The goal is to look at the ground all day long. One glance at the river or sky could be a missed chip or firestone. Watch where you step. Walk silently — barefoot if possible. Always walk into the sun so the shadow is behind you, and never speak into the wind. Never speak at all.
These words echo in my mind: memories of arrowhead hunting with my mother in the desert. She’d sit me in the remains of an Indian campsite and say, “Can you believe it? You might be the first person to sit in this place in hundreds of years!” Then she’d wander off, studying the ground and praying to find a piece of history lodged in the sand.
It is best to hunt in the heat of the day. Drive to the places where the truck tracks end. Park there, get out, close your eyes, and let the wind take you. If the desert wants to lead you to the arrowheads, you will get there. You cannot force yourself upon the desert — don’t even try. You must ask it with outstretched arms and small apprehensive breaths. In this way, the wind will be steady and you will not. Maybe the sacred places will open themselves up to you because you’re afraid, because fear commands respect in this land. This land is unforgiving, as are the spirits who roam it and the arrowheads that slice into skin and tear out life.
Arrowheads are the phantoms that dwell in the desert. They were made with other rocks, chipped away until they became jagged. They are moss agate, obsidian, pink quartz, white granite, jade. Some of them have killed, some have wounded, some have been statues in the sun, demanding obedience. My mother says that when you find one, it comes to you in dreams and tells you where it’s been, who it’s been in, whose strip of leather bound it to branches. I always wondered if taking it from that place would curse us all. My mother says we are not cursed because the desert led us there. It is a gift, daughter, from your grandfathers. Remember.
While my mother goes arrowhead hunting, I walk around campsites and imagine the teepees still standing, the fires glowing inside them, the husband and wife sleeping in the back, children at their sides. The door flaps faced east so the people would rise with the sun and be welcomed into another day. Sometimes it is so easy to give myself up to these moments — to forget cities and plumbing and paper and pens and makeup and shoes. Standing here, I can see the river shining, the wild horses grazing. This land is home. My chest is bursting with something that will not be quieted; it is like a bird’s wings beating at my ribs to get out. I am amazed by this place and all that it holds. It is an arrowhead tearing at my veins, ripping time out of my blood: I am here. I am Indian. I am home.
Never go into the desert during a thunderstorm. The elevation is high here: 7,200 feet. The lightning will find you and there are no trees to strike first. You are the tree in the desert; you are all there is to strike. The horses run crazy in the thunderstorms. The river sneaks around bends and does not breathe. The sagebrush holds onto every root tight and does not move a twig. When the rain comes, it will come to a thirsty, burnt land. The desert will crawl towards the rain like a dying man. It will eat you up, and you will wash away. This kind of starvation has no pity, no other goal but nourishment and survival. You cannot lose yourself here: even if the sky is a crimson river, even if the wet sage is a blanket of lace.
Once, when I was four or five, I got lost during a thunderstorm and saw the wild horses. They are vapors in the desert. Their breath comes out in clouds as if it were winter. I think they are the only truly wild living things left in this land. The sky shook with the deepest purple I have ever seen, and I could not tell if the thunder was from above my head or below my feet. The horses ran right in front of me and stopped. A black horse bucked at the sky and screamed at me. Then they were gone.
My mother found me an hour later, sitting on a firestone — one of the large, soft burgundy rocks at places in the land where ancient fires once burned — and wailing. People sometimes cling to the places that remind us of home, safety. I was clinging to the firestone, trying to seep the warmth, memories, and life from its deepest places.
“In the dark,” my mother said, “you can see the firestones glowing from within. They remember the fires and the men who used to dance around them. They remember mothers drying meat, children’s dusty feet, dogs sleeping. If you watch long enough in the night, the firestones will show you these things. They long to keep you warm, even now, as the sun burns them into the ground.”
You can see the firestones burnt into the land all across the desert, rocks set so carefully into the shape of circles inside circles. The first time I saw the firestones, my mother told me that they held their places in the land, waiting for another fire. I saw them as patient, waiting through winter storms, desert floods, and throbbing summer heat: unaware of the empty teepee circles around them, the silence of the nights. My mother showed me the firestones — their circles on the ground — how they were waiting, without knowledge of time, trees, buildings.
I was 12 when I found my first arrowhead. The wind was winding its way through the tall sage along the sandstone cliffs, stirring up the fine white dust there. Our dog, Tippy, was curled up against the inside of the truck tire, petrified by the dust devils swirling around the land. I could see my mother a way off, bent low towards the ground like she was trying to read a message in the sand, singing as she tiptoed around a campsite: “Blow, blow, Seminole wind. Blow like you’re never gonna blow again; I’m callin’ to you like a long lost friend, but I don’t know who you are. . . .”
I walked down to the river, sat down on a rock, and picked a piece of snake grass. It looked like a mini bamboo shoot: little black rings up to the tip in inch-long segments. I pulled it into pieces and put it back together again. I was reaching down to pick another when I saw it there, stuck in the mud: a tiny arrowhead, just bigger than my thumbnail. I picked it up and dipped it into the river to rinse the mud away. It was moss agate: crystal clear with bits of green and black moss petrified inside. What could this have possibly been used for? I imagined a little girl like me, sitting by the river, carving the arrowhead and using it to cut shoots of snake grass.
When my mother wandered over and saw me holding the arrowhead, she gasped. “What, an arrowhead by the river?” I was a water child. Water was my gift, my place, the part of me that connected with the past, and the arrowhead was proof of this. Later I received the Indian name Elawei Ama: “Quiet Water” in Cherokee. “Because quiet water runs into the deep dream places in the river bottom,” my mother said, “you found your first arrowhead there. It is where you will always find peace, yourself.”
The desert can make you see things that are not there and hide things from you that are right below your feet. Somewhere between the heat waves and the dust swirls, the air becomes malleable and conscious, a trickster. It is alive, thriving with a strange concoction of the past and the present.
My mother taught me to see the soul of the desert through arrowhead hunting. Her simple instructions were like thoughts in the wind. They twirled around me, shook the sagebrush next to me, and then danced off across the desert into the hot, wavy air. “This is not just looking for rocks on the ground,” my mother said. “This is remembering your spirit; this is sand, this is sky.”