Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Navajo Veterans' Cemetery

An American flag flies over a headstone in the Navajo's veterans' cemetery between Window Rock and Ft. Defiance on the Navajo Nation. 

I drove up to the Navajo Nation this week to photograph a couple of stories - a Camp Meeting in Ft. Defiance and bull riding class in Oak Springs. I sort of stumbled into both of them. I love photographing on the "rez" but I dread the drive. It's more than five hours from Phoenix to Window Rock, mostly on narrow country roads, so when I go up to the Navajo Nation I try to find as much to do as possible to make the drive worthwhile. 

Cathy actually found the camp meeting. She was looking at the Navajo Times, the newspaper that covers the Nation, and noticed a calendar listing for the Camp Meeting. I saw the note about the bull riding school later the same day. I called the numbers listed for both events, told them what I wanted to do and was invited to come up. 

The cemetery is about five miles north of Window Rock, on the way to Ft. Defiance. It sits on a windswept plateau east of BIA Highway 12. The reservation is sun baked and windy - nowhere more so than the cemetery. The flags snap over the final resting place of the DinĂ© veterans of America's 20th and 21st century wars. 

There's a haunting quality to the cemetery. National cemeteries in cities like Washington, St. Paul or Phoenix are spotlessly clean and orderly. Graves are in neat rows, the grass is cut (in Phoenix the gravel is raked). Flowers are placed in authorized vases. It's not like that in Navajo land. It's kind of unruly. Graves don't appear to be in any particular order. Some are mounds, others are fenced in, still others have sunk into the sun baked earth. Huge flags fly over many of the graves, while tiny ones adorn others. Some of the graves have plastic flowers but most do not. 

If you find yourself driving along BIA Highway 12 north of Window Rock, you owe it to yourself to stop at the cemetery. 

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