Black Mesa, part of the Navajo Reservation, Arizona
And now for something completely different...
In Hard Evidence, I introduced a new character to the I-Team—Katherine James. A mixed-blood Navajo, Kat take the environmental beat at the paper after Kara leaves to go have babies with Reece. But if you read down this blog, you'll catch a couple of entries from the woman after whom Kat is named—my dear friend and sister Kat James.
I named the character in honor of Kat and her husband, Ray James, a traditional Diné spirtual leader. Ray and Kathee came into my life during one of my darkest hours, at a time when I simply didn't want to be on the planet any longer. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
I first began covering Native issues in 1994/1995. Part of it was my desire as a journalist to put my pen in the service of those who have no voice in the mainstream media, and part of it was entirely selfish. I had learned when I was 12 that I had a full-blooded Cherokee great grandmother who was the daughter of a chief, and not knowing how to explore what it meant for me, I started looking into American Indian issues from the safe distance of the newsroom.
Early on, I learned that Diné families were being forced off their homesites in order to make way for coal mines. It horrified me to think that we might still, in this supposedly evolved day and age, be forcing Indian families off their land. I decided to look into it, and I asked permission to come to the Navajo Reservation—the dinetah—and report on this. The elders said, "No." (Unlike a lot of journalists, I don't go where I'm not welcome.)
Window Rock near the Navajo Nation Council building in Window Rock, Arizona
I covered the issue as best I could from a distance for a number of years before I received a call asking me to please come to Black Mesa now. So, with a verbal map that included things like, "there's usually a cornfield planted near there," and "stay to the right for a while, then when you come to this pile of tires, keep to the left for a while," I drove down to the rez by myself to cover a blockade that feds & etc. had erected to prevent the annual Sun Dance from happening at Ana Mae. I drove through the blockade myself, and spent the next week encamped with the participants watching guys with guns and Ray-Bans surveille 500 Indians at prayer. (Note: There are no street signs or really any paved roads on Black Mesa. If you get lost, you better hope you've got a full tank and lotsa water.)
The experience was transformative in ways that I can't talk about on a blog. Suffice it to say, nothing was ever the same for me. Imagine listening to static on the radio all your life and then, suddenly, having the signal come in loudly and clearly—beautiful music after a lifetime of white noise. The connection with God that I had never found in a Christian church was suddenly so loud and clear.
Murals inside the Navajo Nation Council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona. These depict the history of the Diné people
I covered the conflict on Black Mesa for years, feeling that I was really able to help the relocation resisters with my articles. One year, the coverage resulted in TONS of supplies going down to Black Mesa. I covered hearings on the relocation held in the Navajo Nation Council chambers and interviewed their president. I spent nights sleeping under the stars in the desert on Black Mesa, eating fry bread in the morning and mutton stew at night. I discovered that the sound of a single drum can make you feel more alive than anything you've ever known and that you don't have to know the words to sing and you don't have to speak to communicate.
My reporting on the problems on Black Mesa led to my being asked to come to Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River and other Lakotah reservations to the north to report on other issues, giving me the opportunity to see and experience things most people never get to see or do. Including ruts in the road that could swallow the average car and the joy of sand in my teeth.
But then my own life got out of hand. I won't go into details, but every once in a while the experiences of a person's lifetime can catch up with them. I found myself struggling in ways that scared me. I had already been introduced to Kat and Ray, and I was gently nudged to go speak with Ray about my problems. I remember driving to their house late one night—they were living in the Colorado mountains at the time—and being terrified of exposing my inner ghosts to two people who didn't really know me. But that was better than, say, giving up on life altogether.
I had an hours-long conversation with Ray. Both Kat and Ray treated me with the utmost compassion. Several weeks later, after much preparation on my part, Uncle Ray held a special ceremony that enabled me to start my life over again—quite literally, in fact. It's not polite or permissable to discuss ceremony, so that's all on that point. But it's no coincidence that my writing career began shortly thereafter. Everything in my life changed.
Navajo National Monument, one of the most photographed places on earth. Hot as the blazes, too.
And so it came to pass that the people I had hoped to "help" turned around and helped me. Prayers came in from the dinetah from people who lived in traditional hogaans without water or electricity offering comfort and strength. People who owned a single chicken offered to slaughter it and hold a feast with me. I was given corn from people who'd grown it with their own hands in the hot desert sun. It was so deeply moving and humbling to find that hand reaching back to me. I'd found a home among them, a place that could and has always been a refuge to me. (Right now Kat and Ray are thinking, "So, yeah, when's the last time you were here, girl?" Soon, I promise.)
It's been five years since that ceremony, and now I live a new life, thanks to Ray and Kat. I have new names, a new birthday, a new life. In honor of them and all the Diné people mean to me, I have Kat James, mixed-blood Navajo reporter, in my next romantic suspense (after Unlawful Contact). It will give me a chance to write from a different point of view and to share some of the beauty I've found in the Diné way of thinking. Already, Kat has shown some of this in my books, notably when she tells Tessa that the Diné see a woman's tears as one of her healing strengths.
Anyway, to find Kat posting on my blog made me very happy. I guess this is my way of saying, "I LOVE YOU!" to my sister Kat and Uncle Ray.
Mitakuye Oyasin! Hágoónee'!