Truckers rarely ever pick me up. Mostly it’s because they’re on a schedule and need to make good time to their destination. A few more than usual picked me up on this trip. Out of Flagstaff a young trucker named Cody gave me a lift into the Navajo Nation past Cameron.
“Where you headed?” he asked me early in our conversation.
“What’s in Tuba?”
“I’ve never been in that part of the Navajo Nation, I want to meet some folks, see some things. They’ve got this new interactive museum out there and some historical sights I need to see…”
Cody must have thought I was crazy. “Be careful in Tuba City, I’ve heard some horror stories from other truckers about those crazy Indians out there, drunks and weirdoes, you know….”
“I’ve never had a problem,” I replied. I wanted to say a little more, I wanted to call him out on his bullshit perceptions of the Navajo, but I rarely challenge anyone who gives me a ride. You know, it’s all smiles, uh-huhs and laughs. I rarely do or say anything to upset the driver, to let him in on my views about the world and my brothers and sisters, black, brown, queer and colorful. But it’s hard to let so much racist and sexist bullshit fly. I’m sorry to say it, but truckers that have picked me up have for the most part fit their stereotype: white men who are quick spit on “niggers, Indians, and Mexicans,” and even quicker to crack a joke about rape or women’s inferiority and call any man who doesn’t fit their model a “fag.” And they usually expect their hitch-hiker to laugh and concur. I mostly just nod and bit my tongue, change the subject.
Cody dropped me off at the junction to the 160 to Tuba City. I only had to wait 10 minutes before my next ride. A young Navajo man named Luke, about my age, stopped for me. He said he’d take me into Tuba city, but was also surprised to see me headed there. “There ain’t much in Tuba,” he explained. On his center consol sat a glass pipe and lighter. Luke smoked weed. He asked me if I did. I said sometimes. He said it’s natural. I agreed. He said alcohol is poison, he stays away from that stuff. It’s killed and fucked up too many Navajos for him to touch it. Besides, it’s banned on the reservation, and marijuana is practically easier to come by.
Luke turned down a tiny dirt road off the highway. “Here, I’ll show you the dinosaur tracks,” he said playfully. Sure enough a sign on the road advertised “Dino Tracks!” We stopped by a few roadside stands where some elder Navajos sat under shade selling rugs and silver turquoise jewelry. Just a few meters away were large tracks embedded in the sandstone, some kind of enormous three toe-ed monster from the past.
Luke and I got back in his truck and headed to Tuba. “See, on this side,” he said pointing left to the North, “this is Navajo land. On that side, that’s Hopi,” he explained. You’ll see, it’s funny. The Hopi don’t have anything on their side, not even a store. They’re always complaining, trying to get more land from us, but they’re not going to.” Luke said there was tension between the tribes over land, always had been. He said the Hopis were angry because the government left the Navajo with more land, some of it that was Hopi.
Sure enough, on the Hopi side of the highway there were only a few scattered houses. They were farming corn on the banks of Moenkopi Wash. On the Navajo side were stores and many more houses, little to no corn, and a few corrals holding sheep and cattle. “They complain, but they’re not getting any of our land,” Luke said bluntly. I asked Luke about uranium mines and mills. He said there were a few mines close to town, now closed up, sealed off with concrete. The old mill was beyond the edge of town. “Man, as a kid we used to play in that, in those buildings, in the dust and stuff. We didn’t know any better. Nobody told us not to.” Luke looked about my age, mid-20’s. So if only 10-15 years ago he was playing in abandoned uranium mills, around tailings, dust, radon and other elements, how big and unknown a crisis is this still brewing in and around the Navajo Nation?