For three years, Susan Claxton has taken a small group of current and former students to Window Rock, Arizona to work with Native Americans. The group also visited Rock Springs Reservation, outside Gallop, New Mexico, and Sanders, an hour away from Rock Springs, over the line in Arizona.
Claxton and her students provide a variety of services to this population, including serving food and helping with home repairs. This year they helped Bertha, a 102-year-old who lives in a Hogan, a sacred, traditional Navajo dwelling. Hogans are round or octagonal with a fireplace in the middle. Occupants walk around them in a clockwise direction to keep the fireplace always at their right. There is only one door, which faces east. Because these one-room structures have no bathrooms, Claxton’s group helped build one. Bertha at 102 finally needed this amenity.
Bertha’s daughter invited the GHC 12-member team for dinner, an honor first bestowed this year, the third consecutive one of traveling there to help. They were served traditional cuisine, a first for most of the students. The Indian taco is served on fry bread, a dough that is flattened with the hands and fried in an iron skillet. The usual condiments accompany this beef, goat or lamb-fill treat: salsa, lettuce tomatoes, onions and beans.
Another important encounter was with a 98-year-old man for whom the group was also planning to install a bathroom. Unfortunately, they never got the chance. The old gentleman was weakened and in bed, breathing shallowly. He held out his arms to Claxton and she gave him a hug. She asked if she could perform Reiki (a sort of touch therapy), and he agreed. She sat quietly with him for about five minutes, then prepared to leave. He smiled at her, so she kissed him and left. His kindness, simple openness and vulnerability touched her so deeply she had difficulty holding back her tears. He died the next morning, and she says she still gets emotional thinking of the encounter.
Students described the experience as life-changing. They saw for the first time the grinding poverty in which the tribe lives. Yet most live with a quiet dignity and pride. Many have jobs, both on and off the reservation. Nevertheless, the Native Americans that populate this region have their struggles beyond poverty. Too large a percentage succumb to alcoholism. Political problems persist. An extensive relocation effort has recently finished moving Navajos from eastern Arizona to land near Sanders. The move began 25 years ago from a century-old dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. The federal government in the 1800s moved Navajos to what had been Hopi land for generations. In 1958 the Hopis went to court to reclaim the land.
Over the years, the Navajos refused to budge, to a great extent because they believe they are part of their surroundings. One Navajo tried to explain: “You live in the spiritual way, with all the plants and the vegetation, the trees, the animal life, those kind of things people generally don’t experience,” said Peterson Zah, a former Navajo chairman and president.
But move they did – lured by homes and benefits that were provided. But some have lost the homes because they couldn’t pay their utilities. They had never had water and electricity before.
So the poverty remains. Claxton and her students cleaned up an area in Gallop in front of a church where gangs had defaced the walls with graffiti. They made connections with the elderly like Bertha. And they learned about Navajo culture. They learned of the effort of the U.S. government to make them American, to take away their traditions and way of life. In the 1880s, Indian children were sent to “boarding schools,” a euphemism for places that tried to eradicate their heritage. These children were not allowed to speak their native language. They were removed from their families, and their hair was cut short.
GHC students realized there was no comparison on those windswept lands to anything familiar here in Georgia. Many left a large piece of their heart in this Western terrain filled with people whose needs are so great. And they walked away with a better understanding of the conflict between Anglo and Navajo societies. One student who traveled there with the group for the first time last year, returned this year. She eventually plans to return again to work on the reservation.
Claxton herself became fascinated by Native American culture 16 years ago when taking an environmental sociology class and realized that most Americans don’t understand the plight of the native peoples of our country. There was something about this study that resonated with her. She laughingly says she must have Native-American blood in her veins. About five years ago she observed that many GHC students don’t have the opportunity to experience other cultures. Because the Human Services program emphasizes the importance of understanding human beings from a variety of different ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures and religions in a non-judgmental way, she decided to help her students learn this skill more easily. Thus, the idea for annual travels to the Indian reservations of the Southwest was born. She began researching options, and the Hands and Feet ministry answered her inquiry.
Claxton added, “We’ve always constructed something on the past two trips – handicap ramps, painting and other maintenance projects. This year we constructed something so much more precious – relationships. I can’t wait to return.”