The land around Chinle, Arizona, is just what Eastern kids picture the pre-Columbian American West to be: Red rock mesas sweep up to turquoise skies. Roads along ridgelines overlook vast expanses of sagebrush and washes. Wild ponies graze under rainbows. A scouring fresh wind flows over it all. It's some of the most beautiful land on the planet.
The Navajo Nation—the Rez or Dinétah—encompasses 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. It's larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined; though, while those three states (which, by all accounts, contain a lot of empty space) have a population of 8.8 million people, the Rez is home to just under 357,000. Most roads are unpaved. In the 2000 Census, 32 percent of homes lacked indoor plumbing, and the per capita income was $7,269. New Mexico's that year was $17,261—then considered the lowest in the United States.
All of those are the easy numbers to find. The numbers that express vastness; the numbers that express lean living.
What the numbers don't show are rainstorms moving across the plains, open doors and warm homes; huge steaming pots of mutton stew, frybread and beans, coolers of watered-down lemonade and fruit punch, earthy Navajo tea; 8-bit flip-phone ringtones and laughter and percussive Diné conversation floating out of a chapter house kitchen.
The numbers reflect too easily the haves and the have-nots; the ones who want and the ones who provide. There's the us, and there's the them.
Troublesome as that may be, the meeting of the two can be as enduring and hopeful as it is improbable—and, as in the case of one nonprofit that has been at it for more than 30 years, life-changing.
The beauty and mystery of Dinétah have captivated people for as long as they have lived on Turtle Island. The rich natural resources under the land have also long been of interest to those who could profit from them. In the 1970s and '80s, when the US government evicted more than 10,000 Indigenous people off Diné and Hopi land, under the thinly manufactured veneer of tribal disagreements was one thing: coal extraction.
The documentary Broken Rainbow, which won an Academy Award in 1985, told the story of this relocation and, in turn, centuries of mistreatment of Native Americans. Shortly after its release, a screening in Utah drew the interest of a Park City woman named Linda Myers.
Myers, a fiber artist and then the owner of a gift shop in the resort town, was struck by the beauty of the Navajo culture—and also by the deep needs of those on the reservation, particularly Navajo elders living traditional lifestyles despite encroaching modernity.
"I couldn't let it go, the documentary," Myers tells SFR. "Seeing old people being removed from their land. … Most of these elders were told to take care of their land and their animals that they were given, and they did. They didn't move off until the government started removing them."
Shortly thereafter, she, along with Navajo activist Grace Smith-Yellowhammer, began loading up Myers' pickup truck with whatever supplies they could find—clothes, household goods and non-perishables. Whenever the truck was full, they'd drive down to the Navajo Nation and hand out what they had, then drive back to northern Utah. Eventually, the Navajo grandmothers she served asked Myers if she could sell their handwoven rugs in wealthy Park City, so Myers took rugs from the women and sold them in her store. Year by year, the efforts grew more complex.
Myers, whose calm, gentle presence evokes a bit of a female Mister Rogers, traveled down to Arizona as often as she could. But as a single mother and business owner, she could only accomplish so much. Her supplies would always run out long before the elders' needs were met, she says, and one grandmother finally asked: "Can you get someone to adopt me?"
And so, in 1989, she founded Adopt-A-Native-Elder.
In October 2018, SFR spent three days on a delivery run with ANE, accompanying nearly 50 other volunteers from Santa Fe and around the country; this was our experience.
It's hard not to be wary of a non-Native-headed nonprofit focused on Native needs—so when I heard that a caravan from Santa Fe would be meeting a caravan from Utah at a Best Western near Canyon de Chelly to deliver food to the Navajo Reservation with the curiously named nonprofit, my white savior radar went off.
Myers has been doing this work for more than three decades; I figured she wouldn't flinch when I mentioned my hesitations. I was right.
The skepticism "comes from Native people first," Myers says. "That was my bigger struggle—Native people being negative about it. So I listened to the criticism, and oftentimes I'd just say, 'So tell me somebody who can do what I can do. Tell me a better way.' I'm always open to a better way. … I took [criticism] as an opportunity to ask those questions."
The strongest resistance came in the beginning, when it was a one-pickup-truck deal. "I was down at Big Mountain, handing out what little food I could raise, and there were these four ladies that would stand up on the hillside under a tree and watch me," Myers recalls. "I wanted to go up and invite them down, but Grace said, 'No, don't. Just let them be.' And over the years, I learned, people are observing you. They're going to decide when they want help or if they want to be helped by you. And one day, I was trying to put food boxes in peoples' cars, and somebody came up and hit me on the arm and said, 'Box.' And it was one of the ladies from the hill. She didn't know a lot of English, but she knew what she wanted: She wanted a box. … So that's how it started, with some of those older ones that really were against—you know, me."
Myers relies heavily on volunteer coordinators on the ground at each of the food runs to communicate with locals; many are the children of some of the first elders ever enrolled in ANE. Mary R Begay, the coordinator at Big Mountain, exhales slowly when I ask how long she's been involved. She estimates about 18 years, and says ANE first began holding food runs on her mother's land about 22 years ago. One day, Begay was asked to translate back and forth from English to Diné for the group. It wasn't long before Myers approached her and asked her to coordinate at the Big Mountain food runs.
Begay's hesitation to get involved with ANE actually didn't have anything to do with ANE at all.
"As a Navajo woman, I am really rooted in my own community and my Navajo way of life," Begay tells SFR. As a result, she said, she found the elders incredibly intimidating at first. "Some of these elders literally fought for their land here in Hard Rock and Big Mountain," she says. "These are my relatives, and these are women that I looked up to all my years. It was really hard for me to get up there and start interpreting. I was afraid I was going to say something wrong. I felt that I was not worthy to stand before them."
Soon, though, she felt the elders accepted her—and she grew to really trust Myers. "There's no other group that I know of that actually really loves the people to do the kind of thing that ANE does," Begay tells SFR. "I can see the love [they] have for these people—for my people."
Begay, 58, hasn't lived her whole life on the reservation; she attended high school in California and went to college, and never intended to return home. But she and her husband both found jobs on the Navajo Nation and moved back to Hard Rock to raise their four children.
Even once back home, they did not live traditionally. But when Begay's mother died 14 years ago, she left her 95 sheep to Begay's oldest sister. Her sister didn't want the sheep, so she gave them to her brother. Her brother didn't want them either.
"And at the beginning, I didn't want the sheep," Begay says with a laugh. "But my husband was raised in a very traditional family; they had more than 300 head of sheep all the time, so he was so used to having sheep."
And so, the Begays changed their life plans. "It was really hard at the beginning," Begay says, "because there's no steady income that comes with it." But, she says, "They grew on me. I started to like what I did with them. … I got to know each one, their characteristics. I really got to know them almost as humans."
I ask Begay if she would change anything about her life; she immediately says no. I ask what her favorite part of the Navajo lifestyle is. She pauses.
"I don't know," she finally says slowly. "There's so, so much that I love about what I do, that I don't even think about what I don't like about living here."
Nearly every aspect of Adopt-A-Native-Elder is dictated by the needs of the elders and Diné tradition. When on a food run, female volunteers must wear long skirts. The vehicle caravans are smudged with sage before every trip onto reservation land. Volunteers follow strict rules: You can bring an object for blessing, but don't bring animal bones or owl feathers. When buying rugs, don't haggle. The oldest male elder gets served lunch first. I overheard a volunteer refer to a structure depicted on a rug as a house. "It's a hogan," the weaver corrected her sharply, referring to the traditional Navajo dwelling. The volunteer apologized.
Beyond respect, the food runs are a far cry from tossing paper towels to a crowd for a photo opp; every aspect of the day is choreographed and planned like a grand party that's also a well-oiled machine. For first-time volunteers, the advice from veterans is generally: "Do what you're told and don't be late." The swift pace of the days felt a little like getting pushed down a flight of stairs at first, but eventually became more like navigating white-water rapids.
The Chinle-based runs, which were held Oct. 4-6 this year, serve about 50 elders each day for three days in Many Farms, Piñon and Tsaile. There are three other regions to which ANE travels, and each region similarly contains three distribution sites. As of publication, ANE distributes medicine, supplies and 5 million pounds of food throughout the year to 557 elders among these 12 sites. (In addition to the $225 annual cost to sponsor an elder, sponsors often send extra donations throughout the year. Many volunteers on the trips get to see "their" elder on the runs; some have been sponsoring the same individual for more than a decade.)
Back in Salt Lake City, at ANE's offices and warehouse, volunteers come in twice a week year-round to package and assemble food boxes and giveaways. The giveaways include things like pancake mix and syrup wrapped in ribbon, handmade quilts from a sewing club in Utah, flannel shirts and warm winter coats, bandanas tied in bows around bottles of shampoo. All the new products are purchased in bulk by ANE Assistant Director CJ Robb, an effervescent young gentleman with whom many grandmas quickly became smitten. Once onsite, the giveaways are arranged into aesthetically pleasing displays by coordinator Ashley Lopez, a formerly Los Angeles-based event planner with a bright smile and sharp winged eyeliner. Many elders dress their finest for the food runs, the women dripping in turquoise and the men donning Stetsons and polished boots.
After the food and giveaways are distributed, it's time for lunch—a huge affair complete with blue corn mush, mutton stew, taco salad, lemonade and fry bread. Then, it's time for the volunteers to shop.
Beginning with some of those first grandmothers' requests for Myers to sell their rugs, the shopping aspect of every food run allows the elders to make cash the same way they have for generations: by selling their traditional art. Some of the elders have never worked conventional jobs, and have always provided for their families with weaving or jewelry.
While my skeptical first impulse was to roll my eyes (does everything need to be a transaction?), I quickly understood: To give a grandmother a few crisp $20 bills and shake her hand over the rug I'd just purchased meant both that I was privileged enough to afford it, and that she could then afford a couple months of firewood—and she didn't have to change her lifestyle to get any of it.
To extend the reach of ANE's efforts and further support the elders' traditional art, ANE also hosts its annual rug show and sale in Park City every November (this year, it was Nov. 9-11). Throughout the year, Myers purchases rugs on every food run; during shopping time, Myers walks around, cutting check after check for rugs from as many weavers as she can. The rugs are marked up a modest 20 percent at the show to cover overhead, but the show is not meant to be a money-maker; it's just reimbursement for funds already distributed.
At Many Farms, Myers met with a weaver from whom she'd commissioned three rugs. The weaver showed her the work, and Myers thanked her. After pleasantries, Myers asked: "How much?"
The young woman looked stunned. "You ordered them," she said hesitantly. "You tell me how much."
The small group laughed, and Myers offered a fair price. The weaver accepted, and Myers signed the check.
In addition to providing food, cash and supplies, there's a more intangible aspect of the food runs that is just as important, if not more important than the donations: the sense of community. Some elders travel from hours away down undeveloped roads; many live far from each other, out on the land.
Many Farms coordinator Darlene Slivers, who grew up on the reservation sometimes estranged from parts of her family, says that translating for ANE wasn't her idea. More than a decade ago, she was volunteered by her aunt, and didn't want to do it at first—but soon she enjoyed seeing the elders more. "I got to know a lot of elders, and some of them knew my mother when she was growing up; they told me, 'I remember your mom when she was a young child, we used to visit one another.'"
She describes part of her family as living "way over there," and how they considered their two lands very separate. I ask how far away their house was from hers.
"About a mile and a half," she says.
But what isn't far in physical distance can feel like an endless expanse when residents are older. "Out here, it's real difficult when they get sick or something happens to them," Slivers says of the elders outside Chinle. "Some of them don't have a cell phone. Their kids or their neighbors that live by them, they have cell phones and they can call the hospital, or they call the police department. But it takes time to have the ambulance get to them." Many elders depend on daily or every-few-days visits from neighbors to stay safe. "People are always checking on each other," Slivers says.
The food runs are a chance for the far-flung (though sometimes not-that-far) people to see each other, to hold hands across the table, to check in, and—inevitably—to laugh together.
The Rez is changing. Some elders have electricity; some elder women wear pants. Many more elders now speak English than when Myers began this work (though every food run still has a few necessary Diné translators).
But there is always more work to be done. In addition to the 557 elders on ANE's books, more always show up at the distribution sites. "And I can give them a food box, and that's something," Myers says. "But they want the giveaways. They want a sponsor that comes to see them. And that gets really challenging. It will always be that way; there's no fix."
But one question doesn't leave my head: Plenty of people have seen the documentary Broken Rainbow, but none of the others founded a three-decades-running nonprofit with $1.3 million in annual revenue. What makes Myers different from everyone else?
Myers hesitates when I ask. "That's a spiritual question," she says thoughtfully. She mentions Rose Hulligan who, along with Grace Smith-Yellowhammer, was one of Myers' first connections to the Navajo Nation: "I remember the day that Rose told me that she was leaving Salt Lake and was going to the reservation to teach." Hulligan would no longer be able to help Myers with her small-scale pickup-truck runs. "I said, 'But what about the elders?' and she said, 'You'll take care of them. … It's who you are.'"
Beyond her own dedication to the elders, Myers says, is the community that's embraced her work.
She refers to the early days, when she delivered supply boxes right to the elders' homes. "An elder named Carol Blackhorse was very leery. And one of the first times I met her, she spit at me," Myers recounts with a chuckle. "But as I got really close to her and her family, at one point, I was getting ready to leave her homeland … and she came out with her daughter. Her daughter says, 'Grandma wants to know how long.' … And it was this moment; realizing she was getting attached to me, but also didn't want to be attached, because she didn't know how long. … That is probably one of the hardest questions they ask me. 'How long are you going to do this? How long are you going to help us?'"
It was a loaded question. "I didn't know at that time how many white people would come and make promises … and they never hear from them," Myers says. "There are so many abuses, and you don't see yourself as a part of it. But you are, you know? You are."
While on a food run, you have the evenings to yourself. The group typically gets back to Chinle between 4 and 6 pm, and there's ample sunlight left to do some exploring in nearby Canyon de Chelly or take a drive to the Thunderbird Cafeteria for dinner. You're usually tired, though—and as much as I wanted to stay in my hotel room, when the other women from Santa Fe wanted to go to the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site one evening, the fear of missing out outweighed the exhaustion.
Once in Ganado, we poked around the trading post, running our hands over rugs and skulls. I wandered over to the visitor's center to get a National Park System stamp for my passport.
The ranger behind the desk, a Diné man named Alvis, asked if I'd been to Hubbell before; I said no. He asked if I wanted to hear some history; I said yes. He referred to a map of the Four Corners under Plexiglas, pointing out the mountains in which his ancestors hid; the directions from which the Spanish came, then the Mexicans came, then the white men came. He circled his finger around Albuquerque, the southeastern corner of Dinétah. He described his people having come down out of the hills once the Spanish threat had passed. He traced the line to Bosque Redondo and back.
Soon it was time for the visitor's center to close, and he told me I should come back when I had more time. I said I would, that it was a beautiful site—and then I expressed gratitude for having us in his home.
He smiled. "Of course," he said, softly but warmly. "Everyone is welcome on our land."
Adopt-A-Native-Elder Information Session
4:30 pm Saturday Nov. 17. Free.
409 W Water St.,