The sun was about to slip behind a grove of Ponderosa pines, the sweet-smelling bark of which tinged the air with a scent like butterscotch. The last rays from the West fell on the baby I held in my arms, with hair black as night and skin the color of wheat in the fall.
As stars began to appear one by one, her Navajo mother sighed and said of the child, "There is nothing left for her." It was one of those rare moments when all that is unspeakably beautiful and all that is unspeakably painful seem to collapse into one instant, and truth becomes as clear as the Arizona night sky.
It has been 10 years since I sat in front of their small trailer, watching the stars come out and listening as the coyotes began their night chorus. I don't know what has become of the child or her mother. They were not there when I returned last summer to the Grand Canyon, where I had spent four months as part of the summer ministry staff a decade ago.
But the same sadness that I first saw in the mother's eyes that night was there in the eyes of the Native Americans I met on my return. Many of them sat behind crude wooden stands made from boards nailed together. Before them were spread colorful bits of shell strung together into necklaces, silver rings with inlaid turquoise, strands of black Alaskan pearls. The stands went on for miles, and beside each were round-faced children playing in the dust, and beyond each were miles and miles of rock and brush and canyon.
I once returned to the Grand Canyon in January. The stands stood desolate, wind tearing at their boards, which creaked eerily from the battering. There was a dusting of snow then, and no one around. No children in the dust.
I don't know where the children go in the winter or how they survive. This land produces almost nothing in the summer and is surely useless in the winter.