I’ve lived on the East Coast most of my life, but five months ago, I moved to Sedona, Arizona. I felt called here after the death of my husband. Others migrants have told me they felt called too, and none that I’ve met can say why, exactly. It probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that we heard the call and we came. We think we are here for a reason. Whatever that reason may be, one thing is sure: I’ve landed in a great classroom.
Last week, I went with one of my new friends to visit a Hopi reservation. “It’s about a two hour drive from Sedona,” she said. “Plan to spend the day.” A group of people from Sedona have, for the past eleven years, brought clothes and food at Christmastime to the Tewa people who live on the reservation. I said yes. And then, I wished I’d said no.
Native American blood runs through my veins, thanks to my grandfather who was either full-blooded or part Cherokee. This connection to native peoples has always called out to me – like Sedona – but I have had no contact with my grandfather’s people, and no meaningful contact with any Native Americans. My grandfather died when I was young, but I remember him. I have a photograph of him on my piano. He is seated, handsome and straight, with his six children in front (the oldest died), the baby, my Uncle Robert, on his knee, my father, the oldest boy, standing tall and solemn to his left. Standing behind the children and next to him is my grandmother, a white woman, who, I believe, was from an Irish indentured family, and for whom I am named. Not many records were kept of people like these, and my family has no documentation of their births, their marriage (which was illegal in the South) or their deaths.
I can just imagine what their lives must have been like, living in South Carolina in the late eighteen hundreds, a white woman and a man of color. No, I guess I can’t. I can only imagine one true thing about them, and that is that it must have taken a great deal of love to keep them together. And alive.
My new friend said that the visit to the reservation would be a “connection” for me. In the days before we were to go, and while helping to pack boxes of canned goods, pasta, coffee, hand lotions, and other basics, I began to feel…a growing resentment. “If we hadn’t taken everything from them,” my mind said, “we wouldn’t have to be doing this at all.” I recalled photographs of white hunters, posing proudly for the camera before mountains of buffalo hides, careless mercenaries who left carcasses to rot on the plains while they sold hides for profit and robbed an entire people of their source of food. I went through every wrong, every bit of treachery, every broken promise made to a people whose lands, customs, languages, and freedom were taken from them. I was not in a good frame of mind when we left. I pictured the people we were going to see – humiliated and angry, horribly poor, unwilling recipients of charity who would tolerate our presence and our presents because of their great need. I became more apprehensive as we drove through a vast plain, on a road that stretched to the horizon, where long, long ago, the buffalo were indeed plentiful, and where now there was nothing except the magnificence of mesa land.
As the cars were unloaded at the community center in a place called Polacca, my friend said, “Come with me and meet the elders.” Seated along a long hallway were beautifully dressed white-haired men and women who had come to represent the Tewa people. As I went along the line to greet them, each of them smiled, took my hand in theirs, and welcomed me as if I were their daughter. I found it hard to hold back the tears as I went along, for what I saw was not what I had expected. There was a great…clarity…about these old people, a gentleness, a serenity. It was as if they were saying to me, “It’s all right. We know who we are.” Some of them were in wheelchairs. Others held canes, still others looked robust and fit, but in each lined face what I saw was my grandfather.
I learned that we were not to distribute what we had brought to Tewa families. The elders would receive the gifts and they would distribute to the families most in need. And I learned something else. When I saw the great room of the community center with tables around the wall, I realized that the boxes that I’d help put together were just the tip of the iceberg. There were tables laden with hand-knitted caps, blankets, frozen turkeys, sacks of potatoes, and all manner of vegetables and commodities. The businesses of Sedona, the stores, and ordinary citizens had sent mountains of gifts. One word came to my mind: reconciliation.
One elder after another stepped to the microphone to address the group. Some spoke in their native language with an interpreter. They were gracious, appreciative, warm, funny, and above all, welcoming. We were, after all, visitors. This was their home, their land, and they opened their hearts to us. Afterwards, I learned, we were to be hosted by a Hopi family and given lunch. There was a big Christmas tree in the room, with hand-made decorations, and they invited each one of us to come and take one. Mine was a painted baby’s rattle. There were mounds of homemade donuts for us (which were incredibly delicious) and large urns of coffee.
As the elders walked by each table and chose the gifts they were to distribute, they stopped to chat. I stood at the table with the knitted caps. They took their time in choosing. There is something about people who live close to the land that gives them a certain…surety. Like my grandfather, who was a farmer, their movements were unhurried. Their gaze was steady, and age gave them an aura of wisdom and dignity. What struck me was that they were familiar. They were like family, like the family I visited in South Carolina when I was a little girl. They brought back my loved ones who have been gone for a long time. They were my grandfather, my father, my aunts and uncles who live now in a photograph on my piano and to whom I speak each night before I go to sleep. They were people who knew how to give, but more importantly, they were people who knew how to receive.
To Be Continued