I ran into Jimmy of The Dené in the summer of 1967 when I was seventeen-years-old. I was hitchhiking, trying to get to California from my home in Miami, Florida, but I got sidetracked along the way and ended up in Peoria, Illinois. I only mention this because I found myself on the fabled Route 66.
I had no map and I was rather lost, but a kind man that I met at a gas station told me to keep on 66 and it would lead me right into Los Angeles. What it did … was lead me into one of the most profound experiences of my life.
A day later, I was standing by the side of the road outside of Gallup, New Mexico, just before sunset, hoping to catch a ride at least as far as Flagstaff before it got full dark. As the sun kissed the rim of the earth, turning the western sky a bright, fiery orange, an old beat-up, blue pickup truck screeched to a halt; the driver leaned toward the open passenger window and said, “Where ya going?”
“I ain’t going that far, but I can get you down the road a bit.”
I threw my kit in the back, opened the door, and got inside.
The guy hit the accelerator, lurching the truck back onto the asphalt—spewing rocks and pebbles in its wake.
Before he hit second gear, and with his eyes still on the road, he said, “My name’s Jimmy. Glad to meet ya.”
I told him my name and we settled into a comfortable silence as we raced toward the setting sun. When you’re hitching, you go with the flow. Most people pick you up because they want someone to talk to, but this guy seemed to like things quiet, which was fine with me.
About fifteen minutes later, he spoke up. “I turn off up ahead and it’s getting dark. You wanna crash on my couch? I’ll drive you back to the highway in the morning.”
I didn’t have to think twice about it. A couch sure beat sleeping on the side of the road. It gets damp out there in the early morning hours.
Jimmy then told me he was a Navajo and lived on the reservation. We turned off the highway and headed north down a bumpy dirt road. Eventually we came to a trailer sitting all by itself.
“We live in a corner of the reservation, away from the others. The reservation is 27,000 square miles, so there’s plenty of room. The only problem is, there’s no electricity out here,” said Jimmy.
As we walked up to the trailer, Jimmy informed me that he lived with his grandfather. “He is a medicine man and he speaks very little English. His name is Ti՜éhonaa՜éi Lizhini—Black Moon in English. I will interpret for him.”
I followed Jimmy into the trailer. It was dark inside, the only light coming from a lantern that sat on the kitchen table. Off to my right, I saw an old man standing at a propane stove, stirring something in a large kettle. Jimmy said, “Yá’át’ééh, Análi.” He turned to me and kind of apologized for not speaking in English by saying, “I just said, ‘Hello, Grandfather’.” Then he added, “Why don’t you go sit on the couch and I’ll explain to him that you will be joining us for dinner and staying the night.”
I made myself comfortable on the couch, my only thought: Whatever the old man is cooking sure smells good.
I’m gonna cut out all the small talk that passed between me and Jimmy while his grandfather prepared the dinner and take you to the scene as we sat around the kitchen table.
As we started eating our deer stew, I said to Jimmy, “I never met any Navajos before.”
“We call ourselves The Dené. It means The People. We got the name Navajo from the Spanish. They called us Apachu de Nabajo. It means “Apaches Who Farm in the Valley.”
When I had eaten a good portion of the stew, I smiled at Black Moon and pointed to my bowl. “Good,” I said. He smiled back and nodded his head. Then started talking a mile a minute in the Navajo language. Of course, I could not understand what he was saying, but Jimmy listened and nodded his head. Turning to me, he said, “Grandfather wants me to tell you how the Navajo came to be on the earth. I’ll tell you the short version because I don’t want to bore you.”
“You won’t bore me. This is why I’m on the road. I want to meet new people and learn things.”
“I may not bore you, but the whole story is too long. We’re gonna have to hit the hay soon. My grandfather needs to be at the Sacred Mountain before sunrise. I’ll drive him there and then take you to the highway.”
As I ate my stew, Jimmy started in on his narrative.
“Basically, our creation story goes like this: The first world is, Nihodilhil or Black World. The whole world was pitch black, but there were four clouds in the sky: the Blue Cloud, the Yellow, the Black, and the White Cloud. The Blue and Yellow Clouds came together and formed First Woman. Then the Black and White Clouds did the same and formed First Man.
“Seeing First Man’s fire, First Woman made her way to him. He asked her to live with him and she agreed. They did not want to live in the darkness forever, so they searched until they found the path to Ni՜hodootl՜izh, the Blue World. They climbed the mountain path until they emerged into the new world.
“Once there, they found many animals that were at war with one another. Coyote also lived there. He traveled in the four directions of the four winds and saw that the beings who lived there were not happy and wanted to leave the Blue World. This he told First Man.
“First Man made four wands. One of black stone, one of turquoise, one of abalone, and one was made of shell. Using those wands, the beings of the second world followed First Man and First Woman into Nihaltsoh, the Yellow World. There they found the Four Sacred Mountains.
“First Man planted a reed and it grew to the sky. First Man, First Woman, Coyote, and the other beings used the reed to climb into Nihalgai, the Glittering World. That is the world in which we live.”
When Jimmy had finished speaking, his grandfather reached across the table, patted my hand, and said something in the Navajo tongue. Jimmy translated his words.
“My grandfather likes you. He says you are young and you will live a long time. He wanted you to know our creation story so that you can tell other white men. He has also invited you to watch him build his sandpainting in the morning. He is almost finished. It is an honor that he has asked you, but I will tell him that you must be on your journey.”
“Not so fast, Jimmy. I’ve got nowhere I gotta be and no one waiting for me when I get there. I would love to see him build his sandpainting. Although I do have one question. What is a sandpainting?”
“I will tell you in the morning. Now we sleep.”
The next morning, Jimmy shook me awake before dawn. “Are you ready?” he asked. I was still half asleep and had to think for a minute. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee brought me around. “Sure. As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Then help yourself to some coffee. The cups are on the counter. Sorry, we have no milk or sugar.”
“Good. Grandfather is getting dressed. We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.”
I poured myself some coffee and took the cup outside to take in the cold desert morning. The stars in the sky blew me away. Having been raised in a city, I had never seen so many stars. I drank my coffee and enjoyed the view.
Soon the door opened and Jimmy and his grandfather came out.
We piled into the truck with Black Moon sitting between Jimmy and me. We took off down the same worn dirt road that we had come in on. But this time we were going farther onto the reservation. After a few minutes, I asked Jimmy to tell me about sandpaintings.
“They are used in our curing ceremonies to attract The Holy Ones. They are made with crushed stone, ground minerals, and pollen. And sometimes, flowers. Oh yeah, and, of course, sand. The ground is prepared first and then the medicine man sets about building his painting. Once it is complete, he will chant to sanctify it. Then the sick person sits on it, and the medicine man does a ritual chant, to bring forth the healing powers of The Holy Ones. That’s all there is to it.”
I nodded like I understood what he was talking about. Just to say something, I asked where we were headed.
“We are going to Doko’oosliid. It is one of the Four Sacred Mountains. Nowadays, most medicine men build their sandpaintings in a hogan, but my grandfather likes the old ways. He says that doing the ceremony in the cave of a sacred mountain hastens the curing process.”
We pulled up to the base of a mountain and Jimmy announced that we were at our destination. Black Moon smiled at me as he got out of the truck and took me by the hand. He led me off to the right. Jimmy yelled after us that he would catch up as soon as he filled the lantern with oil.
When we got to the mouth of the cave, Black Moon pointed to the ground and said, “You stay.” He then went inside. Less than a minute later, Jimmy walked up holding a lantern.
“I feel like a dog. Your grandfather told me to ‘stay’.”
Jimmy held out the lantern in my direction. “Hold this,” he said.
As I held the lantern and Jimmy lit it, he explained. “The paintings are on the floor of the cave. It would not be good to walk over one of them. My grandfather knows his way around and there is a lantern in there that he will light. By the time we go in, bringing this lantern, there will be plenty of light. Also, he needs some time alone to say his prayers before he starts his work. We will give him a few more minutes and then go in. And when we go in, please do not talk. It will distract my grandfather.”
Five minutes later, we walked into the cave. There was a yellow light reflecting off the walls about fifty feet in. I was behind Jimmy, who held the lantern. “Step where I step,” he instructed in a whisper. “There are two paintings up ahead. One is completed; one my grandfather will be working on.”
I followed Jimmy, being careful to walk in his path. Before we got to the back of the cave, he stopped and held the lantern out to his left and pointed. And there it was—a finished sandpainting. I couldn’t believe the detail, the vibrant colors, the majesty of the thing. I was speechless. And here it is five decades later and I still don’t have the words to describe what I saw that day, which is ironic, seeing as how I make my living with words.
We continued on to where Black Moon sat on the ground, focused on his art, with seven small bowls within arms’ reach—each filled with a different substance, and each substance a different color. For two hours, I sat across from him and watched him work. As I said at the beginning of this narrative, it was a profound experience.
Presently, Jimmy nudged me and tilted his head toward the cave entrance. It was time to leave. The whole time we were there, his grandfather did not once acknowledge our presence. Outside, Jimmy extinguished the lantern and started to walk toward the truck. But after a few steps, he stopped and turned to me. “My grandfather told me to tell you this. He wanted you to see the paintings and how they are built. You are the first white person he has ever allowed to see him work. He wants you to bring the word to your white friends that we are not savages, that our religion is as strong as yours, and that we worship the same god.”
“I will remember that, Jimmy. And I will spread the word. But what happens to the paintings once the ceremony is complete? They are so beautiful.”
“They are destroyed and the materials collected and returned to the earth. They are only meant to exist for a few days.”
“It is our way.”
Jimmy got me back to the highway, we shook hands, and I continued on my journey a different person than I had been twenty-four hours earlier. But is that not the way of life? At the end of each day, should we not be a person different from the one that started the day?