Beyond the wash
The land remains at the heart of the American Indians. It was taken from them mostly through illegal and military actions. Most American Indian cultures continue to place the retention and reacquisition of their lands as a priority of their sovereign governments. The description of American Indian cultures as “Savages” and as “Heathens” are traceable to the Crusades of the European immigrants’ ancestors. In particular, the first crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095 that was based on the belief it was the responsibility of Christianity to purge the known world of infidels, savages and heathens. It is this Christian belief that the Puritans brought to the “New World” that would evolve into the United States of America.
The genocide of the indigenous peoples of today’s Americas has never subsided and US Congress continues to legislate, through Federal Indian Policy, the continued destruction of American Indian cultures and homelands. The United States Congress utilized organized religions and Indian traders to assist their military’s efforts to remove American Indian cultures from their homelands during the American settlers’ push westward. During the 1800s, the removal campaigns of the US became more formalized and the Indian Commission instituted treaties to coerce tribal peoples onto Indian reservations, most of which serviced further acts of legislated removal. Living conditions on the present day Indian Reservation fall far below the US national standards for quality of life and standards of living. Yet, tribal cultures continue to flourish at various levels of poverty within the harsh environments that the US exiled them to as they took the best lands for themselves. The romanticized version of the American’s westward push dominates US educational institutions today as well as media; literature and art continue to depict American Indians as a beautiful, yet deplorable people (Curt Yazza, 2007).
The stereotypical image of the American Indian is still prevalent in the minds of many; romanticized visions conjured up from old black and white prints produced over a century ago. Although the Indian of old has long gone, ancestral tradition lives on within the heart of many American Indians. In a visual sense, today’s Indian looks more Americanized within everyday living, but they are most definitely native to the pre United States era. Tradition is kept alive through numerous avenues, even the teepee is used in specific ceremonies and the powwow is a regular event attended by both American and Indian followers. Although Navajo Nation extends into four US states, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, this surreal world does not match or fit into America.
As one leaves Interstate 40 heading into the Reservation, it becomes apparent that something is odd about the surroundings; vintage cars scatter the arid landscape; left due to lack of funds to maintain them and kept in virtual pristine condition due to the dry desert conditions, the only animals appear to be packs of dogs that patrol surrounding areas for food scraps, and strange rock formations dominate the backdrop.
Beyond the Wash is a project that evolved around a Dine’(Navajo) family who live in the Reservation town of Fort Defiance which is situated in Arizona on the border of New Mexico. The Yazza family let me into their lives for almost four weeks, two of which were spent gaining trust, friendship and a brief knowledge of the land. This project, although still in progress, is the outcome of that memorable encounter with this fascinating and incredibly friendly culture.