Welcome to Navajoland

Lucy Moore's memoir of life among Indians will mesmerize readers

In college, I loved to read the "Indian captivity narratives" in my early American literature textbook. The stories are pretty much the same: Anglo women are removed from their families and forced to live with Native Americans.

Sometimes, these women learn to appreciate the alien culture to which they must ultimately submit; often, they don't, instead growing to abhor the first Americans, whose distinct lack of Christian faith qualifies them as "savages." I also relished the gutsy tales of Christian missionaries as well as the writings of Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan wife and mother and a brilliant poet of the New World.

Lucy Moore is no Anne Bradstreet. Yet her memoir, Into the Canyon, shares with these earlier works a profound sense of dislocation and awe regarding her new surroundings. In 1968, Moore and lawyer husband, Bob, moved to Chinle, Ariz., as part of a federally sponsored legal-assistance program aimed at helping Navajos with disputes that they might have with the U.S. government. Moore and her spouse had just graduated from Ivy League schools, and like many who came of age during Vietnam, they wanted to make the world a better place. To do so required going out and helping those less fortunate.

The legal-services program successfully recruited Bob, bringing him and Moore through the Canyon de Chelly and into the Navajo reservation in Chinle Valley. As expected, the transition was difficult, but Moore, now in her 50s, writes with the gift of hindsight and wisdom. She sees herself as she was then: a naïve yet well-intentioned 24-year-old who did her best to respect and represent a people whom she would grow very much attached to. Also, Moore has a knack for spotlighting the humorously awkward, if infrequent, encounters between "hippies" and Indians, even when she wasn't there to observe things firsthand.

For instance, there was the time a political science teacher at the Navajo Community College (and a member of Students for a Democratic Society) invited the San Francisco Mime Troupe to perform inside the reservation.

The Mime Troupe arrived and gave an afternoon show that was billed as a "puppet show." There was no warning that the Uncle Sam "puppet," a huge and grotesque papier-mâché figure, would at one point give the finger to the audience, thrusting it through an American flag, no less. Mothers had brought young children to see the puppets, imagining something quite benign, and high school students were also allowed to attend. Apparently it was pretty shocking. Girls cried; boys stomped out of the performance, upset and indignant. Mothers grabbed children and fled. From what I heard, only the little kids were disappointed to leave. They enjoyed the flamboyance, the color and the excitement of it all.

There are also sad scenes, as when Moore drives to the nearest vet to save her sick cat (a useless animal in the eyes of the Navajos), only to squash a giant jack rabbit on the way back to Chinle in her big Bronco--which, of course, opens the waterworks.

I learned a few things from reading Into the Canyons, like the fact that Adolf's Meat Tenderizer takes the sting out of fire-ant bites, and that sterilized shoelaces can be used to tie off the umbilical cord of a newborn baby. Along the way, Moore also has run-ins with Donald Rumsfeld (the architect of the disastrous Gulf War II), writer Leslie Silko and Vampirella actress Barbara Leigh and her karate-star hubby Joe Lewis, whose wedding Moore herself ordains after winning an election to become justice of the peace.

It's a strange trip, indeed--but not long in the slightest, thanks to Moore's simple yet compelling prose. She isn't a trained or profoundly skilled writer by any stretch, yet she has an easy way with language that lets her make simple yet powerful points and observations, all of which derive organically from the stories she relates. I'm impressed by what this woman was able to accomplish by age 31, and how much courage it took to thrust herself into a foreign terrain and an alien culture, and how much experience she acquired from making lifelong friends in spite of it all.

Moore's is an Indian captivity narrative, I guess, in the sense that I was captured by her stories of life in Navajoland. By the end of the book, I--like Moore, curving left on Black Wash and out of the canyons--never wanted to leave.

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