Things I Learned From the Native American Man

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Photo by Sharosh Rajasekher on Unsplash

I was driving through northern Arizona when I spotted a sign on the side of the road — “AUTHENTIC NAVAJO JEWELRY SOLD HERE.”

I pulled over, parked the car and got out. A Native American man in a baseball cap, blue athletic t-shirt and a pair of jeans greeted me.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. “And I’ve been waiting for you,” I replied.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “I’m not going anywhere — I’m just going,” I said. “Aren’t we all?” he replied. “Indeed,” I said.

I looked down at his table of merchandise. It was filled with colorful jewelry. Earrings. Necklaces. Rings. Bracelets.

“We make all this stuff by hand,” he said. “We don’t have any water or electricity on the reservation, so we buy the stones down in Phoenix, at a big trade show that happens a couple times a year. Then we bring them home, cut them. We use our feet to power the machine, like a bike, and string them up with our hands.”

“You don’t have water or electricity?” I asked.

“No. What you’re driving through is Navajo Nation. Some places here have water. Some places have electricity. Most don’t. But we have solar panels and we buy our water. You see this?” He pointed to a piece of jewelry with quadrant-like symbol inside it. He swung his arms to the East and the West and above and below. He talked with his hands. “This represents the Four Corners of the Navajo Nation — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. This represents us.”

“It’s interesting that you say it’s handmade, because I see a lot of stuff out here that says Native American, but I look closer and it will say Made in China or Made in Pakistan.”

“Oh, we definitely make this ourselves. This is a family business.” He nodded his head in the opposite direction, at the other tables. “That is my wife over there. And my brother-in-law. And his wife.”

“They are beautiful,” I said. “Are you happy?”

“Very happy. Here, it is quiet. Here, it is calm. Here, it is beautiful. Under the great sky, a man can think, a man can dream, a man can just be.”

“But do you get a lot of business — like, do you make any money doing this?”

“Some, but what does it matter? Here, we are all the same. We are all equal. Nobody is better than anyone else.”

“It should be like that everywhere,” I said. “But it’s not.”

“It’s not, and our people, when they leave, they see it. Our people, they leave the reservation and go out there — we call out there the rat race — and they go into the rat race, they get a job, get a big house and get a fast car and get a flashy watch and when they come back, if they come back at all, they are unhappy. They are angry. They are old. And we have to perform ancient rituals so that they can be re-accepted here. To make them young again. To rid them of what ails them.”

“What’s the biggest problem on the reservation?”

“The same problems you have in New York or any other big city. Gangs. Violence. Drugs. We have a big meth problem. Big. Meth is destroying us.”

Since he hoped I’d buy something, he began explaining the differences in the stones, how the colors and patterns revealed where exactly they were mined, the conditions in which they originally existed. He talked about the mountains and the desert and heat and the cold and the rain.

I thought one good turn deserved another. Maybe I could school him on what Rihanna wore last night. Or Justin Bieber’s dick pics. Or why the Apple Watch sucks. Or why Twitter is over. Or the benefits of a gluten-free diet. Or cultural appropriation. Or gentrification. Then I decided maybe this wasn’t the time or place.

“You want to know what our biggest problem is?” he asked. “Alcohol is our biggest problem. Everyone’s an alcoholic. Which is funny, because alcohol is illegal on the reservation.”

“How does it get in?”

“Bootleggers,” he said. “A bootlegger can make a lot of money selling alcohol on a reservation. You have to be careful though, because you get more money and then you get the big house and the big car and the flashy watch just like out there in the rat race, but you’re still on a reservation! You bring attention to yourself. Then you get arrested and go to federal prison. I know people like that.”

“What is the reason why Native Americans feel the need to drink so much — are they trying to escape? Are they sad? Is this life depressing for them?”

“When wasn’t alcohol a problem?” he shot back. “Native Americans have always been drinking. We have been drinking for thousands of years. Before this, it was something else. We didn’t know it was a problem. Alcoholism only became a problem when someone else told us it was a problem. We don’t drink because we’re sad, we drink because we’re so happy.”

He smiled. He had a big toothy grin.

“Point of view is everything,” I said.

“That’s true,” he said. “But it’s also true that I was once an alcoholic. I have been sober for four years. Changed my life.”

“Why did you get sober? I thought you were happy.”

“I was. But my mother died. My father died. My elders were gone. I was the only one left. I met my wife. I fell in love. We got married. We had children. We had a life. I wanted to live. I couldn’t do that if I was drunk all day. When I was drunk all day, I couldn’t do anything.”

“You’re a good man,” I said. “And you like this way of life, it seems. Your way of life. I can see it. I can hear it. I can feel it.”

“You’re a good man too,” he said. “People see us on the side of the road, but drive right by. Then they stop elsewhere — places with big signs and flashy lights — and buy Native American products from white people, who are buying them from some person on the other side of the world.

“Fucking crazy,” I said.

“I’ll be very honest with you, my friend,” he said. “We all have other jobs. We don’t need to do this. I work on the reservation as a healthcare aide, taking care of the elderly. My wife does something similar. We make money doing that. This, this we just do on the weekend, to make some extra cash, if any at all.”

He stopped for a second and looked off into the distance, a great expanse of red land and towering mountain ranges and a sky so blue and so vast that it was hard to tell where the earth ended and heaven began. This was America.

“We do this because we love our people. We do this because we love all people. We do this together, so we can keep our culture, our way of life, alive. We do this so we can keep ourselves alive.”

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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