If you ask the government, they’ll probably deny it. If you ask
the Navajo, they’ll laugh and say it’s so.
The April morning air was brisk. A gentle breeze from the east
nudged cloud wisps across the turquoise sky. Johnathan Etcitty kept as
close an eye on his 10 year old grandson, Greg, as he did on his
sheep. Full of a grandfather’s pride, Johnathan thanked the Creator
for giving him a strong and respectful grandson. Greg’s first ever
journey to summer sheep camp and Johnathan’s first time without his
fourteen year old grandson, Peterson, Greg’s older brother. Just the
two of them would make the long trek through the western part of the
Dine reservation to the coolness and abundant buffalo grass of the
mountain sheep camp.
Johnathan smiled as he remembered Greg’s recent ninth birthday.
Greg had tugged at his shirt and looked him square in the eyes, so
serious, so full of confidence and had said, “Grandfather, I’m ready.”
Johnathan had been puzzled by the announcement. “What are you ready
for my grandson?” he had asked. “I’m ready for sheep camp,
grandfather. Remember, you told me you went to sheep camp when you
were nine. I’m nine too.” Gratitude and happiness had filled
Johnathan’s heart and soul. His grandson wanted to follow in his
footsteps–an answered prayer. He had laughed, tousled Greg’s obsidian
black hair, and said, “Yes, you are ready, and you will go to sheep
On their way to sheep camp and shifting from memory to sun shimmered
sand, Johnathan looked for Greg and soon spotted him cradling a lamb
as he walked slowly around the outer circle of grazing sheep. Another
memory, this one painful, Peterson, Johnathan’s right-hand-man, and
only other grandson, was not with them. He had to stay back at
boarding school in Ganado. He recalled with disgust the day he and
Grace, his wife, had gone to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding
school to tell the teachers Peterson would go to sheep camp.
Johnathan had been deeply offended. The teachers had shown him no
respect as their elder. Had rudely said Peterson would not be going
anywhere. He must and would stay with them at boarding school.
Johnathan saw a huge sign by Peterson’s dormitory, large, red,
Whiteman’s words. He had asked Peterson what it said. He remembered
how Peterson had got real quiet, his head down, feet scraping the
earth. He had to ask him twice to answer. Not the respectful of
elders grandson Johnathan knew. In broken Dine, Peterson had said,
“Grandfather, it says: “TRADITIONS ARE THE STUMBLING BLOCKS OF
PROGRESS. SPEAK ENGLISH.”
The BIA made every Dine child go to boarding school to be
educated in the Whiteman’s ways. Johnathan shook his head at the
thought of Navajo children, not allowed to go home to their families;
punished for speaking Navajo or praying in the Navajo way. The
teachers cutting their beautiful long hair, took away the clothes made
for them by their mothers and grandmothers, and made them wear
Whiteman’s clothes. Christians, they forced them to be Christians, as
if that was the only right way to believe. And now a whole generation
of Dine grandchildren couldn’t even understand or talk to their
grandparents. The Navajo language and traditional ways were being
wiped out because the Whiteman thought he knew everything. What they
didn’t know or care to know was that a Navajo family’s heart was
broken every time their children were stolen from them.
Johnathan drifted back from his thoughts and looked for Greg.
His heart began to pound as he looked in all directions but no Greg in
sight. He strode towards the sheep milling in confusion at the top of
the sand dune. He could see his grandson’s tracks disappear over the
top of the next dune but no Greg. He ran to the spot where they
disappeared. Just as he neared the crest of the sand ridge, Greg
exploded over the top waving and babbling about men from the skies and
stars. Greg was so disturbed he ran headlong into his grandfather and
they both tumbled down the sand dune, feet and sand flying into the
air until they flopped to a stop at the bottom.
Greg immediately jumped to his feet and tugged at his
grandfather’s shirt pulling him towards the dune. Johnathan gently
but firmly grabbed Greg by his elbow and pulled him in the opposite
direction toward the shade of a nearby sandstone boulder. He had to
get Greg out of the sun, into the shade, and cool him off or he could
die. Johnathan was certain he was sun sick. To his grave
consternation and amazement, Greg threw himself onto the sand and
refused to go anywhere but back up the sand dune. “You’re sun sick.
You must get into the shade.” Still, Greg refused to budge, begging
his grandfather to go and see “the men from the sky.” Now Johnathan
was scared. He had heard of sun sickness so bad that people saw
things that were not there. They were so weakened of spirit and mind
that evil spirits took control of them and made them go crazy.
This sun sickness had never happened before to anyone in his
mothers’ clan, the Folded Arms People, his father’s Red Running into
the Water Clan, his wife’s Bitter Water Clan, or her father’s Bad
Lands People Clan. It must be that Cherokee blood of his non-Dine
mother that made him susceptible. Johnathan knelt down beside Greg
who was still raving about Star People. He pulled his canteen off his
hip and poured water over Greg’s face and mouth. Greg sputtered and
chocked, wiping the water from his eyes. “Grandfather, you’re drowning
me,” Greg said, “I’m not sick, the star people are really here.
Please! Go look grandfather.” Johnathan began to pray much harder.
He needed all the spiritual help he could get, so he took out his
pollen pouch, sprinkled the pollen over Greg and prayed for his
ancestors to forgive his Cherokee weakness and make the Dine blood
within him strong so he would overcome this sickness. With the first
drops of pollen, Greg closed his eyes and became quiet and still.
Johnathan was relieved. The medicine and prayers were working. After
what seemed an eternity, Greg slowly opened his eyes and said,
“Grandfather, I am not sun sick; there is something very strange on
the other side of that dune. Please, go and see.” Reaching down,
Johnathan took Greg’s hand and pulled him to his feet. Together they
trudged up to the crest of the dune.
There, at the bottom of the dune, were two legged beings walking
around in strange clothes of silver as shiny as a newly polished
concho belt. Johnathan saw one of the strange beings driving an odd
contraption like no pick-up truck or fancy tourist car he had ever
seen. Greg looked up to his grandfather and whispered, “Do you see
them?” All Johnathan could do was nod in astonishment. “What are
they?” Greg asked. “Are they the Holy People? “Uhhff, don’t think
so,” Johnathan replied. “I never heard of Holy People driving around
Johnathan stared straight ahead at the strange sight, searching
for some explanation of what he was seeing. Johnathan felt a hard tug
on the back of his shirt. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young
Whiteman in camouflage fatigues holding a large weapon. The soldier
said something to him in English, a loud, rude tone, not respectful of
Johnathan, his elder, so he ignored him and his rudeness. Two more
soldiers quickly appeared. One with a rifle, stopped next to Greg.
The third, with a holstered pistol on his hip, stood in front of the
soldiers and stared hard at Johnathan, looking straight into his eyes
in a very disrespectful manner and barked out words in English.
Johnathan spotted the single silver bars on his shoulders and knew the
pistol carrier was an officer, a Lieutenant. Johnathan continued to
ignore him, “I’m not in your army,” Johnathan thought.
The officer then spoke to Greg in English and Greg began to
answer him in the English his Cherokee mother had taught him. Greg
spoke fearlessly. Johnathan felt proud of Greg’s self assurance.
After a few minutes and a lot of words, Greg stepped towards
Johnathan. He told him in Dine that the soldiers wanted Johnathan and
Greg to go with them. Greg looked very seriously at his grandfather
and said, “We have no choice, grandfather, they are angry with us and
they have guns. We must go with them.” Johnathan and Greg walked
with the soldiers down the side of the sand dune towards the strange
silver men and then right past them and over the next sand dune.
Hidden behind the dune was a trailer. The officer led them up the
steps of the trailer and then inside. More Whitemen were inside but
they were not wearing uniforms. A man in a white shirt and a tie
stepped forward and offered his hand to Johnathan. He was tall with
glasses and greased hair where he wasn’t bald. His eyes were friendly.
He said something in English to Johnathan but he only understood a few
words, so he did not reply. Then glasses man turned to Greg and spoke
to him. Then the glasses man talked with the officer, and chairs were
pushed over to Johnathan and Greg, and the soldiers left. He offered
them water and food. He seemed to know how to be respectful. Johnathan
started to think that the man with glasses could be a good man. The
glasses man spoke to Greg for a long time looking over at Johnathan
and nodding and smiling.
Grandfather, remember when we looked at the T.V. at the trading
post. Remember when we watched the man in the big can flying high in
sky above Earth. One of those men out there in the silver suit was
the one we saw. They are practicing here because our land is like the
moon and far from cities. They don’t want the Russians to find out
about how they do things. He says if we promise to never tell anyone,
he will let us go” Johnthan said to Greg, “Tell the man with glasses,
he has my word. “Tell the man I want to send a message to the moon
from the Navajo.” Greg looked puzzled. “Do as I say,” Johnathan said
with firmness. Greg shrugged his shoulders and turned to the man
and translated his grandfather’s request. The man looked very
serious, leaned back in his chair, held his chin in his hand and
seemed to be thinking real hard. Suddenly, the man broke out in a
broad smile and started nodding his head and saying, “Yes! Yes!” And
other words that Johnathan did not understand. The man spoke very
excitedly to Greg, making many gestures in the air. Johnathan was very
puzzled with so much being said about something so simple. Just put
down in writing a message for the moon. Take it up their in a jar, and
leave it. The man jumped up from his chair and went into another
room. While he was gone, Greg explained to his grandfather the man
liked his idea. Greg told his grandfather that they had a recorder
machine that could remember his grandfather’s words and even speak his
message in his own voice.
The man with glasses came back, sat down, and placed the tape recorder
on his lap. He plugged in the microphone and tested it, recording his
own voice and then listening to it. Satisfied, he turned to Greg and
said something to him. Greg turned to his grandfather and said, “The
man is ready to record your message. He wants you touch your chin
when you are ready to speak and he will turn the machine on.”
Johnathan immediately touched his chin. The man slowly touched the
machine. Johnathan spoke clearly and firmly in Dine.” The man shrugged
his shoulders, turned off the tape recorder, and leaned back in his
chair, and then said something to Greg. “Grandfather, he wants to
know what you said. What should I tell him?” Without hesitation,
Johnathan said, “Tell him it is a Dine greeting for the star people.
Tell him no one will ever know what we saw and we need to go to our
sheep and take them to the next water hole before the night comes.”
Siegfried, made it his personal crusade to make sure the greeting
from the Navajo people was included in the time capsule the Apollo
mission took to the moon. He kept his own personal copy of the
message. Over time, he regretted that he did not have a translation of
the grandfather’s message. One day in June, four years after the Moon
mission, NASA needed a project manager to attend a meeting at Los
Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Siegfried
happily volunteered. He knew the Navajo reservation was only a short
drive from Los Alamos. When the meetings at Los Alamos concluded,
Siegfried drove the 65 miles to the reservation. At the first
reservation service station he came to Siegfried excitedly grabbed his
tape recorder and strode quickly to the gas station office. A group
of Navajo were lounging in chairs laughing and conversing in that
indecipherable Navajo language. They became silent as soon as he came
inside. He asked the Dine clerk if he spoke English and Navajo. The
clerk, a Dine man around 25 or 30 nodded, smiled broadly, and said, “I
can sell you anything you need in English or Dine.” Everyone but
Siegfried laughed. He had the feeling that he was very, very, out of
place, as if he had entered a foreign land. Siegfried hesitantly
replied, “I don’t want to buy anything, I just have this tape
recording I need translated. It is very important. I hope you can help
me.” The clerk nodded as he motioned Siegfried aside to wait on two
Navajo women who had approached the counter. Siegfried had seen both
women get out of their truck as he was getting his tape recorder out.
Both Navajo women had been in the cabs of the trucks and Navajo men
were in the pick-up beds. In between female customers, Siegfried
asked the clerk why it appeared that only the women were driving.
“Because they own everything,” the Clerk replied. “We are motherarchal
like the Earth.” Siegfried frowned for a moment. “Oh, you mean
matriarchal. Your people are matriarchal,” he said to the clerk.
“Yeah, like I said, motherarchal. You aren’t from around here, are
you mister.” Siegfried began to feel uncomfortable. He was
accustomed to being in charge and sure of his ability to
intellectually and authoritatively take command of all situations. But
this was completely different. He was completely surrounded by
Indians, not another white face in sight. He realized that for the
first time in his life, he was the minority. “What is it you want
again?” the clerk asked. Siegfried, smiling awkwardly, stepped up to
the counter and set his tape player on the counter. He fiddled with
the controls, adjusting the volume as he spoke to the clerk. “I have
a tape recording of a Navajo man who gave me a message that was sent
to the moon and left there. This message is very important to me,” he
said as he pushed the play button and the voice of Johnathan Etcitty
filled the room.
At the end of the message, he pushed the stop button and looked
nervously at faces expressing what appeared to be astonishment. In a
slow sputter of snorts and then uncontrolled laughter, the Navajo’s
surrounding him laughed until tears were running from their eyes.
“What’s so funny,” Siegfried asked in exasperation. Each and every one
of them waved him off as they laughed their way out the door and back
to their trucks. Turning to the clerk, he emphatically asked, “What’s
so funny?” The clerk struggled to stop laughing long enough to say,
“It’s a top secret Navajo message.” And he continued laughing as
Siegfried picked up his tape player and walked out of the office
feeling thoroughly baffled and embarrassed.
Feeling frustrated and angry, Siegfried decided he could only
stomach one last attempt. He pulled into the parking lot of a
building with a sign identifying it as a Bureau of Indian Affairs
office. He walked into the reception area, tape player under his arm,
and asked the young female Dine receptionist if there was someone on
the staff who spoke Navajo. She disappeared into the hallway behind
her desk, and returned with an Anglo man. Siegfried, introduced
himself, and explained his need to have the taped message translated.
The man introduced himself as Herb Cook, a staff Anthropologist.
They walked back to his office exchanged pleasantries for a few
minutes until Herb, who seemed to be in a hurry, asked Siegfried to
play the tape. With much hesitation and anxiety, Siegfried clumsily
fussed with the tape player. After a few looks of impatience from
Herb, Siegfried pushed the play button and stared intently at Herb’s
face which immediately cracked a broad smile that exploded into the
now all too familiar uncontrollable laughter. Siegfried now really and
truly felt like the odd man out.
Tears streamed from Herb’s eyes as he gasped for breath and
asked, “This was sent to the moon?” Siegfried impatiently replied,
“Yes! It was sent to the moon. What does it say?” After much effort
to catch his breath and control his laughter, Herb replied,
“Literally, this is the message you sent to the moon. The old man
said: “Don’t believe a word these Whitemen say. They are here to
steal your land and steal your children.”