Memoir of Indian Life On 1930s Reservations

A THIRD of the way into the 20th century, the West was no longer a wild, untamed, and unexplored territory. Telephone lines linked many remote areas; highways snaked through mountain passes and criss-crossed deserts; radios made it possible to be in touch with the rest of the world. The frontier for the most part was settled.

Yet in 1933, a 19-year-old college student, Edward Hall, discovered what he describes as ``a country within a country ... a place where time had almost stood still ... the least known, least visited, and least understood part of the United States.''

This was the Navajo and Hopi reservations - an area of breathtaking scenery made up of red rock, buttes, spires, grasslands, and arroyos. Located in northeastern Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico, it stretched 250 miles east to west and 180 miles north to south.

Hall spent four years in this forgotten and ignored land helping build dams and roads for the Indian equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program created by then Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier. In ``West of the Thirties,'' Hall chronicles his experiences with the Navajos and Hopis and the government bureaucracy set up to run their daily lives. It's a well-written memoir by a man whose sensitivity to Indian culture enabled him to understand what most whites didn't grasp or care to comprehend.

Hall's initiation to life at Keams Canyon, the agency outpost in Arizona, began when he was introduced to the crew he would be working with - for the most part a group of ``old government hands'' who seemed to know little about native Americans. Inertia gripped the personnel; nobody seemed to care about the job they had been hired to do: build earthen dams.

The agency, soon tiring of Hall's energy and curiosity, began assigning him jobs that required him to manage work crews of Navajos and Hopis. During this time, he began to learn the customs of each tribe, a process of assimilation that took place in the ``same way the child acquires a language - without conscious knowledge.''

He learned that Navajos didn't look a person in the eye on greeting them - a direct, unwavering gaze meant anger. They didn't announce themselves noisily like whites by honking horns, knocking on doors, or hollering out greetings. Instead they would sing a barely audible song upon approaching a hogan so those inside would have proper time to prepare themselves mentally. Hall's ability to adapt himself to these and other traditions enabled him and his crews to accomplish tasks many whites couldn't (build near-perfect dams, for instance) and established a rapport that earned him tremendous respect.

``Navajo culture became a part of my very being,'' he remembers. ``As in learning a new language, I did not see these adaptations as giving up any part of my own personality, which is a common fear of many Americans and their excuse for not taking other cultures seriously.''

Hall's book is full of interesting characters he met during his stay on the reservation. Most interesting is Lorenzo Hubbell, a Mexican trader who at the time was renowned not only in the West but also around the world. A large man with missing teeth and a thick, raspy whisper, Hubbell wielded tremendous influence on both Indians and whites.

``West of the Thirties'' provides interesting insights into an era when Navajos and Hopis traveled by horse and wagon, when there were no roads or bridges, and when most whites still viewed Indians as inferior and attempted to force the white man's ways on them. It is the experience of one anthropologist who lived in what he calls ``the last gasp of the nineteenth century.''

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