Monday, June 30, 2008
The Second Indian War by Sarah Black
The Second Indian War by Sarah Black is available in the anthology Hostage by Josh Lanyon, Sarah Black, and Laura Baumbach.
MLR Press (April 26, 2008)
Sam opened the topo map and spread it out across the counter at the Anasazi Inn in Tsegi Canyon. The waitress refilled his coffee cup. She was a young Navajo girl, maybe high school aged, and she had brought him an empty cup and filled it up without saying a word.
Most of the tables were filled with Navajo families, sometimes three or four generations squeezed in together, the old ladies in traditional velvet blouses and cotton tiered skirts, turquoise squashblossoms at neck and wrist. The counter seemed to be the place for the men to sit. There were two truck drivers and an old man reading the Navajo Times in the other seats, and Sam noticed that they all were eating stew and frybread. He looked at the white board. The special of the day was mutton stew with frybread on the side, and for desert you could chose your pie.
The truck drivers looked like they had eaten in every diner between Phoenix and Salt Lake, but the old man couldn’t have weighed eighty pounds. They were all three tucking into their stew with enthusiasm, though, so the next time the girl came around the counter and stood silently in front of him, her order pad open, he told her he wanted the special with apple pie for dessert.
“You want that heated up with vanilla on top, right?”
Sam agreed that warm apple pie with vanilla on top would hit the spot. She glanced down at the topo map, but didn’t say anything, and when the kid working as the short order cook slid his bowl of stew onto the serving counter, Sam folded the map back up and tucked the napkin into his collar.
He was hoping to find someone who lived around here and could tell him the best way back into Skeleton Mesa. He had a weekend off, a Jeep full of tent, sleeping bag, and camping gear, and a brand new, very old, large format camera, rescued from eBay and now in his eager paws. It was a Wista wood-body field camera, and he had spent the last few weeks reading up on the old landscape cameras and collecting film for a weekend on the Colorado Plateau.
Tsegi Canyon was the first place he had ever stayed on the Navajo Reservation. That was years ago, and he’d fallen in love with its red rocks and secret water, the hidden caves and quiet orchards and tiny hogans puffing smoke from their smoke stacks. From the Anasazi Inn you could walk straight back into the nineteenth century, and in thirty minutes there would be no telephone poles, no roads, no electricity. Those were the landscapes he was going to try and capture with the camera. He would enjoy the comforts (and bathrooms) of the campground at Navajo National Monument, and during the day he would use the topo map to get lost in Navajo country.
The kid who was the short order cook leaned across the serving counter and studied him for a moment, probably to see if the white guy was really eating mutton stew. Sam loved mutton stew, and this batch was world class. “Good stew.”
The kid glared at him, turned back into the kitchen. Sam grinned at his stiff back. He was maybe eighteen, with long black hair tied up in a traditional bun and the sullen air of the perpetually misunderstood and put-upon. The life of a teenager was hell.
The young waitress waited till he had mopped up every last bit of stew with his frybread, then she brought his pie and ice cream. He had eaten like a good boy, so he thought he might be in her good graces. He brought the topo map out again. “You live around here?”
“You know the best hiking routes from the national monument down into Skeleton Mesa?”
She stared down at the map for a long moment. “What are you going to be doing there?”
Fair question. Skeleton Mesa was known as a prime location for collecting illegal pot shards. “Taking pictures.”
“You’re a photographer?”
“Yes. Well, really I’m a reporter, but the camera is my hobby.”
She turned, and Sam saw that the kid was leaning over again, listening. “TJ, can you help him? He’s got a map.”
The kid came around the counter. His apron showed how hard he’d worked this day, cooking stew. He looked at the topo map. “You’re camping at Navajo National Monument?”
“Yeah. I wanted to walk out to the mesa, find a nice flat spot I could use to take pictures of Tsegi Canyon all day. You know, like in the morning and the late afternoon, the way the light…”
“Yeah, I know. Okay, you know where that pull out is? The scenic overlook?”
Sam nodded. “About half-mile from the visitor’s center, right?”
The kid nodded. “There’s a little path that goes down into the mesa from there. Be careful, though. It’s not marked, and it’s easy to get lost down in the mesa. You should take a compass, or just use the sun. Sometimes you can see the American flag at the visitor’s center, and that’ll show you the direction to walk back.”
“Thanks.” Sam stuck out his hand, and the kid shook it gingerly, like he hadn’t done it before. “I’m Sam Adams.”
“TJ Benally.” The kid took his hand back and escaped to the kitchen, and Sam ate his pie and ice cream, every delicious bite, and had to restrain himself from licking the plate clean.
He was up before dawn, ready to leave the dubious comforts of the sleeping bag for a day of hiking and picture taking. He stashed some granola bars and fruit roll ups into his backpack for later. The camera was heavy and fragile, so he spent some time packing it, then slid it onto his back and lashed the tripod to the side. He filled his canteen and secured the nylon flap of the tent and headed off.
There is a peculiar light in canyon country at sun up and sun down, a weird red-gold light that seems as if it sets the landscape on fire. He wanted to catch Tsegi Canyon at both times today, the morning light and the evening, and that meant he needed to find his spot, maybe a flat rock or outcropping of sandstone big enough to stand on, and have the camera set up and ready to go when the sun lifted its face and smiled at the rocks.
He found the scenic overlook and located the trail. In the gray light of early dawn the path was as insubstantial as a whisper. It wasn’t marked, so it must not be one of the trails allowed by the park rangers. It looked more like a goat path, and a couple of times he lost the trail altogether in the soft light, but he could tell the path was taking him where he needed to go. After about thirty minutes of walking, he came around the twisted trunk of a juniper tree and Tsegi Canyon was spread out in front of him like a wild, secret Eden. His heart contracted at the beauty, and something like yearning caught in his throat.
There was no one to see this with him. It was tragic and beautiful, this land, and he pressed a fist against his heart. Tsegi Canyon made him feel alone. But he was okay alone. It had been awhile for him, but he was happy, so what was this all about? There was no one he knew that he would want with him right now, seeing this land. Maybe he was just thinking of the possible one. The next one. The last one he would love.
Saturated with beauty. It was a strange phrase, and it caught in his mind. This land, it was saturated in beauty, and in blood, too. How had it stayed so untouched, so innocent? The Indian Wars had raged across the Navajo homelands, across Skeleton Mesa and Tsegi Canyon, only one memory ago to the elders, who still told stories of how the warriors had almost defeated the cavalry, how some of the warriors never surrendered, how they hid out in this wild land until the war was over.
No time to day dream. He needed to get the camera set up and ready to go, then he could feel the sun come creeping across the canyon, warming the sandstone he was sitting on.
Sam slid the backpack off his shoulders, set the tripod up and started unpacking the camera. The bellows was in perfect condition, and he ducked under the dropcloth and moved it, focusing the camera on the near distance. Through the lens he saw three horses, ridden by Navajo warriors, no doubt. He pulled his head out and looked again. They were a good ways away, but somebody was out for a morning ride. He wondered if he could take their picture, or if, ethically, you had to ask permission first. He supposed that anything within the landscape was part of the landscape, and thus a landscape photographer could make an argument that he was photographing the rocks behind them. But this was Navajo country, and Navajo people had the right to take their horses and go riding around on their land without being irritated by old white guys and their cameras.
Hmmm. What to do? Sam decided to just wait and see what would happen, let the horses and riders get a little closer, get ready for the golden morning sun.
“You are going to get committed! Or arrested! You belong in the nut house at Fort Defiance, TJ, and I for one am not going with you. I have plans for my life.”
TJ turned and looked behind him at his sister. She hadn’t shut up for fifteen minutes and he was starting to wish he’d come on this quest alone. He knew he needed some help, at least three of them to appear in any way credible, but he wasn’t going to be able to take much more of this. “Lovie, if you have a better idea, let’s hear it. Because I believe last night you said that you agreed that the government wasn’t doing anything again, was just leaving people to die, and that it was our generation’s responsibility to act. That sounds good, but you’ve got to be willing to take a chance. To risk something. Talk is for the white people who dug that uranium in the first place, left the tailings all over our land, and now are refusing to clean it up. We’re Navajo. We act. We don’t talk.”
‘You sound like you’re running for tribal council!”
The third boy spoke up. He was younger than the other two, maybe fourteen, and his black hair was just starting to grow out, the ends brushing his shoulders. “I’d vote for TJ for tribal council.”
“Thanks, Buddy. Look, you two. We have one goal here. You just got to push one rock over, you know what I’m saying? If the rock is on top of the hill, gravity will do the rest.”
They rode on in silence, and the guy on the flat slab of sandstone with the camera just sat there, not moving, like he was waiting for them. TJ rode a bit ahead of the others, let his horse climb the rocks until he was next to the man. He really, really wanted his voice not to shake, and he thought he better stay on the horse, because for sure his knees were shaking. The guy was sort of good-looking for an old white guy. He had gray eyes that looked really calm, like the sea or something, and he had a beard with a few silver hairs. TJ had always wondered what a beard felt like, how soft it was.
He cleared his throat, then realized that he didn’t know how to begin. The guy stood up now, and TJ could tell that he recognized Lovie and him from the diner.
“You’re TJ, right?”
“Yeah. I need to tell you something.”
“Okay.” The guy took hold of the bridle, patted the horse’s neck in a real friendly way, looked up at him with this open face.
“You are now being held hostage by the People’s Uranium Reparation Committee. We have just declared war on the United States government, and you are our first prisoner of war.”
Sam knew he shouldn’t laugh, because teenagers took themselves so seriously, but the kid’s words and somber face surprised a laugh out of him before he could choke it off. The young warrior slid off his horse, stalked across the sandstone, his face looking like a thundercloud. “You think this is a joke? Don’t you understand what’s at stake here?”
“Obviously I don’t, because you haven’t told me anything. Listen, can I take pictures while we talk? The light…”
Buddy had climbed down from his horse, was looking at the camera. “Man, that’s an old piece of crap camera. Why don’t you have one of those new digital cameras? You can plug them into your computer and digitally manipulate the photos.”
Sam shrugged. “These cameras see better. They’re old, but nothing has ever taken a better photograph of this landscape. You want to look through the lens?”
TJ turned to the girl, threw his hands up. She climbed down and took the horses’ reins, lead them a little ways off to the shelter of a juniper tree. Buddy was looking under the drop cloth. “Cool! TJ, you’ve got to see this!”
“Maybe later, Buddy. I need to concentrate so I can commit my first felony properly.”
Sam stuck his head out of the drop cloth. “Just be careful about using guns. How old are you, anyway?”
TJ put his hands on his hips and frowned. “I’m eighteen.”
“See, that’s that I’m saying. You’re not a minor anymore. You screw up, you’re going to prison, kid.”
“It would be worth it, if we could get something done. Anything. If anything would change. If even one family…” He stopped, and Sam studied his face. So serious, so full of sorrow for eighteen.
“So what’s going on? Can you tell me, or do you want to tie me up or something first?”
TJ gave him a look to show he didn’t appreciate this humor, and Sam was reminded again that teenagers did not take their crises lightly. He sat down and crossed his legs. “Okay, I’m ready to listen.”
TJ sat opposite him, crossed his legs in the way they used to call Indian style, before it became politically incorrect, and Sam had to restrain his urge to call for a Peace Pipe. “You know about the uranium mining?”
“It was back in the forties and fifties, right? I read something about the Navajo government was bringing a lawsuit to make the mines clean up the radioactive waste. That’s all I know.”
“Our land is poisoned.” Sam looked into his eyes, and suddenly he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. The kid was deadly serious. “They left radioactive waste, waste water, tailings, all over the reservation. The people didn’t know what the uranium was. The sheep drank the water in the poisoned lakes. People built their hogans out of rocks from the mines. The children play in the pits. And now, families are dying. Entire families with cancer. The government managed to stall paying reparations until most of the original miners were dead. The tribal council has voted, no more uranium mining. That’s good, but how will we pay to clean up this poison from our land? We don’t have the money, and we can’t make anyone care that our people are dying, and that our beautiful land is…killing us.”
The girl sat down with them. “Our grandmother has thyroid cancer. She believes Leetso, the yellow monster, has been let loose to walk the land, and he is the cause of the cancers. The old ones, they are traditional. They’re doing ceremonies. They don’t understand radioactive waste.”
Sam nodded. “So how is taking me hostage and declaring war on the US Government from the middle of Skeleton Mesa going to change anything? Most change takes place from the inside, kids. You understand?”
TJ looked at him and nodded.
Sam thought back. “In the diner, you asked what I was going to do in Skeleton Mesa. I told you I was a reporter. That’s when you hatched this plan?”
TJ nodded again. “I’ve got a laptop in the horse’s saddlebag. We’re going to try and link to the cell phone tower next to Black Mesa to pick up wireless internet and you are going to transmit a story to your newspaper saying you have been taken hostage and why. I believe having a reporter held hostage, and you will be able to journal about the experience, maybe get on a decent blog with hourly reports from captivity, and there will be a groundswell of support for you that will lead to the people putting pressure on the government to do what they should have done all along!”
Sam looked at him. He was a good-looking kid, with one of those high-cheekboned, dark-skinned faces that looked like it belonged in a sepia photograph from 1880.
“Why do you wear your hair long, kid? I don’t see many teenagers going traditional like that.”
“Mom is a park ranger over at Chaco Canyon. I get summer work doing that living history stuff. The tourists like to see Indians with long hair.”
“Chaco Canyon? They were Ancestral Puebloans, not Navajo.”
“You think anybody thinks about that, when I’m climbing around the kivas? Okay, are you ready to start?”
Sam shook his head. “Sorry, kid. No can do. I don’t think you’ve thought through this plan very carefully, and I am not going to do something that will guarantee you spend the rest of your young manhood in prison.”
TJ’s face looked as dark as an afternoon thunderstorm. He stood slowly, towered over Sam. “What did you say?”
Sam grinned up at him. “I said no. And you already told me you have a grandmother, so I know you’ve heard the word before. What does the TJ stand for?”
TJ stalked away, went to the edge of the sandstone slab and looked across at Tsegi Canyon. He looked like he should be in the movies, dusty jeans, boots, black hair down his back. Buddy slid across the rock and sat next to Sam. “It’s Thomas Jefferson.”
Sam smiled, and TJ turned around and glowered at him. “Thomas Jefferson Benally? I’d say we’re a couple of revolutionaries, all right.”
TJ’s face lit up for a moment, and he had to bite down on his bottom lip.
“Kid, when you figure out what’s wrong with your plan, I’ll be right over here, taking pictures.”
Things were going well, TJ thought, and he set about gathering rocks and downed wood for a campfire. Lovie had brought stew and the fixings for frybread. Frybread cooked over a juniper wood fire was a food that would soften the hardest news reporter.
Sam was taking pictures, sliding the big sheets of film carefully into the back of the camera, and Buddy was acting as his assistant. When he had the fire pit dug and ringed with rocks, and had started the campfire, he went to the saddlebags and pulled out a thermos. He poured a cup of coffee, handed it to Sam, and poured another for himself.
“You have any binoculars? I’ll show you something cool.”
“Yeah, I do.” Sam dug into his backpack, pulled out a pair of binoculars and handed them to TJ. Then he pulled out a fruit rollup and gave it to Buddy. “Lick your fingers clean before you touch the camera after you eat that thing, big guy.”
TJ focused the binoculars, then handed them to Sam. “Okay, look over to the right about a mile. You’ll see the river, then just beyond the river you’ll see a little canyon, shaped like a hand. See it?”
“Look where the thumb is. Now, focus high up on the wall. The sun’s on it now, so you should be able to see it.”
“Would you look at that. What is it?”
Sam stared through the binoculars. “TJ, I’ve seen lots of petroglyphs. This is something different. It’s like a novel in petroglyphs.”
“It’s from the time of the first Indian Wars—the wars between the Navajo and the cavalry. It’s part of the story from Canyon de Chelly, when Kit Carson had the soldiers cut down the peach orchards, when they were rounding people up to send them to Bosque Redondo. The rest of the story is that some of the women saved a few peaches, and they nursed the seeds into trees, and they kept the trees hidden. And over time those trees made peaches, and they grew more trees from the seeds. I ate those peaches when I was a kid, peaches saved from our orchards in Canyon de Chelly, from before the Long Walk. Anyway, that’s the story on the wall, how they saved the peaches.”
“Wow. That is awesome. Thanks for showing me, TJ.”
“We can’t eat those peaches now, Sam. They’ve been watered from a river that is contaminated with radioactive waste. From a uranium mine.” TJ took a sip of coffee. He pointed of to his left. “See that little hogan down there with the green roof? It’s about a mile. Can you see it?”
Sam looked again. “Yeah, there it is.”
“That’s where my grandparents live. My grandfather, he only has one leg. He was a Marine in Vietnam. It used to freak me out when I was a kid, because he would take the leg off and it would be sitting there, looking at me. I used to have nightmares the leg started chasing me. I never told him that, though.”
“My father was a Marine in Vietnam, too. He didn’t make it home.”
“Your mom raised you?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“I don’t have a father, either. My mom’s real strong, though. I don’t believe what they say, about sons of single mothers having so many problems.”
Sam smiled at him. “I don’t believe it either. So, how’s the plan coming along?”
TJ had to work to keep the surprise off his face. He wondered why he just assumed white guys were going to skirt around the hard patches in life. He was surprised Sam had been raised by his mom, just like him. And why was he surprised? Did he really buy that crap that the only hard lives were lived by people with brown skin? “The problem with the plan as I see it is that the FBI is in charge of serious crimes on the reservation, serious crimes such as taking people hostage and declaring war on the United States. And the FBI will be able to trace our link with the Black Mesa cell tower in less time than it takes to heat up a pot of stew.”
“That would be my guess, too, kid. Hey, do I smell stew? I’m getting hungry.”
TJ filled up Sam’s cup with more coffee. “You’re still my hostage, though. I just need to come up with another plan.”
“Well, you just let me know.”
Lovie poured water from a bottle over a piece of flat sandstone, then set it down in the coals to heat up. “Don’t worry,” she told Sam. “I’m using bottled water.” She mixed the flour and water in a Zip-Lock bag, and when the dough was ready, she pinched off pieces the size of a baseball, kneaded them out into a flat disc, and set them on the hot rock to cook.
TJ took a piece of juniper branch, used the sharp edge to lift the hot dough and flip it over. “Chill, baby sister. I got everything under control.”
Her bark of derisive laughter was a masterpiece.
He should be taken hostage every day, Sam thought, leaning back in the shade of a juniper, the sun warming his legs, his head propped up on his backpack. They had fed him, kept him company while he took pictures, told him stories. He had to admit he was enjoying seeing Tsegi Canyon through TJ’s eyes. He was a smart kid, with a subtle mind, and way too many feelings trying to crowd into a big heart. Sam tried to remember what it was like to be eighteen, but he wasn’t sure he was remembering the way it had really been. Had he altered that story over the years to make himself more comfortable? He’d fallen in love for the first time when he was eighteen, made a total ass of himself. That much he could remember for sure. He had been passionate, but about himself, not about the world. He sighed and closed his eyes. A nap was allowed the prisoner.
He woke up to the smell of meat grilling. Lovie was cooking something else, strips of mutton over the fire. “You’re a traditional girl! You’ve been cooking all day, slaving over the hot coals.”
She looked gloomy. “I was going to go to the mall in Flagstaff and see that new movie with Leo DiCaprio. But, no, I was dragged along on this…this…” She shook her head. Apparently there were no words to describe. “TJ’s not insane, in case you were wondering. Here.” She handed him a couple of pieces of meat in a paper towel. “Here’s some for the felon, too.”
He laughed. “I didn’t think he was insane. Actually, I know exactly what he’s doing. Where did he go?”
She lifted her chin, and Sam could see him a little ways down the rock face, sitting with the sun shining on his face. He walked down the trail, sat down next to him and handed him his meat. The boy turned to look at him, studied his face. “It’s funny, I’ve never touched a beard before. I always wondered if it would be soft or sort of bristly.”
Sam reached for his hand, settled his palm over his chin. TJ stroked his beard gently, like he was petting a skittish kitten. “It’s soft. Wow.”
They studied the landscape spread out in front of them for a few more minutes, ate the best grilled mutton Sam had ever tasted. The light was changing, the gold deepening in the afternoon light. The river looked greener, the rocks and canyons redder, rust streaked with gold.
“Sam, you better go get the camera ready. You saved some film, right? For when the light changed?”
He scrambled to his feet. “Yes, I did. You want to take some pictures?”
TJ looked up at him, surprised. “Me? No, Sam. This is my home, always and forever.” He spread his hand out, gesturing to the landscape. “This picture is me. I don’t need to photograph it. I can feel it in here.” He pressed his hand against his heart.
Sam leaned down for one more moment, spoke quietly to the boy. “You took a real chance. Why did you decide to risk it? I could have been anybody.”
TJ shook his head. “I watched you eat.”
Sam looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
“You should see the way most white people look at mutton stew, Sam. You almost licked your bowl.”
“Yeah, I almost did.”
“Made me think you must have a little Navajo blood.”
Sam was behind the drop cloth on the camera when it started. The light deepened, and the rocks seemed to glow from within, gold inside the red. It seemed like the beating heart of the land showed itself, just for one short moment. It was alive, full of beauty and desperate longing. Sam felt it settle in his own heart, the warm color, the peace, the history, the longing. He looked over at TJ. The boy was standing at the edge of the rock, looking out over the land. Sam started packing the camera in the backpack, took the tripod down and lashed it to the side. When he was done, he walked over and touched TJ on the arm. “I need to get going before it gets dark.”
TJ looked up at him. “I’ll walk with you.”
They were nearly back to the scenic overlook when TJ cleared his throat. “You don’t seem very old. I mean…how old are you?”
Sam turned around, then eased the backpack off his shoulders. “I’m thirty-six, TJ.”
“That’s not very old.”
“Yeah, it is, kid. It’s too old.”
TJ smiled at him. “It’s funny. Sometimes you start a ball rolling down the hill, and there’s no telling what…there’s just no telling.”
TJ reached a hand out, touched a button with one finger, and Sam took his hand, folded it into a fist, pressed it over his heart. “You captured me.” Then he leaned in, kissed the boy on the mouth, tasted him long enough he would remember. He was warm and golden as the sun, innocent, and when Sam lifted his head, he picked up his backpack and moved off down the trail alone.
Back home, and Sam turned the computer on. He closed his eyes before he started, felt again the peaceful beating heart of the land, tasted TJ’s mouth, remembered the peaches rescued from Canyon de Chelly, from before the Long Walk.
A month later, and he was ready to roll. The Phoenix Sun had picked up the story, a five part series on the Navajo’s poisoned, beloved homeland. He didn’t know if it would matter at all to the mines, to the government drones who had let it happen. Maybe a few Navajo people would read the story, get their water checked for radiation. TJ would read it.
It was almost a year to the day when Sam opened up an envelope and pulled out a picture of a young Marine, black hair buzz-cut, wearing dusty BDUs, carrying an M-16. Printed on the back in tiny block letters was Thomas Jefferson Benally, Fallujah. Nothing else, no letter, no message. Sam looked at the envelope. TJ had given him a return address.