One summer, when I was 19 or so, I drove out to the Gateway Ranch, which sits on the edge of the Navajo reservation, near Flagstaff. Intended to be a place of environmental sustainability and responsible, respectful cultural exchange, it is the home of a former AIM activist, who had been invited to be principal of the reservation’s first native-run school. I went with my friend Jenn, taking turns driving her Toyota eight hours out of the subtropics of South Florida, where we were at New College, and then nearly 3,000 miles across the Deep South, and Texas, a country all its own, and finally, into the dusty southwest.
That summer, I met a man named Justin. He was Navajo, and I didn’t know yet how Navajo men came to have names like Justin. I took him at face value, accepted the version of himself that he offered. He worked sometimes at Gateway, planning and putting in the permaculture garden, and at the school, doing the same. He had been off the res for several years, in the Vietnam War and then travelled around some, spent some time as a mushroom farmer in Japan. But when I met Justin he wandered around the still wild parts of the res, studying the slopes of the land and building long, elegant, tapered retaining walls out of rocks he found scattered around. He built them to capture water, he said, so that the trees he planted would grow. He told me that place was all cottonwood trees before it became a reservation, and all the trapped people cut them down to build with. Cottonwood trees catch and hold the rainwater in underground oases, and without them, he said, he had to contain it before it dissipated in the sand.
Justin planted every seed, from every plum or peach or nectarine he ate. I don’t know how many of those seeds sprouted in the desert, but Justin had a vision of abundance in his spirit when I knew him. He was graceful and kind. He invited Jenn and I to camp on the large, flat boulders near his place under the stars, and we did, wary as we were of snakes. He slept several dozen yards away in his modern version of a traditional hogan. It was the very first and the last time in my life when I was not at all afraid of a man twice or maybe three times my size. He must have been more than twice my age as well, but he was a real friend, the kind who show you their treasures plainly and only hope that you will see and appreciate them. We went for a walk to a mound made of broken Hopi pottery, and his sadness was quiet but evident. When I left, he gifted me an abalone shell that I carried with me though ten moves until it finally broke and I buried it. We exchanged letters, once or twice, but I moved so often then.
I think maybe we recognized a little bit of lostness in each other–a sense of being in-between cultures, and trying very hard to learn what it was to be good without any reliable yardstick. He had seen things that most people around him had not–war, and the atrocities it entails. And I had seen things that were entirely foreign to the suburban whiteness around me–the stark, brutal poverty of southern Pakistan, young children decapitated to beg on the streets. We both held things that could never be integrated, or even really spoken. But he had demons I had not imagined yet: the generational scars of genocide and forced displacement, of a reservation home that would always be, at least partly, evidence of ongoing occupation.
I learned yesterday that Justin died six years ago, after some hard times and before I had a chance to tell him how dear he was to me. It’s breaking my heart. So I am telling you.