- Unearthing Leetso:Yellow Monster beneath the Four Corners of the World
I could begin here, 9,600 feet above sea level, the aspens burnt red with summer drought, the dark wind of their light caught against the clouded sky, the mountain to the north of me that I still don't know how to name turned inside out for its gold. When I stand on this finger of glacial granite pointing from our Colorado mountain meadow south and westward, and the evening sky is that preternatural blue of high altitude, and the air I breathe, the gravity that anchors me here, only a thin cusp of well-being beneath the great expanse of dark matter, of black holes, of star stuff that burns in the atoms of my body too, I can see past Nipple Mountain to the Arkansas Valley shining like a second sky of far-off car lights, of cities thinning toward Raton Pass and the New Mexico border I will soon cross over. I could begin here, but it is on the Navajo Nation, the teachers of the reservation will tell me, that the world begins—Hahjeenah, the Emergence.
Ron pulls the beaded necklace of my prayer bag over the collar of my shirt and adjusts it so that I can no longer feel its cool deer bone and black obsidian against my neck. He pats my chest where the white deerskin sewn [End Page 3] with a rainbow of glass beads rests. Ron is a small, rather endearing man in round black-framed glasses, and his touch, I decide, is motherly, fussing.
"Did you bless it?" Ron asks me.
Ron is Navajo, Diné, the People. I am driving through the Four Corners of the World in a small Toyota with Ron and two other Diné somewhere between the Sacred Mountains that gods built—White Shell, Abalone Shell, Blue Bead, Big Mountain Sheep, the Navajos call them. I invited myself along for this ride to a small Indian gift shop where the Anglo teachers on the reservation have assured me I will find "great prices." We are here as part of an education grant awarded to the University of Northern Colorado to collaborate with Navajo Nation teachers on teaching strategies in American history and civics education. Ron is caretaker for his elderly parents and his sister's children, gladly exchanging his reservation trailer for a few nights in a hotel room. Leroy is a Diné middle school teacher and activist from Rough Rock, Arizona, where girls in home economics take knives to the throats of sheep. He will teach us ethnobotany, to pray to the plants that would heal us, if only we might ask. Jennifer, a Diné professor, historian, and author, is my colleague for this project, today a field trip on the history of uranium mining. She is skeptical of me—a white woman, poet but no historian, stranger to the desert and reservation but who was asked to teach teachers to find poetry within the hearts of the Navajo students she will never see.
"Oh, please don't," interjects Jennifer.
It is a year earlier. We are in the midst of planning a workshop on the reservation. I proposed bringing in the skeletons of birds and field mice, the wings of dragonflies, the uprooted teeth of cows, the craterous skulls of unidentified animals I have hauled from the fields of my childhood as writing aids. After the first year, Jennifer's protests are predictable. I chafe at her silently until I stand in front of the Navajo teachers and read to them James Wright's poem, "Rain," with its falling eyelids of owls and sad bones of hands descending.
"What does this poem feel like?" I ask naively.
A long silence.
"Death," one teacher whispers. The others stir uneasily in this affront [End Page 4] to the life they celebrate—its red rock fluidity, its bird-winged insistence.
"We don't speak openly of it," Jennifer tells me. I think of the stories spoken to me not by Navajos but Anglo historians who visit this reservation with me—of the ancient Acomas attacked by the Spaniards in 1599 on Sky Mesa...