How to Really Learn History
You can read hundreds of books, but nothing replaces seeing, breathing and feeling history.
In Monument Valley, Arizona, the monuments or sandstone buttes stand in the landscape like teachers waiting for students. Come in and listen. What I have to share will connect you to the past, present and future. I will tell you not just about your ancestors, but about how we are all connected. We are all speaking the same language.
It was a hot summer day, early in the morning when we met our guide, Will, in the parking lot adjacent to the Monument Valley entrance. Will drove us into “Mystery Valley” and thus began our 3-hour journey into history.
On this day, we were taken deep into history only shared orally. On this day, I learned more about history than all of my years studying political science, history and literature. On this day, everything I learned at university and in life connected and made me whole.
Our first stop was a panoramic view. I looked out to a familiar site, the traditional view of Monument Valley. When I turned around to see if I could catch a glimpse of what was around the corner, I did not see anything unique. Sight was the wrong sense.
We drove past some houses and crop fields. Will told us that the traditional Navajo diet consisted of 3 main crops: blue corn, squash, and beans. The food they eat is planted every year from the same seeds planted by their ancestors. Seeds have been air dried and stored in the earth since they came to this land thousands of years ago, he explained.
At this point, I interrupted him and asked, “Are you telling me that you eat the food that your ancestors ate? You grow crops from their seeds?”
The food they eat is pre-organic, pre-GMO. This food comes from the seeds of indigenous Earth. This is the food that we are meant to eat.
Before the Navajo moved into this area, the Anasazi lived here. Everywhere there are artifacts: rock art, pottery pieces, bones. We walked through live archeological sites. We could not take anything, but we could look at everything. Our guide told us that once a Japanese professor took some human bones back to Japan to be tested, and the findings revealed that the bones were 40,000 years old. Relics of the past abound. All the answers we seek are here.
Here in this space walked our ancestors. Their lives vastly different than ours, yet their knowledge and remnants we seek everyday–the connection to the past and present resides here. Listen to the history.
We continued on the tour. Stopping at “Pancake Rocks” and other points of interest. Just as we pulled up to an Anasazi dwelling, my daughter asked, “Why did they make their houses up high like that?”
Our guide replied, “They needed shelter from prehistoric birds of prey.” He explained what these birds looked like and how they made life challenging for the Anasazi.
I thought about everything I heard and saw. Why did the Anasazi live in such “inconvenient” structures, carrying everything up by ladder? There must have been a very good reason indeed. A large prehistoric bird is a good reason. My daughter knew of this bird and had no more questions; she understood immediately.
Listen, just listen. Hear the stories of the past and connect to the past.
Will told us about the people who he had encountered over the years. “No matter what language visitors speak, I can communicate with them,” he explained.
There are Navajo words in every language around the world. As humans migrated, before the continents drifted, we shared one language. Now we share words and phases. We are all connected through language.
What language is most similar to Navajo that you have come across?” I asked.
Hungarian,” he replied.
Upon hearing this response, I froze.
In my travels across Europe, spending days or weeks in places, the local language would seep in, and I would hear similarities or wait for a certain sound in a word to know that this train or bus station was the right one. I could do this in most parts of Europe—except Hungary. There, the language sounded so different, not connected to its neighbors. No pattern to detect. Because of this experience, Hungary has always been one place of mystery to me.
And now I knew why: this language maintained its indigenous nature and did not change as outside influences changed the languages around it.
Upon learning this piece of history, I connected my book knowledge to my trekking knowledge. Gaps began to fill in, and new spaces for information formed. Hearing the story of our past connected me to the present.
The Navajos have answers to our questions about history, but we must sit and listen.