Robin E. Rickli, Instructor
ANT 102—Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Assignment: Write an essay concerning language and place.
Language and a Sense of Place
For the last 10 years I have driven the long dirt road to Chevlon Canyon and East Clear Creek. I grew up in Holbrook, Arizona, about 90 miles east of Flagstaff, and if you have ever been through, you might agree with me when I say that there is not much to do in town. This led my friends, family and me to explore beyond Holbrook city limits. There were many things to do out there, but our favorite and, now, most sacred thing was cliff jumping at the creek. When the warmth of spring crept into town, so did the creek’s bitter-cold voice. The red rock canyon and dark-green water mystified us and called us out of our homes and into our vehicles.
The road to the creek has claimed many lives and continues to be a threat to those who don’t know it by heart. Because of its deceivingly large appearance, people tend to think that they can drive fast, but high speeds on washboard roads lead to accidents. Fifteen miles down that sketchy dirt road rests my most sacred spot, the Chevlon Canyon Bridge. I can remember going fishing and rock climbing with my dad and grandpa at Chevlon as a child. The creek starts at the mouth of the canyon where the tamarisk trees grow and the bass are up to a foot long. For years this place has been a secret paradise for a handful of locals. As you go up the creek toward the bridge, the canyon deepens. You come around a corner, and bam! …the cliffs grow from 15 to 50 feet and the massive bridge looms over head. It wasn’t until my grandpa’s death that we started jumping off of the bridge.
I was home on leave from the military. I had just spent six months on a ship full of people I didn’t care for in the Middle East and Asia, and home felt more like home than ever.
Though I had been back for about two days, I had hardly spent any time with my grandfather. On the morning of the third day of my visit, at about 6:00 a.m., my grandfather came to our house, probably hoping to catch up on our lost year, but I was asleep on the couch, and everyone else was asleep as well. So my grandpa drank a cup of coffee and read the newspaper and went back to his house to work in his wood shop. Some time between six and eight o’clock, my grandfather, Antonio Gonzales Martinez, or Papa Tony, had a stroke and hit his head.
One of the really horrible things about Holbrook is that there is no hospital in town, so my grandpa was rushed 30 miles to Winslow. We were awakened by a phone call from a friend of the family, who was an EMT, around eight o’clock. My parents drove in their car as my little brother and I followed in mine. When we arrived at the hospital, Tina, our family friend, told us that my grandpa had died in the ambulance.
My mind went blank, and I remember looking at my little brother’s blank expression and thinking that our expressions probably were the same. My parents were both crying and wanted to see the body, but neither my brother nor I wanted that, so we hugged our parents and headed back to Holbrook.
As we were leaving the parking lot, my little brother said his first words of the day: “Jon, let’s take the back road.” We did, stopping at the Chevlon bridge. Without saying a word, we both got out and jumped 72 feet to the water below. When I hit the water, all of my problems dissolved. We swam to the little island made of sand and exchanged “Papa Tony” stories for the next few hours. The drive home was peaceful, and we felt his warm presence. To this day, I regret not waking up earlier that morning, but I will never regret the adventure that followed the tragedy.
When the Apache named a place, they created a picture of it with their words. The picture represents the place as the ancestors first saw it, not as we may see it now. Apache placenames help us to understand how the land has changed since the ancestors first discovered it. These places also hold information about clans. Clans named themselves for the places where the women first planted corn. These places are described in the past-tense, taking us back in time to watch the ancestors set foot on the land for the first time.
I think that the phrase “Wisdom Sits in Places” means that our surroundings are older and wiser than we are. The longer a place sits, the more change it witnesses. It watches generations of people come and go. The Apache people do not want to upset the land; they try to do everything from collecting water to harvesting their corn crops correctly and carefully. They know that the land is older and wiser than they, so they treat it with a great level of respect, and rightfully so.
When I first went to the creek with my father and grandfather, I, too, was taught the importance of taking care of the land, and that the land in return could supply us with fish to eat and hours of fun. My grandfather always preached about keeping the land free of debris and garbage that others had left behind. This is something that I carry on to this day. But the name of my sacred place does not really describe my experience there. The American name is Chevlon Canyon, but if I were to give it a name that made a picture of the place, I would probably call it, “Jump Off Bridge to Ease Troubled Mind,” and if you did what the name asks, then you, too, would know why it is a sacred place.