A GLEAM OF LIGHT — PART ONE : THE UNEXPECTED
Chapter 1 — Two Worlds
On a cloudy afternoon in late May, 1995, eight-year old Una Waters waited patiently in line beside her parents at the America West terminal of Dallas-Fort Worth International to board their flight. On layover from its starting point in Tampa, Florida, the giant B-757 airliner would only be here for an hour, to pick up a few passengers before heading to its final destination, Las Vegas, Nevada. It was the first time she and her mother had been asked to accompany her father, a missionary who had devoted his entire life to the betterment of U.S./Native American relations. It was how he met her mother on the Hopi reservation she called home, and the reason for this trip.
Una did not understand much about the Indian problem, as some people put it, though she thought she knew what it meant to be a Hopi. All her teachers at the Mission School in Arizona taught her to respect tribal elders, obey the law, and work hard at her lessons. Good grades were the key to a brighter future. People with good grades could grow up to be decision makers, and that could make the world a better place–for everyone.
The airport made her head spin! So many people everywhere with luggage, and all the announcements of flight times. There were families with children, youths in uniform with duffle bags, and older men in business suits, clinging to briefcases. Whatever they kept inside must be awfully important, because they never let them go, except to light a cigarette or make calls from airport telephones lined up along one wall. Most of them seemed tired and cranky, without much to smile about. Una decided she would not like to walk in their shoes. By the looks on their faces, it seemed that black leather must make their feet hurt.
“How much longer, Mummy?” she asked.
Lenmana Waters tried to smile. Their arrival flight from Flagstaff had given them just enough time to wait in long lines for the Ladies room and a quick lunch from an airport Taco stand. The food reminded her of hominy and beans back home, but more spicey with plenty of hot peppers. Texans seemed to eat a lot like Mexicans, even though they lived in America. It was like two worlds overlapped. That also reminded her of life as a Hopi.
Una gazed up at her father, white-haired, tall and lean like an actor she’d seen on TV reruns of Barnaby Jones. Simon Waters smiled pleasantly at everyone they met. He seemed out of place here. His genuine, easy-going style enabled him to connect with people of other cultures, because they did not feel intimidated. “The eyes are the window to the soul,” he once told her, “People know when you’re not sincere.”
Everyone who worked in the airport smiled a lot. People at the ticket counter, baggage handlers, even people who emptied trash cans or swept up the endless stream of wrappers and styrofoam cups left by weary travelers. Una sensed pain in their eyes. Of course, this was only her second time entering an airport since leaving her home on the Reservation. Dallas had more runways, more planes…more everything! The bigger the city, the more smiling workers. But it had nothing to do with happiness. Behind those smiles, they weren’t happy at all.
“Why, Papa, why?” she’d asked him only a few days before.
“It’s a National Conference on Indian Affairs. I’ve been gratiously invited to present a paper on my work. Many people will be there who share our values. They understand the importance of preserving ancient lands. Some even have friends in high places. We need those kinds of friends…to protect our way of life. Without them, everything we cherish might one day disappear.”
Already most of Una’s friends spoke English, but had little understanding of Hopi words used in traditional ceremonies. Her mother once told her the people of their village had grown blue corn for a thousand generations, long before Columbus came to America. It was getting harder to grow all the time. Without it they could not make Piki bread–one of her favorites!
Just the thought of it made her mouth water. It seemed like ages since their last home meal. One week, her father said. One week and it would all be over. This was still only the first day! She was getting tired of airports. Tired of waiting. Tired of bright lights and loud noise. Tired of smells repeating themselves every 50 feet no matter which way they turned. Smells like McDonalds, floor wax, upholstery and stale coffee.
“It’s not time yet,” said the woman at the boarding desk. “Your flight has been delayed.”
Her father sighed.
The woman smiled at Una. “I’ll bet you can’t wait to see Pocahontas. My daughter can’t stop talking about it.”
Lenmana took Una by the hand. They’d seen all the hoopla on TV. All the picture books and toys. One of her classmates even told her about a shopping mall display in Phoenix, complete with a huge model of a sailing ship. The movie release was still weeks or months away. It might as well be an eternity.
They sat in a row of blue cushioned seats that made it easy to read the lighted monitors overhead. The nearest screen displayed their flight number and destination as part of a list that seemed to flicker every few seconds.
One of the destinations that caught her eye was Venezuela, because it was the home of the Andes mountains. She recognized it from a book she had read in school. During a class visit to the library, while all the other children looked for age-appropriate books, she wandered over to the adult section, browsing until she came across one called Alive, a true story about a plane crash in the Andes and how they had to resort to cannibalism to survive. “But you’re only in the third grade!” her teacher said. That didn’t matter to Una. She wanted to read books about the real world. And she wasn’t afraid of the truth.
Feeling restless, she climbed up on both knees, peering back over the edge of her seat. A huge picture window revealed the shiny silver, red and white tail of their America West airliner. It was so big! It reminded her of a rocketship. Birds flittered by. When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ sang someone in white robes not far away. People called them Moonies. Una smiled. That plane could probably take her anywhere. Even the moon.
More and more passengers came to fill the seats beside them. A nervous little man in blue jeans and cowboy boots reached up, adjusting the black brim of his stetson, which seemed too big for his head. A big breasted blonde, pouting in red lipstick came marching out of the Ladies room to join him. “Dammit, Earle, I thought we’d be there by now. It’s nearly sundown. I had big plans!”
The nervous man laughed. “Honey, we’re not missin’ a thing. Casino’s open all night. You’ll see. Vegas is for night owls. Hell, that’s when all the fun begins. Have a couple drinks in the air, and we’ll be there before you know it! Now just get over here and keep me company.”
Apparently their destination had more going on than a National Conference. Una didn’t know much about gambling, except what she heard in the news. Several Arizona tribes apparently had slot machines, hoping more money would solve the problem of Indian poverty. Without jobs, life for many Native Americans meant surviving on government handouts with little hope for the future.
As a child growing up, Una’s grandmother told her tales about life in the old days. For many centuries, Hopi lands stretched across almost all of northern Arizona, from California to parts of Southern Nevada. They planted corn, beans and squash, hunting deer, antelope and small game. With villages on desert mesas for defense purposes, Hopi culture developed elaborate ceremonies and enjoyed trade throughout the Southwest.
First came the Spaniards to Hopi territory, seeking the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. Then Europeans moved in, pressuring the Navajo, who fought with the Hopi for survival over land and water, until both were forced onto reservations in 1864. Her grandmother was not yet born when all of this happened, but the stories were passed down. Her only memories as a child were formed on the Hopi Reservation in Black Mesa. It was all that remained of their native lands.
The Indian problem had evolved over time, making life complicated for Una’s family and everyone that she had ever known. To find a solution might take many years, many votes and many marches to achieve. It was all too much for an eight year old girl to absorb, but she hoped one day to understand.
Maybe even to help.
The Governor of Arizona wasn’t too happy about slot machines, so he sent FBI agents to raid five Indian casinos and shut them all down. People always fought over money. Sometimes fighting seemed like a bad idea, especially against the United States government.
“Attention passengers. America West Flight 564 will begin boarding soon. Please check your bags and have tickets ready. Thank you.”
People stood up all around them, forming a line to the departure gate. Beyond it, a narrow carpeted opening curved out of sight. A smiling stewardess in blue uniform, ready to greet them, brushed dark bangs away from her eyes. One family came rushing over with two small children and a baby stroller from the nearest McDonalds. She waved them to the front of the line. A woman grumbled. Una turned to see it was the blonde, standing nearly a head taller than the cowboy, without his hat.
Outside, the gray desert sky began to turn bright orange. No doubt it was much warmer than the air conditioned comfort inside. Soon they would be high above the cactus and sage brush, practically invisible to anyone on the ground. Closer to heaven than Earth.
Before leaving the Reservation, one of her friends asked Una if they were going to see the Sky People.
She did not know what to say.
According to legend, once a great flood was about to engulf a Hopi village and people fled from destruction. A little boy and girl, twins, were somehow left behind. They decided to try to find their parents and escape. So they went out across the desert. While they camped over night, a ‘flying shield’ came down right before them.
Emerging from it, one of the Sky People came to the children and said, “Do not be afraid. We’re going to fly above the desert to search for them.” And so they flew many miles, until the children were delivered to their parents. Then he told them, “In the future, I will come to you in your dreams and teach you the proper way to live.”
Una grasped her mother’s hand. Life beyond the Reservation could be scary at times. It was full of surprises. So much had happened already that she did not expect. It was impossible to know what might happen next.
At least she did not have to face it alone.
For now, it was enough to stay right here, between her parents, protecting her like Guardian Angels. She only hoped that when it was over, they would all return home, safe and sound, to the world she knew best.
Copyright © 2016 T.J. & M.L. Wolf