A Drumstick’s Story: Part 19

With special thanks to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Stanley Crank, Lee Cly, Adam Teller, Diné College, Harry Walters, Albert Smith, the people of Chilchinbeto, John Woodmansee, and Vaughn Eaglebear for “John Wayne’s Teeth.”

By Joe Liles
News From Indian Country 6-08

I know it may seem to you that I get philosophical at times, and I freely admit I am guilty of this. But, give me a break. If you were a drumstick like me, totally dependent on others for transportation, maybe even your destiny, wouldn’t your mind wander to the meaning of it all? Now, I suspect you even want to ask me, “If you have so much difficulty dealing with what you have been given in life, how come you can communicate with us, the readers, so freely on this printed page?”

Well, the answer to this question is complex and takes some mental adjustment on both of our parts as human beings and drumsticks. I know we all have a natural tendency to question things, and questioning can be a good thing. Profound questions like, “Why am I here?” and “What should I do with my life?” are useful in helping us to look more deeply into our lives and make the most of our time on this earth.

But there are times when questioning gets in the way of living. Sometimes we should shut down the voice inside us that is always asking why things are as they are and just experience what is. This is what I am trying to get better at.

Miracles surround us in this life. We are all connected to the Creator and are part of an all encompassing creative force. Each of us has a little bit of the Creator inside of us! We are miracles, ourselves, by virtue of our existence. Miracles happen all around us all the time, and we even contribute to them by our own actions. It is a miracle of sorts that you are reading this story told to you by a drumstick. It is also a miracle that you and I can encourage each other to think about these things and live our lives in a good way.

In order to get the most out of this world of miracles, we need to find a balance similar to the way traditional Diné people have done with the Hosho and the Haskai. But this time it is not balancing of harmony and conflict, male and female, and night and day. This time it is about finding a balance between questioning and accepting.

Thank you for accepting me to share my story with you.

gouldings-lodgeliles.gif In my last time with you, I told you how Grandpa, R.D., and I were making our way in R.D’s car along the base of Black Mesa in Arizona. I was traveling in my usual place on the dashboard. We had just stopped at a town called Rough Rock to see where an old school became the birthplace of Navajo self determination. We were heading to a place Grandpa wanted to show us with great rock formations. I had noticed a dark shape towering above the horizon, way in the distance. I wondered if this could be what Grandpa was talking about.

We got back on Highway 59, following the heights of Black Mesa as it lay to the south. It was not long before we passed a sign to Chilchinbeto. I knew this town would be back near the wall of the mesa. I could see pointed spikes on top of the mesa in that direction.

“That’s an interesting town, Chilchinbeto,” Grandpa said. “In the Diné language it means Sumac Spring. The people who settled around that spring became great weavers in the tradition of Spider Woman. One time, all the weavers around Chilchinbeto joined together to make really big Navajo rugs, the largest hand-woven rugs in the world. One was called the Big Rug and measured somewhere around 25 feet by 30 feet. The other was called Little Sister because it was a tad smaller. These rugs are used at various festivals and even inaugurations of Navajo leaders. Not long ago at the parade over at the big festival in Shiprock, the Little Sister rug covered an entire school bus leaving only the cab exposed so the driver could see! Just like the people back at Rough Rock, the people of Chilchinbeto discovered what is possible when they joined together to pursue a dream.”

We continued down Highway 59 until it ran into another road that took us to a town called Kayenta. We stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank on the car. I could tell R. D. was concerned about how much this was costing because he kept counting the money in his wallet over and over again. Grandpa slipped him a piece of money, and this seemed to help. When we turned north on Highway 163, I could see that dark shape bigger than ever. I wished Grandpa would say something about it, but he was onto other things. As we passed motels, trading posts, and signs for Indian arts and crafts, Grandpa explained that Kayenta was trying some new things in government. They broke with the tradition of the Diné nation of providing chapters to take care of local business. The people of Kayenta elected a town council. According to Grandpa, a lot of the traditional Diné people didn’t know what to think of these people in Kayenta.

We passed a building with bright colors, lots of cars, and a big sign that said Burger King. I wondered if this was the new government Grandpa was talking about.

As we headed out of Kayenta, the towering dark shape was all the more powerful on the horizon. Finally, Grandpa explained, “That rock up ahead is called Agathlan. This means ‘place of much wool’ in the Diné language.”

This rock got bigger and bigger, darker and darker until we were driving right beside it. Grandpa continued, “In historical times, Navajo people would gather their herds of sheep at this rock and sheer them of their wool. The wool could be sold at trading posts or spun into yarn to be used to make rugs. Some of the old people say that, before the Diné obtained sheep from the Spanish and the United States government, this was a place where the people gathered to process their deer hides. They used the rocks here to scrape the hair off the hides so the hides could be used to make clothes. The reason Agathlan is such a dark rock is it is all that remains of the inside of a volcano. What you see there is the solidified lava that was inside the cone of the volcano!”

Up ahead, I could see more rocks jutting up from the flat land. But these rocks were different from Agathlan. They were red.

As we headed down the road, Grandpa continued his stories. “We are approaching a place called Monument Valley. It is a place the Diné people say was left after a great storm destroyed all monsters remaining on the earth. Some say this destruction was caused by water, kind of like the Great Flood talked about in the Bible. Others say it was caused by wind. Scientists tell us this area was once at sea level, but over millions of years, was raised up into a giant plateau. The rock formations you see in the distance are where wind and water have carved out the soft earth from around harder rock. This place speaks to the power of the elements and to the power of time.

“This place was home to the great Navajo chief Hoskininni. He and his people hid out here during themittensliles.gif period of the Longest Walk. I know you have heard of that time, in 1864, when thousands of Navajos were rounded up and forced to walk hundreds of miles to a fort in New Mexico. When the Navajo signed a treaty with the United States in 1868, they were allowed to come back to their homeland. Chief Hoskininni helped some the returning people start their lives over again in Monument Valley.”

We came to a crossroads where buildings were clustered to one side. “This is brand new,” Grandpa said.“The Navajo nation has teamed up with Arizona and Utah to build this Welcome Center on the boundary between the two states. You see, in spite of all this beauty around here, this place is so remote, there has been very little development. Hey, hang a left here, I want to show you something next to that big mesa over there.”

We took the road to the west until we came to place where some buildings were built up against the side of a big red mesa. R.D. parked the car, and we got out.

“This is Goulding’s Lodge,” Grandpa said. “Back in 1923, a man named Harry Goulding and his wife “Mike” drove their model T Ford out here from Aztec, New Mexico to start a trading post with the Navajo. After operating out of tents for four years, they built a trading post right up against this Big Rock Door Mesa. They used the red rocks that are all over the place around here. The new trading post opened in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression in the United States. This was the only store for miles around, and the Navajo would bring Harry mostly wool and sometimes their woven rugs to buy things like flour, coffee, sugar, lard, clothes, tools, harnesses for their horses, and other things. One thing Harry was famous for was, if a Navajo wanted to give him a piece of silver jewelry or some other precious possession in exchange for goods, Harry would make the sale but would hold the personal items until they could be bought back with wool or money. Harry had the reputation with the people for being fair.

“But Harry had other ideas, too. He loved the beauty of this land so much he wanted to expose other Americans to it. He and Mike drove to California with a portfolio of photographs and showed them to a movie director by the name of John Ford. They persuaded Mr. Ford to come out here and make a movie. This movie was called “Stagecoach” and it hit the movie theaters all over America in 1938.

“People in America were blown away by the beauty of Monument Valley.

“People in America were blown away by the beauty of Monument Valley. This place became the prime location of many movies like “My Darling Clementine,” “Fort Apache,” and “The Searchers.” A famous movie star got his start here. His name was John Wayne.”

R.D. and Grandpa went into the old Goulding’s Trading Post. I rode in my usual place, stuck through R.D.’s belt. The place looked old with lots of trade goods, blankets, and silverwork in glass cases. Upstairs, there was a real nice living room with a stone fireplace and everything! There were also rooms up there with displays all about the movies made here. R.D. got excited when he recognized a photograph of his favorite movie star, a guy named Clint Eastwood.

On our way out of the lodge, R.D. noticed a small hand drum behind the counter. He asked the attendant if he could see it. The young man handed it over, and R.D.’s hands caressed the rawhide head of the drum. Then, R.D. surprised everyone. He asked the attendant, “Would you mind if my friend and I used this drum to sing a song just outside under the porch?” The attendant didn’t seem too enthused, but he said OK. R.D. and Grandpa took the drum outside, and R.D. slid me out of his belt. There was a life size cut-out of a man standing on the side of the building. This man was wearing a big cowboy hat and had a gun slung around his waist. One thing I noticed was this man had a smirk on his face, but you could not see his teeth.

With a grin on his face, R.D. said, “I never thought I would ever have a chance to sing this song to John Wayne!” He used me on the drum to start up the staggered beat of a 49 Song. It felt great to be making music with R.D. again. I had not been used on a 49 drum since Thunderbird Lake in Oklahoma. I don’t even know how long ago that was!

The song R.D. started up was one I had never heard before. It was all about John Wayne and his teeth: “John Wayne’s teeth. John Wayne’s teeth. Are they false? Are they real? Are they plastic? Are they steel? Ha Ha Hey Hey Yo-o Hey Yeh.”

R.D. and Grandpa had a good laugh at the end of the song, and R.D. returned the drum to the man behind the counter. That guy looked kind of relieved.

three-sistersliles.gif We got back into R.D.’s car. I took my place on the dashboard, and we headed down the road back toward the Welcome Center. I figured we would stop there, but we drove straight through the intersection and toward a vast expanse of red land with towering buttes in every direction.

“This road will take us to the Navajo Tribal Park,” Grandpa said, and after a few miles, the road ended in front of a big cluster of red buildings and a big parking lot. I noticed what appeared to be a restaurant and some other interesting possibilities. A young Navajo woman up ahead waved to R.D. at the entrance. R.D. rolled down his window.

“Do you want my phone number?” he asked the woman.

She laughed and said, “No, but I want your money. That will be $5!”

Grandpa burst out laughing and handed R.D. a $5 bill. “This one’s on me,” he said.

R.D. thanked the lady and took the car to the edge of the parking lot. We got out of the car, and R.D. and Grandpa stood around without talking. Below us was a valley of red desert. Rock formations of every size and shape spread away from us in every direction.

After a while, Grandpa pointed out, “You see the rock over there that looks like a giant hand sticking out of the earth? That’s West Mitten Butte. Over there, there’s the matching mitten.” He pointed to another formation. “This place was going to become a National Park, but the Navajo did not want to give up the right to live here. There are maybe 60 or 70 families that live around here. So, in 1958, the Navajo established this place as the Navajo Tribal Park. The Navajo people have run this place for fifty years!”

“This is amazing!” R.D. said.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea! I think your car can make it. Let’s take that road over there down into the valley!”

We drove down a steep hill on a red dirt road. Up ahead, I could see a man walking on the side of the road. R.D. stopped the car, and Grandpa shouted out the window, “You need a ride?”

The man smiled. “Sure!” he said and got into the backseat.

“Where do you live?” R. D. asked.

“Over near Cly Butte. It’s just a few miles from here,” the man replied.

“Sounds good to us!” Grandpa added.

As we rode along we got to know our new passenger. His name was Mr. Cly. The butte he lived by, Cly Butte, was named for his grandfather. The road took us by many amazing rock formations. Mr. Cly and sometimes Grandpa would call out their names. One was called Elephant Butte. Another was Camel Butte. I wished I knew about elephants and camels, but I knew they were animals. I liked the rocks that were called the Three Sisters. These were three spires of red rock, two tall ones on each end and a short one on the middle. Mr. Cly told us this name referred back to the Catholic influence on the reservation and represented two nuns taking care of a young initiate.

It was only a little farther before we arrived at Mr. Cly’s home. It was built low, next to a rock face that sheltered it from the wind. In a pen on the side, I noticed some of those fluffy animals that were at Ernest’s mom’s hogan. Mr. Cly invited us inside. He spoke to a woman and introduced her to us as his wife. We sat around a table. Soon, Mrs. Cly brought over bowls of mutton stew and pieces of frybread. It was a feast! I loved these occasions. Everybody always got talkative. There were always jokes and laughter.

After a while, Mr. Cly pushed back his chair and said, “You know, we have a couple more hours of daylight. Would you guys like to see something most people don’t get to see?”

“Sure!” R.D. and Grandpa said in unison.

We all went outside to a corral at the back of the house. Mr. Cly quickly saddled up three horses. R.D. stuck me in his belt and climbed on a pretty spotted horse. Grandpa took a brown horse. Mr. Cly’s horse was black.

We rode straight into the red desert!

It wasn’t long before Mr. Cly stopped at a tall red rock. “This is Rain God Mesa,” he said. There is a hollow place over there, what they call a cistern, where there is almost always water. This is a powerful place. For many hundreds of years, my ancestors and the Ancient Ones before them have come here to ask for rain. Rain is the life blood of this earth. We need the rain to sustain ourselves, our animals, and the plants we depend on.”

Everyone was silent. R.D. got out the pouch from his pocket. He reached in and got some corn pollen. He let the golden powder fall to the earth. The sun was getting low in the sky. Clouds were gathering on the western horizon. Without a word, Mr. Cly turned his horse and led us back across the desert.

I was soothed by the sounds of the horses’ hooves in the soft red dirt. The rocking motion of R.D. in the saddle almost put me to sleep. And then I heard it. Back from Rain God Mesa. Thunder.

. . . to be continued.

Comments and assistance
: Joe Liles
NC School of Science and Math

1219 Broad Street
Durham, NC 27705
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