Her Red Valley of Everlastingness

The Seattle Times
August 25, 2002
By Alex Tizon

MONUMENT VALLEY, Arizona — There might not be a place on Earth farther from the events of September 11 than Rose Yazzie’s heart. It isn’t a haughty or angry distance, but a simple sense of apartness summed up in the words: “That is your world; this is ours.” Yazzie is a Navajo. She is small and imperial, like a miniature queen, 58 years old but with the demeanor of an ancient. An ancient who wears Reeboks.

The outside world has tried, with pinhole success, to infiltrate her earthen hut, where she spends her days weaving rugs from the wool of her sheep. She speaks little English and has no desire to learn. Yazzie claims never to have left the reservation.

Only a few dozen people live in this valley of magnificent spires, the spiritual center of the Navajo Nation, a place where the Earth bleeds a rusty umber, and the blood, it is said, gives life to the tribe. The landscape might be familiar. Marlboro used it as a backdrop for its cigarette ads. John Wayne filmed his signature Westerns here. It isn’t likely they trespassed on Yazzie land. Rose Yazzie lives at the end of a long dirt road closed to outsiders without permission. A sign at the entry says so. How we got past the sign was a matter of luck and dirty laundry.

Into the Navajo Nation

The road out of Las Vegas led from desert to plateau, from dusty brown to a baked terra cotta, the land slowly climbing into the region known as Four Corners, the intersection of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. A lonely highway sign marked the entrance into the Navajo Nation. It read simply: “Indians.”

Navajos encourage a spare, some would say concise, kind of communication: You say what needs saying and no more. You do not laugh if there is nothing funny. You do not smile for no reason. Most important, you do not ask too many questions. For us, it meant numerous short conversations.

Until we met David Clark at the laundromat. He and his wife, Sarah, hauled in a pickup-load of dirty clothes. Almost 60 percent of Navajos live below the poverty line; half live in homes with no electricity or plumbing. Eighty percent of the roads on the nation’s largest reservation — as big as West Virginia — are not paved. For David and Sarah, it was a long, dusty journey to Best Laundry in Kayenta, 30 miles away. “We’re used to it,” David says. It’s better than washing clothes in a river.

He is 49, solid as a sandstone boulder with dark, leathery skin and deep black eyes that seem, from the first moment, to be welcoming. When he was a boy, a couple of Mormon missionaries made friends with his family, and David went off to school in Utah for a few years. They tried, but the Mormons never converted him.

Today, David raises sheep and grows corn, and when the opportunity arises, he works as a guide. There hasn’t been much guide work this year, he says, not since September 11. Navajo leaders, in their reserved, understated way, have encouraged tourism. A tribe with 255,000 members and no casino has to adapt, has to open up even if it hurts. This year, the absence of tourists has been an economic bust. Only 60,000 visitors have come through the valley this year, compared with 400,000 last year. Lodges and gift shops brim with unsold blankets that are the Navajos’ main trading commodity.

But there is no gnashing of teeth over this. It’s simply the hand of fate, like a drought or a flash flood. And there are many in the tribe, secretly or otherwise, who prefer the reservation to themselves.

‘Not our world’

Three kinds of Navajo live on the reservation, David says. The young ones who no longer speak Navajo, who buy rap music and aspire to play in the NBA. The realists, like David, Sarah and most of the official tribal leaders, who’ve accepted that Navajos are also Americans and must therefore try to live some semblance of the American way. And individualists like Rose Yazzie, who is first and only a Navajo. Her kind is a fast-vanishing species.

David brought us to Yazzie’s hogan, an eight-sided hut made of earth and juniper logs. The two are old friends. At first she appeared interrupted, imposed upon. David explained us. She sighed and then nodded as if to say, “Proceed.” With David translating, we asked her about September 11. Yazzie said she heard about what happened, holding up two fingers of her left hand, and then crashing into them with the index finger of her right. She knew nothing of al-Qaida and the war on terrorism. She said she felt bad for the children.

What children, we asked. The children who died, the children whose parents were killed? The children of the terrorists? The children on the reservation who now fear airplanes?

“The children,” she said, and looked away.

Aside from that, the attacks meant little to her, other than a piece of news from a faraway land that she will never see, a land that will never see her.

“It is a sad thing, but it is not our world,” she said.

If there was one place in the universe she would like to see before she died, it would be a strange and exotic land to the east, a place relatives have told her about. It is called Albuquerque. Albuquerque is only a few hours away, we said. Why not go there this weekend? We could take you! “Far,” she said, laughing to herself, as if we crazy outsiders had asked her to go to Jupiter. “Someday.”

We visited for an hour, and at the end, she walked us out into the sunshine, her Reeboks leaving little tread marks on the dirt floor. She sighed a queenly exhalation.

She waved and nodded, and then looked up, hands on her hips, at the red-rock monuments that towered over her hogan. In the sunshine, the rock formations took on a glow, as if fire lit them up from the inside. A distance away, her sheep wandered the same trails that her parents walked, and her grandparents before that, all the way back, according to the Navajo story, to the beginning of time. Her back yard was a red valley of everlastingness. This was her world.