Jack Reid: Hitchhiking and Kinship Practices in the Navajo Nation

Today we welcome a guest post from Jack Reid, author of Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation, out now from UNC Press.

Between the Great Depression and the mid-1970s, hitchhikers were a common sight for motorists, as American service members, students, and adventurers sought out the romance of the road in droves. Beats, hippies, feminists, and civil rights and antiwar activists saw “thumb tripping” as a vehicle for liberation, living out the counterculture’s rejection of traditional values. Yet, by the time Ronald Reagan, a former hitchhiker himself, was in the White House, the youthful faces on the road chasing the ghost of Jack Kerouac were largely gone—along with sympathetic portrayals of the practice in state legislatures and the media. In Roadside Americans, Jack Reid traces the rise and fall of hitchhiking, offering vivid accounts of life on the road and how the act of soliciting rides from strangers, and the attitude toward hitchhikers in American society, evolved over time in synch with broader economic, political, and cultural shifts. In doing so, Reid offers insight into significant changes in the United States amid the decline of liberalism and the rise of the Reagan Era.

In this post, author Jack Reid explores the practice of hitchhiking among people of the Navajo Nation.

Roadside Americans is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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Hitchhiking and Kinship Practices in the Navajo Nation

Within mainstream American culture, hitchhiking is often considered an abandoned past time.  Once common between the Great Depression and the mid-1970s—when many saw it as a thrifty and at times romanticized form of spontaneous transit—the practice eventually lost favor.  To this day most Americans associate ride solicitation with sensational crime stories.  Despite this national trend, however, the practice is more common among indigenous societies, particularly along the desert highways and sweeping vistas of the Navajo Nation.

Although most Navajo do not rely on hitchhiking, the practice is nevertheless a regular feature of day-to-day life.  The reservation’s leading news source, the Navajo Times, for instance, periodically runs articles in an ongoing series called “The Hitchhiker Diaries,” which highlight compelling human interest stories as told by individuals picked up by one of the paper’s journalists.  Likewise, hitchhikers are a common motif in the work of Shonto Begay, a well-known Navajo artist.  Whether a painting of a young man thumbing to nearby Flagstaff, Arizona, or a collection of individuals telling stories in a truck bed barreling down the highway, Begay’s work situates hitchhiking as a meaningful part of Navajo mobility. All this begs the question, why is hitchhiking still viable when it has largely disappeared elsewhere in the United States?

A number of factors are at play, but the indigenous reverence for familial kinship relationships in concert with poverty and an at times unreliable mass transit system offer a good starting point. The Navajo Nation is the largest territory retained by an indigenous tribe in the United States. While larger than some states in the country, it is sparsely populated, with its roughly 356,000 inhabitants spread throughout far reaching swaths of northern Arizona, southern Utah, and northern New Mexico. With about 40 percent of families living below the poverty rate, not everyone can afford automobiles—leaving some folks struggling to complete often lengthy commutes to work or to visit family. Although the Navajo Transit System offers affordable bus service between towns, funding and staffing shortcomings have resulted in frequent route closures.  Back in August of 2017, for example, twenty five of thirty five buses in the fleet were not running.  As of February 2020, two lines are out of service indefinitely while the transit system works on hiring and training new drivers.  Under these conditions, hitchhiking is considered a practical mode of transit for some Navajo as well as their Hopi neighbors who live on a separate reservation situated within the borders of the larger Navajo Nation.

Still, there are plenty of economically depressed regions in the United States that lack adequate public transit, and most of these areas do not see residents regularly turn to hitchhiking.  Ultimately, it seems the Navajo, as well as other indigenous societies, are the exception because of their devotion to deeply-rooted kinship customs, a tradition that weaves the population into a closely-knit network of familial relationships. Within the Navajo culture, each individual belongs to four clans that dictate their identity and connection to others.  As a matrilineal society, a child’s primary clan is their mother’s, followed by that of their father’s mother, their maternal grandfather and finally their paternal grandfather.  When an introduction occurs, individuals share their names, but also their clans.  Doing so folds their lives into a deeper ancestral bond—even if they have never met.

Although some Navajo fear hitchhikers and associate them with danger, these kinship networks nevertheless help to sustain the practice.  A recent example helps to put this concept in relief.  In January 2020, a woman driving near Coppermine noticed a Navajo elder silhouetted by the setting sun.  He was hitchhiking.  Noting the time of day and the chill in the air, she stopped to offer him a lift.  Per custom, they instantly exchanged names and clans, establishing that, clan wise, the old man was the woman’s older brother.  He was headed to Page, a town about 22 miles away, to watch the local Sand Devils play a high school basketball game against the Tuba City Warriors. Before dropping him off outside the school, she checked if he had a ride home.  Concerned that he planned to thumb, the woman posted a picture of the gentleman on Facebook and asked folks to offer him a lift.  The man’s extended family saw the post, made phone calls, and organized his safe passage.  This type of story is commonplace within Navajo life and ably captures the ways in which these cultural customs—as well as those of other indigenous societies—help to sustain the requisite levels of social trust that make a practice like hitchhiking possible.  At the same time, it offers insight into the compelling ways that modern technology can be utilized to supplement traditional kin networks.

As notions of social trust in mainstream American society continue to erode, these Navajo kinship networks offer a useful counterpoint.  Although few Americans yearn for a hitchhiking renaissance, it is worth noting that the decline of hitchhiking is not an isolated phenomenon.  Rather, it is a symptom of a much broader cultural shift that reverberates through our society in significant ways.

Note: I want to extend a special thanks to Julaire Scott for her help in writing this article.  Her family stories were invaluable.

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Photo by Ethan Abitz

Jack Reid is a scholar of American culture. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow him on Twitter.