Saturday, January 24, 2015


The dogs here are teaching me. They are teaching me that dogs are descendants of wolves and that until knowing these dogs, I have not really known dogs at all. They wander the Rez, in twos and threes, with dirty sandy fur and mats around the burrs stuck in their ruffled necks, their keen brown and blue eyes calculating me coolly, warily. We communicate through a series of agreed upon movements and gestures; words are meaningless. I squat down, turn my palms up and wait. They crawl towards me on dusty bellies and I rub under their chin and over their ears and they lick my chin and roll over in almost aggressive displays of submission. A few of them join me on my runs, usually. They find me on the trails, often so quiet behind me that they make me start when I look down and see their dark noses pushing into the backs of my knees. They run ahead of me, their white-tipped tails leading the way. They circle back around me when I have to walk, exhausted by the sandy, slippery trails and the 5,000 feet of elevation that my lungs are still protesting fiercely. If they are strays, they are smart ones, but mostly they are pets in the Navajo way of thinking. Only we crazy white people invite animals into our homes and into our beds. These dogs are animals. They are fed, and watered, and cared for, but they are not furniture-shredding, barking, insolent creatures. They are a self-sufficient pack, and they are teaching me a whole new order to the universe that depends sorely on paying attention. One wrong move, one tiny lip curl, one uplifted ear, and I could be seriously bitten out on the dark sandy trails. So I pay attention. And I learn body language like I've never learned it before.

I walk into clinic rooms and hospital rooms and feel my whiteness like I'm naked, like a brand on my face, like a sign around my neck. I am so cautious, I am constantly second-guessing what I say. I take deep breaths and speak quietly and try to tell myself that if I can figure out dog body language, I can do this too. The words feel strange in my mouth as I learn new ways to counsel and consent people that are all in the passive and third person voice. "A woman might ovulate and conceive a baby before her period returns. It can be difficult for a woman's body to become pregnant again so soon after she has had a baby. Would you like to hear about options a woman might have for birth control?" No, she would not. Not her body, and not her baby, certainly, because that's as good as inviting it to happen. So I shut up. And I give her condoms and Plan B and talk about lactational amenorrhea and do a breast exam without lifting her gown, learning to trust my hands more than my eyes in order to protect her modesty. I watch her face when I ask her, barely above a whisper, if she feels safe at home. Her husband is on the other side of the curtain, silent, holding their new baby. I look for the slightest twitch. "Yes," she says quietly and I move to the other breast. "What a beautiful baby," I say when we're done. Her husband smiles at me and nods. "Yes," she says simply.

I am learning to trust. I trust the dogs not to bite me. I trust my hands to find suspicious lumps without the aid of my eyes. I trust my voice to convey my intentions, even when my words are clumsy and wrong. Above all, I trust my patients and their deep and abiding ability to survive in this desolate and barren desert, their children loved and adorable, their hands worn and calloused, their eyes still bright and happy.

And the more I trust, the more I can see.


Anonymous said...

Which Rez?

Think about coming to Navajo.

Cait said...

Hi Anon! I'm on a Navajo Rez, actually, in Tuba City. I'm still adjusting but so far I like it!