Today we woke up in Gallup and headed to Shiprock to work on the Navajo reservation with the Johns Hopkins Team stationed there. Part of their efforts to prevent early childhood obesity is providing clean drinking water to families with children ranging from 6-9 months. Clean drinking water is hard to find on the reservation; the tap water isn’t clean and buying water gets expensive. This leads families to go look for cheaper, less healthier options. In order to create healthier options, the center delivers water weekly to families in the reservation. Today, we started in the center helping out fill water jugs and than we were fortunate enough to be able to help bring the water to two different home visits. There we were able to meet two different and lovely families and see some beautiful scenery along our way.
Our first water delivery was to a family that lived near the Johns Hopkins Center. It was to a single mother of two adorable boys, living in a house sanctioned for lower income families. We were bringing them two jugs of water and to get some photos for Johns Hopkins. The mother had a boy that was two years old and a 8 month old baby. They may have been the cutest thing that I have ever seen. ever. When we initially got there the mother was a little hesitant to engage but once Ed showed her one of the shots he had taken of her, she opened up quite a lot. She started staging the boys, posing with them, laughing a lot, and engaging with us as well. I think at first she was very wary of these outsiders entering her space but once she felt our energy of good intention and absolute love for her kids, she started to relax. Once she had relaxed, I could finally relax. I was worried that we would be invading these people’s lives and disrupting the flow, I needed her approval to feel okay with our presence. The younger boy was constantly bringing different toys out to show and give to us. He showed us so many of his toys ranging from a red chair, fake cellphone, dog rattle, and his bell. He had this long gorgeous hair that his mother was growing out. He loved the camera and was the most well behaved child that has ever existed. ever. His brother was as well. He had just woken up for a nap and was so content. Never in my life have I seen a child be woken up from a nap to go engage with a bunch of strangers and be so happy. But what pulled my heartstrings the most was how they interacted with each other. The older boy was constantly holding his brother, pushing him around in his playtoy mobile and making him smile for the camera. This experience may not have been the deepest nor the most eye opening but it definitely taught me something about family. I know that as long as those two boys stick by each other like they are doing now, and they stick with their mother who clearly cares about them very much, than they can handle anything life throws at them.
At 11, we were told we were going on another outing to photograph the water distribution program. Members of the staff implied that we would want to bring out cameras on this outing, as we would be able to visit Shiprock from a closer perspective. When taking the headshots, one of the founders of the program recounted the history of Shiprock. Once a volcano the soft rock had eroded to form the staggeringly large structure, leaving behind the hard volcanic rock. On either side of the rock, two expansive ridges also remain from the base of the volcano. We were told that from above, the ridges look like wings expanding from the rock itself. Traditionally, Navajo people called it Tsé Bitʼaʼí, or winged rock, to honor this resemblance. When the area was colonized, however, it was renamed Shiprock, as that is what the colonizers first thought it was. The name is now ironic on many levels, primarily because New Mexico is landlocked and most Navajo people had no idea what a ship was. The name remains on the reservation to this day, though some Navajo have begun to reclaim its original name.
As we neared Shiprock on the way to the water delivery, we took an abrupt right off of the highway onto a dirt road sprawling towards the rock itself. After about fifteen minutes of almost off-roading, we stopped at the base of the Shiprock, all gawking at its sheer size. This was one of the most incredible moments of the trip, standing in the grasses and shrinking next to Tsé Bit’aí.
As we continued on our journey to the next home, I experienced the most swift and dramatic change in scenery of my life. At first, everything was tan: the shrubbery, dirt, and Shiprock exploding from its flat and dusty surroundings. As the road spread out before us, suddenly the world became red with rocks and sand, as if moving along a natural gradient. Just as soon as we entered Red Rock Valley, where horses walked along the highway and everything was tinted pink, the road began to incline and twist, launching us up and over the mountain blocking the road. We chugged up the sharp turns, and trees started to accumulate. The ground snow suggested we were entering a ski resort in the middle of Arizona, though the undeveloped land proved otherwise. At the top, the pines opened before us for a brief moment, revealing the valley for all its beauty, resembling a grass sea behind the red sand. I begun to understand why the white colonizers called Shiprock a ship. On the other side of the mountain, the red returned, in the form of enormous boulders and cliffs with sunken caverns.
I felt like a child playing in an oversized world, leaving a sense of insignificance and yet wonder instilled within me. The beauty of each detail, the small wash, the red coves in the cliffs, the snow-topped mountains, spiritually captured me in a way I thought unimaginable.
Our second water delivery trip took us from Shiprock across the Red Valley and through the mountains to the small community of Lukachukai. The landscape was magical of course, but the most special part of the journey was the family we met at its end. We had a bit of difficulty locating the home we were supposed to bring the water to, but when we finally did, we were greeted by two llamas, a sheep, a rooster, a group of dogs and goats, and a turkey named Thanksgiving. This eccentric group of animals is cared for by the family of an extraordinary young woman who was kind enough to welcome us into her home. She began by taking us around her yard and letting us pet her animals, which she explained that she owns more out of her love of animals than for their practical use. The bond she has with the animals became clear when Ed photographed her with one of the llamas, which she adopted from a friend who had to give them away. She told us that when she first got the llamas – a mother and her baby – she had no idea how to take care of them and had to look up information on her phone after they arrived. Nonetheless, over two years later, they are clearly healthy, happy, well cared for.
After Ed finished taking the llama photos, the woman showed us her family’s hogan – a traditional Navajo dwelling. She told us that her wedding had taken place inside, indicating that the building has played a very important role in her life and that of her family. When Ed asked her if there was something she could hold while being photographed outside the hogan, she went inside her house and brought out her adorable eight-month old daughter. My heart melted watching as the baby, just woken up from a nap, grew more aware and came alive in front of the camera, smiling at us and hugging her mother.
When the photoshoot was finished, we were able to go inside the hogan, where the woman’s parents and older daughter sleep. The interior was a mix of traditional and modern, with all the typical components of an “ordinary” bedroom combined with a sense of Navajo history and a powerful feeling of closeness to nature. Inside the hogan, we heard about the woman’s extended family, including her brother-in-law in the army and her nine-year old niece who has already been engaged in autism awareness activism for several years.
Finally, we went inside the house, where we met the woman’s younger sister, who cares for the animals while she is at work three hours away in Ignacio, Colorado. There, she works five days a week as a pastry chef at a casino, having studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale. In addition to this, she weaves, makes children’s costumes, and creates and sells accessories made out of sacks of Bluebird Flour. The amount of drive and energy required to do all of this is astounding and inspiring. And perhaps most extraordinarily of all, she showed no indication of being stressed or tired and was gracious enough to spend her time showing us around her home and sharing her stories with us. Her dream is to open up her own pastry shop, hopefully sometime in the next two years. With her talent and work ethic, I can’t imagine anything that could possibly stand in her way. Meeting her – a woman who embodies feminine strength to the core – was an indescribably moving experience and one of the highlights of my trip.