Staring into the Sun

The land here in the Navajo Nation seems to stretch infinitely under a weightless sky: orange cliffs, vistas spotted under snow, and in the middle of it all, the occasional home.

Twenty minutes off the main road and up a muddy path—the weather’s been a bit colder this January, but it’s left more slush than ice—the octagonal structure of a hogan appears, connected as one building to the side of a small, plain ranch.

Inside, Marcy, as I’ll call her, sits on her bed beneath one of the windows, wearing layered sweaters and two different colored socks. She greets us with a shining grin that reflects off newly plastered walls, and a bright gaze that falls slightly past our eyes.

Marcy is blind and diabetic. Last year, a doctor was brought here to see if anything might improve her health, but 87 years make some things irreversible. We are here delivering food that might last a week, and firewood that will last less than that. In winters like this, water tanks freeze and supplies run short, but right now the near 50-degree weather and spotless sky are deceiving. Inside the hogan, it’s warm.

“Ya’a’teh,” I say, all I know in Diné, or Navajo: Hello. Marcy’s hands, soft and smooth, take mine and wrap them in a slow shake. A neighbor helps translate the Navajo I can’t understand: Marcy’s caretaker constantly checks up on her, she says, and her daughter lives right next door—in one of the only three other houses outside for as far as I can see.

Hogans, I’m told, embody a sense of community; for generations, entire families have lived in one circular room, eating from the same central stove, together. Even with renovations and additions, a natural continuity grounds reservation life.

Out here there’s an unspoken pride in having direction; guided from house to house, we’re often told to go north or south but find that we don’t know one way from the other. As we leave, Marcy looks—sees—out her door. Its frame faces east like in all hogans, oriented so that in the morning, the rising sun pours its light inside.

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