The first night I spent alone in a Navajo hooghan, I heard hooves clattering on the slanted roof, up one side and down the other. I hoped it was a deer. The next morning, the Naataanii people told me I had been visited by a yeenaaldlooshii, a shape shifter or skin walker, who tries to disrupt a human’s mind with fear. That was back in 2010 when I first met a group of people living in an impoverished, beautiful part of Navajo territory; "a place where the wind rips across the land, dust gets between your teeth, your eyes water, and you feel the slow burn from the sun," as described in the 2013 article in the OC Register (https://www.ocregister.com/2013/05/19/oc-man-helps-bungles-learns-in-navajo-world/) which Gary was highlighted for his work with the Naataanii people.
How did I end up in such a place? In the mid-2000's, in search of a bigger purpose for my life, I began volunteering for a global peace organization that promotes peace and music through concerts around the world. During one of my meditations--sometimes I meditate up to 100 times a day--I heard a voice say,“start with sacred land.” My friend Kimberlee Schultz, who now also works at OTA, connected me with a person who told me about the Naataanii community in Northern Arizona, in an area formerly known as the “Bennett Freeze”. In 1966, Robert Bennett, a U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reacting to a bitter land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes, declared 1.6 million acres frozen. The Navajo and Hopi people we're not allowed to build new homes or even repair the homes they lived in for over 44 years.
In 2009, President Barack Obama overturned the freeze in order to build a pipeline, but the Bennet Freeze had drastically stunted the area’s growth. Only 3% of the residents had electricity, and 10% had running water. To bring awareness and funds to the Navajo people who had long suffered from such a policy, we created our first Earth Day celebration. In 2011, Kimberlee and I gathered a bunch of friends from Orange County, CA, along with people from 6 states and multiple tribes, and we all showed up in motor homes or pitched a tent outside Lillie and Harold’s home, which was a run-down shack at the time, and put together the event.
In the meanwhile, wanting to help improve the community’s living conditions, we brought in a two-story bio-dome donated by a company in Oregon. We grew organic squash, tomatoes, pinto beans and cabbage with a very unique aquaponics system. It was wonderful! But there was a problem with the generator and then the water pump. Overtime, the dome fell into disrepair, and the plants died. Next, with the goal of creating some shade for Lillie and Harold, I planted the world's fastest growing tree (10 to 15 feet in the first year), a Royal Paulownia with purple bloom - Lillie’s favorite color. Unexpectedly, a Native American activist complained that it was not indigenous to the area. The tree was never watered again.
Thankfully, we also invited the Vice president of the Navajo Nation, the second most powerful Navajo official, Rex Lee Jim to one of our Earth Day celebrations. He not only came to the event, he decided to help. Jim freed up enough Navajo funding to build 4 homes right where we prayed with him; the first home, a purple house for Lily and Harold, and their son Robert, who I became quite close too. The most amazing part of my work in Naataanii was when the Hopi elders, and the Navajo elders turned conflict into Peace right in front of me during the Prayer ceremony I hosted. This began to change the possibilities moving forward, and the seed of peace was planted for many more to experience. It continues to this day. It wasn't always easy. I definitely made some mistakes along the way, but I learned over time to ask how I can help rather than suggest what I see is needed. Anything is possible.
In addition, I continue to work with the homeless here in Southern California, and I have since had the honor to connect the Hopi tribal elders from AZ, and the Kogi elders from Colombia, South America with the Dalai Lama on his 80th birthday, spent time in the jungles of Peru with the Shapibo tribe, traveled to the Australian outback to learn from the Pitjantjatjara and Anangu tribes, and I will continue to connect with beautiful cultures around the world. When you are traveling to different places in the world, please find a way to dig into the local culture. You will find friends of many colors. I believe this is just as important as the more formal education which most pursue as a career path.