THE WIND IS gusting hard across the desert south of Chinle, Ariz., driving billows of dust and sand through the rodeo grounds. The American flag cracks like a whip on its pole atop the announcer's booth; a riderless saddle bronc spooks, galloping in a big, skidding circle around the arena. You can barely see the Black Mountains and Ventana Mesa, a few miles to the west across Beautiful Valley; dust clouds have swallowed up the horizons.
The cowboys, serious-looking young men like Herman Tabaha, Johnson Claw, Eugene Tso and Carlton Nez, hunch under their tall hats, waiting for the action to begin. Rodeo is serious business out here in on the Navajo Nation: Everybody either rides in rodeos or watches them. One weekend early this summer, there were three Indian rodeos going on within a 100-mile radius: the Tseyatch, N. Mex., Rodeo; the rodeo at Oraibi, Ariz., over on the Hopi Reservation; and this one, the Dave Gorman Memorial Rodeo, at Chinle.
Rodeo is only one of countless fragments of foreign culture Navahos have incorporated into their own way of life. Over the centuries, they have taken everything from Pueblo Indian corn and blankets to Spanish sheep, horses and silver to Anglo pickup trucks and barbed wire, taken them and woven them into a dense, complex cultural fabric that is like nothing else on earth.
Walking around the rodeo grounds at Chinle, you pick up on this brilliant syncretism everywhere. A four-wheel drive pickup truck sports a beaded eagle feather amulet hanging from the rearview mirror, and a bumper sticker that warns, "This Is Indian Country." The refreshment stands sell cotton candy, hamburgers, mutton stew and something called a Navaho Taco, a thick slab of Indian fry bread topped with ground beef, grated cheese, chopped lettuce and tomato and hot sauce. A cassette deck is playing a song by XIT, an Albuquerque Indian rock band that mingles R&B and C&W with traditional Native American drumming and chanting:
Get up on your drum
Let me hear you play some
Of that good old native music for my soul.
Even the gods are crossbred. One rodeo cowboy carries a saddlebag inscribed, "This Cowboy Is Jesus-Powered, Praise the Lord." Another wears a silver belt buckle decorated with a turquoise peyote bird, symbol of the Native American Church. It reminds me of the story of the Navajo woman who was given a religious preference questionnaire by an anthropologist. She re- turned it to him with every category checked: Baptist, See RODEO, Page 5, Col. 1 RODEO, From Page 1 Catholic, Pentecostal, Mormon, Methodist, Native American Church, Traditional (Non-Christian), even "None of the Above." Asked to explain, she said that with anything as mysterious as God, it pays to cover your bets. Perfect Navajo pragmatism.
This kind of cultural flexibility has enabled the Navahos to survive, even thrive, in modern America. There are nearly 175,000 Navahos today, making them the largest Indian tribe by far in North America; the Navaho Reservation, which stretches all the way from the Grand Canyon in the west to the outskirts of Albuquerque in the east, has its own college, police force, radio station and weekly newspaper, The Navaho Times. Some tribal politicos are talking seriously about eventual statehood for the reservation.
The first event of the day is bull riding, which one cowboy from Tuba City describes succinctly as "the suicide event." Bull riding consists of trying to stay on top of an enraged 2,000-pound bull for eight seconds, clinging with one hand to a rope tied loosely around the beast's belly. To make sure the bull is properly berserk, a cattle prod is applied to his rump just before he is released from the chute. Bull riding is a difficult sport to watch: The action is so blurred and furious that it seems almost like a hallucination, and it is over so quickly that you are not really sure what you saw. The instant replay in your mind's eye wobbles like a mirage.
You can't talk to the bull riders who are waiting to go into the chutes; they are lost in a separate reality, in adrenalin overdrive; they stare off into invisible distances with glassy, luminous eyes, and when they speak, their voices seem to be coming from a great distance. They pace up and down, kicking at the dust; every couple of minutes, one stops and breaks into a strange dance, legs bent, feet apart, left hand flailing the sky. It looks like he has gone mad, but he is rehearsing the rhythms he will use on the bull, in the arena. No one cracks a smile; bull riding is too dangerous to be funny.
The announcer, Bo Bowman, from Shiprock, N.Mex., is a smooth talker in both English and Navaho. He recites a long prayer in Navaho over the PA system, finishing it off with, "In Jesus' Name." The men in the crowd hold their cowboy hats over their hearts. Everyone remains standing for the National Anthem. The old American values are cherished out here, even though the Navahos suffered terribly under Anglo rule in the past; fully a third of the tribe died during the 1860s, during the notorious Long Walk, when Kit Carson and the U.S. Army burned the Navahos' orchards and crops and exiled them to the barren plains of eastern New Mexico. Today, every other man you meet on the reservation is a veteran of Vietnam, Korea, World War II; flag decals and stickers are everywhere.
The stock for this year's rodeo was brought down from Colorado by the Edker Wilson outfit; it is top-flight stock, maybe a little bit too good for a small-town rodeo like this one. The bulls are huge, and they crash around in the narrow chutes like a thousand accidents trying to happen. The riders, most of them young guys trying to work into the reservation circuit, do not do that well. The first few riders last only a second or two each before they are sent flying. Finally, a cowboy named Gary Yazzie makes the first successful ride of the day, on a bull called "Rambler." Only a couple of other riders make it through the eight seconds. Mike Eskeet, from nearby Spider Rock, is thrown, kicked in the face, slung through the dust; the ambulance takes him away. A middle-aged, prosperous-looking Navaho man in the audience sums it up with a sly grin: "The bulls won."
There is a calf roping, bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, more bull riding and something called a calf scramble, in which kids chase a gaggle of calves around the arena, pulling ribbons from their tails to win prizes. The announcer keeps promising that the wind will let up, but it never does. "It's been blowin' like this for two weeks," somebody says. The calf ropers have the worst time of it; their lassoes are blown off course, and the calves race away untouched, much to the delight of the crowd. The air is full of blown debris; it seems like half of Arizona is flying by, on its way to New Mexico.
There is something indefinably lovely about this afternoon; I am not sure what it is, but it reveals itself in certain instants, flashes of perception. The turquoise stud in the ear of a bronc rider from Burnt Corn. The children on rawboned ponies, racing across the dusty opalescent hills beyond the rodeo grounds. The teen-aged girl in the leather jacket and dark glasses, from Hummingbird or Pinon, somewhere out there, combing her long shining hair; her face is right out of a Sung Dynasty painting, a Chinese princess or courtesan. The old man who tells me, "I used to be a pretty good rodeo rider myself, till I went into Uncle Sam's Army. They fed me so much good G.I. food while I was in there that when I got out I was too fat to ride."
There is a timeless, tribal feel to the scene here: I keep thinking of nomad encampments, people on horseback moving, long black hair flying, drums thudding, singing in unknown tongues . . . It is all there, just beneath the surface.
Chinle lies at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, a moon-colored chasm whose name comes from "tseyi," Navaho for "cleft in the rock." It is an enchanted piece of terrain. The Anasazis, or "Old Ones," ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, built villages and storehouses high in the canyon walls; the ruins are still there, and paintings and carvings on the rock, enigmatic gods and arcane symbols. No one knows exactly what happened to the Anasazi, or why they left: Some say drought or warlike nomads drove them out; others, that they intermarried with the local Navahos.
Early the next morning, after a night camping by the canyon's mouth, I drive up to a spot on the rim, leave my car, and hike down toward White House Ruin, the most famous Anasazi site in the canyon. Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, but the Navaho tribe maintains title to its 130 square miles, to protect the Navaho families who live on the canyon's floor and rims; the trail to White House is the only hike you can do in the Monument without a Navaho guide.
The trail winds down through rounded cliffs, the petrified dunes left by a 200-million-year-old sea, long gone. It is absolutely still; the first rays of sunlight slant across the canyon walls. Water glitters on the canyon floor. It takes about 20 minutes to descend; the trail comes out by a Navaho farm. Smoke is rising from the hogan, the turretlike wood and earth house traditional Navahos still favor, but otherwise there is no sign of life. I slog through the stream that threads the canyon bottom--lots of water this year, after a snowy winter and a wet spring--and come out in the tamarisk thickets below White House. The micro-state lasted from 1000 A.D. till about 1275. I look up at those blank stone and mud walls. A faceless god stares from the rock. No answers there. This is Deadland, the Underworld.
An eerie sound drifts down the canyon. I can't imagine what is is; I have heard something like it before, but I can't imagine where, or when. It gets louder, and louder, and then a Navaho boy comes hiking into view, a huge portable cassette player clamped to his ear. He has it revved up all the way: Pink Floyd, "The Wall," blasting down Canyon de Chelly, echoing off the old cliff houses and gods. He trudges by, heading home, I guess, to some remote farm further up the canyon. I try to imagine what it must be like, living in the heart of these tremendous rocks, surrounded by Anasazi Undead, with Pink Floyd ringing in your ears; I try to imagine, but I can't. There are worlds one can only wonder at.
I am back on the canyon rim by mid-morning; it is already hot, a desert summer's day, but the winds of yesterday are gone. The desert smells sweet, sage, rabbitbrush, snakeweed and juniper. The landscape shines like a cut diamond.
I end up at the cafe in Chinle, eating a breakfast of Navaho Taco and coffee. Mike Eskeet, the injured bull rider from yesterday's competition, wanders in and drifts over to my table. I buy him a cup of coffee. His left eye and forehead look terrible, swollen and black and blue; still, he seems happy. "I've been banged up a lot worse," he says. He shows me scars on his arms and shoulder, lots of them. "You always get hurt in rodeo, and you never make any money. That's the way it goes." He isn't complaining, he is just stating a fact.
Back out at the rodeo grounds, the crowds are even bigger than yesterday: more than 1,200 paid attendance, at three dollars a head, the rodeo organizers say. Today's schedule is almost identical to yesterday's: bull riding, calf roping, bareback and saddle bronc, team roping; this time there is also a cowgirls' barrel race.
The hard-core Navaho cowboys work their way up through rodeos certified by the Navaho Nation Rodeo Cowboy Association and the American Indian Rodeo Cowboy Association, riding in as many as three rodeos in a single weekend, piling up experience, points and prize money. It is hard work, and expensive: as much as $20,000 to keep up a string of rodeo horses, saddles, pickup truck and horse trailer. A few riders, men like Mike Etsitty, Herman Silver and Felix Gilbert, stick it out till they hit the big time: the Indian National Finals Rodeo, with contestants from all over Canada and the United States, held every November in Albuquerque.
Most of the cowboys at Chinle will never begin to make it that far; their rodeo dreams are smaller, a good ride now and then, maybe a $50 purse once or twice a summer. It doesn't really matter; rodeoing is its own reward. What these cowboys are chasing is a kind of glory, the glory of doing something almost impossible or at least trying. Even the kids who have been bucked off their bulls a split second out of the chute seem happy: After all, they have gotten up there in their best satin shirt with the pearl snaps, the fancy Stetson with the beaded band, gotten up there and done their damndest in the eyes of the world. They brush the dust off and grin like winners.
Occasionally, everything clicks, and something like magic happens. Midway through the afternoon, a kid whose name I can't remember catches an almost-perfect saddle bronc ride. The horse bucks and swerves, dances in the air, and the kid rides through it all with a dreamlike ease. The crowd yells and whoops. The kid's hat goes sailing, a high, celebratory arc over the arena. He rides right through the eight-second buzzer and just keeps on riding, totally unconcerned, like he was born up there and is going to grow old and die on that crazy bronc. When he finally slides down out of the saddle, it seems like something important has been proven, something to do with the power of danger, the risky beauty of life in this dried-out and difficult country.