A Navajo Life Story

Tom Ration

This narrative is reprinted from Stories of Traditional Navajo Life and Culture (Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1977).

I am from the Crownpoint, New Mexico, area of the Reservation, and I have lived here for most of my life. I was born in 1901 at Smith Lake, N.M., just north of the Hosta Buttes. My clan is the Towering House People (Kinyaa´áa nii) on my mother´s side, and I was born for the Water Flows Together People clan (Tó´aheedliinií) on my father´s side.

The Towering House clan came from near a natural feature called Towering House. My parents told me I was born not far from that place, just south of it. Long ago it was traditional custom to return to one´s birthplace now and then and roll in the earth there. Today, though, almost no one practices that because many babies are born in hospitals, making it impossible. Imagine a person rolling around in the obstetrical ward! They would think that he was crazy.

My mother married my father in Tohatchi, N.M., where he had lived. My father´s name was Water Flows Together With Eye Glasses. When I was four years old my parents and I often went to visit my aunt at Willow Extended Red near Tohatchi. Her husband´s name was Hard Ground Man. She was my father´s sister. I remember the large irrigated farmlands at Willow Extended Red because there was plenty of water there; and the people raised abundant crops.

We lived at Willow Extended Red for quite a while. At that time, Smith Lake was on public land. Navajos migrated freely in any direction they chose. Families made temporary shelters wherever they found good grazing areas which had water for their sheep.

Looking back to the first Navajo government, it is amazing to see how we have progressed; and we can give the credit to our Navajo leaders who made it possible. I remember when there were no district lines in our area. It was all open range, and we made our settlements wherever we chose. We could live in one place a short time and then move to another area with our livestock. Now we have boundaries and permanent home sites. We have grazing regulations by which we must abide. In the good old days no one called us trespassers. It was anybody´s land.

Suddenly, however, early in this century lines were drawn and enforced on the New Mexico public lands. It was called the checkerboard area because some land belonged to white ranchers, some to the Navajo Tribe and some still was public land. Each Navajo land user had a permit. Those permits were documents signed by Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States. All the natural resources found on a particular piece of land were claimed by the one who had the permit for that piece of land. No one could take it away. All trespassers who violated the law could be prosecuted. As a result, we have had many disputes about the land we live on in the checkerboard area, among ourselves and with the Anglos, also with those who live within the true Reservation.

There were times, in those days, when a Navajo sheep grower had two or three large herds of sheep. In the open country, we could see sheep grazing on a mile-wide area. That was something really beautiful, and I wish we could see something like it again.

Navajo children are very precious to their parents, and we want the best for them. I have the same feeling toward all young people, however, no matter who they are. I do not want them to destroy themselves. Life is too short to be taken for granted, or misused, especially while people are young. They have so much to live for.

When I was a boy there was no such thing as an idle day, partly because my father and mother had a large flock of sheep. Times were hard; so we all did our share of the work around our home. I brought in the horses before sunrise; after that, I herded sheep all day. I carried a tortilla, with a piece of mutton folded in it, for a snack. At sundown, after the sheep had been put into the fold, my father made me wrestle with a tree to develop strong muscles. He would say, "Train yourself to be ready for any sudden attack by a bully." A strongly developed body was very important, and that was why we yelled while we raced. We took snow baths in the winter, and we did strenuous exercises very early every morning. Those things helped us have strong lungs, good voices and clear, sound minds. I ran - fast - each morning until I was over 20 years old. And, even now, when I take a notion to have a snow bath, I still do it. When younger, I was sort of an athletic person. I liked to do gymnastics, and sometimes I acted like a Navajo Tarzan swinging on the trees. Anyone can see what I am like at 75 years of age. I still have strong resistance to illness, and I see well. Some men I know who are much younger than I are stooped, and their hair is much whiter than mine. I have a cousin, eight years younger, whose hair is pure white, and he looks aged. Many people have asked how I keep looking so young. I reply, "My early exercises account for it."

A person doesn´t see many tall, brawnily-built men and women these days - as Navajos often were a generation or more ago. Now, men and women often are short and fat or large-bellied. They are lazy, and they have more to eat. The people of long ago worked hard, with less food; and they died of old age if they were not killed in battle or otherwise. They were slim and tall, and I believe they were like that because of the kind of food they ate and the exercise they got. Some died from sickness and other causes, but that number was not too high. As I said, that was the way I grew up, and it is why I kept my health so long.

As a student, I was bright, and I learned fast. I now realize that knowing how to read, write and speak English has helped me a lot. I also had the traditional Navajo education at home.

We are told that Navajo life is different from that of other tribes, which may be so. But there are many people who live in ways similar to ours. That goes for different nationalities, too. Of course, today, many prefer to follow the Anglo way of life, and their living conditions have much improved. However, building a hogan for a Navajo family may be a problem. The members have to want to live in it, and we cannot make them like it. Some prefer hogans, though. We are moving with modern progress, but there are some Navajos who still do not like to sleep on a bed or eat canned food. We also have some good and wise elders among us who share their wisdom with the young people. Our people still depend to some extent on their sheep as a source of food and income. For some families caring for their sheep comes first in priorities. Many of them also keep their Blessing Way songs for the sheep and horses, as well as soft goods and hard goods songs. When they are away from home some still chant their traveling songs and the sacred mountain songs. These songs and prayers are part of their everyday life. Blessings are fulfilled for them through these chants when they are sung in reverence.

I feel that both Anglo and Navajo education are essential and are to be studied side by side. Our children should learn both cultures. We value the teachings that our great-grandfathers taught us from generation to generation, and we must not forget them. Men of wisdom have said, "If one knows the legends he will be blessed with goodness." That describes me.

Now, about our history and legends: Navajo elders are asked about the origin of the hogan - how it was made, and why the door always faces the east. These questions seldom are answered correctly, and I briefly will tell you why. It may be that some Navajos are afraid to give out such confidential information. They value its holiness.

Long ago, at the emergence place, it was said that Talking God performed a "No Sleep" ceremony, or vigil. At that "sing" the people could not find anyone to do the bathing of patients. Talking God gathered sand from where the ground was black, blue, red and white. He made a picture in a round, pan-like shape, with the colored sand used to design it. It became the ceremonial basket. The finishing outlet was arranged toward the east. It was very beautiful. Later, again at Huerfano Mountain (the emergence spot), the first Blessing Way was held at a place called Mating of the Corn. Here, again, the question was asked about who was do to the bathing, how and in what way it should be done. Talking God was told to go exactly to the emergence area, to the hogan there, and get what he had hidden in the far side of the hogan. He ran and brought it back. It was copied and the design has been kept. Today the ceremonial basket, with that design, is used for ceremonial baths. It was granted to the people for use in the Blessing Way sings." Its outlet faces the east. Thus, the doorway of the hogan faces the east, too. We must remember, also, that all good things enter with the dawn from the east.

Talking God and his follower, Hogan God or Calling God, were People of the Dawn. It was said that they came at the break of day with valued possessions. That is why we were told to rise with the dawn to meet these gods so that they could present us with worthy goods. Our parents would say to us, "Wake up. What are you sleeping for? Take the ashes out. Clean around outside. We do not want trash around the hogan." It was said and done so that the Dawn People would not see any trash. They would know they were welcomed at our place and would say, "There is no wealth here. Let´s go in and give them some." Trash meant there was wealth. Where a place was dirty and trashy they would ignore it and say, "Too much wealth here. Let´s go to another place." The lesson is that a person was expected to keep clean and be an "early bird to catch the worm."

Also, the people used to offer their thanks at dawn by sprinkling cornmeal toward the east to thank the Good Spirit for the night´s rest and to greet another pleasant day. The men offered white cornmeal at dawn and in the evening. The women offered yellow cornmeal each time. At noon corn pollen was offered to the sun because the sun preferred pollen. The offerings were made for good health and prosperity.

About the hogans, long ago there were two ceremonial types. One was a "dugout" hogan and the other was the round hogan. The hogan was made round in the way Talking God made the round basket. The main beam logs were placed with their growing ends clockwise to the east; the next one to the south, clockwise; the west, clockwise, and the north the same. During the blessing of a new hogan white cornmeal was anointed on all main beams clockwise - east, south, west and north.

Our history begins with the underworlds, where the dark world was known as the first world; the second was the blue world; next was the yellow third world, and the fourth was the white world that sparkled. Each level had its prayer sticks painted the appropriate color. The last (the sparkled or crystal world) is where we live now. Prayer sticks were granted to us by the Holy People who inhabited the world then. They were for us to use.

All the legendary stories have their significance, and it is wonderful to be able to understand them. I know that many Navajos do not have the correct idea about them because they had not heard the stories before. I always have wished that someday I could have a chance to tell my stories to big groups of young people. Now I have the opportunity - even to have the stories printed; and it makes me very happy, but I regret that the stories are not complete. An elder who tells stories usually prepares himself for at least two or three days and nights to tell one complete story. That is about how long it takes to tell whole legends in song. For instance, the story of One-Who-Wins-You would take that length of time from its beginning to the conclusion. Telling about the Cliff Dwellers or the Ancient Ones takes a lot of time, also. Another reason why I shorten my stories is because they are valuable to me, and the payment I receive for telling them barely covers the value. If someone pays the real price for a complete story, then I can say I will tell it with all the usually withheld information included. There are accounts of various kinds about the ancient ruins, like Pueblo Bonito or Pintado, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. Some stories go 'way back to California and the ocean, even to a small mountainous island, where One-Who-Wins-You was born.

Now I will tell you a real story, briefly. The location was Chaco Canyon. There was this man named One-Who-Wins-You. He was like a wizard with all gambling games. He won everything from his opponents. I do not know what he did to have such remarkable luck. Maybe it was made possible by mere instinct. He was born as a twin, but no one has told us exactly who he really was. As for myself, I think he might have been an ancient Anglo of some kind. I judge it could be because of what he said one time. The people from whom he has won practically were his slaves. They all worked very hard. They carried limestone on their backs from a rock quarry to Chaco Canyon. There, the rocks were masoned into blocks to make stone houses which had many rooms, of which we now can see only the ruins. Today, many archaeologists dig in our ruins for ancient relics. Their findings tell us that people lived there ages ago. But their research still does not really tell who the Ancient Ones were. One-Who-Wins-You lived above the Canyon. Below his home was where the slaves built the houses. The people who did the building were called the Cliff Dwellers. (There is a lot of detail to the story, but I will give only the main points.) Someone dreamed that the wizard would be a loser not too far in the future. He had a brother who was his identical twin. The only way to tell them apart was that his brother was an honest man. He lived at Bird Knoll. The people all said, "Let his own twin be his next opponent. That will change his luck, you will see." It is said that twins are extraordinary beings. In this case I will tell you the part where his brother personally encountered him.

In those days the Holy People communicated closer with each other and knew more of what was happening. Who were the Cliff Dwellers? That I do not know. However, the legend I am now telling happened during the time when all the people, no matter what descent they were, mixed themselves in sex relationships. It was told that these mixed tribes inhabited Chaco Canyon, a place used as a sort of retreat. From the activities that occurred there, new tribes were added and other races were born. But, as I said, One-Who-Wins-You might have been an Anglo man, or at least someone who was different. It was told that a real brother could win from his own brother only after having had sex relations with his sister-in-law. That was what happened when the gambling wizard´s brother came to his home. The visiting brother was advised by the people not to greet his wizard brother as "My dear brother." He was not supposed to shake his hand, either. The only greeting expression was to be, "My opponent," and then to immediately sing a song from the Prostitute Way. After that the gambler would say, "Let´s play a game and see who wins." The wizard knew he always won; so they started with the shinny game. One game after-You had left were his wife and children. "We will bet our wives and children, he said.

The two trees were at the far end of the race track. They got set, and the race was on. About halfway, One-Who-Wins-You shot a witch missile at his brother´s feet, but he missed. That was how he had won all the races from his opponents before. However, his twin brother caught the missile and tossed it back to the wizard's feet. By that time the honest twin was ahead. Before he got to the finish line Horned Toad was running beside him. Horned Toad told the twin that of the two trees ahead one was a cane reed tree and the other was a hard oak tree. Horned Toad pointed out the oak. Usually the one who broke the tree lost. The twin was struggling with the oak when One-Who-Wins-You got to his tree and broke it without a struggle. We all know the hard oak cannot be broken; so we know that the gambling wizard lost everything he had, even his wife, children and home.

His honest twin brother had redeemed all the people, with their belongings, as well as their children and wives. Everyone was happy. One-Who-Wins-You was downhearted. He told his brother to take good care of his family, and he began to speak to the people, but they ignored him. "Send him away," they shouted. "Put him on a strong swift Black Arrow and shoot him up yonder into space," they shouted.

Ages ago the Holy People used holy arrows. The gambling wizard was placed on the arrow. Before he left, he yelled, "Even if you send me far into space I will return. I will see you, and I will be above you. Wait and see." (The words he spoke were prophetic about today's airplanes, and they help me to believe that he must have been a white man.)

One-Who-Wins-You also said to the people, "In the future there will be round objects which the people will play games with to win. They will be a reminder of me." We know that today many pieces of game equipment are round - like baseballs, volleyballs, basketballs and golfballs. People play with them to win. They all are part of the white man's games that have been introduced to us. Thus, there are many round objects which remind us of the gambling wizard who became a loser. Whatever is round belongs to him. He also said that the lightning flash would be his power, and also the wind. He added, "When I return, everything that is round will roll beneath you with the wind. We will travel on the rolling rainbow arc." Today, that is all very obvious. We travel on the highways with yellow and white stripes. A highway reminds us of the rainbow as it curves. The round objects under us are the wheels of whatever we travel in - such as trucks, automobiles, trains, bicycles and other things; and we travel with the wind. The lightning, I also know, has to do with electric current. People have lights in their homes and business places, along with all kinds of electrical devices. We have electricity everywhere today. Taking these things together, One-Who-Wins-You must have been a white man. We Navajos also call the radio "Wind that Talks." It is a white man's invention. That is all I will tell about the gambling wizard.

The stories we tell were recited by our elders from generation to generation, on down the line. They were not kept in written books.

The stories I have told for many years are educational, especially for Navajos today. People should think very carefully about what I have said and see if it means anything to them. Whether the words I have spoken are interesting or boring, I believe I have revealed some information which other consultants or elders never have told. I have done it so that Navajos will be able to know more of their culture, and then I hope they realize how important I consider the Navajo Nation´s growth and development. Telling long legends is very tiresome to all concerned. It becomes monotonous and makes a listener restless and sometimes sleepy. I know that if I should give an entire story at one time anyone listening would be fast asleep before I got one-third of the way through it; and, if people took recesses, they would forget some parts of the story I had told them. All legends include songs that cannot be left out of them. So, if done absolutely right, it takes several days and nights without a rest. That was the way my elders told their stories to me, but now listeners like to rest during the day.

About our own traditional culture, those of us who have gone through hardships use our experiences when teaching the young people. We have struggled to live and it has been well worth it. We relate background so that our young people will realize how fortunate they are. If we compare the white man´s culture and the Indian´s culture, we find some similarities. I know this because I compared what I learned in school to my traditional education at home. One problem is that the majority of school children today have little or no knowledge about their native Indian culture. However, some are now beginning to ask questions. Years ago, the elders were very good at telling stories to the children. Now, many of these people are gone. Also, almost all of the original Navajo scholars are gone. Probably, those who remain have told stories similar to mine.

I have lived a long time, and I am grateful to the Good Spirit. I often have considered what benefits I got from all that my parents taught me, such as exercising at dawn which immunized me to extremely cold weather. Altogether, my early life and training gave me a long and happy and healthy existence.

Now that I have talked at great length, I hope that Navajo young people and others will remember what I have said. A person who has self-respect and a well-adjusted and stimulated mind is likely to succeed. He pays attention to elders like me and keeps their teachings in his head.

I pray that I have taught my readers something that they have wanted to know.

Tom Ration. "A Navajo Life Story" from Stories of Traditional Navajo Life and Culture (Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1977), edited by Broderick H. Johnson. Copyright ©1977 by Navajo Community College Press. Reprinted by permission of Broderick H. Johnson.

As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 63.