photos courtesy of Veronica Yellowhair

Missing Tooth Rock

Veronica Yellowhair 

You see those rocks way over there?” 

“No. Where?” 

“Way down there! There is a hill and then next to it there is a bunch of rocks in a row. 

There is a gap, you see it now?” 

“Oh yeah, I see it!”

“That is called ‘Tse bi wógiizhí—”missing tooth rock.” Because they look like teeth, 

And there is a missing rock.”

I remember when my Shimá (mom) told me where Tse bi wógiizhi was on that warm clear day with blue skies in northern Arizona when I was a child. It was here my Shimá roamed up and down the hills with her Nali’s (paternal grandmother) sheep. A place where the dirt roads did not appear on a map until GPS and/or satellites became more common in the 21st century. This place is located on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. A place where my Shimá was raised with her siblings. A place where my Saniís (maternal grandmothers) were born and raised. A place where my ancestors (I believe) spirits live with the holy people. My bond with my ancestors is on our ancestral land and the bridge that connects us is my Shimá. This place has plateaus, buttes, mesa, plants, animals, dirt roads, and mountains but my family calls them by their Diné (Navajo) names. Descriptive names like “where the mountains line up,” “pillow hill,” “greasewood plant,” or “red flower.” When I return my feet and soul back to my ancestral land with my Shima’, I am home with my relatives, especially with my Sanií and Uncle who are buried out in a place called Bodaway.

"And you see over here, (to the left) the south rim of the Grand Canyon? That long dark mountain? That is called Na t'oh dziil (smoke mountain). Because it looks like smoke from a cigar, that's why we call it smoke mountain." 

Since birth, I have always believed I have a special bond with my Shimá. When we visited my Sanií on the Diné rez in northern Arizona in a town called Tuba City, I accompanied my Shimá on the eight-hour road trip through Utah and Arizona. I always wanted to be with Shimá when I was a child, even into my young adulthood. One trip I remember when I was thirteen, I was in Arizona; my Shimá would sometimes ask, “Wanna go to Bodaway?” My heart would jump, and my eyes widened, “Yes! Yes! Let’s go to Bodaway!” I would always say with glee. We jumped into my Shima’s 94’ green Chevy Silverado, my Sanií’ sitting in the passenger seat, me in the middle, and my Shimá driving. It was a twenty-minute drive west from Tuba City, but that was just to get to the dirt road which led to Bodaway. An additional twenty-five-minute drive to get to our destination; bump, tires skidding, bump, dirt, and the sun is what the dirt roads are like. we would pass Tsii’al (Pillow hill), two aging houses sat on our right, one white and the other a deep forest green. I remember my Shima'sanií sitting next to me, the petite Diné elder wearing her brown velvet blouse, calico dress, and blue head scarf wrapped around her head. Since I was a young child she told me, those two homes are my Sanii Lutie’s hogan and the other my Sanií’s home. I stared a few minutes, but I stopped when my Sanií looked away and then up at the road ahead. The dirt roads in the summer are a pale beige, they look like beige pavements with no ridges, but the sound of crunch, crunch, crunch under the tires reminds me that we are still on the dirt road. Finally, we get to a place called Tsaa-Tah (Sage Brush) aka Bodaway. A great wide-open pasture, the Grand Canyon to the left, Tse bi wógiízhi straight ahead, and another plateau to the right. 

“That right there, (the plateau to the right) the two hills with a dip in the middle? You see?”

“That’s called Yanideh Nil (Where the mountains line up). Your Sanií Jeanette was born near it.” 

I felt special when Shimá told me this. I could see the pride in my Shimá’s eyes, she knew I was interested in my family’s history. 

Sanií Lutie and Jeanette are my Sanii’s sister in laws. My Cheií’s (grandfather’s) older sisters. Instead of using the “correct” family terms, my Shimá told me they’re my Saniís’ too.  We don’t exit the vehicle; the intention is to check on the cattle and sheep. I remember countless trips like this with my Shimá and Sanií; I remember thinking my whole family’s history is here in Tsaa-tah, hmmm… 

When we would make trips to Tsaa-tah, they were usually half a day. I sometimes asked my Shimá before our tire set foot on the dirt road, if I could stand up in the back of our truck.

“You’re gonna get sand all over your face?” 

“It's okay. Please….” 

My Shimá made a grim face, turned her head toward the dashboard, and parked the truck. I got out and jumped in the back of the pickup. 

As we got closer toward Tsaa-tah, I stood with pride gripping the roof of the truck’s cabin. I was a free spirited girl who couldn’t wait to get to Bodaway. As we approached, I could see the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yanideh Nil, cattle, watering holes, and freedom.  Green tsaa-tah everywhere. We drove to the edge of the canyon; the sun was high again in the summer sky with clouds. As we looked down with my Shimá, my sisters Bianica and Rudy, we could see where the Little Colorado and Colorado river merge, my family call it “the confluence.” We offer our prayers to where everything began: the insects, animals, plants, water, mountains, sun, moon, sky, and the Diné people. At twilight, we drove a little north from the canyon and saw a red flower. We pulled over and my Shimá gathered us and picked up the flower and plucked a petal off. 

“This, it’s called Da’nehe’ lihii (A red toy). You suck the end of this.” My Shimá gave me the second petal she plucked out and gave it to me to taste the stem.

“It tastes like cherries, it tastes good!” I said with joy. 

Yellowhair's mother stands with 'Missing Tooth Rock' in the distance

I felt lucky during moments like these in my life; my family was blessed to have land. All my relatives and extended family were rich with land, faith, and peace. This was only available to us. This time was heaven. But then, the wind blew harder, the plants started drying up; along with the rain, unwanted guests started encroaching like mice and darkness enclosed over our paradise taking family members, and soon developers came like a plague. 

Dirt bikes, four wheelers, hikers, or car enthusiasts entered our land, driving wherever and whenever. Sheepherders and cattle owners did not know who these white people were. But our land was at their despoils, it is easy to disguise a snake in a crowd. That snake was developers who wanted to build a resort on “the confluence.” In 2009, a multi-million-dollar infrastructure that would include an RV park, museum, restaurants, and a tram down to the Grand Canyon, so tourists can have easier access to the beauty of the Colorado River. The developers proposed the project to the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock, Arizona; but there was no formal proposal to my family or the Gap/Bodaway chapter house, who were the caretakers of the land. There were promises of jobs and modernization on Dine’ land, however; my family and extended family repeatedly stated that our land was not for sale. These developers divided families, spread lies, and threatened the delicate ecosystem of Tsaa-tah. A year-to-year battle ensued, not only about the land grab but tragedy for our family that would not get easier as time passed us all. In 2014, my dear uncle died at sixty-one years old of multiple sclerosis (MS), my Sanií’s son, and my Shima’s brother died battling MS for eleven years. Three years later, in 2017; my beloved Sanií Dorthy passed on. 

“Save the Confluence” was still a battle after my Sanií passed. As the months progressed, the future seemed uncertain. What would happen to our land if these developers won? Would we get kicked off our own land? Could we visit? Could we still offer our prayers to the confluence? My family’s anxiety grew, our fear was choking us, and my family did whatever they could to protect Bodaway. In October of 2017, the Navajo Council would vote on whether to allow the developers to build on our ancestral land; they would determine the fate of the confluence and my family. Finally, the votes were in; 16-2. 16 council delegates voted No, to the developers. 

Over the summer of 2023, I drove me and my Shimá in her Black 17’ GMC truck to Tsaa-tsah. We hiked up Yanideh Nil, along our way my Shimá would stop and point out the plants in Diné and what they are used for. 

“This bush, you see? It’s called Dawooji (greasewood plant). You’re supposed to boil it and drink it. If you have a cold, it cleans it out.” 

 As my Shimá continues up the hill, telling me what plant is what in Diné, I feel proud. She is telling me, her daughter who will try to preserve and protect the land we have.

We get to the top, we look over Tsaa-tsah with our hats on and feel the wind on our faces. I don’t reflect, maybe I should have. All I could see, instead of thinking, was the purity of Bodaway. Something, inadvertently my Sanií Dorthy taught me when she looked away from her old green home at Tsii’al, moving forward is the right path. Looking back is the past, learn and keep moving forward. “The wind is our holy people speaking,” my Shima’yazhi (aunt) Delores said once. I believe my Sanii was the holy person speaking to us that day on Yanideh Nil. 

Veronica Yellowhair lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two German Shepherd dogs. She is Native American from the Dine’(Navajo) nation and a senior at Boise State University. Veronica enjoys dancing women’s fancy shawl, writing, reading, and learning about her Dine’ language and culture from her mother.

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