Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The 50's Walk: Mom's School Days

The loose dirt came off in small clouds as she trudged along the dirt road. Her black dress shoes left tiny trails on the dirt road- the only tracks made by shoes on a lonely road. My mother, Sadie, made her evening trek back home after getting off her school bus. The clouds had been thickening lately as fall weather arrived. They were a spatter of thick bulbuous purple and white that contrasted nicely against the palette of red, rust, white, and yellow of the desert.The breeze picked up as debris flew to and fro chipping away at the landscape. Sadie sometimes had to walk four miles to get to her school bus in the mornings and to get home after school. Now that winter had arrived the light angled from the southwest and made daylight scarce.

It was getting late.

She dug her small hands into her coat pocket and tightened her small body hoping that would keep her warm. The days were getting shorter and nightfall would be coming earlier every evening. My great Aunt Anna and grandmother Sara would be either at the small woodburning stove preparing dinner or listening to the radio as they chatted and waited for her. Her Stepfather Sam would be out and about running errands or letting the sheep graze. The small octagonal home, composed of logs, dirt, chicken-wire, and plaster, would be their defense against the blustery cold winter winds.

March. March. March.

The winds whistling through Juniper branches and the occasional bark of a distant dog were all that kept my mother company this evening. Sadie looked forward to a little dinner which most likely would be Frybread, mutton, and potatoes. She often thought of her family that had become scattered the past few years. Soon the old Ford truck that took her family places would be put through it's paces as the multi-colored silt clay transformed into a thick congealed mess of a trail. It wouldn't even be a road then. Hopefully the old white truck would make it through the season! If it didn't then the old green wooden wagon would be put to use.

Winters in these parts of the reservation were a disaster. The lack of a paved road meant that her brand new shoes would be getting muddy as would the clothes that hung low to the ground. The nearest place to get clothing was in Chinle where Sadie went to school. Chinle was a small town sixteen miles away. It has since then become a Mecca for tourists because of the Canyons there and proximity to other natural wonders on Navajoland. It has also grown a bit.

A sound of an approaching truck ushered Sadie to the side of the dirt road as she anxiously picked up her pace. There was no telling if that person would be a relative or a family member. Her beige skirt swept along the scattered mess of twig, dirt, and gravel while the truck slowly passed her. Sadie did not know who that person was as it went over a small hill and left a billowing cloud of dirt. It was not the families truck. The old truck must be acting up or someone went out.

The last rays of light began to fade into the horizon as a field mouse scurried alongside some brush- no doubt getting ready for the winter also. The colder weather would usher in winter ceremonies and a decrease in attendance in school days. Ceremonies would consist of song and dance in reverence to the Holy People (one of many Navajo deities). Sadie's family would attend these and make the trek through isolated roads to visit relatives and catch up on the latest news from around Navajoland. Ceremonies were often times a place for socializing as well as healing. News mostly traveled by word of mouth as the latest technological feat- the television- had not been convenient for "muddy-road-wood-burning-no-electricity" people. Sam, her uncle, would probably just use it for a table or store things on top of it if they had one. For all she knew he'd probably sell it considering it would be virtually useless to buy more practical items. Items that were staple such as flour, canned foods, lard, kerosene, fabric, matches, and the other little necessities needed to make it through snowed-in days. Suddenly California or Kayenta seemed like such welcome options for her. She made up her mind. Once she got home she would tell Anna and Sara her plans.

She was getting closer as she saw the top of the windmill turning and the comforting smell of cedar burning. Anna had a fire going meaning it was warm inside and dinner was ready!


It was Sadies stomach. The school cafeteria food was okay but the little walk and anticipation quickly burned off the last calories of her lunch. She felt calmness wash over her as she saw the sheep camp, the horse pen, and her two dogs as she approached. The sheep camp was set up as a small shack with a variety of branches and whatever else had been at hand to make a little pen- the horse pen likewise. Her skirt and hair whipped around as the wind increased and the temperature began to drop. She would need a heavier coat and thicker socks tomorrow. Someone had already taken the sheep out for a graze earlier as they stared contently as Sadie walked by. Her dogs ran up and escorted her knowing that scraps would soon be coming their way. The sheep knew my mother very well. She tended to them on the day's she was not in school. She would take them out and let them graze while she sat under a tree and ate her lunch. She would pack her lunch in a small plastic or paper bag and take a small notebook and pencil to practice writing. The sheep were pretty much aware of their grazing route thanks to the dogs. They were the typical reservation mutts which almost every Navajo family had. What kind of Navajo could afford such dogs, groom, and practically treat them like people? The concept was alien to the families here back then and still is. She often saw pictures of dogs in magazines that had pictures of dogs and their owners. The dogs often looked like their owners which caused a small smile to form on Sadies face. Here things were solely based on practicality and ease of introduction into a changing society that had not too long ago been agrarian. People planted vegetables, fruit, and raised sheep for consumption and wool- an evolving farming community.

She opened the door to see Sam, Sara, and Anna sitting in their mismatched dinner chairs speaking in Navajo about their plans. There was to be a trip to a nearby town to sell a rug that Anna had been working on the last couple of weeks. Her rugs were often bought by the traders at a trading post in Ganado. The lack of a formal Western education was rampant as was the lack of a family member who could speak fluent English. A formal Western education was something that was either a nuisance or an opportunity for a young Navajo lady in those days.

"My daughter. Sit down. Let's eat." Sara motioned for Sadie as she set a place for her at their small table and turned up the kerosene lamp. It's golden flames burned brighter as the small metal knob was turned. The shadows of the the family were cast opposite the wall where a smaller lamp was keeping the dark at bay. The Navajo language transliterated often comes across as a very direct language. Words are like a command- no nonsense, and to the point. There, of course, also is the reverse of the descriptive and the subject. So "Good meal" comes out "meal good" just as many other linguistic structures compare similarly. In their home the only person who was the English-speaking person was Sadie. All her relatives at home spoke nothing but Navajo. Sadie's English was just as bad as the next rural Navajo's but was slowly getting better.

Sadie put her books away and makeshift knapsack full of school supplies. The wash basin was a medium sized steel bowl full of water with a small bar of soap nearby. she washed her hands and dried them. Anna and Grace had made some fried potatoes, strips of fried beef, coffee (which my Sadie did not drink), and some store bread. Sadie also had a twinkie for an after- dinner snack that she had saved and had a hankering for. After dinner it was homework time. Sadie was doing well in school and did her homework with no problems. Practicing her new found language aloud made Sara smile and Anna confused.

She spoke to Sara about her plans for attending school so far away. Sadie wasn't the adventurous type however her older brothers ranting and raving compelled her to rethink the change of scenery.

"My mother. In the future Sonny wants me to go to school where he is at now." Sadie told Sara. She sat at the edge of the bed unlaced her shoes and stowed them underneath her old hand-me-down bed. Sara clasped her tiny hands together as Sadie sat next to her.

"My daughter. That school is so far away. What am I going to do without you?" Sara asked Sadie. She held Sadies hand and leaned Sadie against her. "I will miss you a lot my daughter like I miss your brother and sister."

Sara spoke in a subdued tone because Anna was dozing off and beginning to snore just a bit. She sounded so concerned and seemed a little sad. Maybe it was because she knew that her kids were growing up and were bound to leave. It made Sadie feel a little sad also.

"I'll be okay my mother. Sonny will take care of me. I would like it very much if I could go." Sadie said to Sara.

Sara was quiet for minute as she breathed a little more deeply. Outside the dogs barked at unknown things, the wind whisteled, and Sams chopping kept a steady tempo.

"I want you to go. There is nothing for you here. Nothing but old people and no school." Sara said. "Your Aunt doesn't want you to go. She wants you to stay and be like them. I do not want that for you my baby girl. I want you to learn." Sara leaned closer to Sadie and hugged her tight. Sadie sighed and began to drift as Sara's words sounded farther and farther away. School and a four mile walk does that to a young girl!

Sam was outside chopping some wood as the morning would be downright nippy. The stars were in full view as Sam labored to break apart the blocks of cedar into small enough logs for the woodstove. He stopped to take a breather and drank in the silence and looked up at the stars. He thought of many things these days and his age was one of them. He worried for this family and all the change that was taking place around him. His step daughter was speaking in a different manner and form. He knew she was sharp but lonely. Sadie's older brother and younger sister were away at school and they were fairly isolated here. Soon there would be roads, more houses, and all the things he saw in the bigger towns would be encroaching upon them. He didn't know what to make of it. Change was coming too fast and soon for his tastes.

Yah di la! (word for conceding to frustrated disappoinment; throwing your hands up) Maybe it's for the best. Sam thought as he saw the flickering lights from Chinle in the distance. He gathered wood and headed back into the little hogan.

© 2007 Tyrene Banks

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fry Bread and Sheep

Okay people here's a little Rez 101. I wrote a section of my story with an introduction into the Navajo life of the early 50's. Around that time there were many technological marvels being introduced in the world. Like so many third world countries, the reservation, is often behind the times on techie things. The fifties were the beginning of the mass introduction of Western ideas, language, customs, and pop culture into the Navajo world. I may not be phrasing that right but you know what I mean.

I got a lot of these components from hearing stories from my mother, father, and all the old timers that are still around. Growing up in the 70's was a lot different for me compared to them. I had television, local channels, radio, a land line telephone, and the means for mass communication. These metal and plastic devices may have creeped in inextricably changing things but there still are the key components that make up my culture.

Food, livelihood, tradition, means of transportation, and language. I know there are great words I could use as far as sociology goes but I don't want to confuse people and would rather do it in simple laymens terms. Sides' if I did that I would have to literally spend hours poring over material to make sure I got it right. That would be too much like school work! Nah.

Okay first is food. Navajo's love frybread. Frybread originated from a dark period in Navajo history when we were herded to New Mexico and kept in a type of compound. During that time the old establishment thought that giving us rotten meat, flour, lice infested blankets, and shadiness would break us. That was when we had to make do with what we had and voila- frybread was born. Frybread is a mixture of Bluebird flour (it has to be this brand!), salt, baking soda, water, and TLC. I don't know how to make it but my mother does and moms is always the best!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

This is the quintessential flour for making fry bread! Milled from the four corners area.

There's this tasty delight which can be dipped in stew or eaten by itself with salt. People will also use the bread for sandwiches. It's probably best to eat frybread once in a while. You know the carb thing and the amount of saturated fats can be quite high. That's why I eat it at least once a month.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Then we got the Navajo Taco. It's something so South Westy cuz' we got Ol' Mexico as vecinos (neighbors) and it just makes so much sense. Palate and stomach wise. Yes you may need to move that belt up a notch but eat it moderately, with common sense, and you should be alright.

Translation: Don't eat it everyday!

There are also the sheep.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Not only can we use it's wool for garments but we can also eat them. Don't get too disgusted.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I think eating fish eggs, raw meat, rotten cheese, and snails is disgusting! Sheep were originally introduced by the Spanish people during the conquistador period. We have a period in the spring when we shear the sheep, place their wool in huge gunny sacks, and sell them for cash. The shearing is a must because the lack of wool is a way of keeping them cool during the hot summer months. So it works both ways for the sheep and us! The culinary part is just an intrinsic identity blanket for us. Something we like to do that reminds us of good times and family. We like to roast, boil, and make a haggis-type of dish called blood sausage, and do not waste any part of the animal. I even ate the tongue once and it was quite good!

So that's it for the time being. I will add more items and do my best to explain the cultural differences and conundrums peeps may face while reading some of my stuff.

© 2007 Tyrene Banks; except Images and Links