In the late nineteen seventies and early eighties our family lived on the Navajo Reservation–the Big Res–where we taught English at the brand new public high school. We lived on the Res at a time of transition. Many of our students spoke only Navajo at home and English classes were actually English as a Second Language classes before that label had been widely applied.
Some of our students had attended the BIA school up the road; some had gone to boarding schools where they stayed for the entire school year. Some were still participating in the Indian Placement Program–a program where Native American students traveled north, south, east, or west to stay with families in cities across the western United States during the school year, attended public high schools and ate meals with unfamiliar foods like tuna casserole or peanut butter sandwiches. They called the members of their host families mom and dad and brother and sister. They learned to speak English well and they became acculturated to the larger culture, until at the end of the school year they boarded buses and returned home to the Res.
In the early eighties seventy percent of homes on the Res had neither electricity nor running water. The lack of either would be a distinct hardship for most of us. But then, living in a one room hogan might also prove difficult coming from a four bedroom, three bath house. While students who participated in the Indian Placement Program gained tangible skills and experience they also experienced culture shock at least twice a year–leaving home for the city and coming home to the Res.
A public high school on the Res was a life altering event. Students now attended school and went home every night. There were still obstacles; some of our students walked eight miles from the bus stop down dirt roads and tracks to get home. Some students rode the bus for more than an hour and a half to get to the school. Most could not do homework because they arrived home after dark to a camp without electricity, and they left again to walk out to the bus at dawn.
Despite the hardships the students prospered. They learned English, they participated in sports, they traveled to public schools far from the Res to play football and participate in track meets. The highlight of the trip to the Natural History Museum was the elevator in the hotel–a true novelty. Today our students are parents and grandparents and their children speak English as a first language. The struggle now is to maintain their Navajo language and traditions.
Still it was a two way exchange. Our Kindergarten aged daughter learned to speak Navajo. The twelve year old son of our friends from Mexico lived with us to learn English. He learned English, but he also learned Navajo on the playground. Because we had four kids and Gilberto living with us we were assigned Navajo housing outside the teacher’s compound. A neighbor warned me not to leave the laundry on the clothesline overnight–skinwalkers can use a person’s personal items to invade their body.
I made sure to bring in the dry clothes everyday. No point worrying the neighbors. We heard stories of witches. We attended the kinal’da–the coming of age ceremony for young women–and other ceremonies. We participated in sand painting contests and fry bread competitions. Our girls dressed up in velvet skirts and rode on the school parade float. We were included, but we were other. Still acculturation happens.
My husband was the track and cross country coach. He road the bus with the students to meets, near and far. Coming home one night still twenty or more miles from the school a coyote ran in front of the bus heading straight west. The bus driver stopped and pulled off the road. No one complained. Most of the students still had a long trip ahead of them once they got to the school. In that desolate area very few cars pass, especially at night. But after an hour or more a car finally came down the road and broke the coyote’s path.
While they sat and waited my husband got a full lesson on the Coyote. The coyote is a trickster, sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. He can give direction and guidance but he can also lead you astray. But more relevant to the situation they found themselves in, if a coyote crosses in front of you it is very important to note the direction he travels. If he is going west or north he is headed toward darkness; to cross his path can only bring bad luck. If he is going east or south in the direction of light he is benevolent and you can continue on your way. So, there they sat in a modern school bus, waiting.
It’s funny. We have lived in coyote country for many years, and to this day when a coyote crosses our path we note the direction he’s traveling and comment on our luck. It is almost a game. Now I am writing a book set on the reservation. I thought I knew a lot about life on the Big Res, but I have forgotten many things. I’ve had to do more research than I initially expected. Still, Mo Black, the Navajo FBI agent from the Kiko and Maggie Perez series is a main character in the book and he is by now an old friend. The book is going well.
But what really brought home to me the lasting effects of our years on the reservation was a call the other night from our youngest son. It was well after dark when the phone rang. Our youngest son was born in Cortez, Colorado, nearly a decade after we moved away from the Res. He was just a year old when we moved to Phoenix. He grew up as a city boy.
Still when I answered the phone he had an important question. “Which direction is bad if a coyote crosses in front of my car?” I laughed and explained the directions of light and of darkness. I could imagine him shaking his head over the phone. “The coyote was going straight west. But, don’t worry. I slowed down and another car passed me before I broke the path.” I hadn’t realized the coyote had become such an entrenched part of our family culture. But there he was.
Just remember. Safety is in the direction of light–sunrise and the path of the sun across the sky.
I can’t wait to discover what Mo Black is up to now that he’s back visiting his family on the Reservation. There is so much that’s interesting and exciting that can happen! Let’s just hope he stays away from skinwalkers and that old rascal, the coyote.