SI Vault
Gary Smith
March 01, 1993
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
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March 01, 1993

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

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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.

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