A Navajo storyteller remembers his grandmother’s earth lessons.
Illustrations by Corey Begay
This story was gathered and shared as part of BorderLore’s Culture and Climate in Community program, with funding from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.
My uncle, Stanley Perry, is a Navajo Storyteller from Pinon, Arizona. Storytellers have a deep understanding of the lessons learned from past generations and often stand on the outskirts of society and observe past stories playing out in a modern context. Expert storytellers, such as my uncle, are able to relay to community members what characters they are playing and what the fate of their future holds based on what has already happened.
The following is a story about humans and their relation to Mother Earth. For Navajo people, a disruption happened within generations when children, including my uncle and his cousins, were sent to the Pinon Indian Boarding School, where the Navajo language and Navajo culture was forbidden. When the children were sent home to live with their grandparents for the summer a disconnect occurred, as grandparents, many of whom only spoke Navajo, could no longer communicate their traditional knowledge to their grandchildren.
Stories are never told the same twice. For example, one story told to you might be told a different way to me. Even more, a story told to you when you were young, might be told differently when you are older. Given that, what follows should be thought of as a snapshot–a moment of time that may or may not ever exist again. Nevertheless, love persists and the love my Grandma White had for my uncle Stanley and his cousins was never lost.
-Millicent Michelle Pepion
In the fall of 1970, I spent the weekend with Shimásání Denełigaii, my great grandmother White. She was one of those who survived the Longest Walk as a child. My Shimásání came from the Bitter Water People. She lived in a traditional Navajo home called a hogan. The floor was made of our first mother, Mother Earth. A fire pit sat in the middle and we all slept together around it on our own sheep skins.
The crackling of the fire woke me up. I remember the fireplace was made of a metal barrel cut in half, and inside of it, the fire was dancing. Shimásání had just opened the little door to the stove. I could see my and Shimásání’s shadows dancing together on the wall behind us. Then she took some red-hot coals from the fire, placed them onto the dirt floor and put a grill over it. She was about to make náneeskaadi (tortillas) of flour from the Bluebird flour sack.
Shimásání opened the doorway to the little hogan and I went outside with her to greet the new day. The doli (bluebirds) were hopping around looking for food. They were little blue angels of the morning dawn watching over and protecting us. Their songs welcomed us. Sunrise brings life to all it touches. I remember looking at the little hogan’s roof. Over time, it became a rainbow of multi-colored shingles through relatives helping hands.
Back inside the hogan, the aroma of Shimásání’s food was the alarm that brought my cousin-brothers out of their sleep. There were five of us. Shimbo was the oldest, then Todder, Mitch, Me, and Bucky, the youngest. To get ready to eat, we took turns washing our faces and hands in a metal pail with the same water. Shimásání laid down a tablecloth on Mother Earth. It was made from a few saved Bluebird flour sacks and was stored next to the wood stove in the center of the hogan.
Shimásání gently placed a cutting board on the tablecloth so the hot black cast iron skillet would not burn it. Because there were no forks, spoons, plates or bowls, we ate using our náneeskaadi to scoop out the gravy with bacon. I’ll never forget the náneeskaadi she prepared for us because they were made with her love. The hogan fell silent as her love nourished us.
After we ate, we went to the corral to feed the orphaned lambs warm milk from old coke bottles with black nipples. Our moms gave us instructions to help Shimásání with caring for the sheep. We were to herd the sheep for her near Low Mountain, Where the Pinion Pitch Grows. There’s not much work involved for sheep herding. All we have to do is walk around and follow the sheep into the canyons. They return home about noon because of the heat.
We were tired and thirsty when we came back from herding sheep. Shimásání Deneligaii was standing by the hogan door holding a rope in her hand motioning us to come to her. Shimásání didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak much Navajo because of boarding school. In boarding school, the Navajo language was prohibited. We were punished for speaking Navajo, even for saying words such as “Brother” or “Sister.” Parents and grandparents, such as Shimásání, were also instructed not to speak Navajo to us. For this reason, Shimásání would often follow her words with exaggerated motions that resembled a form of sign language. When I think about it, it was like playing charades with her.
Together the five of us worked to translate individual words she was saying that we knew. It was like putting together a puzzle. Shimbo made out the word Łįį’. Łįį’, which means horse, and Shimásání was pointing towards the water saying, “Tódi adí.” Tódo adí means “over there by the water.” Even more, she was motioning with rope. Shimbo finally pieced together that Shimásání wanted us to get her horse at the well using the rope. So off we went towards the well carrying our little canteens.
The well was a cube made from sandstone bricks with a pipe sticking up where the water poured out. The pipe was shaped like an upside-down L. To turn on the water, you had to crank a valve that was located a little ways from the wall. Shimásání’s horse was skinny, old and white with long shoe hooves that needed to be trimmed. The horse was really bony too. You could see his ribs and backbone. The horse was loosely tied to the pipe where the water comes out and behind him was a giant canyon wall.
The five of us were excited and ran over to climb on him. We were all trying to jump on the horse from different angles which confused him. The horse was too big and too high, so we weren’t able to get on by ourselves. Shimbo, Mitch and Bucky were brothers and their dad was a cowboy. He taught Shimbo how to make a reign which he did from the rope Shimásání gave him. The three brothers knew a little about riding a horse. We banded together to help Shimbo get on top of the horse. He then told the rest of us to get on the brick wall the well was constructed of. He was going to ride the horse around the cube and every time he passed the corner one of us could jump off the wall and onto the horse.
With the oldest first, we took turns jumping off the wall onto the back of the white horse with no name. Bucky, being the youngest, didn’t want to sit near the horse’s tail but was the last to get on so he was forced to. He complained, “How come I have to sit here?” Shimbo explained, “It’s because you’re not old enough to drive and we don’t want to crash!” The five of us managed to get on Shimásání’s bony, old, white horse. Holding onto each other, we started to head back home. We were happy to be on our way and not have to walk.
I can’t emphasize to you enough how bony the horse was. When we were on top of him, we could all feel his hard back bones and hip bones that were sticking out. We didn’t have a saddle or a blanket to cushion our bottoms from the horse’s trots.
Bucky came up with an idea and told everyone, “If we make it run, we won’t feel the bumps.” In his mind, if the horse galloped then it would be a smooth ride. He convinced Shimbo and the rest of us to make the horse run home. We were hungry and wanted to get home fast. Shimbo agreed and he started kicking the sides of the horse with his little feet trying to get it to start running. The horse continued to trot slower under the weight of all of us.
Shimbo said, “What if we all kick the horse and yell like cowboys do?” So at the count of three, we started kicking the horse and yelling, “Heyah!” “Heyah!” and that old horse took off fast! We were happy for the smooth ride until we couldn’t hold on. Our short legs couldn’t wrap around the horse to help us stay on.
All of a sudden, Bucky’s arm left my waist, and he flew off. I could hear he landed hard and was crying. Shimbo pulled the reins but couldn’t stop the horse. I was barely hanging on to Mitch when my hand started slipping and I fell off the horse into a sagebrush bush. About twenty yards away, Mitch dropped to the ground, then Todder fell off after that. We were scattered along the horse’s trail in this ‘hit and run’ scene. We each fell off the horse in the reversed order we got on. Shimbo was the last to fall.
It took us a while for each of us to get up but as we did, we noticed the scrapes and bruises causing us pain. Dusting himself off and laughing, Shimbo went to Todder and helped him up. Mitch helped me out of the sagebrush. Bucky who fell first was still crying and we were afraid he might’ve been hurt, so we rushed back to his aid. If he got hurt, we would be in big trouble. We surrounded him and started picking up his arms and legs half expecting one of his limbs to be torn off or dangling.
We asked Bucky, “Are you alright?” He curled up into a ball crying, “Shut up!” He was blaming us for not knowing how to “drive.”
“Come on, Bucky, stop crying!” “Be strong!” You’re alright!” We were trying to distract Bucky, hoping he’d stop crying and stop being mad. We were laughing as we showed each other our crash wounds and re-enacted how we fell and where we landed. Me and Mitch almost started fighting because he felt I pulled him off the horse. I don’t know what he was talking about because we all held onto the one in front of us. Pretty soon, Todder and Shimbo were blaming us and each other too.
Bucky was still back there crying and taking his time. It didn’t take long for us to start worrying about Shimásání. All of us agreed we needed to get back home. “What about the sheep?”
We called back for Bucky to hurry but he was whimpering and dragging his feet. All of a sudden Bucky fell to his knees and stopped crying. I guess he saw something on the ground and started yelling for us. We rushed over to him to see what was wrong.
As we came upon Bucky, he was on his hands and knees pointing at something on the trail. It was a dead bluebird. We were wondering how we didn’t see it and realized Bucky saw it because he was walking slowly crouched over in pain.
We asked Bucky what he wanted to do with it. He felt compassion for the dead bird while the rest of us only wanted to get home. “Let’s bury it,” he responded. He dug a hole that we placed the dead bluebird in. Bucky covered it up. Then one of us said, “Let’s go,” but Bucky wanted to make a cross. To comfort him, we made a little cross with some sticks and held a funeral for the bluebird.
Bucky wasn’t crying anymore as his attention on the bluebird’s death took his and our pain away.
When we got back to the hogan, we could see Shimásání standing there with her horse. She had the reign in her hands, and they were both looking at us. We felt embarrassed because we failed to bring the horse back. She signaled us to come in and eat lunch and it was obvious to everyone that we weren’t cowboys, we were sheepherders.
The last time we walked that trail together, we were adults and instead of burying the bluebird, we were burying Shimásání Denełigaii. She and her old, white horse lay near that run-down cubed well in Pinon buried with the songs of the Bluebird and Navajo language.
I’ll never forget Shimásání Denełigaii’s gentleness, patience and understanding. I felt she knew each one of us, our strengths and our weaknesses. We were her hope for the future. Every time I see a Bluebird flour sack, I remember those days with my brother-cousins and her. Shimásání Denełigaii’s love lives in me to this day.
Dr. Millicent Michelle Pepion is Bitterwater Clan born for the Blackfeet Nation. She currently resides in Tucson, Arizona, where she recently earned a PhD in American Indian Studies. Her uncle, Stanley Perry, is a Navajo Storyteller and together they have written several pieces available here. She gives special thanks to Jolene Jonay for edits.
Corey Begay (Diné) is an artist and graphic designer from Cedar Springs, AZ on the Navajo Nation. Corey graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communications. He is currently doing contract work and collaborating with different organizations on works that involve murals, graphic design, illustration, and canvas paintings. Inspiration for his work comes from culture, education, nature, expressionism, and hard workers.