Monday, October 19, 2009

Unscripted, Part 1: The Lost Sister of Canyon de Chelley

"We miss the trips we used to take before we had horses and mules," complained the kids. "Then, Mom and I will take you on an old-fashioned, Great American Road trip," I replied. "We will point our pickup toward Four-Corners and drive for 3 days, following our curiosity to what-ever tickles it. But there is one condition... no iPods, no console-videos, and no sleeping during daylight hours. We will only take you if you'll sit up, look out the windows, and ask yourself 'why?' as we drive along."

Its great to be the holder of the car-keys. After some sub-audible grumbling, a deal was struck. And off we went on a magnificent adventure, full of wonder and familial felicity. We left with 2 coolers full of food, a little camping gear, and no itinerary. We came home a better family, with stories we couldn't have orchestrated better if we tried.


She was born in the mouth of one of Canyon de Chelley's fingers to traditional Navajo sheep herders. Elverna's mother and grandmother were talented rug makers who eked out a living trading their handy-work. Their art was created from scratch in those days: the wool carded and spun into yarn, the dyes all made from the traditional plants in their world, and the rugs hand woven on looms, one strand at a time. She began to learn from her mother and grandmother very early--perhaps as young as age six to weave the Navajo way.

Life on the reservation was rugged. Elverna's father abandoned the family before she was born and she would never meet him until the age of 15, just before his passing. They lived the old way--no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and primitive housing. Elverna, her sister and brother had to carry water a quarter mile for their daily use. For schooling, they had to get up at 3 or 4 am and walk 2 miles for the long bus ride to the boarding schools in Chinle and Many Farms, Arizona.

I was thirteen when she came to our family. In 1980, Elverna's mother placed her and her older sister into the LDS church's Indian Student Placement Program that ran from 1947 to 1996. Elverna spent the next 3 school years with our family, going back to her own family each summer. During those years, I was entering my semi-rebellious teenage stage and she was just the Navajo girl from someplace called Chinle, Arizona towards whom, I was ambivalent. She was often homesick and a little angry that her mom had "given her up," but her time in Mona with our family was pleasant and she made several friends.

Elverna spent a fourth year on the placement program somewhere in Arizona. Meanwhile, her family got pushed off of their traditional land in the mouth of Canyon de Chelley by tribal elders after fueding with some neighbors. Eventually, after a time of being displaced, her Mom and Grandmother settled in government housing in the small reservation town of Navajo, New Mexico.

Traditional Navajo rugs are worth their weight in gold. It is an art that takes years to master. The intricate, hand-woven designs in these rugs, and the ability to reproduce them seem to be genetically encoded in the Navajo. Elverna inherited the art from the Ancients, and benefited from generations of skilled weavers in her family. With self-effacing humility, she explains that she doesn't have a website that shows her rugs, but if you will just google her name, you will find her work. She is good. She doesn't harvest her own wool any more, but she colors her own yarns from dyes that she, her mother, and her grandmother make from ancient recipes. A 4x6 rug made by Elverna can fetch 20-30 thousand dollars in the retail market.

Thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, my sister Shellie found Elverna on Facebook just a couple of months ago. We discovered that our foster sister was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I plugged her phone number into my cell phone, vowing we would look her up the next time we passed through her town.


The wind was blowing Friday afternoon as the kids took turns standing in all four states at once for pictures. There isn't much more to see at Four-Corners monument and a couple of hours of daylight remained, so we huddled up to decide where to go next. We had seen the signs for Canyon de Chelley along the highway and I had heard it was worth a visit. The GPS pointed the way and we found our selves driving over miles of primitive dirt roads across the reservation. The radio blared a mix of country music and Native American chants, the DJ speaking mostly Navajo. We were indeed off the beaten path and our position began to feel eerily remote--the older boys questioning the wisdom of following the GPS this way. Eventually we hit pavement again and it started to dawn on me that we were headed into Chinle, Arizona. As soon as we found some cell service, I called Elverna to surprise her that we were in her old stomping grounds. Turns out, Elverna was headed through Chinle, towards Navajo, NM as well for a weekend with her family. And our unscripted road trip was about to become a family reunion with our sister that we hadn't seen for 26 plus years.

After we met up that evening in the parking lot of the local gas station in Chinle, little Preston declared, "Dad, Elverna doesn't look like a real Indian." Oh really! Why not? "She doesn't have braids, feathers, a painted face, or a bow and arrow." Three generations of Navajos laughed appreciatively the next day as Elverna related his astute observation to her family, and her 87 year old grandmother, eyes aglow, gave Preston some wisdom from the ancients in a tongue we will never understand, but with love that never needs an interpreter.