very few knew how to swim. But that was okay. Because this was a day to simply revel in the coolness of the water. This was a day to splash in the shallows for hours on end. I watched the reserved, impassive mask of a girl named Savanna fall away to reveal a smiling, laughter-filled face. I saw a hardened and mean boy named Wikeam bobbing around in a lifejacket with an irrepressible grin. He had taken off his flat-rim hat and his tough guy persona, and let a happier, kinder-self shine through.
When the sun started to sink toward the west and turn the desert a shade of molten gold, Grace and I had to cajole the kids out of the water and back to the van.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I turned on the radio. After just the first few notes, the kids screamed, “Turn it up!” We all recognized those opening bars: it was the song “Let it Go,” from the Disney movie Frozen. I upped the volume and music filled the van.
There was something beautiful and timely about hearing “Let it Go” at that moment, in that place, with those kids. Because, for that day, we had overcome the poverty of the reservation. We had overcome the sorrow of broken families and the difficulties of unemployment, poor education, alcoholism and lack of opportunity.
We had experienced joy – pure and simple. We had had fun. Every kid was elated and unstoppable.
So, there you have it: two different stories, two different days, two drastically different snapshots of reservation life.
The first story grapples with the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of huge, faceless entities such as the Department of Economic Security, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, SNAP and Navajo Health Services. This story also wrestles with the impact of massive, impersonal corporations like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay and Budweiser.
Meanwhile, the second story is all about names and faces. It is about Nick and Kelly and Chryssie and Ely. It’s about Savanna and Wikeam and Andrea and Maria.
I believe that any solutions to the challenges the Navajo face must begin on this personal, face-to-face level. I believe that through education, nurturing and empowerment, each of those children I just named could build a life that is incrementally more functional and less impoverished than the previous generation’s. Through a sustained investment in education – from HeadStart to the end of college – there’s a way to nurture the hope we experienced at the swimming hole and grow that hope into a sense of purpose, identity and initiative that could start to combat the large-scale issues explored in the first story.
Each of those kids has the resilience and potential to get a high school diploma from a reservation school, then leave the rez to obtain quality higher education or job training, and ultimately return to the Navajo Nation to inject knowledge, energy and industry into their communities. From speaking with many Navajo and from my own observations, this is currently the most viable way to create a successful life that incorporates the demands of the twenty-first century world, while still honoring the sacredness of Navajo traditions and the Navajo homeland.
It is heartbreakingly easy, though, for kids and young adults to be derailed from this path. Alcohol and drugs are especially prevalent deterrents. But maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the road, someone takes an interest in a kid’s life. Someone says, “Hey, I want you to know that I admire and respect you. I think you are capable of so much.”
That’s what Grace and I tried to do this summer. With the guidance of our mentors at the mission, we tried to listen and support and understand and accept. In small ways, we tried to bring joy and nurture dreams.
And if you asked me right now where I will be a year from today, I would tell you that I’d be on the Navajo Nation, teaching middle school English, coaching cross-country, and leading a girls’ empowerment group. Because this summer pushed me and challenged me and discouraged me, but it also inspired me. I believe the Navajo people are struggling, but they’re not bereft of motivation. I believe that through good education, the kids have choices and options to create better lives. I still believe that vast Arizona sky is filled with possibility. And I want to keep waking up under that big blue expanse and greeting the day with hope.