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on Apr 30, 2010 in Friday Thoughts

Are We Smart Enough to Learn?

We start at birth and not until out last breath if we’re lucky, we continue to learn. The question that struck me last week was a real simple one, are we smart enough to learn? This thought weaved its way through my thoughts as I listened to the stories from Albert, a Navajo elder and new friend. Albert spent an hour telling Sharon, Stephanie, and I a story that has been handed down for many generations of Navajo, a story that has not been written down. It was a story that when he finished he looked at his mom who was watching and listening and giving her son one of those looks which he translated for us. “She doesn’t understand why I’m sharing this with you. I shouldn’t be sharing this with you, especially now. I can only tell this story in the winter.”

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If you’ve not been to Monument Valley, the first thing you’ll notice when you arrive besides that amazing, gorgeous, stunning natural beauty of the place is, there is nothing else but the that amazing, gorgeous, stunning natural beauty of the place! There are no casinos, no giant signs, no bizarre laser light show on the rocks at night, nothing! The 14 mile valley drive through Monument Valley is a rough, dusty and dirt road that no small car or RV should drive, it will do some damage. And the price for driving this road, enjoying the valley? A Whopping $5!

To the Navajo, as explained to us, feel the entire Monument Valley is a Hogan, the entire valley is a vision quest. It is all sacred to be cherished and lucky for us, to be shared. Monument Valley is not a national park, not a national monument, not a state park but tribal lands. For your $5 you can drive the 14 mile road and shoot from its edges but you cannot walk off the road or wonder wherever you’d like. It is “Private” land. This doesn’t mean the land is locked away from anyone, you just have to find a guide who can take you into those lands (guides are easy to find). We were incredibly lucky to not have a “guide” but Bruce, Albert’s brother, who grew up and still lives in the Valley.

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Bruce, Albert, Mom (we only know her as mom) and the entire four generations we met and befriended during our week live with no running water, no electricity (thought they have a small generator). They haul their water in each day from Goulding’s, an hour drive in part on the Valley Drive. They drive their kids up to The View each morning and pick them from their every afternoon so they can attend school. And the kids go to Artist Point to do their homework, it is the only place where their notebook can get the tower for internet. It’s a life style that’s pretty amazing to me even with my lifelong exploring of native American heritage.

If you’re aware of Hollywood’s use of Monument Valley, then you know it’s the amazing backdrop for some amazing classics. Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Back to the Future III, The Wild West to just name a few are some of the flicks making use of this grand landscape. You can see Capt Bittle’s cabin (John Wayne) at Goulding’s and you can visit John Ford point where not only did he sit and smoke his cigar (mom has a photo of her as a child sitting there with Ford), it appears in many a movie. And the warring Indians in these movies, many are the Navajo whose land is the backdrop (oh, did we hear stories about that aspect of Navajo history!).

So where’s the point to all of this? The Navajo has shared their heritage, their beliefs, traditions and customs for perhaps centuries by simply telling stories to those who would listen, mostly to their own. Most of the stories are not written down but just in their hearts and minds. These stories which tell of family and enemies, of birth and death, of joy and preserving the land for the next generation are not just stories but are a way of life. You can see it as soon as you come to the top of Valley Drive and look out and see the Valley just the same as you see it in the 1940 flicks made there (and today you can visit for $5). Is there something here for photographers to learn or more to the point, will we learn it?

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I wondered this as I watched photographers scramble across the land, in many instances where they shouldn’t be, all in the quest for “the” photo. I asked Albert & Bruce if the photographers ever talk to them, ask questions of the culture or land. Their answer, “We point and they take pictures, all we have to do is point. They don’t ask any question except where do we go next?” There is a “guide” road that you will be taken on with sign posts and Kodak stops. There is even one stop where there is a X carved in the rock where tourists line up to stand and take their click. Then for those who do care, ask the questions and get involved with the people and the landscape, there is the other road. The one requiring four wheel drive, an sense of adventure, no fear of getting stuck and the imagination to gun it. We were incredibly fortunate to be taken on those roads. When we came up Sand Springs Wash to enter back onto Valley Drive, Bruce said, “They (the natives there selling jewelry) are wondering who you are, you’re not locals!” Bruce chuckled to himself and I said, “They don’t know you made us Albino Indians.”

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We were there to explore for the first time Monument Valley and in the process create for Kelby Training a new set of classes called Romancing the Landscape. We succeed in more ways than just our original goals. The old west is still very much alive in Monument Valley in the landscape and its people. We might visit it with our digital cameras, spend the evenings in the hotel with our notebooks reaching out to the world via the internet, but you look out the window for a second and the old west smacks you in the face. The sights, smells, sounds and breeze remind you that you have step back in time and that you, we, me, are all incredibly fortunate to be able to take that trip back in time.

Because of the Navajo’s beliefs, traditions handed down from generation to generation, we can stand on the edge of the valley or on its bottom and look up and see what they have been treasuring for centuries. We, as a community, have the ability, the responsibility to tell this same story in our own way with our images, the passion for land its long time stewards have made possible for us to enjoy.  It reminds me of how an old friend Keith closed his shows in Yosemite Valley. “John Muir had the foresight long ago to save Yosemite for us to enjoy today. The question is, do we have the foresight to preserve what we have today for future generations?” Coming back to the “world” after spending a week with the Jacksons in their home, Monument Valley, I have to wonder if we are smart enough to learn?

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