As a kid, I never rooted for the cowboys. Stick on a Western and I was hoping the stagecoaches get robbed, John Wayne flips sides and Tonto rips off the Lone Ranger’s ridiculous mask and rides off to the sunset alone. But as I grew up, I realised those Hollywood Indians are like cardboard cutouts. I wanted to get past the good, the bad and the ugly clichés. I wanted the real thing. But for that I had to go to the source.
The Navajo Nation is a 27,000sq mile sovereign state in the high desert of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It’s the largest tribal reservation in the country, almost half the size of England, and home to more than 100,000 Navajo — or Dine (‘The People’), as they call themselves; many of whom still embrace their traditional way of life.
But being in the reservation was strange. A few miles away, there were shopping malls, drive-throughs and supermarkets stacked with food. But here I found weather-torn shacks, broken farms and people living without running water or mains electricity. It was like falling through the cracks of the modern world. And that’s the thing. In the richest, most powerful country on the planet, finding entire communities living in Third World conditions is the equivalent of finding a horse and carriage lining up next to Lewis Hamilton in the Grand Prix. It just shouldn’t happen.
But there’s pride here too. I spent a week living on the reservation and, far away from the casinos and tourist shows, found people still living the old ways, tending flocks of paper-thin sheep and dry farming the parched grasslands with heirloom seeds of squash, bean and corn. I hiked to 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings, touched ancient petroglyphs and slept under the stars in the backcountry of Monument Valley, the red rock mesas glowing like silver totems in the milky light.
I also found resilience. Over and over again, the people I met told me the greatest threat America’s first nations face today is cultural assimilation. Maintaining a native identity, and traditional way of life in the face of a dominant US ideology is a near insurmountable challenge. But, nevertheless, I found that struggle everywhere. Sometimes faint, but always strong and patient too. “It’s just endurance,” Ira Vandever, a young Navajo community leader, told me. “We’ll outlast them.”
But the thing that changed my life was meeting the medicine man. His face was weathered; his sharp blue eyes fixed me with a hawk-like stare. As I sat before him, he spread a pile of hot coals on the compacted red-earth floor of his hogan, the traditional log-and-mud home of the Navajo, and twisted a translucent crystal before the flames. By looking at the coals in this way it’s believed images will appear to help him divine the nature of a patient’s affliction. “It’s like an X-ray machine,” his nephew translated. “He sees your life reflected in the fire.”
Afterwards, he placed a shiny black arrowhead in his hand and fanned me with golden eagle feathers, palming cedar smoke over my body to bless and purify me. Then the chanting began, a low rumble that started as a whisper and got louder and more intense with every minute. He told me to kneel before the fire as he sang, to tell the fire why I’m on this Earth, what my purpose is. I’ve never really prayed before, never been to church, but there, among the dust devils and the last feathers of the setting sun, I found myself asking simple things: to be a better man, a better father. Suddenly, I heard my name called and a flood of emotion washed over me. The medicine man smiled. “This power is strong,” he said. “It comes from the Earth.”
That’s why I never root for the cowboys. Because where I live, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, car parks and fast food joints stand where once was the hunting grounds of the Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne; herds of buffalo tens of thousands strong thundered the high plains. Because where now there are coal mines, once rivers ran clean. Because the real America is Native America too, echoing across the fabric of progress like the memory of an old song. Because the Indians are still here, fighting, not just in the movies.
British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains of Boulder, Colorado since.
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)