The sky was milk white and vaulted. A squall tugged at sagebrush and sent dust devils spinning off the mesas. Millenniums of rain and the holy winds, the Niłch’i Diyini, had carved the washes and gulches and canyons that folded into the skin of this land.
To survey this world in the chill of November was to feel loneliness crawl into your bones.
A distant clanking: A school bus bounced down a pockmarked old Indian route past red-ribbed buttes that reared like primeval monsters. It passed a grove of cottonwoods, silver branches delicate as veins against the sky. The road heaved, and the bus emerged from a gap in an escarpment into a parched emptiness of plain that stretched to the end of vision. Teenage boys craned their necks and pointed at a red- tailed hawk riding the currents of approaching winter.
A painted black-and-gold wildcat stretched the length of this bus, which carried Navajo boys and girls from Chinle, Ariz., to their season-opening basketball games in 2017. They were among the more talented players on the reservation, and this was the beginning of their quest for a state championship.
The seating hierarchy was as formalized as that of a royal court. Raul Mendoza — a four-decade-long coaching force on the Navajo reservation, married to a Navajo woman yet not Navajo himself, respected although perhaps not beloved — commanded the front seat and stared impassively through dark sunglasses at the rutted road. He had lived a dozen lives in 70 years of wandering. His black leather shoulder bag carried his whiteboard, his scouting reports and a dog-eared black Bible into which he talked softly at night.
The girls’ coach sat behind Mendoza. Girls’ games draw thousands of fans on the rez. Male assistants sat behind her, in unspoken competition to take the helm when Mendoza retired or got fired. The end can come suddenly in the high desert.
Teenage girls occupied the next block of seats, singing to Beyoncé and braiding one another’s hair. The boys commanded the back and slouched like cats, heads and arms on one another’s shoulders and backs. Some tapped out texts. Others stared out the window as their land, the vast Dinétah, rolled past. Two freshman boys, awkward fawns, peered, eyes wide and furtive, at the seniors, the coach, the girls.
All were excused early from class for the three-hour drive from Chinle, their town at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, to Snowflake, a Mormon outpost on the arid plains 130 miles south.
There are few grander sports than rez ball, a game of acrobatic layups and jumpers and running that found its origin in that Native American time before horses. Navajo learned basketball in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools and made it their own, a game played by grandparents and parents and children.
No Wildcat team had yet won a state championship. That could not stand. Four thousand people live in Chinle, and on midwinter nights more than that crowded into the Wildcat Den.
Days earlier, Mendoza waved tryouts over and asked: What is your goal? To get your name in The Navajo Times? He did not wait for their answer.
He held up his hand and his fat state-championship ring — he was the only coach on the rez to own one — and let the boys gawk. “I want to get a bigger ring than this.”
These teenagers were perched on that cliff wall between adolescence and manhood, footholds uncertain. They faced a primal decision: Should they leave their land the size of West Virginia and a world of sacred peaks and spirits and clans? If they entered college in the world of bilagáanas, the whites, could they survive? If they thrived, could they truly return?
“Hey, listen — blunt time!”
Angelo Lewis, known as ’Shlow to the little kids, who scaled his shoulders before games, was Chinle’s big man, a 6-foot-3 junior center with a perpetual half grin. He pointed to a Facebook post of a black dude smoking a cigar-size blunt. He skipped classes and struggled with grades, more from inattention than lack of comprehension. He should have been a senior.
Dewayne Tom sat next to Angelo wearing a mauve sweater and dress shirt, black slacks and dress shoes. Lean and soft-spoken, with teeth wrapped in sky-blue braces, he was jittery. He lived in Pinon, a town at the mouth of another beautiful canyon. His lack of defense confounded Mendoza as much as his academics pleased his teachers. He dreamed of becoming an engineer.
Teachers told him to experience the world. His aunts and cousins lobbied him to stay and attend the Navajo Diné College. His words revealed few shards of what stirred inside.
Josiah Tsosie, a 5-foot-4 senior point guard, sat farther back. He was a top cross- country runner, with legs like cords of steel. In the ink of predawn he slipped on running shoes and pushed open the creaking door of his trailer. He loped down a rutted road between pens of sheep barely stirring and rez dogs that yapped and bolted after him. Some mornings, he crossed paths with trickster coyotes and pulled out his corn pollen pouch and touched dust to his head, listening for the words of the Holy People. He could be warm and introspective and suspicious and removed. He desired father figures and wondered why the most primal of all deserted him.
Cooper Burbank kept on his headphones. He had been the second-leading scorer as a freshman and possessed an elegant jump shot, and fakes and spins he had yet to unpack. He was preternaturally calm, a child of the Navajo northlands. His parents planted a hoop in the red dirt near a wind-carved mesa, and Cooper wore it out with shot after shot. He attended a tiny elementary school where his mother taught third grade and his father, a rodeo bull rider, was a custodian.
A year ago, Cooper’s mother told him he needed a challenge, a high school with a path to a four-year college. You need a mentor, she said, and Mendoza is a legend.
Cooper rested inside his silence and stared at a land elemental. An autumnal sun bathed all in a blond light, goldenrod and desert grasses, and Churro sheep and their guardian dogs, which cocked heads and sniffed at the air, trying to catch a scent of coyotes.
The bus rolled past Mitten Peak and across Wide Ruin Wash and into Holbrook, a border town. Navajo Boulevard was lined with giant rubber dinosaurs and liquor stores and cheap motels advertising cheaper off-season rates. Mendoza won a state championship in 2011, and his summer all-star team featured Mike Budenholzer, who came out of the high desert to coach the Milwaukee Bucks.
Millenniums ago the Anasazi built a village here, and Pueblo tribes followed, and then the restless and roaming Navajo. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the Spanish conquistador, galloped through looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola. Consumed by gold hunger, he wandered north until his fever extinguished on the plains of Kansas.
I drove this way weeks earlier in the company of a ruminative medicine man with a handsome flush of white hair and a buckskin cowboy hat, and he talked of the melancholy that gripped his generation in autumn. This was when bilagáana operatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs fanned out across the reservation in search of Navajo children to dispatch to distant boarding schools. Parents watched cars bounce along rutted roads for a long while before the agents arrived and asked if they had children. The federal agents acted as if they owned the Diné, peering inside the eight-sided hogans with dirt floors that represented home and womb.
Children came to know what the lengthening shadows of autumn presaged. When he was 7, he spotted a B.I.A. school bus trailing red dust like a bridal train and took off running barefoot into a canyon. Agents found him and packed him off to school in Oklahoma. He looked out the back window of the bus as his parents receded into the distance. The founder of the B.I.A. schools, an American army captain, distilled the mission in 1890: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
That boy was a grandfather now, and spoke fluent English and tonal Navajo, with its hundreds of vowel sounds, a language no easier to shed than his skin. The Indian inside did not die. It was memories that arrived unbidden. “The past cannot be unwoven,” he said.
The boys knew these tales of dispossession and heeded them as they did the báhádzidii, the taboos. Chance Harvey, a shooting guard, wrapped corn pollen into his socks. Josiah placed a pouch of bitterroot in his shorts. Families asked medicine men to sing Protection Way songs before the season, chants through night until dawn cracked open the sky. Navajo oral culture was a rope that stretched thousands of years, tales passing from ancestors to grandparents to a mother whispering to a baby in her womb. The broader world intruded, too. The boys played Kanye and Lil Uzi Vert on their smartphones, and Josiah and Angelo practiced N.B.A.-style handshakes.
Older Navajos conversed in Navajo, while boys spoke fractured pieces. Dewayne dreamed of winter; he told me the Navajo language has 50 words for snow. These boys were migrants in time.
Old man Mendoza confused them. He ran them until they gasped and gagged. Then he sat with them, one on one, and talked life and hoops. They knew this: Mendoza had won a championship. He might serve as guide if they let him in.
The Wildcats’ bus accelerated down state-tended asphalt across a broad valley. It turned onto Snowflake’s Main Street, and the boys peered at brick homes with sweeping wood porches and an ice-cream parlor and a grand temple of the Latter-day Saints. Erastus Snow, a Mormon apostle, founded this town with William Jordan Flake, who later served time in Yuma penitentiary for the crime of taking too many wives.
The bus pulled into the high school parking lot. Anxiety twisted like a rodent in its burrow. Mendoza turned to the boys, his face betraying nothing. “Get your bags. This is it.” Two years ago, Mendoza inherited a fractured band in Chinle, an unruly pack with four wins. He imbued it with purpose, and they won many more games. Mendoza could rattle off the names of coaches tossed aside after a losing season, like a veteran recalling comrades lost to ceaseless war. “Chinle had three coaches in the year before I was hired.”
Do you worry you might be devoured? Mendoza shrugged. He chose this path and saw no point in second-guessing. “That’s rez ball.”
This article is an excerpt from the book “Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation,” by Michael Powell, a New York Times sports columnist. The book was released Nov. 19.