New In Town

The day I arrived at Navajo Community College, my boss greeted me warmly, got me oriented, got the keys to my college-provided housing and helped me move in. The college trailer park, in my headlights, at first looked quite neat and spiffy, but as we drove down to the furthest end and rounded the corner, some of the trailers were a little rough. My boss, Jack Mowrer, pulled in at the roughest, untidiest box of all. I pulled my tired green Chevy truck into a muddy spot that seemed to be the driveway. Jack looked abashed about the house trailer, but it wasn’t really too bad, and we opened up and looked around.

It was the usual and universal single-wide aluminum box, with ill-fitting windows and doors, a tiny kitchen/dining area, bedrooms at each end, one bathroom, mouse turds everywhere. The carpet in the living room was filthy; the bathroom was semi-finished with the usual cheap plastic sinks, pan shower with no curtain, and bogus hardware. The toilet was indescribable. There was a spot in the main hallway where the floored had collapsed; some previous occupant had thrown a piece of particle board over the hazard. Jack and I cleaned up for an hour before I moved stuff in, and after he said goodnight, I ate some of the groceries I’d bought in Chinle, spread my mat and sleeping bag, and crashed out. I heard animals all night.

The next morning, my first in Arizona, I figured out that there was a corral built between my house trailer and the place next door, with several goats and sheep, happily ensconced. I made coffee and walked outside, across the road, into a field, and turned in one spot surveying my location. The college was built high up on a vast swell of land, altitude 7000 ft, in the foothills of the Chuska Mountains to the east, a section of the southern Rockies. The view west across the Chinle valley was vast and expansive, a panorama of rocks, cliffs, mesas, and canyons, to the eastern edge of the Hopi Mesas on the far horizon. The landscape around me was the classic arid, high-desert western range, covered in sage, chamisa, low bush, cactus, Spanish bayonet, with stands of pinon and juniper, and some native grasses. The view northeast took in the spectacular cliffs and ramparts of the Lukachukai area, 8 miles distant. Looking east, I saw Tsaile Peak, a dramatic volcanic extrusion, a large stone tower on the western slopes of the Chuskas. Our school was right on the edge of the ponderosa forests that swept up the mountain side, nicely situated.

The trailer park loop bordered an open area dotted here and there with hogons, the traditional eight-sided dwellings of the Navajo. These were built of rough split pine planks, some grouted with an adobe-like mud. The roofs were eight-segmented cones, with a stove-pipe poking up in the center. There were small windows in the sides; main entry always faced east. Most of the places sported ramadas made from juniper poles, roofed with branches, some quite extensive, that provided shaded outdoor living area. Many had pens or corrals, with goats, sheep, and horses.

I’d brought with me a 10-speed bike that I’d bought used for $30 when I was a student in Ann Arbor, so later, after more cleaning and unpacking, I took a ride around the school. The main campus had been built within a circular main perimeter road, roughly half a mile diameter. Built in 1968 with ‘Great Society’ money of the Lyndon Johnson era, NCC was the first Indian college in the US. The campus architecture followed the traditional octagonal Navajo floor plan, except in modern glass and stone, and was spectacular. The entries always faced to the east, an important consideration in Navajo ‘medicine’. Housing areas and other facilities were located on streets radiating out from this circular central campus. On the road back to my trailer were the veterinary hospital, stock corrals, and in the pinon/juniper grove beyond, a new rodeo arena.

Later that day, I visited the classroom building I would be working in, at the trades school facilities. Jack showed me around the welding and metal shop that I’d be overseeing when school started in a few days. The main shop was a large, high ceiling industrial space, with a glassed-in office, and a large roll-up door leading out to a yard area. Ten electric welding machines lined one side of the room; machinery and gas welding gear were lined up on the other side.

While touring the space with Jack, I first saw the magnitude of the job ahead of me: the space was simply a mess, trashed, everything in some state of disrepair, or in need of service, or belts, or blades, or new switches. Under tables and in corners were piles of metal cutoffs and scrap, pop cans, car parts, old horseshoes, worn harrow discs, pipe fittings, tractor parts, a transmission. Most surfaces in the room were dusted with a thick layer of welding dirt, abrasive dust, and that fine-grained orange Arizona sand that became such a trial to live with. It would take me, Jack, and some student help several days of hauling out junk, cleaning, and minor repairs to just make the place work as a shop again.

We owned metal saws, a nice bandsaw, hydraulic bender and dies, a solid 4-foot lathe, plasma cutter, some sheet metal gear, a pattern cutting torch, one of those whopping heavy cast welding tables, and a serviceable rolling overhead crane. I was delighted to see a McEngleven gas table forge, and an assortment of tongs. A battered anvil stood nearby. We even had an in-floor gas foundry furnace for casting metals, all very neglected and buried in junk. My office was likewise in need of a real cleaning.

That night, I was invited to dinner at my college friend’s home, in the main campus housing compound. The houses were modern hogons, with electricity and indoor plumbing, solidly constructed in brick, doors facing east. We enjoyed cold beer and good food and excellent views. My friends told me they were kind of wondering if I’d actually do it, move myself 1200 miles to a new place and a new culture. We spent the night talking about the school, my program, the Navajo, and I began to feel at home, trailer house and all.

My friends convinced me to do my shopping in Gallup, New Mexico, so, a couple of days after my arrival, on a scorching mid-August day, I saddled up and drove ‘Ol Green’ down to the city, passing through spectacular red sandstone beauty, through Window Rock, seat of government for the Navajo Nation, and the village of Yah-Ta-Hey (“Hello”). As I drove into Gallup from the north, I began to pass groups of Native Americans dressed in robes, blankets, headdresses, war paint, eagle feathers, etc. A line of horse-drawn wikiups paraded down Main Street; Native peoples in rich costumery danced along in parade fashion. I was astonished.

I went into an Osco Drug store, which was packed with Indian people, all regaled in finery. At the checkout, I asked the white store clerk if it was always like this in Gallup, New Mexico. She gave me a weird look and said,” It’s ceremonial week”, and pointed to a poster on the wall near the door. It announced the annual “Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonials and Gathering of Nations”. I’d unknowingly chosen to shop on the high day of Gallup’s biggest event of the year, when native people from all over North America were in town, putting on a show. There was a fair, daily dances, and, of course, a rodeo.

I spent some time on Main Street, watching the constant parade of Native Americans moving slowly along, and went into some of the many pawn shops that line the center of town. Gallup was centrally located among several Indian reservations; the pawn shop business had, for over a century, served as an important economic service for Indians, providing cash when needed for Indians who needed it. The pawn shops were stuffed full of Navajo rugs and jewelry, Zuni inlay jewelry, Hopi pottery, old guns, and more. Although I was awfully tight for cash, I bought a straw cowboy hat with turquoise set in silver on the leather band, which probably made me look like a real dude.

My boss Jack had given me directions to the big supermarket; when I got there, it turned out to be a huge, really huge, warehouse structure, and was, of course, packed with Indians. As I shopped for basics, I was shoulder to shoulder with native peoples of every description, all dressed in traditional wear, the Navajo especially resplendent. Even the tiniest children wore silver and turquoise, cowboy boots, and hats. The various foodstuffs on sale were very different than I expected: sacks of beans and flour, tortillas, ground corn goods, green and red chile ristras, canned Mexican foods, brand names I’d never heard of before.

The meat section was more like an open air butcher shop; whole sides of beef could be bought, as well as mutton, that staple of Navajo life. There was an animal feed section; one could also buy saddles and tack, farrier supplies, and fencing. I loaded up on the essentials and, before leaving town, I opened a bank account, bought some dishes, pots and pans, and a few other household basics. I bought a copy of the Gallup Independent (‘The Truth Well Told’) and headed back up the highway, through the rough-looking border town of Gamerco, and noted the abundance of liquor stores right at the border with the Navajo reservation, which was ‘dry’. I would learn quickly that alcohol abuse is the number one public health problem in Indian Country, dwarfing all other concerns. I would soon learn to be very careful about offering Native Americans alcohol under any circumstances.

I bought some mutton stew and a tortilla for dinner. As I drove back up to Window Rock, and then to Tsaile, the sunset illuminated the sandstone formations and green mountainsides; it would never fail to astonish me at how beautiful Navajoland was. That first visit to Gallup was a good day.