In the Desert a Mountain Rises

by Jaclyn Roessel

When I am looking for strength, I picture my strongholds, the places where I have found respite, calm and clarity. Each place I visualize, often in the middle of an anxious bout, are places grounded by mountains. From Black Mesa, the Lukachukai Mountains to the San Francisco Peaks, the Sandias in New Mexico and Piestewa Peak here in Phoenix. All are places where I have seen the sun rise and set on their crests. It is that dependable cyclical force – knowing the sun will rise and fall over their majestic forms, that soothes me.

I find refuge in land, both in mine homeland and those of others. The power of place is a guiding principle of my faith and one I was reminded of this week. I attended an event where an elder Akimel O’otham man shared a traditional song. The beautiful melody was sung to the rhythm of a hand rattle made from a gourd. It was called “in the desert a mountain rises” and as I do not speak O’otham, I can only expand on the meaning of the song to me as a Navajo woman with a fondness for mountains. Every feeling I had while listening to the song was a feeling of reconnection. The peace that comes from returning to yourself and harnessing the power of your being. It is in the mountains where I have discovered, found and regained peace in my heart countless times. Each time I feel this homecoming I understand I am the mountain and the mountain is me.

Listening to the song reminded of my late Nalí hastiin (paternal grandfather) and one of his favorite psalms that I carry with me. “I life up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help?” (Psalm 121:1).  I don’t remember where he shared this with me first. Today I visualize our conversation taking place in his “Oasis” in Round Rock as we looked east toward the Lukachukai Mountains, in a moment, I am sure, where my heart was filled with uncertainty.

I love that together the psalm and this beautiful song create a dichotomy. On the one hand, to be filled with doubt and wondering in the middle of a trial where and when help will come and on the other having the delivery of faith so forceful that it rises with audacity in the desert. My people believe in the power of mountains. We find protection in them spiritually and so I love the translation of the O’odham song – “in the desert a mountain rises”. I think about this phrase as a great reminder to not only respect the land but to recognize we are the land. We are the mountains.

I am far away from my beautiful mountains tonight but I can feel their pull. I can close my eyes and see multiple sunrises illuminate the sky with glorious light and their warmth filling my soul. I am thankful for a new connection to the desert through this O’otham song. In a city that identifies with a bird who rises from the ashes, I love that I can now visualize myself rising up in the desert not as a bird but a mountain. It is this image that I will carry with me while I am away from my mountains. This realization brings me peace. As I lift up my eyes unto the mountains, I understand that by the grace of the Holy People, I am my own help and no matter my placement, I can harness mountains of strength from wherever I stand and choose to rise.