Whitecrow Trading Post

(formerly known as Silverheels Trading Post)

The American Southwest

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Navajo Country


Trudy Lynn (Bootsy) Silverheelsnée Linda Yazzie

Navajo country is the Four Corners region, where the state borders of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah come together.  It is, for the most part, harsh desert, not much suited to cultivation.  And yet agriculture has always been a Navajo tradition.  The earliest Spanish explorers actually referred to the Navajos as "farming Apaches."  Nor were they entirely wrong; these two Native American peoples are closely related and speak similar dialects of the same language.  Both Apaches and Navajos call themselves the Diné (the people).    

          Navajo society is matrilineal and functions by a rigid clan system.  There are today close to a hundred and fifty recognized clans, which, according to tradition, developed from but four established by the folkloric figure Changing Woman.  The four original clans are the Towering House Clan (Kiiyaa'áanii), the Mud Clan (Hashtl'ishnii), the Bitter Water Clan (Tó Dích'íi'nii), and the Walks Around You Clan (Honágháahnii).

          In fact, every Navajo has four clans with which he or she is affiliated from birth.  One is born to one's mother's clan for one's father's clan.  And then, of course, one also is related to the two clans of one's grandfathers.   Even though I am three quarters Navajo, I was born to the Bilagáana (Anglo-Americans), because my maternal grandmother is Caucasian.  I was born for the Water's Edge Clan (my father's people).  The clans of my two grandfathers are the Folded Arms People (Bítahnii) and the Black Goat People.

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Warrior Women

Trudy Lynn (Bootsy) Silverheelsnée Linda Yazzie

The image at right is of yours truly in war paint.  But don't let that put you off.  I'm the very definition of a "friendly Indian."  Like Will Rogers, I never met a man I didn't like.  Nor a woman either, for that matter. 

          Even before my Apache friend Carlita enlightened me on the subject of female warriors, I was fascinated by the fact that in the ancient tongue of my own Navajo ancestors there are so many different phrases that mean "little warrior girl."  Female warriors may not have been exactly commonplace in the old days, but clearly they were not unheard of either.

 Baa’ Yázhí (Little Warrior Girl)

Dahteste, my Idol

Carlita Her-Name-Means-Thunder Wakiya

(as told to Xiomara Antonia Roma)

Amongst my people, who are known to the Anglo-Americans and Mexicans as Apaches, women have always had the right to choose what role in life they would fill.  Most, of course, prefer to become wives and mothers.  But others, for whom domesticity has no appeal whatever, elect to become warriors (doers of great deeds).  By age twelve an Apache girl's decision as to the lifestyle she wishes to embrace will always be honored. 

          My own personal idol and heroine is Dahteste, who fought with Geronimo's band and was a close companion to the legendary Lozen, the most-famous of all female Apache warriors.  Any number of books have been written about these three, and while Lozen always gets the lion's share of attention, somehow I find Dahteste more appealing.  Lozen was a powerful shaman and a great leader, but Dahteste was simply a warrior who answered duty's call and did what needed to be done.  To me, she is much easier to identify with than is the magnificent Lozen, who more closely resembles a goddess than an actual human being.

          Incidentally, a third female warrior in Geronimo's band was Gouyen, but I know very little about her.

Blood Brothers

Excerpt from Baring All by Trudy Silverheels



About a week after my seventh birthday, Mother took a fortnight off, and with Dusty and me, drove out to Tuba City, Arizona, to pay an extended visit to her father.  We found him living in a double-wide mobile home next door to his jewelry studio on the edge of town.  His girlfriend, Blair Hightower, was away when we arrived and was not expected back till late Friday afternoon, two days hence. 

     An undergraduate anthropology student from Santa Fe, she stayed at her father’s home during the school week and only drove out to the reservation to be with her Indian lover on weekends.  It was for the best, Grandfather Stony opined; otherwise, she would long ago have tired of him and found herself a younger, more-virile man.

     The mobile home boasted three bedrooms.  So Dusty and I had a room together, and Mother had a room to herself.  Grandfather Stony, of course, had the master bedroom at the end of the hall with a queen-size bed, and whenever Blair was in residence, she shared that bedroom with him.

     Grandfather Stony, a genuinely nice person if ever there was one, was extremely taken with Dusty and me and went out of his way to put us both at ease and to make us feel at home there.  He offered to make each of us an item of jewelry and encouraged us to pick out our own stones and then to observe the entire process from start to finish.  Dusty chose turquoise to be incorporated into a silver anklet; I had a difficult time choosing between malachite and jasper for  a necklace.  So Grandfather made me one of each.  Of course, then he had to make Dusty another item, and again she chose turquoise.

     For supper Grandfather Stony prepared Navajo fry bread, stuffed sweet peppers, succotash, and broiled rabbit.  He was an excellent cook, and he was anxious for us to experience real Indian cooking for the first time.  Later during that visit he would impress us with his knowledge of Mexican, Italian, and Asian cooking as well.  In his tiny kitchen he had over a hundred cookbooks.

     Early Thursday morning the four of us hiked five miles into the desert to visit Grandfather Stony’s hogan.  It took us almost two hours, but the long walk was worth it.  This little eight-sided hut was a veritable museum of Native American culture.  It was built in the traditional style with the entrance facing east, the reason being to allow its tenants, upon coming forth each morning, to be greeted by the rising sun.  Inside were blankets, baskets, pottery, tools, and weapons, such as Indians of the Southwest have used for centuries.  Not everything was of Navajo design.  There were Hopi, Zuni, Piute, and Apache treasures as well, but nothing modern.   Neither was there electricity nor running water.  Yet it was comfortable and infinitely appealing.

     “How come you don’t live here, Grandfather?” asked Dusty.

     “I did live here for a few years, but it’s a bit too far from town.  The two-hour walk each way reduced my work day so drastically that I was having a hard time earning a decent living.  When Blair bought that trailer house and invited me to move in with her, I couldn’t resist.  You see, it is the Navajo way for a man to move into his bride’s home.  Then her family and her clan become his.  The shaman assures me that I have not in any way broken tradition by moving out of my hogan.  I am free to live as much like a White man as I choose, because I now belong to a White family.

     “Your shaman,” said Mother, “sounds very like a helpfully pragmatic rabbi I once knew.”

     “Yes, a Navajo shaman is indeed similar to a Jewish rabbi.”

     “Is Blair your wife then?” Dusty wanted to know.  “I thought you said she was your girlfriend.”

     “We live together.  She is my woman, and I am her man.  But we have no marriage certificate, and we have been through no marriage ceremony.  To my mind, we are wed, and the shaman has given his approval, as has Blair’s father.  However, to the minds of many others, I suspect, we are merely living in sin.  You may think of it as you will.”

     The following day Blair returned from school early, and we were all surprised at how youthful she was: five years younger than Mother.  Oh, and she was gorgeous too with loads of bouncy blond curls, a bright Ipana smile, a rich Coppertone tan, and long shapely legs shown to great advantage on our first encounter by white short shorts.  One might have expected our mother to hate Blair on sight, but that was not the case.  The two of them hit it off immediately, and by the time that first weekend was over, they had become fast friends.  Dusty and I were just as easily won to Blair, for she was sweet and guileless and seemed to like everyone.

     On Saturday many of Grandfather Stony’s friends and relatives from all over the Four Corners began to arrive to meet us and bid us welcome.  We met cousins, aunts and uncles, and our great, great grandmother Tijinney, who spoke not one word of English, but communicated, nevertheless, her approval of us all three.  For some inexplicable reason, she took a particular liking to me and had me to sit beside her at every gathering.  Patting my knee, she chatted to me constantly in the Navajo tongue (Diné bizaad), which, of course, I understood not at all.  From time to time someone would translate something or other that she was telling me, but most of what she said I missed completely.  On one occasion she mentioned that I reminded her of someone she had known seventy or eighty years ago.  Was this a girlhood friend of hers or a relative?  I never understood clearly.  In any case, this one of whom I reminded her had been called Sky Eyes, and now she wanted to call me Little Sky Eyes, never mind that my own eyes are of a brown so dark they seem almost black.  In the Navajo tongue this new name of mine was unpronounceable by me and seemed to have about ten syllables.  I doubted that I should even recognize it if someone called me by it.

     Grandmother is how everyone addressed this clan matriarch.  Of course, that the title was inadequate by two generations.  She was, in fact, Grandfather Stony’s maternal grandmother.  She invited Dusty and me to call her by the more-familiar cognomen Nana. 

     Nana’s much younger brother, Joaquín, was a shaman.  Whether or not he was the same shaman who was Grandfather Stony’s spiritual adviser I cannot say for certain, but I should not be surprised if it were so.  Joaquín was greatly respected by everyone.  When he spoke, people listened.

     Another of Nana’s particular favorites amongst the children, Michelle Nakai, arrived on Sunday from Crownpoint, New Mexico, later that day.  Michelle’s unwed mother had been killed in a car crash the previous year, and Michelle was living now with a distant relative, who had adopted her as her own.  Michelle’s age was about half way between Dusty’s and mine.  Quiet and shy, she rarely joined in any of the games with the other children.  Instead, she sat on Grandmother’s left, just as I sat at Grandmother’s right.  Poor Dusty had no such convenient excuse not to join in those games, of which she had no experience and little aptitude.

     It was not that the other children disliked Dusty and me; they did not.  But they did needed to establish their superiority over us.  They took pleasure in pointing out our failures.  We could not say a proper greeting (Ya’át’ééh), recite our lineage, or even name the four clans to which we each had ties.  We looked like Diné, true enough, but at heart we were really Bilagáana (White girls).  Only Michelle defended us, and this she did fiercely, shaming the others for being less than hospitable, less than gracious, less than kind.  And in doing so, she endeared herself to Dusty and me forever.  For a while the three of us formed our own little clique and found activities suitable to our own enjoyment. However, when an adorably attractive older boy, who happened not to be a relative of ours, showed up with his family, Dusty abandoned Michelle and me in favor of a little romantic escapade.  Who can blame her?

     In any case, Michelle and I, alone together, went exploring in the desert.  We had a great adventure that took us for miles and miles.  She taught me many wilderness skills, such as finding food and drink in the most unlikely of places.  She showed me how to identify the tracks of various small animals, and she pointed out the homes or hiding places of many.

     I suggested that we should be best friends forever, but she, had a better idea.  "Let’s become blood brothers.”

     I was familiar with the blood-brother ritual from old Hollywood movies I had seen on TV.  But it seemed to me that if two girls performed the same ritual, they would become blood sisters.  This I pointed out as tactfully as I could.

     “I don’t think there’s any such a thing as blood sisters,” Michelle said doubtfully.  “But we can call it that if you want.”

     “It doesn’t matter to me.  We can be blood brothers if you think that sounds better.”

     “I’ll bet you don’t have a sharp knife, do you?”

     I shook my head.  “If we go back to the trailer house, we can get one out of the kitchen.”

     Again Michelle offered an alternate plan.  “Uncle Stony’s old hogan is right over that hill, I think.  Let’s go borrow one from there.”

     We found any number of suitable knives in the hogan, which, as always, was unlocked.  The knife Michelle chose had an obsidian blade and a deer-antler handle.  It was a beautiful artifact and as sharp as a razor.  Michelle drew the blade across the palm of her own hand, then handed me the knife to do the likewise.  Nothing else that I have ever done in my life to date has required as much courage and determination as was demanded that day for me to slice open the palm of my own hand.   Then I very nearly fainted at the excruciating pain.

     Clasping my bleeding hand to hers, Michelle intoned dramatically, “Your blood now flows in my veins; and mine, in yours.  From this day forth we are blood brothers (or blood sisters, if you prefer).”

     “We certainly are bleeding a lot,” I observed.  “Let’s get some rags and bandage ourselves up.”

     Inside the hogan we found hand-woven textiles of museum quality, but nothing disposable enough to be termed a rag.  So we stripped off our blouses and tied up our hands tightly before setting off for home.  Several times along the way I thought that I was going to pass out, and Michelle would have to go on without me, but always she helped me to my feet and urged me to keep moving.  Eventually, however, my loss of blood was so great that I lost consciousness.  Michelle carried me the final half mile or so and probably saved my life.   We were both badly sunburned across our shoulders and chests. 

     Blair immediately took charge, and with the assistance of Mother and Gloria, Michelle’s guardian, hustled us into the Hummer parked in the driveway and drove us to the nearest medical clinic to have our self-inflicted knife wounds sewn up.   We required tetanus shots as well.         

     Nor was our ordeal yet complete.  Back at the double-wide we still had to endure a scolding from Grandmother, who said we must be the two stupidest girls in the world.  What on earth had we been thinking?  As cousins, which we certainly were, we were practically sisters already, and sisterhood is the closest relationship two persons can enjoy.  "Blood brothers indeed!  Pfui!"

     All this Michelle translated for my benefit.  After every sentence, Grandmother would pause for Michelle to render her words into English.  When the lecture ended we were motioned to sit one on either side of Grandmother, who, chuckling to herself, put her arms around our shoulders and squeezed us to her affectionately.  Apparently we had not, by our ill-considered deed, ceded our favor at court.

     Jaoquín got to his feet and cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.  “My sister has spoken true words.  But ritual is powerful medicine, even a ritual that is unprecedented.  These two girls have made a pact today that can never be broken.  Each will be the other’s defender forever, and their combined strength will not be prevailed against.  This is a good thing, I think.”

     My hand hurt like hell that night and would for another week or so.  Indeed, even today I occasionally feel a tingling numbness in my fingers to remind me of my foolishness on that occasion.  Still, Michelle and I have remained closer than most sisters all these years.   And were she to call me in the middle of the night, admonishing me to ask no questions, but to sell all my possessions and then to risk my very life in order to deliver their value into her hands, I should do so without hesitation.  Nor have I any doubt that she would cheerfully do as much for me.

Copyright © 2011 Trudy Silverheels



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