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Diné Bikeyah (Navajo Reservation)

by Lorie Adair

Diné Bikeyah was tired Shi’yazhi, that’s what the federal agents told us once more, the message, this time gentler in tone though no less pointed. Our sheep, cattle, and horses had overgrazed the land, creating gullies worse than ever before so when the harsh male rains fell, the nutrients were washed away and barren land was left behind. They said it was unfortunate that we had not been careful enough in storing winter hay, in putting money aside to buy what we could not grow. But those were scarce times, and so we let the livestock out each morning to fend for themselves and eat across the land until the grasses and flowers were all but gone. This time the government solution was filling gullies spanning the 25,000 square miles of reservation and for the People to give the land a rest. We could sell the sheep that did not carry disease to the agents who were buying them for $1 a head. Later we learned they sold them for $1.50 to the ranchers of Montana and Wyoming who had fertile soil. We could take heart though. Even if it was true that the topsoil was thinning to nothing and blowing off portions of the land, it was still useful. The Nation was rich in coal and, more importantly, uranium.

I learned all this in the usual way—through a network of cousins and clansmen out to MacDougal’s trading post to shop and argue. Sheep herding was following the old traditions, and who didn’t recall times when the Range Riders drew into camp to cut the sheep down in their tracks? Many remembered days so bright it stung the eyes to look upon the land, and in the distance came the riders, dark figures on the horizon and soon after, the old women wailing at the sight of their dead animals. Jake Billy told of the wash a few miles beyond the red mesa and his horse picking its way through thistles and goat head thorns. The sun was rising high overhead and a light breeze blew his hair back from his forehead, a beautiful day to be witnessing so much death. But his parents brought him along behind the riders so he could witness why he should never trust what the bilagaanas said, but watch their actions instead. What he recalled most of all was veering into a canyon where cottonwood trees shaded an arroyo, and creosote bushes grew creating a small oasis. While the sheep lipped up tender plants, a 12-gauge shotgun cracked the silence followed by other shots that echoed off the canyon walls, and young Jake Billy watched muscle blasted from bone. Every stone was splattered with blood that day, and he shuddered recalling the story. He never ventured back to that canyon area even though decades of rain and snow had washed the gore away, and he was now an old man. You can’t shake the smell of blood once it’s been spilled, Shi’yazhi—how even the memory of it hangs thick and metallic in the air.

Others picked up threads of the story when Jake fell silent. They remembered their grandmothers falling to their knees despite thorns that tore through the thin material of their skirts, how they crawled to the edge of this same canyon and cried for the waste of meat and wool. Their sons and daughters pulled them from the edge, rocking them and singing an old time song—one tone mostly and keening their sorrows with them so the old ones would not lose heart, become stones to truths they were entrusted to share and the People had need to hear.

Sadly, with the new agents coming, too many of the young ones remained unmoved by the recollections of their elders. They had forceful voices that rose above them. These were the ones who had chosen to leave the reservation for a time and been schooled in logic and debate, in the slick words of the bilagaana. They urged us to listen to these agents who walked more softly on the land and drank coffee with the People, lowering their eyes respectfully when they spoke to the elders. They were learning Diné ways, were meeting them halfway. Hadn’t the People already tried the ways of the old ones so long ago defying the bilagaanas and letting their sheep become too plentiful once again? Bit by bit the land was blowing away from underfoot yet here was opportunity—money in the pocket from sale of sheep and the chance to move from herding to mining. The medicine men said it was wrong to tamper with the life force of the land, but what were ceremonies in the face of science? It was time they relied on modern information rather than the visions and stories of the old ones—especially alcoholics like Jake Billy.

Some refused. In Dinnehotso, Harold Smith slammed the geologists’ change on the counter at his trading post saying he would not sell them another cup of coffee if they kept on about the gray rocks they’d seen in photographs taken from the sky. But more and more were like my brother-in-law, MacDougal—willing to do whatever it took to bring his post into the modern world. You must remember that during the war when it was a hardship for us to behold mothers and wives lingering over family treasures they’d traded for food, he had the will and scent for money. If the government was determined to send an army of engineers out to pave roads and companies to haul and mill rocks, it had to be worth a great deal and so we should embrace change.


My memory weaves it this way Shi’yazhi: morning mist burning off the land, the sun warming MacDougal’s back and his horse picking through goat head thorns on his way to our place. He passed by cooking fires that were a mingle of mesquite and cedar, of corn mush heating in a pot. He was riding out to a low mesa east of my in-law’s land where there was an outcropping of rock not at all remarkable. During the squaw dance held out that way in September, children had climbed it and wrestled to the base again until it grew too dark to see beyond the dance circle and the edges of the fire. Geologists had given MacDougal the rocks and the mission to compare them to all the formations he knew of in the region. He had become their scout, was no different from the enemy Utes who’d led the cavalry to our hiding places during the land wars more than 100 years before.

From the hogan I watched him linger near the rock then clap dust from his hands. He mounted his horse then rode it past our sheep corral, and seeing it empty, knowing my husband had put the livestock out to pasture already, was guarding them against wolves and coyotes, MacDougal did not trot past, didn’t have the patience to speak with Benjamin and me together later on.

He hobbled his horse at the trough and gazed out past the clothesline where jeans and a broom skirt flapped in gusts of wind. A dust devil gathered under the shadow of the mountains, flinging fine sand higher and higher and MacDougal fixed on it. I’d heard this had become his way since seeing the ghost of my great-grandmother, Arlena in her bone dress—staring off for long periods followed by bouts of energy—checking to see if window frames she’d smashed were flush, the glass firm. He’d make an inventory of trading post goods, complete the task, and begin again, the reams of paper stretching out along his counters. Still, I had little sympathy for him and grew tired of waiting for his fascination with dust to run its course.

“It’s the same sky out your way,” I called from the door.

I let Jim MacDougal into my home despite my sleeping children and the night of breaking glass when Arlena had protected me from his advances. She was always close by you see so what had I to fear?

He bent at the waist and entered the hogan that is very much like this space, Shi’yazhi— circling east to west like a womb, like the earth herself. MacDougal’s cold eyes flicked over our possessions, ticking them off one by one: six sheepskins, a coal stove, the table and two chairs, three Pendleton blankets piled atop a wooden chest, and my weaving loom set up near the window. Manny was sleeping behind it on that morning because nightmares had frightened him, and since only good comes from the heart of the loom, he’d eased to sleep there with his face turned to the curving wall. My youngest, Evette, was there too; she was just a baby and laced in the cradleboard with cedar beads dangling from the arch of wood to ward off evil spirits. The coffeepot was warming on the stove, and I poured a cup for MacDougal then set it between us on a swatch of oilcloth. He asked where Benjamin was, and I nicked my chin toward the red mesa and said he’d headed out that way. He tried to make small talk about Benjamin and herding, about rodeo and the competition my husband faced especially since his time for practicing had been shortened by family obligations. Fueled by coffee he went on talking, his voice full and leathery, a snake voice winding through the room, filling in all the silent spaces, circling round to stories about my mother, father, and grandmother. That voice wore like a rut in the road while I took sugar cubes from a tin plate and swirled a spoon in my cup. I was not one for the small talk bilagaanas like to make before working around to their real purpose.

“Tell the truth,” I finally said. “Tell why it is you’re here.”

He tapped the end of his spoon so it clattered against the Formica then stretched his neck. He was accustomed to my sister’s ways you see—how she’d fill in the spaces where he’d left off. If not in words then motion—offering her guests more coffee, a clean spoon for each new serving, another can of sweet milk, a canister of homemade cookies. MacDougal liked to get to the truth in his own time, but he was boring me and I had much work to do before evening. When Manny woke, I drew him to my lap working my fingers through his long hair to braid it. I looked to MacDougal who set the cup down and dug in his jeans for the bandanna he’d knotted around the rocks. He nudged one into a band of light that shined on the table, and I saw how flecks of gray in the Formica matched it.

The mining companies were setting up trailers for families near the uranium sites and pumping water from the San Juan River not only to leach the uranium from stone but to also provide families with running water. “Did you know in Courtland and Farmington you can fill up a sink for dishes, run a bath, and draw water from a faucet all at once? It could be the same in Sweet Canyon.” There could be ease and forgiveness for generations lost to the Long Walk, boarding schools, and other policies the government was finally admitting hadn’t been in the best interests of the People. Here was an opportunity for the Diné to heal. I looked down at that rock thinking it a small and dull thing to ride all that way for but said nothing. It had all been said before by the elders—the land beneath our feet was the only thing we could depend on, and he wanted to help the bilagaanas carry it away. Where MacDougal saw profit I longed for peace.

Before I could slide the rock back to him, Manny snatched it from the table flinging it across the room and tracking it like he expected it to become a butterfly or hummingbird, might miss the transformation if he so much as blinked. But it remained what it was—an ordinary rock—and so my son climbed from my lap and went out to the yard to switch the horse’s tail with his fist. I closed the door after him, picked up the rock, and placed it before MacDougal.

“I know about the agents,” I said.  

He pressed his fingers along an eyebrow but said nothing.

My mother-in-law had been there when they arrived at the post. Stacia had stared at the backs of their heads where clippers had shorn the hair so short freckles showed across their scalps. She was reminded of fish bellies, pale and soft, how easy it would be to crush them with a rock and be done with the whole business of agents. Of course she did no such thing, just kept sweeping and washing the wood floors and using wads of newspaper to clean the windows. It had taken MacDougal months to replace them after Arlena smashed them to pieces, and he had no tolerance for dust. Cloth, burlap, and tarps had done nothing in the way of keeping out the wind-driven dirt, and even on good days with the caulking replaced and rugs stuffed in every seam it still drifted in. For this reason, it surprised Stacia that MacDougal let the agents into the post. It had been raining off and on for several days, and they were caked in mud from pushing their jeep out of the arroyos where it had stalled out. They were sent off in false directions by a People long on memory and short on patience, yet MacDougal had let them in even with mud flaking from their shoes. He’d smiled at their approach and gestured them into his office where they sat drinking coffee and talking for hours.

Apparently, he intended to do the same in my hogan. Brushing his hand past the oilcloth, he poured another cup of coffee then leaned forward in his chair.

“I told them maybe I’d seen their rocks, maybe not. They know it’s here though. I’ve seen the pictures they took.”

I stood and took the pot from the table. “The war is over. Why do they need it now?”

“That isn’t the point. They want it; so they’ll take it. If it’s not legal they’ll change the laws to make it so. We could be ahead of everyone else on this.” He slurped his coffee then set it down. “We can manage them for once—hold out on the best places until we see the money. They can’t find all the uranium. There’s too much land and not one of them knows his way through every twist and turn.”

I turned my back to rinse my cup in a bucket of warm water.

“I’m letting you know since we are related now,” he said.

“It is true you are my sister’s husband.”

Perhaps it was the sharpness of my tone that woke the baby. Evette screamed and I drew her from the cradleboard to nurse facing the window and looking upon the land MacDougal kept speaking of as though it were foreign. He used the language of money describing the royalties that could be had—2 percent for anyone who put in a permit for use of the land, all it took was a census card and a signature down at Window Rock for the mining company to break ground. I was thinking about the war and the news that had trickled in about the bilagaanas gathering the Japanese to pen up outside of Phoenix then taking the land they’d farmed for generations. Evette snuffled at my breast, and I looked down to where she gazed back at me. I smiled having nothing left to say to MacDougal.

After a time he walked out the door, and I pictured him arriving home, settling his pale hand on my sister’s shoulder when he found her crying at the sight of red dirt slung across the kitchen floor, her ritual of bleach, hot water, and mop futile against its motions. The wind blew it in our mouths, our hair, into the seams of skin along the knuckles. This is how Diné Bikeyah blesses her children Shi’yazhi. She expects nothing less in return.


Lorie Adair is the recipient of two Arizona Commission on the Arts Creative Writing fellowships, for her novel Spider Woman’s Loom. She was a finalist for the 2010 Southwest Writers Award and a semi-finalist for the 2009 Dana Award for her fiction. Her first novel, Spider Woman's Loom, is represented by Joelle Delbourgo, Inc.
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