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The Loyal Desert Flower
Growing up on the reservation, my great-grandfather was the apple of my eye. He is without a doubt the most respectable man I have ever known. He has seen both World Wars, watched a man walk across the surface of the moon, and witnessed the first African American man to become Leader of the Free World. If it is common to acknowledge experience as the best teacher, then nowhere else is there a better example than in the life of my great-grandfather. Without realizing the impact he has had in my life, he still lives freely among his herd grazing in the red valley.
My mother called him “Cheii.” He was tall with a slender age-stricken body. He wore scuffed brown leather boots, dark blue Levi jeans, and a belt. Either he wore the same button-up shirt everyday, or he just had a dresser full of them, but my memory stands firm that each day I saw him wearing a red-and-black plaid shirt. His face was long, wrinkled, and masked with dark, sun-soaked skin. He had small beady eyes that pierced through his sunglasses. He also wore a blue baseball cap stained with sweat and dirt. His wrists were adorned with silver and turquoise bracelets. As a man he was seasoned; even at a young age, I could tell by the look of him that he was full of mystery and adventure.
The words that were exchanged between the two of us were translated by other family members. “He said you always look like a deer caught in the headlights!” my grandma finally managed to say after a great deal of laughter. Cheii would often joke of my shyness. He once called me a strange name I was not familiar with. I went to my aunt to find the meaning of this word. She smiled and said that this meant desert flower. Confused and somewhat dumbstruck, I nodded with a fake smile in a gesture to convey acceptance.
After a short time living with Cheii and the others, my mother found employment, which required us to live in Arizona. I attended school there and made friends. It was a new addition to my social skills; so was my introduction to the world of sports.
We moved a lot. In retrospect we nearly covered each state in the Western region of the United States. For me, venturing anywhere outside the reservation was comparable to visiting a foreign country. At the peak of my adolescent years, we finally settled down in a large city in northern Oregon.
I always felt a compelling need to return to the reservation. In Oregon, I lived predominately in a white society. Living in the suburbs of a city with half a million residents, I felt the bitterness of being a minority. Isolated from my people, I was afraid to step outside my comfort zone. I took to heart the old Native saying, “You can take the man out of the rez, but you can’t take the rez out of the man.” I missed the unforgiving heat of the sun; mostly I missed the serenity of a vast and vacant desert. Instead my reality was the constant rainfall of the Pacific Northwest, along with its green giants swaying in the wind and white mist lingering between them.
I had forgotten my roots, as well my capacity to be a proud Native. I tore through my life with the destructive power of anger and hate. Irrational acts of rebellion stripped away the relationship between me and my family. I frequently placed blame elsewhere. I came to the conclusion that they were the reason I was incapable of being content in Oregon.
I fought my younger brother in a fist fight one afternoon, cracking his tooth. With a mouthful of watered-down blood, he forced words past his swollen lips, “Don’t talk to me again. I am not your brother.” Staring at me with blood-shot eyes and red streaks streaming down from his nose, I knew he was serious.
Standing there shaking, confused, and on the edge of submission, I replied, “I’m not sorry, and I never looked at you as a brother.” Our words were coated with tiny shards of glass. The fight marked the end of my junior year. With the final year of high school within sight and the need to recover from my behavior, I decided to return to the reservation.
After a long journey I arrived back on the rez. I took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and stood dormant for an exceptional period of time. I listened to the wind sweeping across the dunes and weaving through the canyons of small rocks and shrubs. I removed my shoes and dug my toes into the cool sand. I inhaled the smell of desert pines. When I reopened my eyes, a rush of overwhelming relief washed over me. A smile had found its way onto my face.
Cheii had aged significantly. Regardless of his ailments, he was happy to see me. I smiled in an attempt to hide my concern for him. The passion I once saw in his eyes had faded, blurred by thick lenses to aid his vision. Grandma and the others were forced to shout into his ears to communicate the simplest things. He hunched over a four-legged walker to travel a few feet. His voice was faint and hard to follow. “It has been a long time,” he said to me.
I nodded in agreement, “Too long.”
“Where is your family?” he asked. I told him every detail starting from the first memories I had of moving away to Arizona. I told him about the life I was leading and how lost I felt. The most painful segment of my story was telling him about the failing relationship with my family. To my disbelief, he subtly shook his head, smiled, and proceeded to tell me about his life and the hardships he’d faced.
“My mother died when I was ten years old. I lost my two brothers and sister soon after she passed. I lived on my own for a time. I worked the railroads for little money. I built my own houses. I watched my wife suffer from illness until she passed peacefully during a warm summer night. I have felt what you are feeling now, Grandson.” Listening intently to him speaking in Navajo, I could understand his words.
He continued, “I have my daughters, I have my grand-daughters and their children. Never do I regret what I have done or what has happened to me in this lifetime. Every day I am blessed with love from all my children. That is what I am most grateful for.”
Looking directly at me with his small beady eyes I saw his passion return to him. Sitting on a rusty, old, fold-away chair, he inched toward me. With a gentle voice, he spoke in English, “All my children have been loyal to me, just as a desert flower is loyal to the sun.”
After a time I began to understand his wisdom and I was humbled to discover his admiration for family. I thought of my own. I wanted to return and thank my family for their selflessness and their love. I promised myself I would apologize, return to school, and represent myself as being a proud Native. I promised myself I would graduate and move on to college.
I thanked Cheii many times before I left. I assured him I would be returning more frequently. I shook his hand, thanked him one last time for being the man he is and for inspiring me to love and appreciate just as he has done his entire life. I packed my things and left his small house. From the rearview mirror of an old pick-up truck, I watched it reduce into the horizon as I drove down the dirt road leading back to the main highway.
Joey Dunn (Navajo) is currently attending Haskell Indian Nations University and hopes to continue his academics at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Dunn considers himself an artist adding, “I have always had an interest in writing. The thing I love the most about it is the fact that I can completely immerse myself into it. My family has always been my inspiration to keep writing, but my greatest mentor would be my Cheii.”