A Woman of the People

Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe
Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe
March 01, 1993

It was time now. It was time for the people to go. Amelia Holtsoi, the gym teacher at Window Rock High, pinched off a sprig of cedar and sprinkled bits of it inside her cigarette lighter. Incense wafted through the cabin of her pickup truck as she and her parents murmured, "Protect us. . . . Please, protect us."

Wilfred Begay, an accounting clerk in Window-Rock, Ariz., opened the ashtray of his pickup truck and pulled out a small deerskin pouch. From it he poured a brownish-green powder, a mixture of herbs and the ground gall of an eagle, into a cup of water. He closed his eyes and drank, praying for protection as the bitter water slid down his throat. Then he poured the remainder over the hood of his truck and started the engine.

Lena Denny, a telephone operator from nearby St. Michaels, walked out of her house and faced the rising sun. She dabbed two fingers inside her pouch of corn pollen, sprinkled a little on her tongue, a little on her head, then gave a little to the breeze and the earth. "Almighty Father," she whispered. "You know what lies ahead. Guide us, Father. Please, protect us."

Ryneldi Becenti lay in bed staring up at the stuffed gorilla hanging from the ceiling light in her dorm room. She tossed the basketball toward it, then felt the leather smack back into her hands. She was wearing what she almost always wore: sneakers, long baggy shorts, T-shirt and sweat jacket.

She felt tight inside. It had been building up inside her, building now for a few weeks. She stood and began dribbling the ball through the tiny room, making head feints at the Michael Jordan posters on her walls. Not long ago, when the boy in the room below her had wondered about that pounding he often heard on his ceiling, she had told him only that she played on the women's basketball team at Arizona State, as if that explained everything. She didn't tell him that she dribbled in her room when she thought she was going crazy. She hardly told anyone here much of anything.

Sis rolled aside the basketball and opened the door. Sis, that's what those who knew her well back home called her. She pulled headphones over her short black hair but didn't bother to turn on the music—that wasn't why she wore them. They were like the arrowhead in her pocket and the pouch of corn pollen in her room. They were protection.

She walked to the elevator and pushed the button for eight, the top floor. The elevator ran up the outside of the dormitory and exited onto a terrace. Up there, in the open air, she could see beyond the office buildings of Tempe, the smog of Phoenix, all the way to the horizon. She turned and stared far off to the northeast, across the Superstition Mountains, and slowly a smile came to her lips.

It was Game Day. The People were coming.

The People traveled mostly in pickup trucks, often driving a mile or two on dirt roads before they reached the asphalt and their real journey began. Some of them squeezed five across the seat, the two smallest ducking below the dashboard whenever a police car drew near, while the grandmother, solemn in her bundle of blankets, sat outside on the flatbed and gazed across the distance.

The world calls them Navajo, but that name was given to them by someone else—an old Pueblo Indian word, some believed, meaning "thieves." They call themselves Diné, the People. They are the largest tribe in America, 200,000 strong, and their reservation, primarily in northeast Arizona, is the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont combined. Within the sphere bordered by their four sacred mountains—Hesperus Peak to the north, Blanca Peak to the east, Mount Taylor to the south and the San Francisco Peaks to the west—they feel protected by the spirits, for in their hearts those mountains are their four support poles and the sky above them their roof, God's version of the Diné's traditional domed homes. This area they call Diné Bikeyah—Land of the People. When they leave Diné Bikeyah, something happens. They feel vulnerable. In 1864 the U.S. government sent them on a 350-mile journey to relocate them on flat, inhospitable land in New Mexico. Crop after crop failed, more than one quarter of the 8,000 Diné who made the infamous Long Walk died, and after four years the authorities were forced to let them return and reclaim a piece of their homeland. But their uneasiness would not go away.

Who would have thought that a young woman bouncing a basketball would draw them outside of the safe place? They couldn't quite explain what kept pulling a few hundred of them through the yellow deserts, blood-red buttes and purple mesas of Arizona on the 5½-hour journey to Tempe to see each of her home games, which usually took place on Thursday and Saturday nights. They knew only that they must go, even if it sometimes meant turning around a few hours later and making the trip home, collapsing into bed at 3:30 a.m. to catch a few hours of sleep before work and then doing it all over again a day later.

If one were an eagle, one could gaze down and see the Diné who were embarking. The 16-year-old girl with cancer from Chinle, who made the seven-hour trip over and over again. The friends and aunts and grandmas who loved Sis, the secretaries and sheepherders who barely knew her, the busloads of Diné high school teams that had spent weeks selling raffle tickets and concessions to fund the excursions. And, too, the man hobbling toward the fleet of 30 rusting, rumpled vehicles scattered across his land—Sis's father, Ray Becenti.

A scrap heap, one might call this, a junkyard . . . or one might call it an offering of love to Sis. More than a few of these cars and trucks had perished taking Ray to and from her games, and others he had collected simply to cannibalize their parts and sustain his three or four functioning vehicles through another long basketball season. He winced and lowered himself into the battered gold '79 Cutlass—god knew how many miles its dead odometer was hiding. The blue Chevy '73 pickup nearby had gone through three engines and 300,000 miles, the white '79 Chevy pickup with the rod through its engine had gone 175,000, the gray '73 Chevy Blazer with the jammed differential case and the '79 Firebird had each endured another couple of hundred thousand, easy. In Sis's four years of college, Ray had missed only two home games. It took blizzards to keep him away.

Distance didn't daunt the People. For centuries the scarcity of water, vegetation and firewood on their land had forced them to scatter and live in small, remote family groups, often leaving one house for another with the change of the seasons. Ray watched his two teenage sons, Reyes and Ryan, jump into the car, eager for the motion and the distance. Once Ray had been like them, like most of the People; there was something about moving across open country at 65 mph that made their poverty and their past seem to melt away. The vastness of the land made a man feel insignificant, but there was exhilaration in that insignificance, a soaring freedom.

The Becentis, grandma and all, had thrown a mattress into the back of a pickup and traveled 3½ days to greet their eldest son, Ray Jr., when his aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, returned to the naval base in Philadelphia. They had driven to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful gush, to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and California so Ray and his wife, Eleanor, could play in Indian basketball tournaments; sometimes Ray felt like he had watched half of his life go by through a pickup's windshield. But somewhere, somehow, he had turned a corner. Open road, which once had made him think of everything that might be, now made him think of everything that never would be. He was 47, unemployed, with no cartilage left to keep bone from rubbing bone in both of his knees, and the wife who had always sat next to him on these trips was dead. "There's no feeling of freedom when I drive anymore," he said. "Now I think too much. Now I just want to get there."

The wealth of a Diné family is measured by its closeness; Ray's wealth was running through his fingers. His two oldest sons had left for the Navy, and the next oldest, Reyes, was about to enter a vocational tech school 300 miles away in Phoenix. How could Ray stop him? Nearly half of the men on the reservation were unemployed; Ray himself had been laid off in June after 14 years as a property clerk for the local school district. His youngest son, Ryan, a junior in high school, was planning to go to Denver to study after graduation. That left a man with aching knees staring out the window of a dented '79 Cutlass at the sagebrush and the dried-out creek beds, wondering who in hell he would lean on one day not so far off and what had happened, so suddenly, to this world.

That left his only daughter. That left Sis.

The daughter's home was where a Diné parent usually lived his last years—just last summer Ray had changed ownership of the family house in Fort Defiance from the name of his late wife to that of Ryneldi. There was one problem. Ray's daughter was a 5'7" all-conference guard at Arizona State. Ray's daughter had been a junior college All-America for two years at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College and had led the Pac-10 last season in both assists and steals. No Diné before her, male or female, had ever been a starter for a major college basketball team. Now she was a 21-year-old senior, a sociology major scheduled to graduate in December. Now she was talking about playing pro basketball in Europe and trying out for the '96 Olympics.

Basketball, Ray knew and loved. As a boy, when he wasn't herding sheep or hauling firewood, he had spent every spare moment shooting a small rubber ball at a basket made from a coffee can with a gunnysack hanging from its bottom lip like an old man's beard. But his daughter kept talking about something he didn't know. She kept talking about chasing a dream.

"It's different out here, Dad," Ray Jr. had tried to explain to him one night in San Diego. Ray Sr. had just driven the family 12 hours to see his son graduate from boot camp in the Navy, and he couldn't understand where all the other parents were. "Once you're 18 out here," Ray Jr. told him, "you're on your own."

This, Ray asked himself, was where he was letting his kids go? If the parents weren't there for the children as they went off into the world, what would make the children be there for the parents as the time drew near for them to leave it? He sat in the passenger seat of the Cutlass and watched Reyes slalom through three-tenths of a mile of red mud to reach the paved road, where another truckload of Diné was heading off to the game. All of the People, in private, were wrestling with this same question. Television sets were luring their children to a different dream, grant money from the tribal scholarship office was luring them off to college. If the covenant was broken between the land and the People, between the young and the old, many elders believed the tribe was doomed.

Ryneldi was, in a way, a litmus test. She would show whether the People could compete head-on in that foreign world, but perhaps even more, whether they could learn the Anglos' strange ways and still return home. Ryneldi was the first Diné to play out the question in public. "She means to our people," says Lester Kinsel, her coach in middle school, "what Pelè meant to Brazil."

Already the ripples were spreading. Ten Diné women, far more than ever before, played junior college basketball this year, and another, sophomore Gwynn Hobbs, started at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Four of the five Diné seniors on the girls' team at Sis's alma mater, Window Rock High, had committed to entering college next season, and all four Diné seniors on the reservation's Monument Valley High girls' team, which twice had traveled six hours to watch Ryneldi play, planned to go to college too.

Ray motioned his son to stop the car. He limped to a tree, the same tree as always, and took a fresh sprig of cedar to keep on the dashboard during the trip. It was a ritual Ray performed virtually every week of every basketball season: fill the tank, change the oil, change the cedar and follow the road to Sis again.

There were no boundaries to his pride in her accomplishments . . . but one. "I wonder if all my children are going to move away," he said. "I wonder if I'm going to end up all alone."

She's the hero of the reservation. They hold their breath with every move she makes. She feels such pressure to be the perfect role model, to make every game the perfect game. They come from so far to see her, they call her on the phone all the time. She's a walking Dear Abby column, in reverse—all of her people want to give her advice. Their fear is that she won't go back to them, that she has become too modern. My fear is that she's under so much pressure to please everybody that she won't please herself."

That was what Ryneldi's coach at Arizona State, Maura McHugh, said. So many voices filled Sis's head as she walked across campus to the arena for that evening's game. There were the words of Peterson Zah, the tribal president who had designated her a youth ambassador to speak at alcohol and drug clinics, schools and youth conferences across the reservation the past two summers: "She is perhaps the first role model we have ever had. She is a pioneer. When she speaks, all the children are quiet and listening intently. She is helping to teach us the competitive attitude, which is what we have lacked. We haven't taught our children how to go out into the cold world—we need her to come back here and to be seen physically, to explain to them how she did it. She has the qualities to be president of our tribe."

Then she would hear the voice of Margaret McKeon, the young Arizona State assistant coach from New York City who had taken Sis under her wing, urging her to explore the possibility of professional ball in Europe, or to accept that request to speak in front of 350 whites and blacks at Arizona State, or to see what her hair looked like long or to try on a pretty blouse and a pair of designer jeans at the mall  . . .  to go out and crack open the great chestnut of life while she was young and free. Who could not wish to be as confident and loose as Margaret, as full of life and laughter? Sis could be all silliness and giggles too, but she usually had to be in a place with lines around it, a basketball court or a reservation in northeastern Arizona.

And then old arguments with her dad would come back to her, from still summer nights when she was home from college and thought she would go nuts.

"Let's do something, Dad. I'm so bored."

"What do you mean, bored?"

"I mean, let's do something. All we do is sit here and talk. You want to go out to eat?"

"See what happens, Sis? You used to be able to sit here and talk. But now that you've been in the fast lane. . . ."

"Daaaaad. . . ."

"Do you want to go back to Grandma Marie's?" That was where Ray once sent her when she started talking about fast food and boredom: a week at Grandma Marie's house without indoor plumbing or electricity, a week of herding sheep and going to bed on a mattress outside just after dusk.

"You're coming back after you graduate, Sis," he said. "You've had enough fun. If you don't come back then, you'll never come back."

But in the end, someone else's voice always pushed aside all the others. It was uncanny. There were three places, since Eleanor Becenti's death more then six years ago, where Sis had discovered she could talk with her mother. One was atop the little mound of earth outside the Becentis' house, from which Sis would gaze at the pi‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on tree that shaded Eleanor's grave a mile and a half away. Another was atop her dormitory, staring to the northeast, toward home. The third was the most magical, the most reassuring for a young woman traveling around the country to play for her team—it was on any court, anytime she had a basketball in her hands. Two hours of practice weren't enough. Sis would show up at the campus recreation center every night after studying, even when she was exhausted during exams, and often shoot alone past midnight, until she felt calm again, felt the presence of her mother. Then she would return to her room and drift off to sleep with the ball still in her hands. Her mom never spoke to her of Anglos or Diné, of going away from the People or returning to them. She always spoke of the need for her daughter to try harder, to reach deeper inside herself, to never give up.

Sis kept her eyes on the sidewalk as she walked to the University Activity Center for the game, glancing up now and then to see if she needed to detour around anyone walking toward her. Her objective, as she made her way through the Anglo world—"I don't want to step in anyone's way here," she said. "I make no moves here"—was the opposite of her objective on the Anglos' basketball courts. The prejudice she had encountered so far was subtle: pedestrians who expected her to yield in a walkway, doors let go in her face. The smartest thing, she had decided, was to avoid any situation in which things like that, or worse, could happen. The headphones helped. No one expected anything of someone wearing headphones.

She walked into the locker room, pulled on her uniform and reached into her street clothes for her arrowhead. A medicine man had blessed it in a long ceremony during her senior year of high school after one game in which she had felt dizzy and another in which she had fallen and smashed her head on the court, convincing her coach and loved ones that someone on the reservation had bewitched her. Oh, yes, there was danger in rising as high as she had, in making all-state two straight years, in leading Window Rock High to a state title as a junior and averaging 32 points a game as a senior. In the world of the Diné, anyone who dared to stand out was a lightning rod for envy and witchcraft; the goal of most Diné was to lose themselves somewhere in the middle. She had worn the blessed arrowhead on a necklace for the rest of her high school games. Now, among the Anglos, she tucked it inside one of her black hightop sneakers.

She went to the bathroom with her pouch of corn pollen and applied a little to her head, a little to her tongue, a little to the bottom of her feet, a little to the earth, protection. Then she ran onto the court with her teammates for warmups, still thrilled by the feeling and sound of the ball bouncing between the wood and her hand. It was a sound she had known before she had known, moved with before she could move, for her mother had played in Indian tournaments virtually every week during the first four months of her pregnancy, telling no one of her condition—not even her husband, Ray, because he was the coach of her team—for fear they would make her sit. Even after they knew, Eleanor had insisted on playing, agreeing to remain on the offensive end of the court so she could play for two months more.

Once, after Sis had won an MVP trophy in a tournament when she was 12, she heard her mother say over the stove to a relative, "We always wanted to have five boys, so we could have our own basketball team . . . but would you look who our star turned out to be?" Sis kept her hair cropped short, didn't go out on dates and never—except for that mortifying homecoming her senior year, when her class conspired to nominate her queen—wore a dress. It was almost as if she were determined to grant her parents' wish.

Every time she walked onto a court, the first thing Sis did was look for her mom. Even if it took a 3½-day drive, like it had once for an AAU tournament in Shreve-port, La., there Eleanor would be, sitting in the first row or just behind the players, pushing Sis when she sagged, lauding her when she shone, leading the battle against that opposing coach in the eighth grade who demanded a forfeit—anyone who looked and played like Ryneldi, he said, had to be a boy. Even at the end, when Eleanor's skin was yellowing from a failing liver, her body wasting away and her eyesight fading, she traveled three hours to away games in high school, leaned against her husband and watched her daughter blur by. A week before she died, in the summer after Sis's freshman year of high school, Eleanor called her daughter to her hospital bedside. "Don't stop, Sis," she said. "If you stop, there'll never be another chance. Play for me. I'll always be there when you need me. Talk to me. I'll be right there, in your heart."

But when her mother passed away, the girl who had once dribbled the ball to and from high school every day and carried it from class to class shocked everyone. She refused to touch a basketball. Two weeks went by, three weeks, four. No one understood: It was too painful to play basketball, because it would bring back her mom. She walked outside one day, finally, and started shooting alone. Put more arc on it. It was almost as if she had heard her mom saying it. And then everything turned. No one understood: Now she had to play basketball, because it would bring back her mom.

The People had always walked a wide, nervous circle around death. To cry or mention the name of the deceased was to impede his or her spirit from going where it needed to go. "Doo'ajinii da," Ray would say when Sis's eyes welled. "Don't say it." He removed the phone from the house. Don't say it, don't. He shook his head no when the children asked to go to movies or dances. More than ever, he wanted his children by his side.

The family turned inward, four boys and a girl playing on a dirt court surrounded by a couple of dozen goats, a couple of dozen cars and miles of open space you could stare across clear into New Mexico. Sis played in rain, in mud, in snow, dribbling over frozen hoofprints and paw prints, through goat manure, rocks and small engine parts, back and forth between a pair of rotting half-inch plywood backboards, one held up by a fence post and the other by a rusted pipe. She played for an hour in the morning before school, played till dark after school; she got down on her knees with a handful of flour to draw and redraw her free throw lanes and three-point markers. Her brothers could cheat her out of baskets and get away with it, they could hack her, because all they had to do during an argument was threaten to walk off the court. She couldn't walk off. She was chasing a dream, something so sacred she could hardly speak of it. It was not a crusade to prove anything to the Diné or to the white people—if it had that effect too, that would be wonderful. It was to keep alive something between her and her mom.

But it was no easy thing to satisfy a wisp, a whisper, a memory. Years later, with an NCAA tournament invitation hanging in the balance during her junior year, she walked to the foul line with four seconds left, her team trailing the University of Washington by one in the final game of the season. She missed the first shot . . . missed the second . . . then collapsed to her knees and sobbed until her teammates finally lifted her and led her away.

When she came out of the locker room that night, her father drove her to a park with a lighted basketball court. "Start shooting fouls," he said. Tears ran down her cheeks again as she began shooting. Silently Reyes and Ryan rebounded. Midnight passed . . . 1 a.m. . . .Ryan lay down on the asphalt and fell asleep. Sis's eyes dried. The ball kept flicking through the net. She wasn't even mad at her father anymore; she was where she needed to be on this horrible night: with a ball in her hands, with her mom.

It was nearly two in the morning when her dad said, "Let's go."

Protection. That's what Ray was teaching his daughter. Just as he had a few years ago, when he asked the medicine man to sing and pray over her uniform and sneakers. "You're going somewhere where nobody is going to like you or respect you until you prove them wrong," Ray had told her before she went away to college, "and the only place to do that is on a basketball court." Ray had played basketball in front of white crowds and been stung by the insults. He knew what he was talking about.

His eyes swept the land as the old Cutlass bore toward that night's game in Tempe. He and his sons had passed the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest and the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks. They had left the Land of the People; anything could occur. A deer could dart in front of them and total their car—it had happened to his second-oldest son, Ryland, coming back from one of Sis's games last year. They could come around a curve on a lonely stretch of road and suddenly find themselves closing on a half ton of horse or three quarters of a ton of cow—Ray had done that at 2:15 a.m. after a game two years ago, missing the horse by a hair. Somewhere out there on the road was half a tooth and a strip of his forehead, thanks to that lunatic who had suddenly pulled a U-turn in front of Ray's car when he was deep into the six-hour trip home from Sis's junior college game three years ago in Scottsdale. Route 377, just south of Holbrook, might be flooded out. You had to watch for rockslides in the high elevations near Payson, not to mention the patches of ice or the snowbanks that swallowed the wheels of the truck after one of Sis's games last year, marooning Ryland when he pulled off the road to take a pee. The water hose could break, as had once happened to Aunt Anna Mae on a trip back, and there might not be a service station—or a human being—for another 25 miles.

Yes, he reassured himself sometimes, it was a blessing that he was unemployed this year. Instead of driving home after Thursday night games, he could go to the tiny apartment Ray Jr. had rented since leaving the Navy and finding work for the state court system in Phoenix, and sleep on the floor with eight or nine other relatives who usually came to see Sis play.

The ride was four hours old, the sun blazed on the roof, and the Becentis sucked on hard candy to fight dry mouth. Ryan dozed off. Reyes' foot itched to bury the speedometer's needle. Ray thought. The earth convulsed and the seasons changed, desert sandstone and astonishing rock formations giving way to snow-crusted mountain ridges crowded with pine trees, which in turn gave way to an explosion of boulders and 20-foot-tall organ-pipe cactus.

Finally they saw it, the industrial haze of Phoenix. Now they could relax a little—just a little. Not long ago a white policeman in Phoenix stopped their car just after a game for a broken taillight and grabbed the cedar sprig from the dashboard.

"What is it?" the cop demanded.

Ray said nothing. It was best, he had decided long ago, to say nothing.

"Drugs?" the policeman demanded, holding it to his nose and sniffing. "You sure it's not drugs?"

Look at 'em all!" Sis's Arizona State teammates had cried the first time it happened. "Look at all those Indians!" Not only had a couple of hundred Navajo from the reservation filed into the arena but also a couple of hundred other Diné who lived in the Phoenix area had come to see her play. They would keep coming and coming, composing half the crowd at most games, doubling Arizona State's attendance record for women's basketball last season and certain to help set another record this year.

Sis took a quick glance around the stands. There was her dad, sitting low, as always, so he didn't have to hobble up the steps, and alone, as always, so he could concentrate on her. There was brother Ryland, all the way from the naval base in San Diego on that $90 round-trip airfare, as he was for almost every home game. There were Ray Jr., Reyes and Ryan, their faces painted Sun Devil yellow and maroon. There was Aunt LaVern, who had once flown to New York City to watch Sis play and had driven three days to Miami for another game, and Aunt Anna Mae, who had rented a van and driven 10 hours to see Sis play in Nebraska this season, and Grandma Thelma, who had clapped so hard for Sis after driving seven hours to watch her play at the University of Arizona in Tucson this season that the turquoise shot right out of her silver bracelet. Cousin Adrian was there too, videotaping the game for his sister, Westy Begay, who for some reason—something about being in medical school in North Dakota—hadn't come. Old schoolmates and girls playing for Navajo high school teams looked on too. Almost everyone was there but poor Grandmother Hubbard, the 76-year-old woman who used to hitchhike to Sis's high school away games and zing M&Ms at the referees and opposing coaches who incurred her wrath; once, when the chocolate-coated pellets had failed to convince a ref of his boneheadedness, she had reared back and bopped him.

It still amazed Sis. She couldn't have lasted four years away from home, she surely would have ended up just another Native American college dropout, a casualty of homesickness and isolation, were it not for the loyalty of the Diné and her dad. "I can go for two weeks without seeing them," she says, "but then comes a day when I need to. When I see them, all the tension goes out of me. I would've lost my confidence without them."

She was certain of one thing. No matter what idea, what opportunity, what man she might bump into if she remained on this trajectory, no circumstance could keep her from returning to the People, to coach and coax kids to dream, after she had chased her own star as far as she could. She was going to do that, she swore. "I can talk freely on the reservation," she says. "I can run with my three dogs in the open space outside my house and jump over the stream and scream as loud as I want, 'HEYYYYYYY!' and nobody will hear me. I'll come back when I've conquered everything. I have so many friends there, and so much family, and there's so much joking. I can be who I am. But when I go back, it takes me awhile to get used to it. My dad's probably right to have his fears. I get so bored there sometimes. . . ."

The game began, and Sis controlled its pulse. She had been averaging 13 points a game, but even on those nights this year when the pressure wrapped itself around her and her shot betrayed her, she stood out as the true natural, moving the ball casually between her legs and behind her back, cross-dribbling on the fly, seeing everything without seeming to look—bang!—suddenly the ball was in a teammate's hands beneath the hoop. "When I saw what she could do with the ball," says teammate Stacey Johnson, "I was, like, wow! I was like, dang! I was like, whoa! Her passes shock you."

"I look around at the crowd," says Bobby White, a controller in the tribal administration office at Window Rock, "and I see Anglos saying, 'Wow!' and I feel good. What Ryneldi is doing is saying for all our people, 'See, we can do things too.' She's not just fitting in with the non-Navajo. She's leading them. She's running the show."

The game ended, and a few dozen of the People waited in the seats for Sis to shower and emerge. Little kids with pencil and paper and looks of awe. Old ones who shook her hand softly, told her to walk in beauty and then asked when she was coming home.

On Sunday morning the battered gold Cutlass would return to the Land of the People, everyone inside it stiff from the nights passed on Ray Jr.'s apartment floor. Soon the car would begin the journey to Tempe all over again, but before it did, it would pull off to the side of the road, near the same cedar tree. A 47-year-old man would hobble out, holding the sprig that the hot air coming through the dashboard vent had turned brown on the last trip. Before snapping off a fresh piece, he would gently lay the used sprig at the foot of the tree. He would shrug when he was asked why. It was just where it belonged.