The logo for the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program depicts a rainbow stretching over two hands reaching for each other - an Anglo hand offering sustenance and support, an American Indian hand offering harmony in the walk on this earth. A Baho prayer-feather (eagle feather) balanced between the outstretched hands represents shared prayers for healing the broken relationship between our culture and the land and the native people who hold it in sacred trust. A barbed-wire fence dividing the grandmother's hand represents the struggles the Navajos on Big Mountain face with government efforts to force them from the energy-rich land that is sacred to them.
For close to five years Park City fiber artist Linda Myers has been strengthening the gossamer "rainbow" bridge between Utahns and Native American Elders in Big Mountain, Ariz. Through the Adopt-A-Native-Elder program more than 140 Indian elders, mostly grandmothers, have one or two "adopted" family members who send food, medicine and bedding in boxes that often enable the elder to survive the harsh winters on Big Mountain.Five years ago Myers saw the good that Navajo Rose Hulligan was accomplishing while obtaining her teaching degree at Westminster College. "Rose was gathering food and delivering bread in a rickety old truck to the reservation. I was amazed at how this woman who had so very little was doing so much to help these grandmothers whose only livelihood is from the rugs they make. I'm a weaver, too. I had the overall feeling I was supposed to help. I knew I had the sources," Myers said.
"I was just a stone going in the water - the ripples would go in many directions," said Myers. Indeed, the spontaneous gift that began with Rose Hulligan expanded to include supporters from 27 states and even some from Europe. Myers' business experience led to rug shows and the organized, twice-a-year trip to the reservation taking truckloads of needed supplies.
In the fall "food run" that began on Oct. 11, 340 boxes of food and medicine were sent from the Salt Lake City/Park City area. Another 20 boxes came from the East Coast, and people in the Denver area sent 20 boxes. Fifty-eight bags of children's clothing gathered by Salt Lake Boy Scouts (see related story) completed the load that was delivered to the Arizona reservation in 12 vehicles by 23 volunteers.
Myers says there are between 20 and 30 elementary schools that have adopted someone. "I just heard from an eighth-grade class in Sonoma, Calif., that wants to adopt a grandmother."
Betsy Bacon's fifth-grade class at Treasure Mountain Middle School in Park City has adopted grandmother Ruth Benally. "The curriculum from the state directs us to study Native American culture and history. Adopting a grandmother is a great reinforcer in our study of the culture and makes it more real. I also believe that kids need to be involved in the community. School isn't restricted to four walls. We participated in gathering food three weeks ago for the food run. The kids raised money to buy Navajo yarn for Ruth and have sent her sheets, a new blanket and flashlight batteries," Bacon said. This is Bacon's third year of sponsoring a grandmother.
"Ruth had never been to a doctor so last fall we arranged for donated time at the Park City Health Clinic since she is having trouble with her knee. She will come visit our class the morning of the Rug Show on Nov. 6. Meeting Ruth is something that hangs over the kids like Christmas. My kids are so excited," Bacon said.
Parent Susan Perotti brings her handmade loom to Bacon's classroom to teach the children about the art of weaving. "I learned to weave from a Navajo in Salt Lake who is now back on the reservation," said Perotti. She explains to the children the Navajo legend of Spider Woman who was also a weaver. "Navajos believe that you must never leave the batten in the rug when you are not working. The batten holds the threads open so you can weave back and forth. They believe that if you leave the batten in spirits will come and undo your weaving." Perotti said there must be an "error" in every rug. "They put a thread from the inside to the outside of the rug. If you look carefully, you will see it. That thread takes the bad spirits out of the rug," she said.
On Oct. 11 there was an appreciation ceremony held at the Tsaile, Ariz., elementary school. In a telephone interview from Tsaile, Rose Hulligan, who instigated the program, told how the Elders prepared a banquet for the people in the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program. "It was very powerful. There was an exchange of feelings - about how they (the Navajos) felt about people helping them. One person said, `There are caring white people. We extend our kinship to our grandchildren. Now we extend that kinship beyond the family. These people are my grandchildren now,' " Hulligan said. "Elder after Elder spoke but we can't ever really translate the meaning, there's no way I can put this in words," she said.
Last Thanksgiving Linda Myers visited two Elders in an isolated hogan. "It was 6 p.m. and already dark outside. These two little women were in bed because they have no lights. They got up and made coffee for me. I sat with them and held their hands. They were from the Bitter Water Clan and wanted to know what clan I was from. I laughed and told them I belonged to the `Grandmother Clan,' " Myers said.
Myers once asked Ruth Benally what she thought about the Adopt-A-Native-Elder program. "Ruth pointed to me and said that the boxes and I came from the skies. She said, `We receive these boxes, you bring us food but we call it miracles from the skies.' "