Skip to main content

Navajos return to northern roots

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

BEAVER CREEK, Yukon - When piling out of the van, the temperatures were
warm and sunny. No sooner had the foreign contingency converged at the
river's edge when the relative calm quickly changed.

Blue skies became cloudy and the stillness was transformed with a sudden
wind that rattled trees and whipped up dust clouds. This apparent
environmental volatility wasn't just coincidental, the group's leader
pointed out, but instead a means of communication by Mother Earth.

Upon crouching next to the water, Clayton Long washed his hands and wrists
with the gray silt and sand. A Navajo from Blanding, Utah, this visit to
the Yukon's White River represented a return to his ancestral roots.

"This water is a holy being and will acknowledge you and will talk to you,"
Long said about the fast-moving current. "We use the ash from the fire for
healing ceremonies and here we can use the ash of the volcano."

Oral histories have described how his people traveled from the north many
moons ago because of a massive volcanic eruption. Numerous similarities in
the Navajo language shows how it belongs to the Athapaskan family of
dialects that originated in northern Canada.

A bilingual education director with a Utah school district, Long has
arranged student exchanges between kids from his state and the Yukon, so he
had previously been in Canada's far north. However, it wasn't until Aug. 2
that he went to the edge of the territory's White River, so named because
of the ash still flowing among the glacial waters.

Nine Navajos and four White River Apache from Arizona participated on a
10-day journey through the Yukon and southeast Alaska. While the agenda
included frequent dance performances during gatherings with other tribes,
the highlight was the stop near the dormant volcano.

"This is possibly our place of origin. A feeling we get is this is another
sacred place for us," Long said.

Before leaving, while Long collected a glass full of sand from the
shoreline, the group noticed some fresh bear tracks in the mud. Long
mentioned this too was a sign.

While the group was satisfied spiritually by going to White River, later
that night there was some scientific verification about the legend of the
volcano. Anthropologist Norm Easton, who has been studying in the area for
18 years, described the layers of dirt that were just inches below the
forested surface.

Among several excavations, the distinctive white ash has been dated from
1,400 to 1,900 years old. These time periods confirm the oral traditions
about the eruption occurring around 700 A.D.

"For many years we heard of a big distribution of ash and five to six years
ago they discovered the actual peak, Mount Bona," Easton said, pointing to
a mountain range about 50 miles west of White River.

Yukon's geography is a stark contrast to the present-day homeland of the
Navajos and Apache. Unlike the arid desert of the Four Corners region, this
trip offered a different outlook for the travelers. Thousands of square
miles of continuous evergreen treescapes dotted with numerous ponds and
rivers in a sparsely populated area.

The lushness wasn't lost on the trip's elder, Jim Dandy.

"All the way from Alaska to here and Dawson City, the land is beautiful,"
Dandy said. "The only thing I was sad about was where the fire was [in Alaska] but there was still beauty."

Dandy's presentation of a sacred Navajo basket that represents the earth
and body intrigued the local children during the evening's cultural
exchange with the White River First Nation. A band with about 150 members,
this was a rare opportunity for the combination of Upper Tanana and
Northern Tutchone to be hosts to another tribe.

Chief Angela Demit acknowledged to her southern guests that her people have
struggled in maintaining the culture, in part because many of the band's
elders are residential school survivors.

Describing the evening as "an eye opener," Demit hopes to take up the
Navajos' invitation. "It's really good to see other people share with us
and maybe one day we can go down there and share with them," Demit said.

During an emotional closing ceremony, Long told of how elders from these
separated tribes always knew of each other as cousins but were never able
to meet.

Then, by gathering at White River, the heavens responded "as if somebody
was talking to us, the grass was waving, the branches were waving, we felt
like the elements of down south and from up here greeted one another," Long
said.