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Navajo Wool Buy 2016

The car thermometer said that it was 119 degrees this morning when we started the Tuba City wool buy around 8:00 am. I was up at 4 for breakfast and as I put on my sweater it was hard to believe that this heat was around the corner. We were coming to the end of an eight day adventure that took us through New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, the high desert territory of the Navajo Nation.

We had a good turnout but no records were broken. This year I spent my time walking down the line of pickup trucks loaded with wool, directing traffic and spending some well needed time with the ranch families, trying to better understand what keeps them going. Every truck answered my ‘ee ya’tee pine’   with a broad smile and a hand shake. And this day at Tuba City was no exception. I was so touched by their openness that I passed up lunch and a rest in the shade and collapsed in the shower when we returned to the motel.

I slept for an hour with the AC on high, then just laid there on my back staring at my cowboy hat on the shelf over the TV. Something kept bringing my mind back to my own childhood summers. Maybe it was the heat. I remembered the days I spent underwater in the Atlantic Ocean, my dad floating on top in one of his see thru bottom boats, making sure I surfaced occasionally. I remembered the cold of the deep water and then the heat of the sun on my back as I surfaced and kicked myself along, refilling my lungs with air. I remembered swimming down the rocky coast past the million dollar homes looking down at me. Soon I would swim into the beach of our own fourteen room home where water was boiling on our kitchen stove, ready to cook the lobsters I carried in my net bag.

Pete, Felix and Kenny navigating

Now as I lay on my back on my Dine Motel room bed in the Arizona desert, I wondered why these memories surfaced here, what was the connection. The Navajo elders I have met this year are substantially older than my 70 years, many make the day to day decisions on their ranches, and all carry the poise and self-confidence of a Navajo elder. The women for the most part are the owners of the sheep, the livestock and the grazing permits. The wool checks were made out to them.

I thought back to my own mother, boiling the water for the lobsters that I carried in my sack. My brother John and I discussed having mom live with us after dad died. The farm in Maine was too much of a stretch for her so she moved to a retirement community near John’s home. I compared her end of life to the one hundred year old couple from Pinon that had just sheared their forty sheep. Speaking both English and Navajo, they introduced me to the four generations of their family jammed in the GMC pickup cab. This couple was too busy to die, much less move to a nursing home.

Pete and Betty

I dressed and walked out into the parking lot. The rest of our crew was nestled into their own rooms. Strolling in this heat was not an option so I started the car and began driving out of town. I parked in a quiet spot looking down over Tuba City. I noticed that the temp has dropped to 93 degrees.

The homes below me were scattered, some broken, some neat and tidy. There were not many air conditioners in sight. Some have car wrecks out front, some new pickup trucks. Who owns these homes, are they the property of the Navajo Nation or privately owned?

The sand under my tires is brown, not like the beach sand of my youth. This stuff turns to mud with the quickest shower and will hold the footprint of a tire track for years. There is no grass growing here, only juniper bushes. A stray rez dog and a jackrabbit are my only living visitors.

Maybe I am judging my privileged childhood with the poverty that surrounds me here on the rez. What responsibility do I personally bear for their struggles?  But as I try this on I am immediately brought short by the memories of this past week, of the hundreds of ranchers who welcomed me with a handshake and a smile, sharing their stories and their hopes for the future. These people have reason to be angry, resentful. They are the walking victims of a long ago yet ongoing trauma. Just last week as the news reported that the Orlando shooting was the largest mass murder in American history, one of our Navajo friends reminded Marty and me that Wounded Knee is easily forgotten. Back in 1890 over two hundred and fifty South Dakota Sioux, men, women and children, were gunned down when US soldiers when berserk. But why am I going there. This is not the energy that has surrounded me all week on the reservation.

It’s Father’s Day at Dilkon, Az., the last day of our wool buy. Every time a truck arrives loaded with wool or mohair I stick my hand in front of the man with a ‘Happy Father’s Day’ and mine is grabbed back and shaken with a laugh and a welcome as if he has known me and my family for a lifetime. For a moment we both share being fathers. And all week I have been treated as an elder. Children laugh to my Donald Duck voice, grandmothers smile at my Navajo words, everyone wants to know where I live and roll their eyes when I say I am from Maine. I did not meet one person this year that had ever been to Maine. One had made it as far as Vermont.

There were many elders who braved the heat and the three hour lines. I was buying their wool but they negotiated their end of the transaction. Many were over eighty and some into their nineties. But there was beauty in the wrinkles of their cheeks and the jewelry and cotton dresses they wore did their colors justice.

Talking with the men and women of this, my generation, I began to not feel so old. Because of these elders I began to forget about my heart rate and my arthritis. These folks are revered in their families. They live with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren until they die. And until they die, they have important work to do. Some leave the ranch every morning before dawn with their flock of sheep and goats so they can graze when it is cool. Their pace is adjusted to the animals they are watching. They pick a few flowers and plant leaves to color the yarns for the weaver in the family. They listen for the songbirds that also are out in the cool of the day. And they are back by nine to be of use where they can, ready to return with their flock to the desert with the cool evening temps. 

I am sure there are nursing homes somewhere but in the seven years on the rez I have never seen one. I have never met a Navajo rancher who mentioned that his mother or father was now in a retirement community.  This year our crew of native wool handlers did all the heavy lifting. Our Ohio truckers, some who arrived with their own families in the cabs, stayed two extra days just because they wanted to help. And the Peace Fleece volunteers did all the financials, writing checks and grading the wool. And for the first time on a wool buy, I began to limit my work to what I love most, spending 7-8 hours a day in the 100 degree heat walking back down the line shaking everyone’s hand and celebrating what was happening there.

Peter plays the guitar Group Shot

Photography by Lisa Takata and Jennifer Bauman - both are dedicated volunteers at each and every Wool Buy. You can see more of their pictures and stories on this ravelry discussion thread or in Lisa's Flickr albums  and Jennifer's website