Rachel Benally, recent runner-up in the Southwest Regional Miss Navajo Pageant, Internet surfer, and unflinching slaughterer of her grandmother's goats, lies in a reclining chair in her Aunt Sharon's living room.
recovering from last night's TV-watching marathon. Wrapped in a
comforter, she is discussing things with me and her cousin, Heather
"I'm not into dating," says Rachel, who is
24 years old, with a round, serious face and long black hair. "No
guys in high school. Even in college, all I ever did was study in
my room. I'm not like Heather," she laughs. Heather, who is 12, is
lying down on the floor wearing black, shiny sweatpants, a black
Nike T-shirt and a large crucifix pendant. She retorts that Rachel
is a "Jo Girl' - a girl who likes to speak Navajo. Heather can
speak Navajo, too, but only does so when she has to, with her
grandparents. "No one speaks it," she explains. "Only older people
do; maybe people over 30 or 40 years old."
are in the small town of Ganado, Ariz., in townhouse #1 of the blue
housing complex built for the employees of Ganado Unified School
District. Rachel and Heather call it Smurfville. I ask where they'd
like to live. Rachel says she would like to be on the reservation,
"near my grandma." She wiggles her feet, which are encased in
fleecy slippers shaped like bears. She grew up in the tiny nearby
town of Jeddito. Her mother, Lena, is a weaver who, along with her
parents, husband and son, keeps a herd of 95 Churro sheep. Heather,
whose mother is an elementary school counselor, grew up in
Albuquerque and Flagstaff. She sits up, her long hair swinging, and
dissolves into a riff of indecision: "New York! Jeddito! No, not
Jeddito! Gallup! No, not Gallup! Flagstaff!'
here to see what it's like to be a young Navajo woman. The media
suggest it's not great. Indians are twice as likely as blacks and
three times as likely as whites to be victims of rape or aggravated
assault, and Indian children are more likely to be abused than
those of any other ethnic group. In 1998, the Navajo Nation - the
largest and most populous reservation in the country, a sprawling
swath of high desert with its own college system, newspapers and
police force - had a murder rate four times the national average
and nearly twice that of Los Angeles. Unemployment runs 50 percent
on some parts of the reservation. Maybe half of the 200,000 Navajos
here have graduated from high school. Twenty percent of Navajo
families have running water. Gangs are on the upswing. The list
goes on and on.
I wanted to talk to someone who
could give me an idea of what it was like to grow up around these
kinds of statistics. Someone far from the seat of power. A young
woman would be perfect. That's why I'm here to interview Rachel
Benally. I am ready for the worst kind of
But there isn't any. Rachel and Heather
talk about the reservation's teenage mothers and gang members with
the distance of a pair of anthropologists. "There are a lot of
really young parents here," says Rachel, who once worked at the
day-care center at the high school. Heather adds that the teenagers
"drink, smoke, whatever they get their hands on - rubber cement,
cheap whisky." As for the gangs, "There's Brown Pride, Cobras, and
the West Side. They're just wannabes. Eentsy weentsy fights, but no
drive-bys, no nothing."
If gangs are what the
sociologists say - substitutes for inadequate families - then
Heather and Rachel are at approximately zero risk of joining. They
are part of a populous, warm-hearted, extended family. It has
revolved around the four Begay sisters - Sharon, Alta, Lena and
Alice. Lena lives in Jeddito with her immediate family, but just
about everyone else lives here in the housing complex. Sharon and
Alta live in townhouses #1 and #2, with Alta's partner, Terrell,
and five children between them, as well as their nephew's wife,
Marlene, her two children, and Rachel.
long hair, a penchant for traditional velveteen skirts, and a gift
for gab. She teaches Navajo language and culture at the elementary
school. Alta, smaller and quieter than her sister, works as a
counselor at the school. So does Terrell. Last night, I drove from
my hotel in Window Rock to have dinner with Alta and Terrell.
Alta's niece, 8-year-old Chamisa, crept under my arm and showed me
photographs of her relatives while I ate spaghetti and three-bean
salad. Kids flowed from Alta's house to Sharon's and back again,
unchecked and happy and not doing anything remotely
Alice, the oldest of the Begay sisters, died
of cancer last summer at 55. She came home from Tuba City to die.
She was a physician's assistant, famous among the girls for never
marrying and for badgering them to finish school. She didn't mean
high school, either. She meant graduate school. (-I'll be watching
you," Heather remembers her saying.)
driving to Jeddito to see where Rachel lived before she moved to
Ganado this spring to nurse Alice through her last months. Heather
gets in the back with her cousin, Marlene, and Marlene's baby,
Selena. Rachel and I get in the front. We drive away from the blue
townhouses, Rachel's Crazy Bones rap tape playing on the sound
system. We pass Ganado's deli and gas station and drive into the
windy red desert, discussing the merits of LeAnn Rimes and Garth
Brooks. Finally, we pull off the highway onto a bumpy, dusty road
and stop outside a scatter of buildings on a hill. A bunch of
puppies streams more or less towards us. A very spruced-up,
ready-looking maroon Isuzu Trooper dwarfs the house. It belongs to
Rachel's 86-year-old grandmother, Mary
"She likes to drive around," says Rachel
with what I'm realizing is a character-deep lack of irony. "She
likes to visit her relatives. Grandpa goes, too."
We get out, and I wander into a stone building.
Lena is sitting behind an electric sewing machine. She looks mildly
pleased at having a total stranger walk in on her to chat. She
weaves three or four woolen rugs a year. She also sews velveteen
broomstick skirts to sell at a nearby trading post, and fleece
teddy bears for Toys R Us and the Arizona Highways magazine's
catalog. Two years ago, at its peak, her sewing business employed
25 people. Today, they're in the midst of a dry spell; there's
barely enough work for Lena and one other woman, "so now we can sit
and drink coffee just like Navajo tribal employees," Lena says with
a sly smile. Her husband, Raymond, and son, Leland, are off for the
day with the family's sheep.
Rachel comes in and
finds me a chair, worrying aloud about whether there is a coffee
cup for me. She seems happier expediting my conversations with
other people than answering questions herself. Rachel, the
individual, is hard to locate. But Rachel, the core sample of the
Benally family, is easy to find. She's always surrounded by
relatives. They do the talking while she takes care of things. In
Ganado, she takes the kids to their dentist appointments, or drives
the 60 miles to Gallup to do errands, like tint the truck's windows
or find a washing machine hose. When I press her about what she'd
like to happen in her future, her forehead strains quietly as if
I'm asking her about a far-away country that she's never
But Lena loves to talk about her
daughter: Rachel is a talented seamstress; she can whip out teddy
bears with the best of them. She recently sewed a saddle blanket
she sold for $100. She can slaughter a goat. In fact, she wanted to
butcher one for the talent show at the Miss Navajo pageant. But the
judges declined, so she boiled wool to make felt instead. The Miss
Navajo Pageant is a mystery to me, but Lena and Rachel quickly
explain that it's different than the Miss America type of pageant.
For one thing, there's no bathing suit exhibiting, a fact that
killed a persistent image I'd had of Rachel in her bikini
butchering a goat. For another, every entrant has to make a speech.
"It's more about leadership," says Rachel. Lena snorts that the
girl that won "barked out some Army commands' for her talent
presentation. "I think the judges were members of her family."
Rachel says she'll enter the pageant again next
year, but she doesn't appear either hopeful or scared at the
prospect. She is as stoic about it as a Zen monk. She actually got
the idea of entering from Heather, whose trophies for cheerleading,
pow wow, and intermediate school princess sit on the shelves at her
Aunt Sharon's house.
What makes this family work?
The answer, Sharon tells me later, is women and sheep. Rachel's
great-grandmother, Ahedebah, was famous for breaking tough horses.
She married medicine man John Slim Nez. Medicine men were often
polygamous, but Ahedebah (whose name means "split the enemy in half
and ride between them') put an end to all that. The subsequent
generations of girls were raised to leave the boys alone and tend
to their educations.
But the family had its
problems. Goldtooth - a one-time railroad worker - and Mary drank
quite a bit in the "60s and "70s, mostly, family wisdom goes,
because all of their children were taken from them and put in
boarding schools. But in the early 1970s, they saw an exhibit on
Churro sheep, put together by livestock scientist Lyle
Goldtooth was in his 70s when he saw
McNeal's exhibit, but he remembered the breed from his childhood
and was adamant: The family needed to get a Churro herd. When that
happened, Sharon tells me, "A lot of the dysfunction stopped in our
family, a lot of the drinking. We got 10 ewes. Each grandkid got a
colored tag; every morning during vacation all the kids would be in
the sheep corral, and they knew their colors. They'd go out every
summer and herd the sheep; they'd be in constant contact with their
grandparents. My sister Lena started weaving again. The other
sisters tried it, and I began to spin, and we all got into making
felt. We don't drink."
Rachel was born into this
changed family in 1975. She doesn't carry the baggage of what came
before. What she wants to do right now is go down to Jeddito Wash.
"When I was 12 or 13, we had this real old truck," she says, easing
the car over what looks like a miniature Grand Canyon in the middle
of the road, "and me and Grandpa would coast all the way down here.
I'd drive. Grandpa couldn't drive, because he had a bad leg."
Bitterbrush, juniper, yucca and orange globe
mallow all wave on the wide, sagey range. There are low sandstone
bluffs and mesas in the distance. The sky is an ecstatic blue. I'm
suddenly strongly jealous of Rachel, who grew up with generations
of family in this beautiful place. "We were never inside," she
said, "always outside." She and her brother, Leland, and her
cousins would rock climb on the buttes, and swim in the wash. "I'd
just walk down here in the evenings. In Ganado, I walk around the
track, or lift weights. But I sure got used to the quiet out here."
Rachel is the bearer of this particular
matriarchy's gravity. She may well be Miss Navajo 2000, and she can
talk away about Jennifer Lopez's recent romance with Puff Daddy,
and discuss the pros and cons of perming one's hair, but she's not
a frivolous person by any stretch. She'll probably go back to
school (she's already done a year at the College of Eastern Utah in
Blanding, Utah); she'd like to get a master's degree and run a
nursing home or a day-care center. "I like kids," she says,
"especially babies." That doesn't extend to planning to have any
herself, though. I ask what she'd do if a man pursued her, and she
smiles with an earnestness rarely found among runners-up of beauty
pageants: "I'd probably run."