Here is an excerpt of “Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation," a new book about sports and life at Chinle High School, located on a small and isolated patch of the Navajo nation in northern Arizona. I am publishing with permission of the author, Michael Powell, and publisher, Blue Rider Press.

And you can read about the book, along with a Q & A with the author, here:

What sets a fire to crackling in a young mind? How to find the courage to step out of Navajo and into the unknown? Parsifal Hill-Smith, a former surfer dude and the white-maned A.P. English teacher at Chinle High School, led me to Keanu Gorman, a shy boy. This kid, he said, was worth getting to know.
So I texted Keanu and asked to talk. Days passed and just before midnight I received this message:
Can you visit tomorrow morning?
I had tried to get in touch for several days running, and as dates and appointments aren’t easy to pin down on the Navajo nation, I tapped a quick reply:
Yes, definitely. When and where?
He sent instructions:
Drive south, take the road to Pinon and turn left at the first windmill. Wait there. I will come to get you.
Another text followed:
It might be the second windmill. Don’t worry, just turn off and I’ll find you.
Which is how I came to stand in midmorning by a windmill that called to mind an arrow shot to earth, tall and silvery with a feathery vane that shimmered and glinted in the desert sun. It rose in the middle of a plain beneath a sapphire sky. No trees, not so much as a gnarled pine: just red dirt and sand and sagebrush and snakeweed and that slow, creaking windmill dredging water from the depths.
I walked around the concrete cistern and studied archaeological layers of graffiti: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE and SMILE MY NATIVES and WATER IS LIFE and I LOVE YOU CHARLI. To the north Black Mesa rose in piles of broken white sandstone, and to the east I could make out gray clay bluffs that overlooked Pleasant Valley, a leafless depression of salt licks, phosphate mounds, and white volcanic ash with dust in perpetual whirl.
I saw no sign of any living thing. I closed my eyes and breathed the desert musk and concentrated on the encompassing silence.
A half hour passed and I spotted a distant dot that trailed behind it a red cloud like a marble rolling across a dusty horizon. In time the dot cohered into an old sedan and it turned toward my windmill bouncing like a dune buggy, shocks gone. It pitched to a stop and a heavyset kid with a shy aspect and big black glasses stepped out and blinked sleep from his eyes and offered a soft handshake. Keanu had stayed up late completing a paper on Oscar Wilde. As he owned no laptop and the electricity in his trailer flickered like a candle in the wind, he had tapped out the essay on his mobile phone.
Keanu Gorman, valedictorian of Chinle High School, asked me to follow him in my car to his home.
Our drive extended down dirt road after dirt road, and eight miles on we pulled onto a single track that led to a trailer to the foot of Balakai Mesa, which means “the place with reeds on it.” Medicine men prized its 7,300-foot summit as a site for the Healing Way ceremony, which ensured good luck and blessings. Keanu’s mother greeted us. She was of the Bitter Water People Clan and spoke fluent Navajo and broken English. His grandmother stepped out of the trailer door. She was petite, tiny even, and wore a blue calico dress and cowboy boots and necklaces and bracelets; a turquoise clasp held in place a soft and luxuriant coil of white hair.
She was born under a peach tree behind the trailer, and Keanu figured she was in her ninth decade. As she possessed no birth certificate, neither she nor anyone else in the family was certain. Yá’át’ééh, I said by way of greeting.
She peered with a quizzical look and spread her arms and in singsong voice commanded: “Speak Navajo!”
With hapless hand gestures, I tried to explain to her that this bilegaana’s knowledge of Navajo had expired unceremoniously after “hello.”
She laughed merrily and climbed into a fossilized pickup truck to drive to market with her daughter. Keanu was fluent in Navajo and translated when they had appointments with doctors or food stamp bureaucrats and at parent-teacher conferences. “My mother gets nervous and trips over the meaning of official words.
Keanu watched their truck disappear around a bend. He explained that his “mother” was really his grandmother. His “grandmother” was really his great-grandmother. His biological mom lived in Flagstaff with his siblings. They weren’t really close.
We walked to a pen constructed of logs bleached gray-white by the sun and tied with bailing wire. The pen was home to a few grouchy goats and twenty or so common American and Spanish Churro sheep and two desert bighorn, which an uncle of his had captured years ago on the mesa. That uncle had passed away and all these creatures became the property of his grandmother and great-grandmother. Balakai Mesa harbored cougar and coyote, and a few weeks ago Navajo shepherds reported a Mexican red wolf had wandered north of the interstate onto the mesa. The sheep and goats have incorporated an awareness of this unwelcome news and huddled more tightly than usual and had taken to loud bleating at night.
Rez dogs, mutts of dozens of genetic flavors, patrolled the corral perimeter, their scruff hair raised like mohawk haircuts.
We walked to the trailer and sat at a small table in the kitchen while Keanu’s little sister watched a movie in Navajo. The trailer lacked running water until a few years back and he used to haul in five-gallon jugs of water to flush the toilet. This morning the water that flowed from the faucet came out milky and fizzy and tasted like aluminum foil. Electric service remained spotty, and when his family fell behind on payments, Keanu read Greek mythology and Charlotte Brontë and Wilde and Homer by the light of religious candles purchased at the dollar store.
I asked of his plans.
“I really hope I get into this college called Swarthmore.”
The borders of his life were tightly circumscribed; he had not traveled as far east as Albuquerque, as far west as Las Vegas, as far north as Salt Lake City. “I’ve never seen a lot of things,” he acknowledged.
He discovered Swarthmore by leafing through catalogs Parsifal left in piles around his classroom along with university pennants. Keanu examined photos of gray stone buildings and leafy oaks and chestnuts and poplars and lawns of startling green intensity. He read and reread the thumbnail biographies of professors and descriptions of classes in ancient Greek philosophy, Kant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henrik Ibsen and became entranced.
“I mean, wow,” he said. “I really want to experience that world.”
The life of a top student here can be confounding. Keanu’s math teacher persuaded him to apply for a fellowship to attend an elite summer math camp in Massachusetts. He was a strong bet to get in and the program would cover travel and dorm bills for the summer. His biological mother sent word he could not go.
“She said it was too dangerous for me to get on a plane. I told her that it was a lot more dangerous to drive around the reservation.”
Keanu passed that summer working at the Burger King in Chinle doing algebra problems in his head.
He spoke mostly Navajo until he was five years old and school officials placed him in a bilingual school. “I knew English but I had an accent.” His class was filled with kids from the rural reaches of the reservation, children of shepherds and farmers, and instruction was not rigorous. Keanu grew bored and sorted through bins in the library and read books in English, one after another. When he reached a word or sentence he did not understand, he read the chapter again. When his grandmother watched television shows in Navajo, he switched on the English subtitles and forced himself to read those.
Novels, biographies, histories, Greek myths—he inhaled these. He turned eight years old and his biological mom moved to Phoenix and he and his sisters followed. By hanging out at bodegas and talking to Mexicans, he learned passable Spanish. Not long after, his mom moved the family to Winslow, a city of eleven thousand people on the sun-swept plains along Route 66 and I-40, a blink-and-you-miss-it stop for gas ana taco on the highway between Albuquerque and Flagstaff. Winslow is equal parts white and Navajo and Mexican, and a spark of tension could light a prairie fire. He entered his classroom at midyear, and a couple of white kids eyed the new boy, small and thin and with big glasses, and they smirked.
“Oh, here’s another Injun.”
“Hey, teepee man.”
Weeks back, Parsifal talked with each student about college. It was Keanu’s turn. Where, Parsifal asked, do you want to go?
“My mother wants me to go to Diné College. It’s close—”
Parsifal cut him off. “I didn’t ask where your family wants you to go. I asked where you want to go.” Keanu frowned and drew a breath. Then he said that word: Swarthmore.
So let’s figure out how to make that happen. Keanu scored a 1290 on his SAT, superb on the reservation and damn good anywhere. Keanu was worried; elite schools wanted scores of 1400s and beyond, so he signed up to the take the test again along with his ACT. Keanu had no tutors and no one in his family knew where those colleges were. He felt he was running a race blind.
Why, he asked, would they want a kid like me? Keep going, Parsifal replied. “Believe in these kids,” Parsifal said, “and they will not disappoint you.”
College essay ideas came to him in dreams, a power line that transmitted in English and Navajo. “I sometimes have a hard time expressing myself because a lot of our words do not really exist in English.” What to do with his beautiful verb-saturated Navajo language and its dozens upon dozens of conjugations, became the subject of one essay.
Keanu was dipped in Traditional and Christian ways and he wrote of that. He attended a fifteen-member Black Mountain Mennonite church and he loved Daniel, a Navajo preacher who kept his hair pulled back in a white knot and had a beautiful baritone voice, the services held in a white tent held up by great wood beams, as they burned cedar and sang of Christ. His great-grandmother also spun tales of the Navajo Holy People and Changing Woman and Spider Woman and the Coyote Trickster, and some nights he and his sister put on their turquoise and hopped and spun in the Traditional way.
I asked if his grandmother accepted that he would leave. Keanu squinted, tentative. Many older Navajo resist having their children leave the reservation, fearing they will not return.
“I think so. I really want to show my younger siblings there is more to the world than the Rez.” We walked toward my car. The limestone walls of the mesa glistened and the sheep and goats milled restlessly.
“I will miss this so much,” he said.
He grew nervous, his sentences flecked with conditionals: if I get better scores; if I can write the essay I want; if those colleges want a kid raised in the shadow of Balakai Mesa. If I go east, if I become a doctor, first I will take my mother by the hand and lead her out into that world. He looked at me. “My life plan is to travel with my mom. I want to make that our adventure.”