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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Bear Jaw

Jason Nez

National Park Service archeologist Jason Nez worked on the first of two major wildfires to hit the San Francisco Peaks this season. “Only a few months ago,” he told me, “during the Tunnel Fire, I led two young colleagues against the wind and flames. For the first days, we had to cease being scientists and joined the masses of men, women, and machines who were working to keep the fire from getting on the mountain. Over two days, we were pushed back until our backs were against the mountain, but together we were able to hold the line.

“After dusting ourselves off, we went back to our job to identify cultural resources, to prevent damage, to document sites that might have been damaged, and to develop plans to repair them. I would be proud to tell my Indigenous people, and the world, that we did our best. These are the things we do.”

The archeologist then asked me about a radio piece on wildfire that aired in 2002. It went like this:

After a fire swept up the northern slopes the San Francisco Peaks in 1995, a Navajo medicine man decided to perform a cooling-down ceremony. Alfred Yazzie invited several forest rangers and a couple of journalists to participate so the public would understand the significance of the mountain.

Our group headed up Bear Jaw Canyon, following Alfred who wore a Stetson and carried an attaché case. The slopes bristled with charred snags. For Alfred, the burnt forest was a sign of a deeper disturbance, an indication that chaos had entered the world and disrupted the natural order. “We come to re-bless the mountain,” he said. “It is a healing – and an apology.”

Reaching ground zero where the fire began, the traditional singer replaced his hat with a black ceremonial headband and draped a turquoise necklace over his bola tie. Next he opened his case and removed a medicine bundle carried by his ancestor on the Long Walk in 1864. It contained neatly-tied pouches of soil from the four sacred mountains. When all was ready, the ceremony began with a soft rhythmic chant. Alfred sat with his eyes half-closed and his lips barely moving. His voice had a distant quality to it, as if the song was coming from somewhere faraway.

“The first song,” he explained, “goes to the home in the sky, the black clouds, the male rains. Then to the seas, the home of water, the female rains.” He passed a buckskin pouch of corn pollen to those sitting nearby. Following his example, each of us took a pinch and touched the tongue and a spot above the forehead, and with a sweeping motion sprinkled some toward the earth and sky.

The singer then asked an archeologist to assist him and handed her a pair of feathered prayersticks dipped in water. “Sprinkle it like this,” he said, taking her hands and showing her the proper way to shake them. “You represent the female rain. Today have no bad thoughts.” She walked around the circle with Alfred’s apprentice who represented the male rain, and they sprinkled each of us in turn. With every pass, the drops of water on my face felt as cool as rain on a summer day. “We do this to put out the black fire,” he said, “the blue fire, the yellow fire, the white fire.”

The sprinklingway ceremony ended with a final prayer. “It’s for everlasting beauty,” Alfred told us. “It’s to go home with beauty ahead and beauty behind, with beauty below and beauty above, with beauty all around and beauty within.” Leaving the blackened trees, we crossed an opening. “Maybe we’ll get some rain,” he said, looking up at the empty sky. “Keep your fingers crossed.”

Next day dark clouds surged over the peaks, rising from the direction of Bear Jaw. At first the storm swept overhead bringing the male rains, hard and fast, and then the clouds lowered. Long after dark, the female rains continued to fall, soft and steady, cooling down the earth.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.