Indian Moon Message
If you ask the government, they’ll probably deny it. If you ask the Navajo, they’ll laugh and say it’s so.
The April morning air was brisk. A gentle breeze from the east nudged cloud wisps across the turquoise sky. Johnathan Etcitty kept as close an eye on his 10 year old grandson, Greg, as he did on his sheep. Full of a grandfather’s pride, Johnathan thanked the Creator for giving him a strong and respectful grandson. Greg’s first ever journey to summer sheep camp and Johnathan’s first time without his fourteen year old grandson, Peterson, Greg’s older brother. Just the two of them would make the long trek through the western part of the Dine reservation to the coolness and abundant buffalo grass of the mountain sheep camp.
Johnathan smiled as he remembered Greg’s recent ninth birthday. Greg had tugged at his shirt and looked him square in the eyes, so serious, so full of confidence and had said, “Grandfather, I’m ready.” Johnathan had been puzzled by the announcement. “What are you ready for my grandson?” he had asked. “I’m ready for sheep camp, grandfather. Remember, you told me you went to sheep camp when you were nine. I’m nine too.” Gratitude and happiness had filled Johnathan’s heart and soul. His grandson wanted to follow in his footsteps–an answered prayer. He had laughed, tousled Greg’s obsidian black hair, and said, “Yes, you are ready, and you will go to sheep camp.”
On their way to sheep camp and shifting from memory to sun shimmered sand, Johnathan looked for Greg and soon spotted him cradling a lamb as he walked slowly around the outer circle of grazing sheep. Another memory, this one painful, Peterson, Johnathan’s right-hand-man, and only other grandson, was not with them. He had to stay back at boarding school in Ganado. He recalled with disgust the day he and Grace, his wife, had gone to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school to tell the teachers Peterson would go to sheep camp. Johnathan had been deeply offended. The teachers had shown him no respect as their elder. Had rudely said Peterson would not be going anywhere. He must and would stay with them at boarding school. Johnathan saw a huge sign by Peterson’s dormitory, large, red, Whiteman’s words. He had asked Peterson what it said. He remembered how Peterson had got real quiet, his head down, feet scraping the earth. He had to ask him twice to answer. Not the respectful of elders grandson Johnathan knew. In broken Dine, Peterson had said, “Grandfather, it says: “TRADITIONS ARE THE STUMBLING BLOCKS OF PROGRESS. SPEAK ENGLISH.”
The BIA made every Dine child go to boarding school to be educated in the Whiteman’s ways. Johnathan shook his head at the thought of Navajo children, not allowed to go home to their families; punished for speaking Navajo or praying in the Navajo way. The teachers cutting their beautiful long hair, took away the clothes made for them by their mothers and grandmothers, and made them wear Whiteman’s clothes. Christians, they forced them to be Christians, as if that was the only right way to believe. And now a whole generation of Dine grandchildren couldn’t even understand or talk to their grandparents. The Navajo language and traditional ways were being wiped out because the Whiteman thought he knew everything. What they didn’t know or care to know was that a Navajo family’s heart was broken every time their children were stolen from them.
Johnathan drifted back from his thoughts and looked for Greg. His heart began to pound as he looked in all directions but no Greg in sight. He strode towards the sheep milling in confusion at the top of the sand dune. He could see his grandson’s tracks disappear over the top of the next dune but no Greg. He ran to the spot where they disappeared. Just as he neared the crest of the sand ridge, Greg exploded over the top waving and babbling about men from the skies and stars. Greg was so disturbed he ran headlong into his grandfather and they both tumbled down the sand dune, feet and sand flying into the air until they flopped to a stop at the bottom.
Greg immediately jumped to his feet and tugged at his grandfather’s shirt pulling him towards the dune. Johnathan gently but firmly grabbed Greg by his elbow and pulled him in the opposite direction toward the shade of a nearby sandstone boulder. He had to get Greg out of the sun, into the shade, and cool him off or he could die. Johnathan was certain he was sun sick. To his grave consternation and amazement, Greg threw himself onto the sand and refused to go anywhere but back up the sand dune. “You’re sun sick. You must get into the shade.” Still, Greg refused to budge, begging his grandfather to go and see “the men from the sky.” Now Johnathan was scared. He had heard of sun sickness so bad that people saw things that were not there. They were so weakened of spirit and mind that evil spirits took control of them and made them go crazy.
This sun sickness had never happened before to anyone in his mothers’ clan, the Folded Arms People, his father’s Red Running into the Water Clan, his wife’s Bitter Water Clan, or her father’s Bad Lands People Clan. It must be that Cherokee blood of his non-Dine mother that made him susceptible. Johnathan knelt down beside Greg who was still raving about Star People. He pulled his canteen off his hip and poured water over Greg’s face and mouth. Greg sputtered and chocked, wiping the water from his eyes. “Grandfather, you’re drowning me,” Greg said, “I’m not sick, the star people are really here. Please! Go look grandfather.” Johnathan began to pray much harder. He needed all the spiritual help he could get, so he took out his pollen pouch, sprinkled the pollen over Greg and prayed for his ancestors to forgive his Cherokee weakness and make the Dine blood within him strong so he would overcome this sickness. With the first drops of pollen, Greg closed his eyes and became quiet and still. Johnathan was relieved. The medicine and prayers were working. After what seemed an eternity, Greg slowly opened his eyes and said, “Grandfather, I am not sun sick; there is something very strange on the other side of that dune. Please, go and see.” Reaching down, Johnathan took Greg’s hand and pulled him to his feet. Together they trudged up to the crest of the dune.
There, at the bottom of the dune, were two legged beings walking around in strange clothes of silver as shiny as a newly polished concho belt. Johnathan saw one of the strange beings driving an odd contraption like no pick-up truck or fancy tourist car he had ever seen. Greg looked up to his grandfather and whispered, “Do you see them?” All Johnathan could do was nod in astonishment. “What are they?” Greg asked. “Are they the Holy People? “Uhhff, don’t think so,” Johnathan replied. “I never heard of Holy People driving around like that.”
Johnathan stared straight ahead at the strange sight, searching for some explanation of what he was seeing. Johnathan felt a hard tug on the back of his shirt. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young Whiteman in camouflage fatigues holding a large weapon. The soldier said something to him in English, a loud, rude tone, not respectful of Johnathan, his elder, so he ignored him and his rudeness. Two more soldiers quickly appeared. One with a rifle, stopped next to Greg. The third, with a holstered pistol on his hip, stood in front of the soldiers and stared hard at Johnathan, looking straight into his eyes in a very disrespectful manner and barked out words in English. Johnathan spotted the single silver bars on his shoulders and knew the pistol carrier was an officer, a Lieutenant. Johnathan continued to ignore him, “I’m not in your army,” Johnathan thought.
The officer then spoke to Greg in English and Greg began to answer him in the English his Cherokee mother had taught him. Greg spoke fearlessly. Johnathan felt proud of Greg’s self assurance. After a few minutes and a lot of words, Greg stepped towards Johnathan. He told him in Dine that the soldiers wanted Johnathan and Greg to go with them. Greg looked very seriously at his grandfather and said, “We have no choice, grandfather, they are angry with us and they have guns. We must go with them.” Johnathan and Greg walked with the soldiers down the side of the sand dune towards the strange silver men and then right past them and over the next sand dune.
Hidden behind the dune was a trailer. The officer led them up the steps of the trailer and then inside. More Whitemen were inside but they were not wearing uniforms. A man in a white shirt and a tie stepped forward and offered his hand to Johnathan. He was tall with glasses and greased hair where he wasn’t bald. His eyes were friendly. He said something in English to Johnathan but he only understood a few words, so he did not reply. Then glasses man turned to Greg and spoke to him. Then the glasses man talked with the officer, and chairs were pushed over to Johnathan and Greg, and the soldiers left. He offered them water and food. He seemed to know how to be respectful. Johnathan started to think that the man with glasses could be a good man. The glasses man spoke to Greg for a long time looking over at Johnathan and nodding and smiling.
“Grandfather, remember when we looked at the T.V. at the trading post. Remember when we watched the man in the big can flying high in sky above Earth. One of those men out there in the silver suit was the one we saw. They are practicing here because our land is like the moon and far from cities. They don’t want the Russians to find out about how they do things. He says if we promise to never tell anyone, he will let us go.”
Johnathan said to Greg, “Tell the man with glasses, he has my word. Tell the man I want to send a message to the moon from the Navajo.” Greg looked puzzled. “Do as I say,” Johnathan said with firmness.
Greg shrugged his shoulders and turned to the man and translated his grandfather’s request. The man looked very serious, leaned back in his chair, held his chin in his hand and seemed to be thinking real hard. Suddenly, the man broke out in a broad smile and started nodding his head and saying, “Yes! Yes!” And other words that Johnathan did not understand. The man spoke very excitedly to Greg, making many gestures in the air. Johnathan was very puzzled with so much being said about something so simple. Just put down in writing a message for the moon. Take it up their in a jar, and leave it. The man jumped up from his chair and went into another room. While he was gone, Greg explained to his grandfather the man liked his idea. Greg told his grandfather that they had a recorder machine that could remember his grandfather’s words and even speak his message in his own voice.
The man with glasses came back, sat down, and placed the tape recorder on his lap. He plugged in the microphone and tested it, recording his own voice and then listening to it. Satisfied, he turned to Greg and said something to him. Greg turned to his grandfather and said, “The man is ready to record your message. He wants you touch your chin when you are ready to speak and he will turn the machine on.” Johnathan immediately touched his chin. The man slowly touched the machine. Johnathan spoke clearly and firmly in Dine.
The man shrugged his shoulders, turned off the tape recorder, leaned back in his chair, and then said something to Greg. “Grandfather, he wants to know what you said. What should I tell him?” Without hesitation, Johnathan said, “Tell him it is a Dine greeting for the star people. Tell him no one will ever know what we saw and we need to go to our sheep and take them to the next water hole before the night comes.”
Siegfried made it his personal crusade to make sure the greeting from the Navajo people was included in the time capsule the Apollo mission took to the moon. He kept his own personal copy of the message. Over time, he regretted that he did not have a translation of the grandfather’s message. One day in June, four years after the Moon mission, NASA needed a project manager to attend a meeting at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Siegfried happily volunteered. He knew the Navajo reservation was only a short drive from Los Alamos. When the meetings at Los Alamos concluded, Siegfried drove the 65 miles to the reservation. At the first reservation service station he came to Siegfried excitedly grabbed his tape recorder and strode quickly to the gas station office. A group of Navajo were lounging in chairs laughing and conversing in that indecipherable Navajo language. They became silent as soon as he came inside. He asked the Dine clerk if he spoke English and Navajo. The clerk, a Dine man around 25 or 30 nodded, smiled broadly, and said, “I can sell you anything you need in English or Dine.” Everyone but Siegfried laughed. He had the feeling that he was very, very, out of place, as if he had entered a foreign land. Siegfried hesitantly replied, “I don’t want to buy anything, I just have this tape recording I need translated. It is very important. I hope you can help me.” The clerk nodded as he motioned Siegfried aside to wait on two Navajo women who had approached the counter. Siegfried had seen both women get out of their truck as he was getting his tape recorder out. Both Navajo women had been in the cabs of the trucks and Navajo men were in the pick-up beds. In between female customers, Siegfried asked the clerk why it appeared that only the women were driving. “Because they own everything,” the Clerk replied. “We are motherarchal like the Earth.” Siegfried frowned for a moment. “Oh, you mean matriarchal. Your people are matriarchal,” he said to the clerk. “Yeah, like I said, motherarchal. You aren’t from around here, are you mister.” Siegfried began to feel uncomfortable. He was accustomed to being in charge and sure of his ability to intellectually and authoritatively take command of all situations. But this was completely different. He was completely surrounded by Indians, not another white face in sight. He realized that for the first time in his life, he was the minority. “What is it you want again?” the clerk asked. Siegfried, smiling awkwardly, stepped up to the counter and set his tape player on the counter. He fiddled with the controls, adjusting the volume as he spoke to the clerk. “I have a tape recording of a Navajo man who gave me a message that was sent to the moon and left there. This message is very important to me,” he said as he pushed the play button and the voice of Johnathan Etcitty filled the room.
At the end of the message, he pushed the stop button and looked nervously at faces expressing what appeared to be astonishment. In a slow sputter of snorts and then uncontrolled laughter, the Navajo’s surrounding him laughed until tears were running from their eyes. “What’s so funny,” Siegfried asked in exasperation. Each and every one of them waved him off as they laughed their way out the door and back to their trucks. Turning to the clerk, he emphatically asked, “What’s so funny?” The clerk struggled to stop laughing long enough to say, “It’s a top secret Navajo message.” And he continued laughing as Siegfried picked up his tape player and walked out of the office feeling thoroughly baffled and embarrassed.
Feeling frustrated and angry, Siegfried decided he could only stomach one last attempt. He pulled into the parking lot of a building with a sign identifying it as a Bureau of Indian Affairs office. He walked into the reception area, tape player under his arm, and asked the young female Dine receptionist if there was someone on the staff who spoke Navajo. She disappeared into the hallway behind her desk, and returned with an Anglo man. Siegfried, introduced himself, and explained his need to have the taped message translated.
The man introduced himself as Herb Cook, a staff Anthropologist. They walked back to his office exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes until Herb, who seemed to be in a hurry, asked Siegfried to play the tape. With much hesitation and anxiety, Siegfried clumsily fussed with the tape player. After a few looks of impatience from Herb, Siegfried pushed the play button and stared intently at Herb’s face which immediately cracked a broad smile that exploded into the now all too familiar uncontrollable laughter. Siegfried now really and truly felt like the odd man out.
Tears streamed from Herb’s eyes as he gasped for breath and asked, “This was sent to the moon?” Siegfried impatiently replied, “Yes! It was sent to the moon. What does it say?” After much effort to catch his breath and control his laughter, Herb replied, “Literally, this is the message you sent to the moon. The old man said: “Don’t believe a word these Whitemen say. They are here to steal your land and steal your children.”
Glenn Johnson is a member of the Cherokee Nation. He is a father and a widow. He has lived in Tucson, Arizona for 56 years. He is a retired Marriage & Family Therapist.