Shortly before Christmas my son, Sam--now a veteran and about to graduate from the University of Maine with a degree in mechanical engineering--said to me that he wanted to break our giving pattern and that he was giving me a trip to the southwest. He is an avid photographer and has a very fine eye, along with a longstanding love of 'red rock' country. So, last week we flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and headed out into the wilds of southern Utah.
In Monument Valley, as we drove the circuitous dirt road around the gigantic mesas, we met a small pair of yellow dogs, who were also on their own. But, these dogs were a little different. Their fur was very coarse, like that of some terrier breeds, and their faces were fox/dingo like, very pointy with keen slanted eyes. They sized up each passer-by, approached as indicated, and were also making a living off of hand-outs, but as we observed them it became apparent that they were truly 'wild'. When we were pulling out, they raced up over a small rise, apparently headed back towards their den. My sense is that they were part of a fully adapted feral population of such dogs. They are so well acclimated that they can survive larger predators, and severe winters out there, although I can't imagine it's easy.
In our days on the Navajo Nation's lands we saw many people who are struggling to get by. We drove past one fellow who was hunkered down on the edge of a cattle guard, twenty yards from the roadway....five miles from town...with his head propped in his hands......just sitting there. The sight of him gave me an instant pang of sadness. He looked so beaten down, so lost, so depressed....and he became a symbol in my mind for all the other people we saw who also seemed to be living with a dark cloud over them. Sam and I had long discussions about this apparent state of affairs; we asked what our role as a society was in this. We had to wonder whose responsibility it is that life apparently sucks so badly for so many people. Neither of us could escape the feeling that beyond a certain point this is something that is self-propagating....but that nobody can really force victim-hood on a person or people who does not somehow submit to it. Yes, of course, it has inertia, an undeniable momentum that propels a young Navajo man or woman in that direction. But, it was also seemingly clear to us, as outside observers, that massive government well-fare--in a myriad readily apparent forms--has a severe downside to it, perhaps even inflicting as much damage as it does good. It made me wonder if anybody has really studied the long-term effects of the existing programs. And, it was also strikingly self-evident that ALCOHOL continues to play a central role in empowering the slide towards helplessness and depression for far too many Native Americans.
Sam attended Ft. Lewis College his freshman year, in Durango Colorado. He went there because he loves that area, and Ft. Lewis was a dominant competitor in mountain-bike NCAA racing. Ft. Lewis is part of the Colorado state university system, and it is also a 'land grant' school that is charged with accepting all Native American applicants. So, a steady stream of them show up for freshman year...and the vast majority of them find the freedom and the opportunity to party are just too tempting...and drop out after a semester or two. Colorado is offering these kids a college degree for free...and most of them just go and party, then drop-out. Why?
The motel we stayed at in Tuba City belongs to the Navajo Nation. It was the lousiest one we found by a huge margin, and 50% more expensive. The 'heat' was a milk-house heater that you were expected to plug into a wall-socket and was so noisy that we went without it. The entire establishment was beset by an atmosphere of, "...hey, we really just don't give a shit"...and even the parking-lot was so full of big potholes that it looked like the surface of the moon.
In the end, however, it was the invisible, un-cared for, struggling mutts of the Navajo territory that showed some real resilience, perseverance, toughness and a desire to live. But, then, I know this about dogs. They are always willing to take life as it comes, work with what is at hand, deal with adversity in a way that is both courageous and dignified....and muddle on through. It felt like far too many of the Navajo people have still not yet learned this very basic, yet critical skill-set, from the very creatures that wander in their midst.