As I strode towards the exterior door, I realized Chris’ left foot was immobilized by a medical boot strapped onto to her lower leg. “What happened?” I queried. “Work-related injury,” she replied, going on to explain the incident and its aftermath. Corrective surgery culminated in a cadaver tendon being spliced into the damaged limb. That caused me to think of the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. I quickly realized, however, that since Chris is Navajo, this recycling of body parts raised complex issues associated with traditional values. Consequently, I paused, scrunched my nose, and scratched my head. “Yep,” she said, correctly interpreting my concern for Navajo beliefs involving death and dying and how they might affect her situation.
As is often the case, this Navajo story begins with Coyote. The saga goes something like this: One day, a group of Navajo people began debating whether they should live forever or be allowed to die. In order to decide the issue, they elected to place an animal skin on a pool of water. They determined that if it sank, death would become an integral part of their world. If, however, the hide floated on the surface, they would experience eternal life. The people, however, became distracted and failed to closely monitor the situation. As a result, while their backs were turned Coyote threw stones on the skin, causing it to sink. For that reason, death eventually comes to claims us all. Coyote believed that if people did not pass on, all available land would soon become occupied and there would be no place for new arrivals to establish themselves. He therefore preferred death over eternity. Priscilla has echoed these same sentiments, saying that without death people would not appreciate life and that the elderly have to move on so the young can take their place in society.
When we are faced with issues such as this, Barry and often feel we are operating at the intersection of traditional Navajo convictions and contemporary ideals. Bluff, which sits immediately north of the Navajo reservation, functions as a veritable crossroad of cultures. Here, age-old beliefs mix with modern values to create a complicated spiritual concoction. Not far from Twin Rocks Trading Post, many Navajo elders live in much the same way people existed 100 years ago: no live water, no electricity, burning wood for heat, and without telephone or other modern conveniences. Traditional ways weave in and out of our daily lives, and we often don't know whether to respond to a situation in traditional fashion or with present-day strategies. For that reason, we at times refer to ourselves as “traders on the edge,”—on the edge of a rapidly changing life way, on the edge of a civilization that may not exist at the time of our own deaths, and on the edge of massive cultural changes.
When I asked Chris how her traditional family members were adjusting to the implant, she said it took a long time for her to build the courage to discuss it with them. When she did, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “We can do prayers!” Even Coyote would be comfortable with that solution.
*In this story, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.