Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day Four - Big Mountain and the Amazing Elders

Today was a big day for the volunteers. It is the largest food run of the three, serving 61 grandmothers and 26 grandfathers. And, of course there is a large number of family and visitors that show up since it is a very large gathering.

We had the requisite meeting at Flying J. I skipped oatmeal this time as the newly transitioned Denny's Restaurant had not yet mastered the finer points of serving oatmeal (no raisins, brown sugar or skim milk). I was forced enjoy a breakfast of french toast and bacon.

Well fortified, we lined up our cars before 7:30am and found that Howard had left with the rental truck headed toward Big Mountain. So blond Wendy was in charge of blessing and smudging (burning sage) the caravan. She did a good job as we had an uneventful drive to Hard Rock on the Navajo Reservation.

The drive was one of the high points of the day. We headed north off I-40 toward Second Mesa. It is a long drive with amazing expanses of scenic high desert and rock formations. Gone were the dust storms experienced in the Spring. In their place was a perfect sunny day full of peace and joy. Everyone eagerly anticipated this food run. Big Mountain is where the Adopt a Native Elder Program started many years ago. Big Mountain is where the elders resisted being relocated by the government during the Hopi land dispute. With Linda and Grace, program founders, in the lead, it was like a homecoming and we were all starting to feel like family with one heart, one mind and one direction to travel.

We climbed the cliffs onto the Hopi Villages of Second Mesa and headed out into the high country. As we turned up the road to the Robertson's place, we saw many cars and trucks parked. The rental van had been unloaded already and the elders were gathered in a huge circle shading themselves with colorful umbrellas. A big puppy greeted the cars. It was a festive atmosphere.

My job, among others, was to open the many boxes of give-aways and work with other volunteers to place them on and under the front table. It took us quite awhile to put out the dish soap, pancake batter sets, shampoo gift packs, extension cords, jackets, towels, cookie tins, coffee cans and so many more program giveaways. As we worked the elders greeted each other and watched as we piled the tables high with gifts.

In the middle of our circle, a huge tarp was unfolded. Gently used donated clothing and linens were carefully placed on the tarp by volunteers. Kitchen volunteers were unpacking supplies and working with the Robertson family to get the food ready for lunch.

And finally, with everything unloaded, the program began. A prayer was given, in Navajo, and we were introduced, state by state. Name tags were given to elders in the program, bags were handed out for them so they could collect the "goodies."

At this point the elders who had donations to make to the program lined up. Out of nowhere (well, usually from the cabs of their pick-up trucks), elders showed up with beautiful rugs and jewelry to donate. We appreciated each item as it was shown to us and clapped for the skill of the weavers and beaders. Later we found out that some weavers wove only one rug that season and donated it to the program. They have wonderful giving hearts.

After introductions, envelopes with food certificates and firewood checks were distributed. Then it was time for the fun and games. The Big Mountain elders, if one was comparing, excelled in the Navajo Cowboy and Navajo Hula Girl games. Methinks an Olympics involving winners from the three food runs might be an option someday.

Giveway time was amazing as waves of volunteers took the items from the table out to the elders in the huge circle. They eagerly opened their bags and received the bounty.  And then it was time for the volunteers to distribute their giveaways. My friend Chris donated some wool yarn and fabric. The elders especially enjoyed the bright yardage.

After that (it was a long afternoon and the elders, sitting in the sun, tolerated it well) was a highlight of the day - the shopping on the tarp! The elders, many in their 90's and with canes, rushed into the middle of the tarp to choose their favorite jackets, sweaters and jeans. It was so crowded out there on the tarp it was a wonder all the elders remained upright! When the dust cleared, there was not one piece of clothing left on the tarp. I had donated shirts, shoes and blankets.... all gone to a new home.

And then, finally, it was time to distribute the lunches. Blue corn mush, chicken and rice and much more was taken out to the waiting elders. Volunteers lined up and found that the Robertsons had added sloppy joes and spaghetti to the offerings. It was a good lunch as much work had gone in to preparing it. The program helps the families with grocery purchases to provide a feast to everyone including visitors to the food run.

As soon as most people were finished with lunch, the elders and their families started setting up a small version of an Indian market. Vounteers saved up and brought money just for this occasion. There were beaded necklaces, Blue Bird flour sack aprons and, of course, those beautiful Navajo weavings that the area is known for. My job, as measuring woman, was to follow Linda and Wendy and measure the purchases for the program's rug sale and show. There were some fantastic rugs and some simple rugs woven by very elderly weavers. All were treated with respect and appreciation. I have to admit that during my work as "measuring woman," my eyes drifted over to a table with amazing pictoral rugs done in stunning colors. As I approached the table I noticed that the rugs depicted a night sky with yei mask, corn growing in monument valley and much more. This amazing small rug made it into my collection, thanks to our "banker," John. Having quickly purchased this rug, I returned to my duties.

I noticed volunteers shopping just as the elders shopped on the tarp. Although volunteers were very generous with their money and acquired many treasured items, there were still things left as the "last call" announcement was made and elders packed up their wares and went over to pick up their food boxes.

At that point, the massive clean-up began with volunteers putting away tables and chairs and double bagging garbage to haul away. It was also a time of tearful good-byes. As I drove away, I noticed Linda and Wendy meeting with the weavers under the big cottonwood tree. The big puppy scrounged for left-overs.

As I drove away, I noticed the corn fields and the beautiful scenery. No wonder the people resisted relocation. The Land is beautiful. The people are beautiful.

That evening, as the volunteers, Grace and family and program staff gathered at the Chinese Restaurant, we all had time to reflect on our experiences and share our highlights with the group. As had happened throughout the food run time, tears were shed and laughter brighted our day. I think the little boy who made the rounds to shake everyone's hand and the Belegana Cowboy will be memories many will take home with them.

But wait.... that's not all.......... Teesto Food Run tomorrow.

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