It was going to be a long day of travel, nearly five hundred miles. Eli knew it would be hard because he now had all these thoughts in his head and couldn’t afford to be distracted while he was on the road. The only thing he knew for sure was that his destination had changed…he wasn’t going home today.
Tony was right, he needed to evaluate everything he had seen and heard, but not alone. The only person Eli knew or could even consider talking to about all of this was his grandfather in Tuba City. He would have to call Miguel once he got there and perhaps his parents would understand. What choice did they have?
At all those evening campfires since his childhood Eli had listened to Walter talk about the lives of their people. If Eli felt even half of his heritage in the Diné counted for something it was because of this old man. But now he needed someone to listen to his thoughts and hoped Walter would not find the news disturbing.
How could he tell someone about being gay? That knowledge didn’t come from any real experience, at least not anything of the sexual kind. But feelings counted, didn’t they? His desires had led him this far and the journey wasn’t over. Walter had to listen and be made to understand.
There was wisdom in the old ways although Eli had not always understood or embraced the meanings behind things he had been told. But now he was focused on Tuba City and the highway in front of him.
For almost three hours Eli drove with purpose, the radio playing soft rock music until the station faded away. Highway 15 was a busy connector for Salt Lake City and points south, especially Las Vegas. The latter being a tourist haven in the desert Eli had no interest in seeing. Why bother, gambling had no appeal.
The map showed him that Route 20 cut across from 15 back onto Route 89 and that was the shortest way to reach Tuba City. But before he got there Eli saw the signs for Beaver and thought of Mathias.
The area was sparsely populated, but Eli took the exit towards the town to look for fuel and food. Right off the highway there was the standard Chevron gas station and the nearby McDonalds. With more time he might find something better to eat, but this would have to do.
The turn onto Route 20 was about ten miles below the town and twenty minutes later he was back on Route 89 headed for Panguitch. This was familiar territory and signaled the halfway point to Tuba City. Eli smiled as he passed the town because Mathias had told him that the name meant “big fish” in the Paiute language.
How many towns and cities had kept their Native American names? Even as the transplanted Europeans had swept westward destroying the culture of those they called Indians they kept the names. Many places were named after the natural features like lakes and mountains, things that still remained.
So little of Native America was left to pass down to younger generations. The public schools did little to remind their students of what had been lost by the natives in the westward push by the whites. That concept was one of Walter’s favorite rants.
“The Diné were pushed north, south, east and west, all over what was to become Arizona and New Mexico. The Nation is now the largest parcel of native owned land in the country…and do you know why?”
Eli had admitted he really didn’t have a clue, but he knew Walter would tell him.
“It’s because much of this is land no one wanted. The past was filled with conflict between the People and the white man’s government, but in this the Diné history of settlement was not unique…we were more fortunate than some.”
In Flagstaff Eli could see the San Francisco Mountains, known in the Creation Myth as the sacred Abalone Shell Mountains. The peaks of this range delineated the old western boundary of Dinétah, the ancient homeland. Other mountains in Colorado and New Mexico were once markers for the land held by the People until the white man came.
“What was sacred to us then is still with us today in our hearts,” Walter had said. “Our relationship to this land is older than the white man can understand. We are people of the earth and should only worry that the Holy Ones recognize our responsible stewardship of this land.”
Walter often spoke like a holy man or perhaps a politician since he was both. But it was his faith that the Holy Ones dictated all things in life for the People which made Eli seek out his grandfather’s wisdom, and he was almost there. Perhaps he would be in time for dinner.
Heading down out of the mountains once again, Eli felt regret as the trees began to thin out in favor of the scrub growth that preceded his entry to the desert environment. All he would have now were the photos of tree covered hillsides and the vast grasslands of the northwestern states he’d visited.
The mountains began to fade into hills until Eli saw the sign that said “Welcome to Arizona” and once again Eli crossed the bridge by the dam into Page. Almost there he told himself, just under two hours to go.
There was almost this feeling of coming home as Eli approached the boundaries of the Nation. His Navajo roots felt deeper as he approached his meeting with Walter. Of all the relationships in his family this bond with Walter was the most important.
To the east were the flat topped sandy hills that seemed to be a common feature across the Nation lands. But to his west would be the steep canyon lands that led down to the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon tourist area was a place Eli had visited once when he was younger, so much younger that the depth had scared him.
He could not imagine that the tiny flow of water he could see from the rim of the canyon was the same river that flowed lazily past their grazing sheep down in Yuma. He finally understood the power that nature gave water when he reached middle school science class.
His past trips to Tuba City and the various excursions with his family across the Nation lands revealed the wonders of nature. All the way up the Navajo Trail from Tuba City through Kayenta and on into the Canyon De Chelly, Eli had seen the power water had over the land. Vast acres covered in rounded hills caused by the erosion of water millions of years ago.
The only water available in this dry and dusty desert was from the occasional storms which did little to fill the streams or nourish the greenery. Bridges spanned dry stream beds, and gullies indicated where a flash flood might carry water off when it did rain. Any water that existed now was deep underground, so how could people live there?
The Diné were just plain stubborn his father often said. “If you gave them a dead tree they would water it. Not because it would come back to life but because they owned it.”
Perhaps that was overstating the case, but the people on Nation land did manage to scratch out a living. Few lived in the traditional hogan, but there were trailer homes in abundance. Eli did not envy that lifestyle, but then he led a privileged existence.
The Navajo Trail soon appeared and Eli turned towards Tuba City. Perhaps he should have called ahead since he didn’t know what his grandfather was doing at the moment. But it was late afternoon and his grandmother would be about to prepare their dinner. It didn’t take long to reach their driveway and Eli parked the wagon in the shade of the oak trees in the front yard.
“Eli…Ah-hah-lah’nih,” His grandmother said when she came to the door. He got a hug and a smile to go with the greeting.
“Shah-mah’ tsah’nih,” Eli said. He had been using the Navajo name for grandmother since he had learned to talk.
“How nice to see you…will you stay for dinner?”
“Please,” Eli said. “Is Walter around?”
“He is in the hogan…been there the past three days working on something. He said to expect you would come.”
How could he have known? But she didn’t seem the least bit surprised so see him and they both understood Walter’s ways of just knowing things.
“I should go see him,” Eli said.
“You do that…and tell him dinner will be ready in about an hour.”
The path from the house to the hogan wasn’t very long, but the structure was set back in the scrub growth near a stand of pinions and juniper trees. Desert plants up here survived on the meager rainfall while down in Yuma Eli was used to seeing mostly cactus.
The hogan was a traditional looking dwelling built of wood and mud with a single doorway facing east to the sunrise. There was a fire pit out front and another inside to ward off the winter chill, but Eli had only been here in summer. His Shih-chai’ was sitting on a stool in front of the door carving on a piece of wood when Eli approached.
“Ya’at eeh,” Eli called out the traditional greeting and Walter looked up with a smile.
“Ah-hah-lah’nih,” Walter replied. “I knew you were coming today.”
Eli folded his legs and sat on the ground. “Grandmother told me that, but how did you know?”
“I saw a coyote slip through the brush last evening. He stopped to talk with me and said you would be coming.” Walter smiled and let that statement hang in the air for a moment. “You don’t believe me, do you?” He gave a short barking laugh and shook his head. “Okay…it might be easier to understand if I just said that Miguel called me yesterday with a question and mentioned you were out running around in your mother’s car.”
“But I didn’t have to come here,” Eli said.
“Sure you did. Where are you going to get all the answers you seek if not from those you love and trust? I saw the questions in your eyes several weeks ago when you came to visit and now…” Walter paused. “Something is different.”
Yes, everything is different, Eli thought…where do I begin?
“In times past a boy might find the answers to attaining manhood in the world around him, it was like that for me,” Walter said. “People in the clan and the family all set examples to follow. Perhaps my father was a more complicated man than most but he had a strong faith in which he found his answers.
“The world has changed so much since that time. The answers of my youth will not serve to guide you very far I’m afraid, but I will do my best to help you.”
“How do you know if the answers are correct?” Eli asked.
“You don’t always know, but you have to put them to the test and find out. Perhaps there is more than one answer and you will have to choose which is best for you. I have always been critical of certain parts of our culture because changes seem to sever our relationship to the past. But there are times when I wish we had a greater understanding of the intentions of our Holy Ones.”
Walter put down his knife and set the little wooden coyote he had been carving aside. His gaze turned back to Eli. “The Dinétah needs a better way to focus a young man who ascends into adulthood, but since there are no specific manhood rites I guess it is up to each clan to develop their own. If your father was more of a spiritual man then perhaps he would have done something.”
“Your father was Hatalii…did he do anything special about your manhood?”
Walter chuckled. “He wasn’t sure what to do with me either, but I did spend a lot of time with my Uncle Milton. My brothers and I were each celebrated with the Blessingway at birth, just like you were. Milton and my father were both Hatalii in the clan which was unusual, but then Milton was a very special person.
“He was quite a scholar, graduated from the University of Oklahoma. I believe he was destined to become a medical doctor but something happened in his life and instead he left school to return here.”
“How come I’ve never heard of him before?” Eli asked.
“Doh'yah ah-shon'dah Bidziil…do you remember that name?”
“I remember something you told me when I was little. Bad Ghost…an outlaw, was he really a criminal?”
“Some think so, but nevertheless he was my Uncle Milton,” Walter said.
“Oh wow…what did he do that was so wrong?”
“That was back in the time of Prohibition when liquor was illegal, at least here in the States. Milt and some friends ran liquor across the border into Los Angeles and Phoenix. They had a whole crew of Mexican carriers moving across the desert. He might have gone on doing it for years except he brought some of it into the Dinétah.
“We can be an ignorant people at the worst of times, you know the history. Alcoholism is a disease and we suffer greatly as a people when liquor is so readily available. Milt only saw profit and the clan leaders turned him in to the government agents…my father was one of them.”
“He turned in his own brother?” Eli asked.
Walter nodded. “My father put the welfare of the people above that of his own family and I think he did the right thing. Milton went to prison for some years and when they let him go he never came back here.”
“What happened to him, do you know?” Eli asked.
“He went to live in Mexico and eventually died a few years after my father. I received a letter from Guaymas which is down there on the Gulf of California. It was from someone called Jose Martinez, a name I didn’t know…”
A bell rang in the distance and Walter sighed. “Our dinner is ready…we’ll have to finish this conversation later on.”
Eli understood they would have to go eat, but he didn’t understand this conversation about a dead uncle. What was Walter trying to tell him? Walter stood up slowly and gazed out at the scrub.
“Perhaps the coyote will return this evening. We will come back and light the hearth fire, you will help me.”
The hearth fire was ceremonial, what had Walter been doing? They followed the path back up to the house where Eli’s grandmother had the table set with their dinner. A mutton stew with fry bread and corn, a combination Eli had been eating since he was a child. They sat as the meal was served and then his grandmother asked the pertinent question.
“What have you been doing since school let out, Eli?”
Walter nodded but said nothing as he awaited the answer.
“I took the car and drove up to Canada,” Eli said.
His grandmother looked shocked. “All the way up north…by yourself?”
“I met some interesting people along the way so I wasn’t really alone for much of the trip. I just had to go because…because I went looking for something.”
“Did you find what you were after,” She asked.
“I discovered a lot of things, Shah-mah’, but I’m still thinking about them.”
She looked over at Walter to see his reaction to this surprising news and all she saw was a smile on his face as he ate.
“This is good stew,” Walter said.
Eli’s grandmother sighed. “I don’t understand the way men think. You can’t just drive such a great distance without placing yourself in danger. What if…”
“I would have done the same thing at his age,” Walter said. “Once we finish dinner I guess I’d better call Miguel and tell him not to expect you this evening. Pete will be concerned if he gets home and you aren’t there.”
“Ruth is going to be very upset…” She started to reply.
“Women are always upset over the little things,” Walter said. “They don’t understand the needs of a young man. At some point Ruth will have to realize that Eli is no longer a boy.”
“It’s too soon, he’s only sixteen.”
“We were married at sixteen, or have you forgotten?” Walter asked. “Eli knows more about life at his age than I ever did. He’s made a journey of discovery just as I did when I was younger. The times have changed but a young man’s needs are still the same. We have yet to talk about his understanding…and that is all we will speak of this matter.”
Eli was shocked at the way Walter spoke to his wife. It left no doubt that he considered this a man’s business and she was not welcome to comment. But it left Eli feeling uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Eli said.
His grandmother reached over and patted his arm. “No need to be sorry. Walter is right; there are just some things about men I will never understand.”
Walter put down his fork and then laughed. “Men are not as emotional as women. But give us a warm fire, a full belly and we roll right over into their arms.” He rose from his chair and leaned over to kiss his wife’s cheek. “Now we will go finish our talk.”
The inside of the hogan was dim as the sun faded towards the western horizon away from the doorway. Eli saw that the fire had already been laid and Walter quickly set it ablaze. The wood was dry and a moderate amount of smoke rose towards the hole in the curved roof. The rough-hewn planks of the walls were stained with the smoke from hundreds of fires.
“I have been here the past several nights saying the Blessingway for your safe return.”
So that is what this was all about, Eli thought as Walter once again sat on his stool. There were three woven blankets affixed to the walls which were faded with age and yet provided the only decoration. They had been in the family for generations, perhaps made by the hands of their clan ancestors.
The hogan might hold a dozen people if they sat close to the fire, but tonight there were only the two of them and the patterns on the blankets caught Eli’s attention in the firelight. The blanket depicting the figures of the Holy Ones was pinned to the west wall. A yei blanket of the finest weave with the geometric images of the gods from the Diné Creation Myth.
“I never finished my story about Milton,” Walter said. “But first I want to hear about your journey.”
Eli sighed, he would rather hear about Milton. But Walter went about things in his own way and perhaps it would be better just to get this over and done.
“I followed Route 89 all the way up to the Canadian border,” Eli said. “The view along the way was really grand although all the driving was tiring. I met an interesting person in Utah, a Paiute college boy named Mathias. He rode with me into Salinas and allowed me to spend the night at his aunt’s place where I had a dream about him and an event in his life.
“The next day I met Matt and Danny, both of them younger than me and Mormons. I gave them a ride to Bear Lake and spent the night with them at a cabin by the lake. Then I headed up to Yellowstone, met two more college boys who introduced me to Billie and I slept in the wagon.”
Eli didn’t think he would mention Evan and David since Walter would see the danger in that meeting even though Billie had warned him in time.
“I saw buffalo that day and had a dream about them which you were in. I left early in the morning and reached Canada where I turned around. I was on my way to take Interstate 15 when I met Tony and his friends in a church group. Their van broke down and I spent the night in a hotel with them and gave them a ride to Salt Lake City.
“We stayed in the house of a church member last night and I left early this morning to come here. That pretty much sums up my travels, except each of those people had something to say to me and I’m still thinking about their words.”
Walter nodded. “Sometimes the wisdom of strangers can be quite valuable. Is that what you were seeking?”
“They were each very different people and I don’t know if they were wise but they seemed committed towards making their lives better. Mathias plans to be a great chef, but he has family problems to overcome first and he’s working on that. Tony is just a little older than me and the first Canadian I ever met. But like Mathias he has good spiritual values.”
“And what of these dreams?” Walter asked.
“Mathias was on his way back from visiting a sick friend when I met him. A childhood friend, someone he hadn’t spoken to in years. They had been so close and yet they turned out so different. He was really sad about the outcome that dissolved their friendship, and that was all in my dream.
“But my dream up in Yellowstone was the most confusing and I think seeing the buffalo had something to do with it. Mathias had told me to say a prayer when I saw them because they were sacred, but I didn’t know how to pray.
“The dream was about a buffalo hunt, not something the Diné would ever do, but more like the Lakota. I had to shoot a buffalo and you were there with me. It was like a manhood event where I had to kill the beast to please the clan and be considered a grownup.
“The other nights I had no dreams, but I was tired and slept real well. Maybe you can see something in the dreams but they confused me.”
Walter sat in silence for some moments before he spoke. “Dreams often speak to the feelings we have about certain things. The Paiute boy must have made quite an impression on you.”
“He had such great confidence in what he is doing now and a clear vision of the future,” Eli said. “But in the dream I saw his compassion towards his friend and…well, he reminds me of my friend Michael.”
“And what does Michael mean to you?”
“We were in school but he graduated this past spring and is now living in California. I miss our time together. But Michael chose me as a friend otherwise I never would have approached him because he was a senior. Mathias didn’t treat me like a kid and I liked that. He gave me respect and self-confidence even in the short time we were together.”
“Do you suppose he saw some of the traits of his lost friend in you?”
“His friend was gay and was sick with AIDS, a real tragedy,” Eli said.
“Oh…how very sad. We are faced with all these terrible things in our modern world.”
“Mathias isn’t gay but some of the others I met are…I think I’m gay, Shih-chai’.”
Walter nodded. “Was this the purpose behind your journey?”
“I didn’t go looking for other gay people but I found them or they found me,” Eli said. “But they were all very different people and I think there is something important in realizing that.”
“You are very brave to be telling me all this…did you think I would reject you for these feelings?”
“I was concerned, but you aren’t like that. I don’t know what to tell Mom and Dad.”
“You are not the first in our family…Uncle Milton was nadleehi.”
“I know what they are, but I don’t see myself like that at all,” Eli said.
“People with the two-spirits are not strangers to the Diné, they are considered very special. What is different about you?” Walter asked.
“I don’t know about Uncle Milton but the nadleehi are supposed to be men with a female side. I don’t have any desires to be a woman, that doesn’t attract me at all.”
Walter nodded. “I think because Milton grew up a spiritual person he tried to embrace the image of being nadleehi and that didn’t work for him either. The clan family never had any issues with him until he started being rebellious. Perhaps he could not come to terms with his own feelings among our people and that’s why he ran away to Mexico.”
“At dinner you mentioned your own journey of discovery…what was that like?” Eli asked.
Walter smiled. “My day in the sun…it was a spiritual journey suggested by my father. I climbed the Dzitijiin, the Black Mountain, with only a canteen of water and a walking stick. That climb took me most of the day and by the time I reached the top I was filthy because of the coal in the ground. But it was a Sunday and the mesa was quiet.
“I found a large flat rock where I sat and looked out at the mountains to the north. I don’t remember all the thoughts that went through my mind but I sat still long enough to notice the movement in the brush around me. A rattlesnake moved across a patch of sand, a rabbit scurried from the bush, and I saw a coyote lying in the shade nearby.
“It was a nice view of the sunset, but as darkness fell I could see the lights in Kayenta and over in the Monument Valley Park. The stars were beautiful and I imagined that without the lights from town I might have been able to understand how our ancestors felt when they came to this place.
“I had brought only water and knew that when it was gone I would have to climb down, but I could last several days up there in search of…well, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to see. Spirits live on the tops of mountains, at least they did in legend, so perhaps I would get to see one of them. My father had only told me to go there with my mind wide open and nothing more.
“The night was cool but the black rock of the mountain retained much heat from the day to keep me warm. I saw movement and realized the coyote was still there watching me. Perhaps this was Meʺii, the Trickster spirit that lives in a coyote. I did not fear the animal because I had my stick for protection.
“But with darkness she began to move towards me. It was hard to see her shape with only starlight but she was definitely coming towards the rock where I sat. If she leapt up to attack me I could scare her off with my stick, but that was not her intention at all. I remained motionless to see what she would do.
“And then beneath the rock I heard tiny squeaking sounds and watched the coyote duck below the rock and then run quickly towards the bush where she had been sitting all day. There was something in her mouth, a coyote pup, and before I knew it she was back for a second one.
“I felt foolish since I didn’t even look under the rock before I sat down. The coyote only saw me as a threat to her pups and that is why she had lain for hours watching me. Now she had removed them to a safe distance but without the protection of the rock.
“The dawn came and with it a great noise echoed across the mesa. It had been such a peaceful night that I had forgotten about the mining operation. But it was Monday morning and the machines had returned to work.
“I watched the creatures of the ground and sky move away from that noise and realized I wished to do the same. It would be hard to sit all day in the sun and tolerate the machines tearing up the rock below the mesa to mine the coal. I needed to leave so the coyote could return her pups to the safety of the rock.
“My father must have known what it would be like and I questioned why he had sent me to the mountain. Can you guess what he told me when I climbed down?”
Eli thought for a moment. “Not every journey can be successful. Was it something like that?”
“Yes, very much like that,” Walter replied. “He was a great proponent of the old ways and often disagreed with the leadership of the Nation. By allowing the miners access to the coal we made money but we also gave up part of our past. Everything in life is a trade-off, Eli.
“It isn’t always easy to judge what might be the best course of action, but at least we try. That coyote thought she was removing her pups from danger, but I was less of a threat to those babies then the rattlesnake presented. My intrusion had disrupted her good judgment and I was careless and unthinking.”
“But you have always been a very spiritual person and you could have become Hatalii…”
“I think one in the family is enough,” Walter said. “But you know the story, my brothers and I were just beginning to grow the sheep business and that kept us very busy for a long time. I have always had a relationship with the past and I have had many journeys in my life to prove that. One night on a mountain did not make me a man but my responsibilities in life have.”
Eli could not think of a more spiritual person than his grandfather, so perhaps he was right. It wasn’t the journey that made the man…it was all about a man’s journey in life. Walter had spent almost fifty years raising his family and growing the business for his sons to take over. It made Eli ashamed to think about the distain he had for all those sheep.
“It may take you a whole lifetime to understand your place in this family, Eli. Your generation has a responsibility to the future of our people, but in your case I don’t think you will find satisfaction in the sheep business. What would you like to do?”
“I don’t know,” Eli said. “This gay thing has tied my mind in knots and I can’t see past it.”
“It isn’t like you to give up on anything, you never have before. Sixteen is a dreadful age because you stand with one foot in childhood and the other in manhood. But this is an age where you still have time to determine where you want to go. Driving all the way to Canada was only a means of demonstrating your abilities, and although you met some interesting people it did not give you the answers you wanted.”
“No…it did not. Each person I met, each of those different lives, is still struggling for answers. Not all of them have accepted the future as it might be, but they are looking.”
“As are you,” Walter said. “The truth of others should give you hope that you have taken the right path. Every man is on that search for his own truth , you will soon discover yours.”
Walter reached over towards the wall and retrieved a small drum and a beater. He smiled and handed these to Eli.
“We shall complete the Blessingway and since you don’t know the chant this will be your contribution. Just a soft beat will do…one, two, three…and repeat.”
Walter closed his eyes and began to mutter a chant of prayer, his hand slowly tapping out the rhythm on his knee. Eli began to tap the drum in time to his Grandfather’s cue and the hogan was filled with promise. The spirituality was timeless.
Here in the surrounding darkness, lit only by the small fire, the hogan took on the quality of a cave. How ancient these rites were was anyone’s guess, but among the Diné they were timeless and Walter knew the words by heart:
Haiya naiya yana,
I have come upon it, yo, I have come upon blessing, wo,
People, my relatives, yowa lana, I have come upon
People, my relatives, ya, blessed, na'eye lana heya 'eye,
I have come upon it, yo, I have come upon blessing, wo,
People, my relatives, yowa lana, I have come upon
People, my relatives, ya, blessed, na'eye lana heya 'eye, holaghei.
Neya, now, Darkness, 'iya,
He comes upon me with blessing, wo,
Behind him, from there, ye, Si'ah naaghéi,
He comes upon me with blessing, wo,
Before him, from there, ye, Bik'eh hózhoo,
He comes upon me with blessing, wo,
Before him, it is blessed,
Behind him, it is blessed, neya 'eye, lana heya 'eye, holaghei…
The chant followed the beat of the drum, droning on in Eli’s mind as the weariness of the long day settled in. Perhaps the whole trip had served to exhaust him in ways he could not understand. The hypnotic effect of the flames in the fire made Eli feel as if he was floating, drifting out of his body.
The vision took him to the heights of a mountain, high enough that the stars twinkling above him in the night sky seemed close enough to touch…and then he felt the presence of another in the darkness around him.
Eli had seen dancers in traditional costume before portraying the gods of legend but somehow this seemed beyond that, this was real. The figure that stood before him was wearing a blue mask covering the upper part of his face, but it was the clothing that defined the individual.
This was the fabled Turquoise Boy, Ash’ton nutli, presented in the garb of a nadleehi and wearing a huge necklace of the blue stones. His right hand held a small pouch from which he poured a trace of corn pollen into his palm, and then without warning he raised his hand to his mouth and blew the dust at Eli…and then there was darkness.