A couple days after seeing the Japanese man, we pulled into Stevens Village on river-right. We had no idea what time it was, and, deep in the Arctic summer, no one ever seemed to know when to sleep. We rambled around the small town, past chained-up dogs and people who were outside doing whatever they were doing. Outside the post office, I talked with an Athabaskan firefighter in his 30s. He came from a settlement on a side channel, one we'd seen signs of, unmanned fish wheels turning in the current. He called the place Diné Village.
"Diné?" I repeated, puzzled by the name. The Navajo who live in the dry Southwest also call themselves Diné. It means the People.
"Diné," he said. "You know, the People."
This struck me like thunder. At that point in my life, I hardly knew what Native meant. They were a people whose history I could scarcely grasp. They just lived here; they always had. But I had no idea why they were here, or where they came from, or what was the true difference between one group and another. Suddenly I saw the connection, an Athabaskan migration, an ancient linguistic trail that stretched 2,000 miles down to the Southwest.
Later, I'd learn how language is used to define movements of cultures and ethnicities. When you see the map of a language family, you are seeing ancient patterns of migration, originating from the same mother tongue. The Athabaskan family, also known as the Na-Dene family, stretches from Alaska and western Canada down the Pacific Northwest, and is firmly settled from the Four Corners down to parts of Texas. Trace it back far enough, and you'll end up in central Siberia.
Outside the Stevens Village post office, I felt the land begin to move in my mind. I connected dots I had never noticed before. I began excitedly telling this man about a faraway desert with cliffs the color of blood, a place where people also call themselves Diné.
He looked back at me with a sort of polite smile. He simply said, "Could be."
In a northern Arizona Hogan, an old Navajo man sat on a child's school chair in the cold morning air. A fire burned in a rusted steel barrel cut in half. His middle-aged grandson stood off to the side, wearing a denim jacket. My friend and I had come as visitors, seeking permission to trek around the base of a sacred mountain that rose out of the man's backyard. We'd be out there for a couple of weeks, and we'd brought gifts of fresh food and a new coat. Fire crackled as the old singer spoke to us in Navajo, trying rough Spanish every now and then. We understood him mostly through his grandson. The wizened old man chuckled as he spoke to us, half bent over, the skin on his hands wrinkled like crumpled paper bags.
The grandson translated, "He said you should come help him herd sheep instead."
We laughed in return, trying to explain that we were here for the shape of the country, and we had our own ways of travel.
The grandson waved our words away. "He understands. You have permission."
But I had other questions, ones I wasn't sure how to ask.
"Why does he keep corn pollen?" I asked, noting the small leather pouch rubbed smooth in his hand.
The old singer explained that corn pollen is one of the most sacred things a person can carry. My questions continued: When did corn come to the Diné? Before the Athabaskan migration –– before those first arrivals became Navajo and Apache tribes –– corn had been cultivated in this high desert for well over 2,000 years by a different people.
The singer answered me, and the grandson translated, "Corn has always been with the people."
"But when you came here?" I asked. "Do you know when it became part of Diné culture?"
I wasn't trying to appear obtuse, but I didn't understand. There is no corn in the Arctic, which is where his bloodlines, or at least his language, originated.
The grandson translated my question into the notoriously complex and subtle Navajo language. Words went back and forth a few times, the old singer nodding, unflappable. The grandson turned to me and said, "We have been here since the beginning. The people didn't come from someplace else. We came out of the ground."
I shut up then. He and I understood the world very differently. While I was stacking evidence in neat rows, as my people tend to do, he was telling me that time is neither linear nor separable from place. It is woven into the ground itself. He gestured at the dirt under his feet, hoping I would understand. When your people say they emerged from the ground, when they didn't come from someplace else, that is when you know you are native.
The red and dusty floor was cold, slowly warmed by the fire. In that earth lay the singer's ancestry, his bloodlines running through the landscape like an ancient river. This same dirt nourished the Pueblo culture, which created the rock art and cliff dwellings around the base of this sacred mountain. There were also Paiutes in this fine, dry matrix, and the early Desert Archaic culture back as far as 8,000 years ago, and before them what are known as Paleo-Indians, a genetic cast of Asians who appear to have come from the Bering Land Bridge when the ice was high and the seas were low.
Traveling a human migration corridor from top to bottom, at each end I encountered groups of people very settled in their places, who've been there so long they mine the detritus of their ancestors to make a living, people who say and believe they came out of the ground. Yet they've also been wanderers over thousands of years, like my own ancestors.
We left the old singer's hogan. Entering deep canyons, we backpacked our way around a sacred mountain in a land where every mountain seems sacred. In sheltering alcoves, we ate and slept, and on clear nights we watched the Milky Way pass overhead, framed by narrow canyon walls. Like the first cartographers, we measured the land with our bodies and our outstretched hands. We found old markings: painted shields, human figures, and handprints from ancient people, and the more recent horse-figured petroglyphs of Navajos. From the rock art, we sought directions. It's just what you do when you're not from around here.