hogan in arizona

A Navajo hogan (detail)
near Antelope Canyon, AZ

Photo: Waldemar Koscielny

I admit to girding my mental loins as I sat down to view Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” segment about his time on the Navajo Reservation. Some of his account did make me (even after girding) cringe…

Like his history report — that reservations were “originally established to give Indians a place to renew their culture” ??!! Whew, guess we missed that opportunity, since the boarding-school era, tribal termination, relocation and other U. S. policies devised to eradicate native cultures distracted our attention.

spurlock on hoseback

But, overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the show and Spurlock’s observations as he stayed with the Dennison family, who live in a traditional Navajo manner. I loved that Deborah and Karl made him stay in their hogan in the backyard with no electricity or water. A hogan is a traditional Navajo home; most folks don’t live in them year round but keep one on the property for ceremonial purposes. I’m sure that the producers insisted Spurlock stay in the hogan for “authenticity.” It did underscore, however, the fact that many Navajo don’t have running water or electricity despite water rights guaranteed to them under the Treaty of 1868. Most of their water feeds the big cities of the west.

TV host Morgan Spurlock (left) and actual host Karl Dennison in Tohatchi, New Mexico
Photo: via indianz

Spurlock managed to get a job fixing tires at a Navajo-run business for $25.00 a day, no small accomplishment on a reservation with 60% unemployment. I suspect he may have had inside influence or a connected relative, an allusion that was probably lost on non-Indian viewers but that hit home big time for those of us who’ve tried to get and keep decent jobs with our tribes. When asked why it’s so hard to get jobs or start a business on the reservation, people made vague mention of “tribal red tape.” Wisely, I guess, since Spurlock only had an hour to tell his story; he sidestepped that hornets nest of tribal politics that governs most reservations.

I also liked how he addressed questions about the high levels of drug and alcohol abuse among native folks. He took the legs off the myth that we are somehow racially weak and physiologically predetermined to succumb to addiction. Spurlock let a Navajo substance abuse counselor point out that the reasons for high levels of addiction in the native community are very complicated and more related to economics and history than genetics.

And then he went to the place white liberals can never resist, the topic I was anticipating with the same sense of dread you have when you know you’re about to see someone do something terribly embarrassing. He started asking direct questions about “Native American spirituality.” The Dennisons were typical, gracious native folks and hooked him up with a medicine man who had him do a sweat on camera. Spurlock proclaimed it a “life changing” event (I foresee this medicine man being beset by droves of New Age seekers of new spiritual experiences).

Morgan Spurlosk

Director Morgan Spurlock
(George Plimpton for a new generation)
at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival

Photo: Salt Lake Tribune

In the end, however, I think Spurlock got it. He listened to people without interrupting (an annoying habit that non-Indians seem to have). He understood that native and/or Navajo spirituality isn’t so much about the ceremonies and rituals but about an intent to acknowledge one’s participation in this big event called life on earth. He went with the flow and seemed surprised that he felt really good being there with the Dennisons, hanging out with their Grandma, doing chores and praying every morning. Each morning, Karl got him up before dawn and had him “race the sun,” a Navajo practice in which one runs towards the sun, thanking the creator for the gift of life and affirming one’s wish to live well and do well on this day.

Watching this show helped me reflect on — and, hopefully, get a little beyond — my resentments against non-Indians who want to play Indian, performing rituals and ceremonies on their own or paying to participate in native-run doings like they are choosing services from a spa menu. This mercantile hunger for ritual is a desperate effort to get something all human beings need, a spiritual connection to their culture, community and earth. Without it, we don’t feel so good and end up doing silly things like shopping, ingesting too many intoxicants and talking way too much without listening. We don’t have to go live in a hogan to learn how to be present in our lives and experience the gift of living on this earth. At the end of the show, Spurlock raced towards the sun outside his New York apartment and put his hands to his eyes in thanks when the sun rose.

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