Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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Navajos Wear Nikes

September 14th, 2013 · 2 Comments

On the way to Moab I read Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life by Jim Kristofic. Here is a picture of the author with Delicate Arch in the background.

Jim Kristofic’s divorced mother moved from Pennsylvania to the Navajo reservation and worked as a nurse. He grew up there, attended high school in a border town, and went East to college.

People frequently ask him “Are you an Indian?” and this book is the answer.

The hazing and bullying he received as an Anglo kid in the Navajo school was brutal. The Navajos did it to one another, too – it toughened them in a harsh environment. He collected his scars like trophies of manhood. He does not romanticize the reservation – alcoholism and domestic violence are all too prevalent.

In the year I graduated high school, about 83 percent of crimes on Indian reservations that were investigated by the FBI were either violent crimes or involved child, physical, or sexual abuse. Child abuse and sexual assault rates are consistently the highest in the nation. Most of this violence (more than two-thirds of it) involves alcohol, despite the Navajo Nation-wide ban.

His mother had experience with two violent Navajo boyfriends. This was not unusual.

…women on Indian Reservations were victims of domestic violence at a rate of 23 per 1,000. Mom would have had better odds in Pittsburgh; the rate among Anglos inPennsylvania and oteh rstates was only 8 per 1,000 women.

Nor is sexual abuse unique to Catholic priest. The good boyfriend, Nolan, had apprenticed to a traditional singer, a hataalii,

Relatives of the sick child that Nolan and the hataalii were practicing on discovered that the hataalii had molested the child during a private session before a ceremony.

Nolan, like Catholics, became skeptical about his traditional religion after this incident.

But Kristofic feels close to the Navajo. A solid Navajo moved in with his mother, and he has Navajo half-siblings.

Gangs started moving into the Rez, and he can’t understand why they wanted to abandon their heritage:

The Navajos who would not be Navajos. The Navajos who wanted to be black, who wanted to be Mexican, who dressed like a South Side Chicago teenager or a Compton native. I never knew if it was a way for them to feel strong and united with other minorities that fed on the same sense of white injustice. Or whether it was armor for some war they were still determined to wage against Anglos. Or against themselves.

They addressed one another as “Nigra” and wanted to live the thug life.

Kristofic describes the coming of age ceremony, the Kinalda, that recognizes the transformation of Navajo girls into women, but the Navajos have abandoned the coming-of-age ritual that boys used to go through.

The man had to strip down to his loincloth and strap on his best running moccasins. Taking only a bag of tádídíín (sacred corn pollen) and a knife, the man went out alone and ran down, trapped, or captured a live coyote. He had to take the tádídíín from the bag and put it on the coyote’s paws,  sift it through the skin and hair, pick the corn pollen up and collect it back into the bag, and then rel;ease the coyote unharmed. That tádídíín became a powerful medicine for him the rest of his life.

I think that as traditional ways of proving manhood were abandoned by the Navajo and other Indians, often under government pressure, Indians turned to alchol and domestic violence. A similar phenomenon has occurred among Afro-Americans. Black manhood was severely repressed, and the male role was replaced by welfare.

The Navajos have beautiful customs.

In the Navajo Way, whoever makes a newborn baby laugh for the first time is expected to sponsor the ceremony that marks the child’s first steps toward empathy and sq’ah naaghái bike’hózhǫ.

Kristofic also describes encounters with skinwalkers, witches who can transform into animal shapes. Some of what he recounts might be ascribed to imagination or coincidence, but he also says the dogs went mad with anger – and dogs don’t have much imagination.

People died mysteriously.

Manuela was a German nurse who’d worked at the hospital less than a year before she was found dead at the vase of a cliff on the outskirts of Steamboat one morning with an owl perched over her body.

I have heard stories from reliable people about incidents in the Southwest that are hard to explain. The Desert Fathers went into the desert not to escape urban temptations but to confront the demons there.

The Navajo idea is hózhó, harmony, beauty, and like other humans they both strive for it and often fail to attain it. On my desk I have the end of the Blessing Way:

In beauty may I walk.

All day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.

With dew about my feet may I walk.

With beauty may I walk.

With beauty before me, may I walk.

With beauty behind me, may I walk.

With beauty above me, may I walk.

With beauty below me, may I walk.

With beauty all around me, may I walk.

In old age wandering of a trail of beauty,

lively,

may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,

living again,

may I walk.

It is finished in beauty.

It is finished in beauty.

Hózhó náhásdlíí.

Tags: Southwest

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nancy Reyes // Sep 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Sounds about right, and the irony is that the Navajos are more in touch with their traditions than other tribes (i.e. language–we doctors often need a translator; the death taboos, clothing, way of life).

    The “hazing” is because many Indian tribes don’t use physical punishment to correct their children: They “tease” children to control behavior.
    But Navajos were never warriors, but sheep-herders, so I think the “repression” of masculinity doesn’t fit them like it would the Blackfoot or Apache or Sioux.
    The problem is not limited to Indians, or whites: it is culture shock when one meets a “superior” technological culture. How do you cope/adjust without losing your soul: a struggle that goes back at least to the time of the Macabees or the Roman conquests of Gaul, and is behind today’s jihadi suicide bomber….
    Multiculturalism suggests not to encourage change allowing people to live their ancestral life (for example,South African apartheid), others merely insist the child change to the dominant culture (Han Chinese in Tibet, Amerindian boarding schools).
    I was told to read Tony Hillerman to understand Navajo culture. The film “Smoke Signals” and the Australian film “Once was warriors” also were recommended to understand tribal culture in transition.

  • 2 J.B // Oct 2, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Navajos are warriors. They usta raid before the 1870’s.

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