An old friend of mine, Joe Rose, was confident that gases venting out of the earth, from volcanoes roughly distributed along the equator, were responsible for night and day, the spinning of the earth.
I remember smiling when he confessed that belief – or rather his disbelief in science to me.
I remember listening excitedly – before the invention of the Internet – as a Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, metaphor-driven radio host on a station that during the day played non-stop polka music for its largely Polish-American audience – assured me that I could improve my social life by recognizing that I was living at the center of the universe.
I took him seriously enough to go out on my own that night – to The Rusty Nail in Amherst – to see what kind of creature might be dancing (like the unusual glow-in-the-dark worms that inhabit the deepest depths of the ocean) at the center of everything.
Just about a week ago I walked from a hostel on San Francisco Street in Flagstaff to the Willow Bend Environmental Center and met with its Executive Director, Moran Henn.
We spoke for no more than 15 minutes, but found much in common, as I was a member – in absentia – of a similar organization back home in Plymouth.
The next day was spent with Apache Don Decker, the Public Information Officer of the Yapavai-Apache Nation, meeting with Tribal elders and elected officials: a day that was supposed to culminate with a tribal community Christmas dinner but, as the dinner concluded Don told me we were going to a Winter Solstice party at a friends who lived just east of Flagstaff.
As we entered that house I recognized Moran Henn, the woman I had just met the day before in Flagstaff.
I met her husband Avi as well, and their bilingual children (Israeli and English).
What a nice coincidence, I thought.
A week later I was at a local coffee shop in Flagstaff to meet with Jamie Whelan, a member of the Flagstaff City Council, when I noticed Avi Moran sitting by himself. I re-introduced myself and just then the councillor came in and came right over: the two were old friends.
The next day I left Flagstaff early in the morning to start walking again and in the early afternoon was happy to learn that a family that lived along my route wanted to take me in for the night.
It was, it turned out, the same family that had held the Winter Solstice party.
The patriarch of that family is Jones Benally, a respected Navajo medicine man and it was in his ceremonial hooghan that I slept that night, first spending several hours listening to Jones explain Navajo beliefs and dissecting the challenges that modern tribe members face.
I spent the next night as the guest of the Navajo casino Twin Arrows and received an amazing lecture on Navajo arts and beliefs, social structure and government from Geri Hongeva, who knew the Benally family, told me that in fact she was a member of Jones’ clan (in Navajo culture Jones was her grandfather) and also an old friend and colleague of Don Decker though she had not seen him in more than a dozen years.
The night I spent with the Benallys Jones held up dinner so that he might offer a Navajo prayer for me.
Though the prayer was incomprehensible to me during the song – so much of their prayers and ceremonies are delivered in musical chants – I could clearly make out the occasional “Francis.”
I can’t do justice to those three days with words.
I can’t believe all that happened in just three days.
The magical beings, adventurous cicada, dramatic artwork, architecture and perhaps above all the pride of these people was stirring.
There are 300,000 Navajo people, I learned, and unlike many other tribes they have never come close to losing their language or traditions.
Most Navajo don’t live on tribal lands but 60 percent speak fluent Navajo. It is, Geri told me with a fierce look in her eyes, “my first language.”
Easterners often laugh sarcastically at the notion of a tribal casino, and are against their establishment in their own communities but the Twin Arrows Casino outside of Flagstaff is closer to a church than our idea of a casino: everywhere you look there are representations of their beliefs, their ceremonies, their traditions and their industry.
We are about to celebrate 400 years since the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth and I have to admit that I used to think that was an impressive number especially for westerners who are barely more than a century removed from the granting of statehood.
But most if not all of the tribes of the Colorado Plateau believe that they originated thousands of years ago, emerging from caves and caverns and canyons where today there is still evidence of ancient civilizations.
I think that it is not so much what you believe, it is what beliefs you share.
The mythical creatures, holy beings and rituals of the Navajo and other tribes would, without shared belief, be fit only for cheap pots and Chinese-made faux ‘Indian’ jewelry.
With faith and pride they are the powerful beliefs of a powerful people.