Father Brad: How do you know when you are in a sacred place?
Harry Nez: Wherever I am at this moment is a sacred place. The sacred is all around us.
Fine red powdery desert dust covered the tires of the Ford Bronco up to the hub caps. If we stop on this road we will be stuck. So, our Navajo/Diné guide Don Mose keeps the car moving forward at a fast past, as my wife Janice, son Erik and I bounce up and down in our seats and shift rapidly left and right in frantic movement. Erik is laughing.
The road into remote Mystery Valley is crisscrossed with side roads and desert washes. I would become disoriented and lost, but Don Mose knows the way and keeps up the conversation with us.
I first greeted Don in Monument Valley, Utah, north of Mystery Valley, at the meeting place for Navajo Spirit Tours. A Dine’ guide is required in order to enter the restricted access into Mystery Valley.
“Ya’at’eeh abini”, (Good Morning).
“Very good. Yes, good morning.”
Don segwayed into a story about his many years teaching the Navajo/Diné language at Monument Valley High School.
“You know, our language is the second most difficult language to learn, next to Chinese. It was difficult teaching the young people, as you can’t get them away from their cell phones”
“At Goulding’s Trading Post this morning I said ‘Ahéhee’ (Thank you), I replied. “ The lady corrected my pronunciation and said that what I said was “I am married.”
At least this was not as bad as some of the mispronunciations I made when I first celebrated mass in Spanish.
At the time of communion, instead of saying “Los Dones de Dios para el Pueblo de Dios” (The Gifts of God for the people of God), I said “Las Donas de Dios”. (The Donuts of God for the People of God).
Nevertheless, my attempts at the Diné language was reaching out in communion with Don Mose.
A faint trail on the right brought the SUV through dense juniper and pinyon pine and what looked like the end of the road: a steep granite shelf juts upward before us.
“Time to engage first gear, four-wheel drive,” cautions Don Mose. “I hope this works. I wouldn’t dare do this in my own car.”
Remarkably the weather-beaten Ford Bronco slowly ascended the rocky face, as Don expertly navigated the cracks and niches to a level place high above. Don stops the car and invites us to go outside.
In the distance is the iconic landscape of Monument Valley (Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, Valley of the Rocks). Sandstone buttes erupt here and there. I could imagine John Wayne riding on top of a stage coach in the movie of the same name, filmed in Monument Valley in1939 by director John Ford. We are in the Navajo Tribal Park with its own time zone. In fact, this is a timeless place, where ruins and rock art remind us of the ancient ones who once lived here.
Don Mose finds a way down from the precipice and we are on another sandy road winding through buttes and clumps of yellow-blooming rabbit brush. Some divine hands have shaped the sandstone cliffs with arches and deep-set crevices.
We come to a hidden corner of high red cliffs and in the distance a breathtaking sight: a well-preserved Anasazi (Ancient Puebloans) ruin can be seen within a recessed cave. The Square House Ruin. As we walk toward the scene, I see the stone walls of the ruin glisten in the sunlight, looking as if they were constructed recently, rather than one-thousand years ago.
Janice, Erik and I stand with Don Mose upon a mound of the fine red sand that wind and rain removed from the red cliffs above us.
“This was all covered by a great ocean millions of years ago.” Don Mose, the eternal teacher, made a small mound of the sand and compressed it with his hands. He took a cup of water and poured it around the mound, until the sides fell away. He gently removed some of the sand and there it was: a miniature of the gigantic buttes around us. “This is how the wind and rain slowly carved these wonderful buttes around us.”
Haunting images of the vast expanse and geological wonders of the Colorado River Plateau, which includes Monument Valley and Mystery Valley, have excited Anglo-American imaginations for more than a century. Although for these visitors it seemed like a kind of blank, undeveloped landscape canvass to be explored, studied and interpreted, for thousands of years this landscape has been sacred land for the First People, which includes the Ancestral Puebloan/Anasazi, Ute, Hopi and Navajo.
Thomas J. Harvey captures the meaning of this desert space to both the Native and Anglo-American cultures in his book:
Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West. He presents the idea of “American Occidentalism,” in his review of Anglo-American explorations. In their expeditions using modern tools like geology and anthropology, Anglo culture painted on an assumed naïve blank canvass their construct of the American Southwest.
“Using the term “American Occidentalism,” however permits the discourses and practices that produced the twentieth-century Southwest as an exotic space juxtaposed to modern life to be identified within their particular cultural context and historical moment. Like (Edward) Said’s Orientalists, American Occidentalists were, as they moved through Native spaces, engaged in a form of imperialism. Yet, the other aspect of this Occidentalism was that it exposed a hollow longing, an unremembered past, an emptiness of the heart of the very culture that modernization had helped to produce.”
Thomas J. Harvey, p. 7.
That phrase “something hollow lay at its core,” connects with an ongoing theme of this book: the blessings and production of our rational scientific age have left us with a gnawing dissatisfaction and longing for something intangible, but which finds an unconscious homecoming within desert spirit places.
Marshall Berman reflects:
“It appears that the very process of development, even as it transformed the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside of the developer himself.”
Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, p. 5-6.
As we drove into Monument Valley yesterday, we had to be vigilant and watchful. As the road curved around a blind corner, people would be standing right in the middle of the highway gazing at and taking photographs of the massive rocky spires of Monument Valley. They were in some kind of trance, oblivious to surroundings.
It seemed that the desire to find and live out one’s True Self could not be found in the restless, changing dynamics of modern urban life. These Southwestern desert spaces and the native people fed a search for substantial reality. Time and again, as we watched the faces and behaviors of hundreds of visitors who arrived at Monument Valley by the hour, we could see persons caught up in euphoria and wonder. There was something real, authentic, and substantial here in Monument Valley. The ancient ruins, vibrant native culture and geological wonders seemed to touch an inner longing within the Anglo American, European and Asian visitors.
“The exposed land forms created over millennia, the presence of Indians still living in traditional ways, and the location of ruins of now-vanished ancient races contributed to this sense of the Southwest as a storehouse of the past and, therefore, primitive and authentic.” (Thomas J. Harvey, p 9.)
But the Navajo landscape has a story of its own. This is where I believe Don Mose and our guide two years earlier Harry Nez, are so important. They are Evangelists, “message bearers,” who share some of the Diné/Navajo narrative with visitors such as my family. This land is not a blank canvas only to be interpreted by Anglo American culture. For thousands of years this has been sacred space for the First Peoples.
In the three hours our family spent with each of Harry Nez and Don Mose in our tours of Monument Valley and Mystery Valley, they opened up some of the sacred story of the Diné people.
I kneel with Don Mose in the mound of fine red desert sand. Don is no longer a tour guide but a spiritual teacher. Someone later said that he was a medicine man (hatalii), one who has been trained in the healing ceremonies.
“Our Diné people do not have a word for religion. I think that for the Anglo Americans religion it is a separate part of life. But for our people the sacred is everywhere. The world is filled with powerful spirit presences. There are Holy Ones who bring healing and protection. There are dark spirits and witches who seek to bring disharmony, sickness and suffering. What we have to do in our personal life is work at balance and harmony, Hozhooji. Walk in beauty. We want to keep our connection with Mother Earth”
“Here, let me show you about our sacred land.”
He draws the four cardinal points in the sand.
“We have four sacred mountains. Here is Blanca Peak/Dawn or White Shell Mountain. That is in Colorado. Mount Taylor/Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain in NM in the south. The San Francisco peaks/Abalone Shell Mountain in AZ to the west, and Hesperus Mountain/Big Mountain Sheep in Colorado. We remember these sacred directions in the four colors of the corn: blue, white, red and yellow. And see, right here in the middle are the Hopi people.”
What is a sacred place? For the Diné people a sacred place is:
“1) a location mentioned in legend; 2) a place where something supernatural has happened; 3) a site from which plants, herbs, minerals and waters possessing healing powers may be taken; and 4) where man communicates with the supernatural world by means of prayers and offerings.”
Navajo Sacred Places, Editha L. Watson (Window Rock, AZ: Navajoland Publications, November 1964, p 22
The Diné belief is that this whole area of Monument Valley is a huge Hogan. As in the Diné hogan homes, the door faces east near the Visitor’s Center where I met Don this morning. The center of the Hogan is the butte behind Goulding’s Trading Post, near where we were camping.
Don Mose continued: “We have many ceremonies that we use to heal or prevent people from being sick. We sing our prayers for healing.”
“I will sing you part of a blessing.”
Don Mose closes his eyes and sings a sacred chant. The holy sound is amplified in this recessed canyon with the ancient ruin looming above us. The wind carries the holy song out over the desert.
Here is a YouTube recording of Don Mose singing his healing song.
St. Augustine said: “he/she who sings, prays twice.”
Healing for the Diné is to understand that illness is a dis-ease; something is out of balance and needs to be restored to harmony.
After the singing, I gaze at the land around us: pinyon pine, sagebrush, juniper, pottery shards on the ground, a tiny, ancient corn cob, and crumbling stones that have fallen from the ruins above. This is not dead space filled with ancient debris. This place is alive, the rocks, trees, wind, and ruins are spiritual presences. The ancestral spirits are a communion of saints who can bring peace, harmony, and beauty.
Late afternoon the crunch of tour buses, the crowds of international travelers, and the clusters of RVs have moved on. Some have settled into hotel rooms, others continue to Kayenta or Flagstaff. Tranquil Quiet settles over the Visitor’s Center and the Diné View Hotel overlooking Monument Valley. Janice, Erik and I sit on the patio behind the hotel. The valley drops dramatically below us and in the distance are iconic buttes that are much photographed. We are alone on the patio, awaiting Nature’s show. The sun is setting in the west. The dull red-brown texture of the majestic buttes begins to change into a brilliant red. For only five minutes the buttes change to a luminescent gold. I look quickly around me. “Is no one else catching this? What a wonder!” The sun is setting. The buttes become deep purple. As darkness descends, they become shadowy silhouettes. This is no blank canvas of a landscape, only recently discovered and studied by Anglo-European culture. This is an ancient canvass on which the Creator paints wonder and glory every day.
Tony Hillerman’s Navajoland: Hideouts, Haunts, and Havens. Laurence D. Linford. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2011.
The Owl in Monument Canyon: and Other Stories from Indian Country, H. Jackson Clark. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993.
Native Roads: The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations, Fran Kosik.Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2005
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.