Relying on Navajo guides

by Ray Ring

Twenty-some years ago, I joined a gaggle of other semi-adventurous tourists in Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo Reservation. We climbed onto the open bed of a big "deuce and a half" -- an old Army surplus two-and-a-half-ton truck -- and took rudimentary seats. The driver shifted into gear, and six tires (on three axles) rumbled up the Arizona canyon's sandy floor, shaking us like margarita cocktails.

The orange rock walls curved gracefully and we splashed across a meandering shallow river. Ancient pueblo tribes had lived there at least 700 years earlier, and they'd decorated the rock with mysterious handprints and tiny images of antlered animals. Around one bend, we came to the dusty ruins of cliff dwellings.

Those people had long since vanished, but Navajos had been living and farming in the canyon for several hundred years. Our guides seemed to enjoy the contrast between their tribe, with its deep roots in the area, and well-shaken tourists like us, who were just passing through.

I came away with a better appreciation for how people fit into that landscape. But generally speaking, that's how most non-Indian people experience Indian nations -- we just pass through. Around the time I visited Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo Tribe suffered a great internal conflict, amid revelations that a powerful chairman, Peter MacDonald, had taken bribes in tribal business deals. Two of MacDonald's supporters were killed by Navajo police during a riot at tribal headquarters, and he served time in prison. Most of the tourists knew nothing about it.

Yet many tribes go through similar struggles. Tribal traditions -- which tend to emphasize relationships with family and friends and harmony with various deities -- often chafe against the U.S.-style democracy and bureaucracy imposed on the tribes by the federal government less than a century ago. Politicians, whether Indian or white, are only human, and fragile, still-evolving tribal governments provide many opportunities for corruption. Inevitably, some leaders will fail the test.

In 41 years of covering the West, High Country News has examined how tribes deal with water rights, wildlife and mining. We've explored tribal poverty, attempts at economic development, and cultural controversies, such as how a person's bloodline determines tribal membership. This issue's cover story continues our tradition, investigating the often-uneasy interplay of Navajo politics and traditions.

Marilyn Berlin Snell, a veteran freelancer based in San Francisco, has made a career out of digging into difficult topics around the U.S. and abroad. In a 2007 story for Mother Jones magazine, she investigated violent crime, death-penalty advocates and traditional beliefs on the Navajo Nation. She's a careful listener who interviews Navajos about their political and cultural struggles, rather than relying on the non-Indian outside experts that too many white journalists turn to. She effectively allows her Navajo guides to take readers on a journey, through the rugged landscape of intra-tribal strife and into the inner workings of a determined political reform movement.

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