American Landscape

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Last Fall, my husband and I visited the Navajo Reservation. Beautiful and spiritual in feel, the reservation is home to about 200,000 Native Americans who identify as Navajo. Like ourselves, most tourists visit the Reservation's Tribal Park which contains Monument Valley, an iconic landscape where many Hollywood westerns have been filmed.

A long dirt road dissects Monument Valley. Tourists travel this road as they view the sights, either like us in their own cars, or in larger groups in trucks driven by Indian guides. The landscape is stunning, a brilliant panorama of ocher spires, red mesas, and massive buttes blanketed by vast blue skies and cottony white clouds. About midway through the drive tourists are funneled into the only commercial site in the Valley where Navajos sell jewelry and trinkets.

To one side was a little cabana with a man and his horse resting in the shade. After truckloads of guided tourists arrived, he would mount the horse and ride out on a bluff to pose as the lone Indian brave of yore guarding his territory. The tourists, mostly of European ancestry like myself in appearance, descended the trucks with cameras in hand delighted to snap his photo. They all seemed to want that iconic picture of an American west that no longer existed. For this, the man was given tips.

I couldn't help but feel humbled by this man, as well as embarrassed for the tourists, myself included. The man was posing as someone the tourists seemed to want him to be, even though their ancestors and mine had removed that possibility forever.

As I stood there watching this scene, I began to think of the Native Americans today who are guarding their territory in a different sort of way. The many people braving the long cold months at Standing Rock to defend their water from possible pollution by the construction of the Dakota Pipeline came to mind. I wonder if any tourists would be interested in photographing these guardians. Admittedly, the photos wouldn't be as scenic as the lone brave overlooking Monument Valley, but at least they would be true.


With a Perspective, I'm Carol Arnold.

Carol Arnold is an environmental planner. She lives in San Francisco.