In large part these blog posts will be about the lessons I learn, the knowledge I gain, or the ignorance I recognize in myself as I walk across the country – west to east – trying, like an archaeologist, to understand the foundations of community from the broken obelisks and decaying friezes of our cities, towns, native lands and windswept landscapes. From time to time though I will encounter individuals and places that stand out on their own and deserve, I believe, to be chronicled as well.
Here is one such piece, what I call, “A Word or Two About..”
I couldn’t keep up with him.
We’d never met but I recognized him right away: An Apache face, bold, prominent nose, broad forehead. An Icelandic shock of fine silver hair, pulled directly back. A crease of flesh in the center of his forehead, suggesting I thought, a kind of spiritual balance.
He was up at around five that morning, doing a wash he told me, then drove north from his home near Sedona around 8.
He scooped me up outside the Amtrak Station on Route 66, downtown Flagstaff at precisely 9, flew down Interstate 17 to Camp Verde talking non-stop all the way.
After a detour through the drive-thru at the local Starbucks he rolled into the Center like a soft rain after a long drought.
He is a rain man, I say that now after spending just 15 hours with him: where he goes it pours laughter and music and meaningful conversation.
At least that was my experience of a day with Don.
Fittingly he is responsible for the Nation’s weekly newspaper, so in part for its cohesiveness as a community.
For me he took on the role of spirit real estate salesman as well: in between interviews he drove me to many of the Nation’s housing developments, handsome single family homes and duplexes that the Nation offers its members at subsidized rates, and down dirt roads to the river, past alfalfa fields, both proud of the Nation’s growth and development while dispassionately pointing out how little of the lands they once hunted and foraged and depended on they possess today.
We passed the Cliff Castle Casino and took a side trip to the actual castle in the cliff, Montezuma’s Castle – passing go without paying an entrance fee to the Park Service because of his tribal status.
What was an historic park to most visitors was, under his guidance, revealed to be a bountiful grove crowded with the spirits of his ancestors still diligently reaping the fruits of their labor.
As the wide sky darkened we arrived at the location of the community’s Christmas parade and party – and Don was called upon to photograph the gathering.
Is it patronizing to say that these are beautiful people, especially to the eyes of a New Englander where there is, in large part, a uniformity to the visages of the inhabitants.
These are beautiful people.
It was a long, intense day: for me it was a a kind of school day and I gave my entire attention to those who graciously gave me their time. But in between, in his car or at the cafe we stopped at midday, or with his friends that night at a Winter Solstice celebration in the moon shadow of the San Francisco Mountains Don’s energy never flagged.
His interests are boundless. His talents unbridled.
Have you seen his artwork? A series of his watercolors depicting the Mountain Spirit Dance grace the Tribal Council offices.
In the back of his small car was a guitar case.
He is fluent in Apache.
He has taught in high schools, in college, has written an autobiography, Apache Odyssey, dabbles he would say- though I am sure he is skilled – in Indian crafts and seems knows everyone from Flagstaff to Amarillo .
If I had the opportunity to choose one person to introduce me to the Nation, to teach me the fundamentals of the Native American experience, to guide me to the less frequented vistas, and to provide insightful if oftentimes tongue-in-cheek commentary from a Native perspective on both his brethren and the newcomers, it would be Don.
I meant this to be a short recollection of the man, but I really don’t believe that is possible.
In the West you often find yourself in valleys or crater-like depressions that go on for hundreds of miles in all directions and, in the distance, are bordered by an uneven mountain rim that seems to encircle you completely. Don is a human expression of that expansiveness.