07/24/2012 09:13 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

California Girl on the Rez

I'm an L.A. ocean girl in the middle of 105 degree desert in Arizona. This is the Navajo Nation, a massive stretch of reservation land. The Rez. Desolate trailers pop up 100 yards from the highway; often several beat-up cars surrounding them, or a naked basketball hoop without a net. Sometimes I glimpse a hogan, a traditional Navajo hut made for special ceremonies and living quarters, on the property of each trailer. Here the Navajo live, many without electricity and running water, which are things most people take for granted because they are American citizens. This does not look like the United States I know.

In 1864, the U.S. military forced thousands of Navajo to resettle on a barren Rez called Bosque Redondo. They were forced to travel on foot almost 450 miles. Many were killed because of extreme hunger, freezing temperatures and murder. Even children and pregnant women were shot if they couldn't walk. This inhumane trip became known as the "Long Walk." The stories of this slaughter have been passed down from generation to generation. Later the U.S. government killed, en masse, many of the Navajo cows and sheep under the Navajo Livestock Reduction Policy, which was devastating because sheep and cow-herding was critical to the livelihood of Navajo families. The Navajo were herders; their animals were sacred. Children were ripped away from their families and sent to missionary boarding school to learn the way of the white man, where they were forbidden to speak their native language or practice their ceremonial dances. All of this stripping of their heritage deprived the Navajo of their dignity.

But this is the summer of 2012 and I'm in Page, Arizona hanging out with Navajo teenage boys. The boys welcome me warmly into their assimilated world. They are hospitable, kind and intrigued by "my side of the world." We drive around in the oldest one's beat up mini-van with a trash bag full of chicken bones and McDonalds wrappers. We go to Lake Powell and jump off of rocks into the blue warm lake. We go to McDonald's, where they offer a $1 drink special. Across the street from the drive-through is the Walmart. This is "the place" to hang out -- it's like going to the mall. At the cultural center, I meet their parents and grandparents for a cookout at sunset. The cultural center is a recreation of a typical Navajo village set at the base of the mountains behind a gas station on the red orange earth of the Navajo Sandstone. The evening is full of stories. In the women and men's hogan, we walk in a circle to the left to avoid bad luck. The boys know the traditional Navajo dances, and eagerly and beautifully perform. They are also learning the Navajo language.

Later that night in the van on the way to play basketball, the oldest boy reveals that they are serious practicing Mormons. I struggle with the oxymoron -- a Navajo/Mormon. I try to explain how big the world is and how much there is to see. They drive me home in the moonlight, the hot wind blowing as we pass the street with 10 churches in a row. I imagine between the rock formations that I hear the ancient songs of their ancestors beckoning to them. This is the USA.