The first time I heard Navajo spoken as a natural course of conversation was in Holbrook, Arizona. I was in an art gallery that sold various Indian art. The owner, Nakai, spoke to one of the locals, who dropped by, in his native tongue. He sold me a ring in English.
I heard it again when I stopped in Lupton to find a bathroom. I parked in front of Yellowhorse Trading Company, as Nakai had told me they were nice folks. Some drunk named Frank came over to talk cars…my bladder wasn’t so interested.
“Do you have a toilet I can use?” I asked Elsie Yellowhorse, after I broke free from Frank and walked inside. “No,” she replied. “But I have an outhouse out back.”
I walked around to the back, head down and eyes focused on the path that led the way to the blue Johnny On The Spot. I reached for the door and it was held shut by some wire contraption that was beyond what I could decipher in my state of emergency. I glanced around and decided that BEHIND the outhouse was as good as it would get.
As I leaned my head back to let out an audible sigh of relief, I saw it. It was there all along, but I was focused on what seemed to be more pressing issues. I looked up to see one of the most beautiful views of the trip. This red mountain set against a blue sky was stunning.
Hidden in plain sight.
I went back inside to chat with Elsie for a bit. I heard her talk to her daughter on the phone in Navajo. She talked with some others the same way. She sold me a bracelet in English.
We also talked about her husband in English and how his dementia had progressed to the point he needs to be in a hospital in Albuquerque. “Most days he doesn’t remember me,” she says, with a shrug that does little to mask the sad look in her eyes.
See video of Elsie Yellowhorse and her toy Rambler: https://youtu.be/sttLzYgiuH0
And again in Gallup, New Mexico, I heard the locals talking Navajo. Not just behind the counter at the El Rancho, but also in the bar, lobby, and at an event with a hundred people all speaking it.
I loved hearing it. I love that it’s a living language.
My ignorant self thought it was only used for Pow Wows and by tour guides.
Cruising through Navajo country really affected me, and not just the language. I enjoyed the people, the land, and what little of the culture I could absorb.
It took me awhile to figure out why this part of the trip grabbed me more than any other. Truth is, it didn’t hit me until I was home and reliving the trip in my brain.
As I pondered it all, I flashed back to when I was ten…yeah, that’s been a few birthdays ago.
I know I was ten, because that’s the age I had to be to attend church camp in the summer. It was a typical camp, I’m sure, with various people volunteering to spend a week with kids, hoping to make some positive impact on them. There were various classes I could take like swimming, canoeing, archery, etc.
When we registered they gave us a big, round, leather name badge on a plastic cord to hang around our necks.
I only remember one of the classes I took, because it really stood out in my memory. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was about Native Americans.
I even remember the name of the teacher, Thoric Cederstrom. He is a Choctaw. He had drawn Indian art on the back of his name badge and it was so cool. There weren’t many of us in his class, but we all asked him to draw on ours. He patiently did, and then put a random dot on the art explaining that the Choctaw believe that no man is perfect, so they purposefully put a mistake in all of their art. That’s cool!
We walked through the woods trying to be silent, heard stories, attempted crafts, and took it all in.
For months after that camp I was all about Native Americans. I read books, I bought a stamp book, I looked at maps to find reservations, and Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete ever.
Time passed. I moved on to other interests. But in this short distance on this Kooky’s Road Trip I got something back. I got a piece of my youth that was very important to me.
A few nights ago I decided to find Thoric, out of curiosity. Now why would I do that? It’s been 46 years…FORTY SIX YEARS, since I knew this man for one week of my entire life.
A quick Facebook search found him. Looks Choctaw…check. From Independence, MO…check. Living in GENEVA, SWITZERLAND?
Of course I sent him a note: “Are you the Thoric Cederstrom who was at my church camp many years ago (okay…many many years ago). I was probably 8 when a Thoric Cederstrom, a Choctaw, taught Native American studies at an RLDS camp. I hope this is you.”
He replied. We chatted. He claims to remember me, but for the life of me I can’t see why he would remember a dumb kid 46 years after the fact. He’s doing cool work there, something involving sustainable farming for stressed areas.
I’ll be in Geneva in a couple of weeks and we’ll hopefully meet for coffee.
Because he mattered to me. He cares. He had an impact on a young boy that lasts.
If there’s a point to this long story, it’s that we NEVER know the impact we have on people, positive or negative.
I would LOVE to think I might have had some impact on the kids I’ve coached over the years like Thoric had on me in that one week.
So as I drove along Route 66 through Arizona and New Mexico, I connected. Not ancestrally, sadly, but with a kind soul from my past.