The rules of intrusion
I have enjoyed reading HCN and Craig Childs' writing over the years -- until now (HCN, 2/21/11). As a high school librarian in Kayenta, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation, I often reach for an issue of HCN when a student isn't reading. Students are proud to see tribal topics being covered and discussed in such an impressive magazine. When a student tells me there are "no good books" in the library, I often direct them to Childs' books. He has never received a bad review.
But it was disheartening to read his article, "Ghosts, walking," which boldly dismisses the laws of the Navajo Nation and the common courtesy and respect due to the Navajo people. When I happened into Kayenta in 1995, a veteran teacher and hiker showed me many places, including the area Childs writes about. He taught me to offer residents a bag of Blue Bird Flour or firewood. Childs and his buddy, who did not ask anyone's permission to walk through the reservation, are why people eventually put up "KEEP OUT" signs.
Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation can give hikers correct information about backcountry permits on the Navajo Nation. It is not a super user-friendly permit system -- not many things are on the Rez. The longer I live here, the more I think there are good reasons for that. Even a backcountry permit, however, does not give you the right to go wherever you please. Visitors should always ask the local family. The notion that Navajos don't own land is false. They may not have a piece of paper to prove it, but try explaining the difference to a grandma who has had generations of ancestors born and buried on her land. There are special places that outsiders should never intrude on. Do these laws, rules and common courtesy not apply to writers?
I gave the article to three Navajo students and asked them to give me their thoughts. Two of them commented that they thought it was a cool and creepy story. They knew right where Childs was. The third commented that it was just another white guy taking advantage of the Navajo.
Craig Childs responds
It is awkward to write about something you are not proud of, something you would rather keep private. As a writer, though, your job is to tell relevant stories even if they reveal darker, less honorable actions. I got myself into a predicament on the Navajo Reservation that I did not want to be in, and learned a lesson that changed the way I understand the place. The experience seemed valuable enough to write about, even if it shames me.
I was born and raised in Arizona, and my home landscape has always included large reservations. When walking out there, I tend to be very selective about where I go, avoiding sacred mountains and certain cultural sites, making sure to get paper permission from the tribe or seek invitations from locals. This time, however, I went to the wrong place and did it the wrong way. I am sure we have all had something similar happen before, a cluster of errors. I would have gone to the closest dwelling to ask permission, but by the time I did find dwellings all I wanted to do was get out of there.
I wrote this story so that readers would know an older form of land still exists, a place where humans, however rare, are inseparable from the wilderness. I also wrote it to say that there are locations where certain people -- including me -- should not be, a lesson I learned viscerally.