Reporter hosts hitchhikers, offers cultural teachings

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times
NASCHITTI, N.M., May 30, 2013

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I usually don't pick up hitchhikers, but this past Memorial Day weekend, I did.

In fact, I picked up three. I decided to pick up Otter, 27, Matt, 26 and Tommy, 26, and later found out that they were backpackers on a mission to travel around the western United States for the "helluva it."

An adventure they eventually told me they wanted to do and check off on their list of things to do before settling down or even dying. They also weren't typical hitchhikers trekking out of Gallup buzzed out or woke up from sleeping under one of the city's bridges.

It's not to say they don't drink or find themselves sleeping in the oddest places, but knowing that they were foreigners trekking across the reservation on U.S 491 was interesting in itself. I knew as hitchhikers they were looking for adventure.

When I first saw them, they were walking at the junction in Ya-Ta-Hey, N.M. as I was on my to Gallup to shop for my little sister's Kinaalda ceremony. I told myself, "If I see them (on my way back home), I can at least give them a lift to Naschitti. It's good enough." Mostly because I wanted to hear their story and because I knew they were hitchhiking by choice, not by forced circumstance.

To have them fit in my Pontiac Vibe, I threw all my clothes (I pretty much live out of my car) on top of the food I got to provide them a ride. It turned out that Otter had traveled from his home in Telluride down to Tuba City, then to the Grand Canyon and to Flagstaff. It was in Flagstaff that Otter met Matt and Tommy, who were traveling from Michigan but somehow ended up coming up north from Tucson, Phoenix and Sedona, before randomly meeting Otter at an exit ramp somewhere in east Flagstaff. From Flagstaff, they hitched together to Gallup, where I eventually picked them up in Tohatchi.

On our trip to Naschitti, we talked about who was who, how they're hitchhiking trip was going, and if there were any crazy incidences with people that occurred among them. In between Ya-Ta-Hey and Tohatchi, the trio had been picked up on three different occasions. Ottter said most of the people who gave them a lift were nice people and unlike Phoenix or Flagstaff, they weren't being told to, "Get a job!"

They also took notice of the beauty of Navajoland and started asking questions about Navajo culture, language and religion. In response, I told them about the realities of living on the reservation such as the hight poverty rate, the overgrazing and desertification of the landscape, water rights, and ancestral ties to the area that I was taking them to, the clan system and the strong ceremonial way of life that is still practiced today.

I also didn't forget to tell them about how U.S. 491 was formerly known as U.S 666, or the Devil's Highway, and how I consider Naschitti drinking water to be the best-ever drinking water supply they need to try. I informed them that Naschitti was founded long ago when a badger dug up water in the local wash, which has since been a drinking source for people here.

Just as they were about ready to jump out of my car, I offered them a place to rest up for a couple hours at my parent's house. After all, they were exhausted from the sun and were thirsty. Needless to say, they were excited to taste this water.

As I drove to my parent's house, I explained to them the local convenience store was a former trading post where locals sold arts and rugs in exchange for food and that the chapter house served as a place for local government; and that the subdivisions were government housing. They were amazed at the beauty of Naschitti, particularly with the Chuska Mountains being the backdrop to my backyard.

Meanwhile, as I got to the driveway of my parent's house having forgotten to give them all a heads up, my little sisters came running out anticipating the fresh pizza that had smelled up my car. When my mom came out, there was a familiar hesitation as if I had brought home other friends, but lightened up after explaining the hichhikers' stories.

I assured her that they are strangers but not strangers in a demoralizing way and that as hitchhikers they're looking to experience life in this unusual way. As soon as I said that she sighed in relief. My mother, though, was probably a little stressed from helping her sister and niece with their Kinaalda ceremony, which was being held at our Hogan.

Upon entering the house, I directed Otter, Matt and Tommy to the sink to drink water, where they had consumed multiple cups, and to the bathroom. They reluctantly gave in to the pizza I offered them from Big Cheese, while listening to me talk about the meaning of the Kinaalda in Navajo society. I took them to the hogan, where my sister and other relatives were preparing to mix the Navajo cake. I explained the corn cake would be cooked in the ground all night.

There was a lot of questioning and answering from them regarding the ceremony. Otter was especially ecstatic about being at a Navajo ceremony; it was something he said he wanted to experience on this leg of his trip.

Between the late afternoon and early evening, we chatted and it wasn't before long that my father and other brothers came back from my nali's sheep camp, which is about 30 minutes east of Naschitti. The presence of three white men in his house startled my father as well, but he eased down after I explained to him what they were doing. My dad is surprisingly down to earth, despite his stoic features. I told my dad that Otter, Matt and Tommy wanted a cultural experience and what better than introducing them to the Kinaalda and sweat lodge ceremonies.

My brothers, on the other hand, were a little conservative about the idea. One brother asked our mother, "What is wrong with your son?" That questioned posed by my brother made me laugh. I laughed at that because for one I'm more liberal and open-minded than my brothers, I would say, "Call me crazy, random or whatever, but its just part of who I have become as a person. "

My brothers, however, got over the cultural shock as they later joined us at the sweat lodge that same evening. At the sweat lodge, my uncle, who runs them nearly every Sunday, received them with open arms. After all, the trio was allowed into the sweat lodge, where they went four of five rounds to traditional songs. They had only gone four rounds because we had arrived one round late. Tommy compared the sweat to a sauna, while Matt said that he felt amazing and refreshed.

At the sweat, my uncle explained the meaning and history of the sweat lodge, which he said was given to the Navajo people during primordial creation. He also shared with them some teachings of Navajo theology regarding the sweat.

Seeing them interact and joking with my kinfolk made me feel good knowing that despite where we come from, were still connected as one as human beings. Later that same evening, one of my other cousins tied up his NAC drum and held a drum session with them, only after Otter, a hippie, asked about peyote and its healing properties.

An hour after the drumming session, we went back up to my parent's place to get some rest. I had invited other cousins over to talk and meet our guests and we talked late into the night until the crazy wind started blowing.

Supplied with camping and survival gear, Tommy and Matt pitched their tent outside my parent's house between two broken-down vehicles, while Otter bravely decided to sleep under the dusty sky in his sleeping bag. I was concerned about them mostly since the winds that night were howling and blowing dirt against the house windows.

Though I was tossing and turning in my sleep because of the wind's impact on my guests, I managed to wake up early enough to attend the final stages of the Kinaalda and most importantly for the early morning run. I didn't want to miss the run because it was the first time a Kinaalda had been held at my parent's six-year old hogan, and also since it was an opportunity for Otter, Matt and Tommy to experience one of the most revered ceremonies still practiced today.

Otter did make it to the ceremony, but didn't get the chance to run and yell to the morning deities. Matt and Tommy were too relaxed from the effects of attending sweat and exhausted from surviving the previous night's windstorm.

Just like how the peace comes after a storm, that was how the ceremony ended for my sister. The run and sunrise were right at a peace when the ceremony concluded. That is how my guests left on their way to Telluride and Denver – balanced with nature and full of fresh steamed corn and mutton stew.

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