Most of the teachers who worked for the BIA regarded me as an enigma in my enthusiastic embrace of life on the reservation. The majority of them were middle-aged and looking forward to retiring from the government and moving back home.
In contrast to my colleagues, I became so immersed in Navajo culture that I gradually found myself identifying with the Navajo people. Every couple of weeks when I left the reservation to buy groceries in Gallup, I thought how sickly white people appeared, with their anemic-looking faces, as they pushed their grocery carts down the aisles. I had to remind myself that I was white just like those people.
Some of my Navajo friends called me Azaan L’Chii, meaning Navajo woman with red skin—referring to my sunburned cheeks. During the ceremonies, I dressed like a traditional Navajo woman and had a rapidly growing vocabulary of Navajo words and phrases.
Since the Navajo parents and grandparents of the children in my class spoke exclusively Navajo in their homes, I had a good opportunity to learn their language—by far the most difficult and complex language I have ever attempted to learn. In fact, the code spoken by the highly decorated Navajo code talkers during World War II was the only military code that the enemy never broke. The indecipherable “code” was simply the Navajo language used creatively.
I had some major challenges breaking the code myself. Navajo is a tonal language, much like Chinese. Each vowel has about six or more ways that it can be pronounced, as opposed to only two ways in English. If your voice goes up or down at the wrong place, or if the sound is cut off too soon, or not soon enough, you will be saying something you did not intend to say.
In my eagerness to delve into the intricacies of the language, I caused myself considerable embarrassment. The most distressing mistake I made involved a shy young boy in my class who had trouble with some of the writing exercises.
I had learned that it was best to help students privately in order to avoid humiliating them in front of their classmates. I asked the boy to stay after class so that I could help him. In my attempt to make him feel more comfortable with me, I spoke to him in Navajo and said, “Come here my relative,” knowing that terms of kinship are used to express affection among the Navajo people. I said—or thought I said, “Hágo Shik’éi.”
The boy looked up at me in horror and ran out of the room. The next day he did not show up for class. I asked my teacher aide, Donna Scott, why he got so upset. When I told her what I had said, she gasped and put her hand over her mouth. “Don’t ever say that. You told that boy to come and have sex with you.”
Apparently my voice did not rise or fall in the correct way when pronouncing the “e,” giving the word an entirely different meaning. I stopped my attempts at speaking Navajo for a few days and gave a formal apology to the terrified boy who forever after avoided eye contact with me.
I took many trips with the students to the surrounding area, such as hikes in the canyon, trips to the store, post-office, police station, and many other local places. After each trip the students would come back to the classroom and write about what they had experienced. Learning became exciting and meaningful for them. The students knew how much I cared about them. The feelings were mutual which made both the teaching and learning process easy and fun.
I called the students “sha’ áałchíní,” my children. I addressed each boy as “shiyáázh,” my son, and each girl as “shich’é’é,” my daughter.
The principal told my students to call me “Miss Elliott.” They shortened the two words to an affectionate “Elliott,” pronounced as though it were two syllables, made with a staccato sound, “Ellit.”
My parents came to visit me over the Christmas holidays my first year of teaching. They had heard my stories and wanted to meet the children. Although Christmas did not have much meaning for most of the kids in my class, they had learned about the expression, “Merry Christmas,” from their former teachers. There is no translation in Navajo for the word “merry.” And since the word “Christmas” contains sounds that were foreign to the students, they said “Keshmish” when referring to Christmas. With their eyes looking down, they shyly greeted my parents in Navajo, saying, “Ya’at’eeh keshmish,” meaning “Good Christmas.”
After the kids had recovered from the novelty of meeting my parents, they could barely remain in their seats. I had hung lemons, limes, and tangerines on the little Christmas tree in the back of the classroom. I picked these special treats for the children because they rarely had fresh fruit in their diets. They excitedly waved their hands, yelling “Ellit, lemon!” or “Ellit, orange!” There was such a frenzied scramble for the fruit that I had to ask the students to get into a line and approach the tree one person at a time.
The year I came to Chinle in l971, the government had implemented a prototypical program for bilingual education. Up until then school officials had been punishing the children for speaking Navajo in school—a rather cruel system, given the fact that some of the kids hardly spoke English at all due to prolonged absence from school while helping out their families with childcare or herding sheep.
One day a film crew from the BBC, the British Broadcasting Company, came to my classroom to film bilingual lessons in action on the Navajo Reservation. The concept of bilingual education was a novelty in that era. In spite of it being a British company, they sent a French team to make the documentary.
We sang songs for the film crew in Navajo, and proceeded with our usual class activities, after which I spoke to the camera in French while the children giggled. I think they felt proud to tell the world about themselves.
Rumors drifted all the way to the BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., about a young teacher in Chinle, Arizona, who took a keen interest in learning the Navajo language and culture. Officials contacted me and offered to pay me to spend the summer of 1972 taking post-graduate course work toward a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education at the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. They wanted my classroom to become a model for the new pilot program in bilingual education.
Although I learned some interesting information about linguistics, spending two months indoors talking about theory was challenging for me. I missed my life with the Navajo people and couldn’t wait to get back.
With great enthusiasm, I tried to encourage in the children a sense of cultural pride and self-esteem as Navajo people. I lined the walls in the classroom with pictures of Indian heroes.
Although curious about the various tribes we talked about, the students did not identify with any of them. They told me that they were not Indians. They were “Diné,” which means “The People.”
My lessons in Indian history and awareness were quite basic, beginning with the names of some of the more famous tribes and their leaders, and then focusing specifically on the Navajo tribe. I filled the bulletin boards with items regarding Navajo land and history. The children, in turn, gave me lessons in Navajo language and culture. The exchange served as an effective way to teach English painlessly.
The children loved to write stories about their lives. They sometimes illustrated their stories with intricate drawings of animals, canyons and hogans. I found their stories fascinating, especially the ones about their experiences with werewolves and witchcraft, both strong elements of the Navajo belief system.
Once a week we spent the afternoon in the library. The children loved looking through the books and deciding which ones to check out. Each time we went, one of the students, Johnny Charley, randomly picked out a book and asked me to read it to him.
At 13, Johnny Charley was the second oldest student in our 4th grade class. He had to stay out of school for several years to help his family with their cattle. Johnny Charley had a great desire to learn. I made an exception to the rule of silence in the library and read to him softly in the corner of the room, trying not to disturb the other students. He put his chair right next to mine. He stared at me as I read. When I looked over at him, he quickly looked away.
Johnny Charley learned so quickly that he soon became one of the brightest students in the class. He had high aspirations and wanted to be a medicine man someday, like his grandfather.
Near the end of my first year of teaching, the students had made tremendous progress in speaking and writing in English. While the girls excelled in language arts, many of the boys excelled in math and learned the subject with ease. Since every math lesson also served as a language lesson, the boys became fluent in English as well.
Some of the girls had become so proficient in language arts that I entered them in a regional speech contest at Many Farms, Arizona. Four of them won awards for poetry, excellence in original speech, and reading. The whole class felt proud of the girls and proud of themselves.
Most of my time on the reservation was happy and full of wonder. I spent weekends exploring the canyon, participating in ceremonies, or taking the boarding school children on trips. Sometimes I drove by myself to remote wilderness areas in neighboring Utah and Colorado to explore the backcountry. On a few occasions I drove to Taos, New Mexico, to ski in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
During the school year, I became close friends with my Navajo teacher aide, Donna Scott. She introduced me to her family members, including one of her brothers, a famous artist living in Taos who had achieved national recognition for his paintings of traditional native women.
Her brother invited me to stay at his beautiful home during the three weekends that I spent skiing in Taos. He was a flamboyant character who liked to indulge in life’s pleasures. I ate lavish meals at his home. In the evenings his driver took us to extravagant parties where I met celebrities who were his friends.
The glamorous life of Donna Scott’s brother stood in stark contrast to the austerity of Navajo life to which I had grown accustomed. In his company, I felt like a pauper, with barely any material possessions. Yet, on the reservation I felt truly wealthy, my yearly salary of $6,000 notwithstanding.
I welcomed my return to Chinle where life was simple and without pretense. In the mornings before going to the classroom, I jogged along the dirt roads and among the red rock formations while I watched the sun rise in the desert. The running served as a form of prayer, a time of giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful land with my students, each of whom I loved as though they were part of my own family.
A Navajo friend who caught glimpses of me running said jokingly, “Bilagaana, t’oo diigiiz,” which translates as “white people are really crazy.” They don’t have enough physical work to do so they have to create work for themselves.
On two or three occasions I went to the Saturday evening dances in the public high school auditorium out of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the Navajos who lived in town. I knew that their lives were vastly different from the lives of the boarding school kids and their families.
People of all ages, ranging from teens to middle age, danced country western swing to the music of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings that blasted through the loudspeakers. High school girls often danced with each other, too shy to dance with the boys. A few times a bold young man in cowboy boots and cowboy hat stepped forward and asked me to dance.
The more I immersed myself in Navajo life, the better I understood the culture and the meaning of certain behaviors. Navajo friends and acquaintances often came to my house to borrow money. It gradually dawned on me that they would never pay back what I thought was a loan. I learned that in the Navajo way people share their possessions. The people that I knew were not possessive. If they had something others wanted, they readily shared it. Since I was so much a part of Navajo life, they expected the same from me.
Traditional Navajos seemed to have no desire to get ahead of the pack through material wealth or career success. Individuality was subordinated to the community good. Besides, my students told me that if a person became too wealthy or successful, he or she would be a target for witchcraft. Ambition to get ahead was not considered an admirable trait among traditional Navajos.
In the early spring of my first year at the boarding school, one of the Navajo teacher aides in the 6th grade classroom, Phyllis Benally, invited me to go with her to visit her large, extended family up on Black Mountain. The family lived in a compound made up of a cluster of hogans and cinder block houses, corrals and shade houses. A dozen children of all ages ran around the compound. Traditional Navajos consider cousins the same as brothers and sisters, making it difficult for my non-Navajo mind to sort out who belonged with whom. The family’s proud, handsome-looking 75-year-old grandfather still herded the sheep.
I spent many happy weekends up on the mountain. I helped with the cooking, rode horses and played with the children, all the while observing Navajo life.
I especially enjoyed riding off with the boys to hunt for the horses and cattle. Normally, boys and girls engaged in separate activities. I was an oddity because I readily joined the boys in their adventures. They loved to tease me. They challenged me to ride certain horses known to be mean-spirited to see if I would get bucked off. I eagerly accepted their challenges, wanting to show them that girls could be just as good at riding bareback as the boys.
One time I accepted the boys’ challenge to get on a bull. The bull whirled around, twisted and kicked his hind legs. After a few seconds the bull threw me off his back. I landed on a cactus bush. Excruciating pain coursed through my buttock while the boys doubled over laughing.
One of the girls on Black Mountain, Judy, got her period for the first time and was due to have a puberty ceremony called a Kinalda to which I had been invited. Judy dressed in her finest traditional outfit. Her mother combed her hair with thin sticks tied together and then adorned her with almost every piece of jewelry the family owned. She had three turquoise bracelets, several belts, three necklaces, earrings, and rings on every finger except the pointer and thumb. Navajos don’t wear rings on the pointing finger. Only dead people wear rings on that finger.
I wanted to take a picture of Judy in her finery, but the medicine man told me in a firm voice to put away my Instamatic camera during the Kinalda ceremony.
For four days before the ceremony Judy ran twice a day, once at about five in the morning when it was still dark, and once at noon. I ran with her.
The ceremony was highly ritualized with strict rules to follow. Judy was not supposed to laugh or eat anything sweet. She had to fix her hair in a certain way with half of it pulled back and tied with a leather strip made from a mountain lion hide. The hair in front hung down, lining her face. This was supposed to prevent her from going bald when she got older.
Judy spent much of each day of the ceremony on her knees grinding kernels of corn, using the traditional metate, or stone grinder. She had to turn many sacks of corn into flour. When she was grinding, she was not supposed to drink any water in order to prevent her breasts from becoming too big when she got older.
The major part of the ceremony came on the third day. The men began digging a big hole in the ground several yards in front of the hogan. The hole turned into a pit about four feet in diameter and about eight inches deep. The men laid dried juniper branches in the pit, along with a pile of twigs, and started a bonfire.
While the men prepared the fire, the women made corn mush by pouring pails of hot water into a big cauldron with Judy’s ground-up corn.
Nearby I saw some of the women chewing on kernels of corn and then spitting the corn into a pail. One of the English-speaking women caught the look of surprise on my face and explained that chewing the corn and mixing it with salivary juices in the mouth converted the corn into sugar.
After the women finished chewing the corn and spitting, they dumped the contents of the pail into the corn mush, making it extra sweet. The women stirred the corn concoction with slender sticks tied together, all done according to ancient protocols.
After many hours of preparation the mixture was ready for cooking. The fire in the pit had burned the wood down to hot coals. The women removed the coals so that they could carefully line the pit with cornhusks to keep the corn mush from getting contaminated with dirt. Then they poured the corn mush into the cornhusk-lined pit.
The men stepped in and laid cornhusks on top of the corn mush in a ritualized fashion, aligned with the direction of the sun’s trajectory. The medicine man took a pinch of corn pollen out of his leather pouch and said a blessing while sprinkling the sacred pollen to the four directions. After the blessing, the men shoveled dirt over the top layer of cornhusks and put the hot coals back on top of the dirt. They added more dried juniper branches to the hot coals to keep the fire burning all night while the corn cake slowly baked in the earthen oven.
At about 10 pm the singing began, followed by a ceremony performed by the medicine man with drumming and chanting. The smell of burning sage and sacred tobacco filled the hogan. At midnight we had a break for eating, then the mesmerizing chanting continued for the rest of the night. I had a hard time staying awake.
Around four in the morning, the women washed Judy’s hair and her jewelry in a tightly woven basket. They used soap made from pounded yucca root fibers mixed with water. With her hair still wet, Judy ran into the desert, yelling all the while, according to tradition. Anyone could run with her as long as she remained in the lead. The women told me that if anyone overtook her, that person would die before she did.
When the sun appeared on the horizon, the women removed the ashes from the fire, peeled away the cornhusks, and cut the puberty cake, called alkaan, into large chunks.
Judy took the first chunk and put it into her Navajo wedding basket. She broke off a piece and gave it to me. It tasted sweet and delicious.
The ceremony had particular significance for me because I had always felt that white people sorely lacked initiation rituals to mark the important milestones in life, like puberty and menopause. These Navajo ceremonies were beautiful celebrations of the cycle of our lives, and reminders of our connection with the natural world.
Back in the classroom on Monday morning, I couldn’t wait to tell my students about the kinalda ceremony. A few of the older girls who had already reached puberty smiled with recognition and nodded their heads.
I excitedly told some of the teachers at the boarding school about my weekend on Black Mountain. They listened with bemusement.
One of my fellow white teachers thought that I had become too much like the Navajo people. When I signed a contract to teach a second year at the BIA boarding school, she took me aside and said, “I can’t understand why you stay here on the reservation. You could have a great future. You could go on and get your PhD in education and be a professor at a college somewhere. You don’t seem to have any ambition.”
No one had ever said that to me before.