This is the first installment of El Mirador, an ongoing series curated by Francisco Cantú. Spanish for “the lookout point,” El Mirador collects original nonfiction, translation, and visual art on the American West, the US/Mexico borderlands, and Indian Country.
There was a string of muffled knocks at the front door. It was a few minutes past 11:00, during the fullest moon and coldest night of January. The temperature was 12 degrees and falling. It would finally stop at 5 degrees, just before the sun came up.
My wife, Christine Benally, a Navajo, sat much closer to the door, but she preferred I answer it. She had driven earlier to the grocery store in Window Rock. Arriving back home, she said she felt “somehow” about the night. In Navajo, somehow refers to a state just beyond uncomfortable, but still this side of fearful.
To my great surprise, and Christine’s relief, standing before me in the moon’s brightness―amplified by the snow cover―were two of her elderly aunties. At their request I’ll call them Auntie A.
and Auntie M., as they, like several other family elders, prefer not to have their names (or photographs) in public circulation. Completely unannounced visits by family and friends are the norm here on the Reservation. Their sudden arrival wasn’t what had surprised me, but their having made it to our home at all.
They hail from a locale two miles northeast of the tiny Reservation community of Klagetoh (in Navajo it’s Łeeyi’tό: water or spring in the soil), about 50 road miles southwest of our place. The two live in separate but adjacent small homes, one hundred feet from the old, roughly weathered, dirt-floored log hogan where they and Christine’s father were born and raised.
I knew the double-rutted dirt track from Klagetoh to the Aunties’ homes well, and it was not passable except by high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. The snow and the appalling mid-day mud were treacherous. Auntie M.’s middle-aged son came by the day before to tell us of the dirt road’s condition, after he checked on and resupplied his mom and her sister around noon.
So I asked my in-laws how they got out to the main road in the beat-up two-wheel-drive pickup they shared. They replied they only did what their daddy taught them. “Wait to see if the night gets cold enough to make hard ground. Go out. Kick it. Stamp it. If the earth is stiff, you can be away ‘til it turns to mud from the next morning’s sun.”
Christine brought the sisters into the kitchen, brewed some coffee, and made a late dinner. We four sat at the kitchen table and talked—about the day, the weather, tribal government, growing up, food, family, livestock, and so on—while the wood stove worked away in the background.
After half an hour, Auntie M. gently changed the subject. I could tell the time had arrived for a Navajo winter story. Once or twice each winter, when it seems right, the Aunties find their way to our house for a special night visit. I think it’s because they feel closer to their brother―they shared the winter stories with him until his passing about 15 years ago―when they call on Christine. She is his oldest child.
Auntie M. is the actual story teller. Auntie A. serves as her able assistant. I’m not permitted to reveal their ages, but both refer to me as Shiyázh (my son)―and I have bifocals and a gray beard.
Auntie M. is known in the family as a very good teller of traditional stories. She learned what she knows by intently watching the world around her and carefully listening to her grandparents, community elders, medicine people, and all the outstanding orators she observed while participating in ceremonies over the decades.
The story Auntie M. brought to us that night is a genuine cultural beginning-time tale required to be told in winter―which it is, as I am writing this. The story is about the original Késhjéé’, known in English as the moccasin game, or the shoe game. (Késhjéé’ literally means moccasins, they lie side by side.) Her Navajo parable has a number of variations around the Reservation, though hers is reasonably representative of them all.
The moccasin game story goes back to creation times. The Diyiin Dine’é (Navajo Holy People) had four important questions to consider during a key part of creation, about day and night, eternal life, the notion of aging, and the existence of evil. The Holy People were particularly concerned, at this beginning time, because the night creatures and day creatures did not understand the importance of establishing the cycles of the universe. There was only a continuous twilight, and each group wanted it to be either day or night all the time.
A Yé’iitsoh, or giant, overheard the discussion. He said he could get the concept ironed out once and for all with the day and night animals by hosting a sacred game. He would organize the game, which he named Késhjéé’, by bringing all the night animals and day animals together. The Holy People agreed.
If the Day team won, there would be only day upon the earth. If the Night team won, there would be only night.
Giant organized the animals and materials. The latter included a small ball carved from the center of a yucca plant, 102 strips of yucca leaf (signifying the ideal age for a human to reach), two long cedar sticks for pointing to and for tapping moccasins during the guessing phase, a pair of moccasins, each, from Porcupine and Jackrabbit for the Day team, the same from Bear and Lion for the Night team, and two piles of sand in which to bury side-by-side all but the tops of each team’s moccasins. Giant also brought an eagle feather, to signify that the proceedings should remain clean and wholesome.
The game was played in a sacred Hogan, where Giant divided the day and night animals into the two teams, the Day team on the south side of the room and the Night team on the north. Giant cautioned that there was a price for winning or losing. If the Day team won, there would be only day upon the earth. If the Night team won, there would be only night.
The Day team won the beginning toss (a flipped corn husk) and so had the right to go first. With a blanket temporarily raised between the two sides, the Day team hid the ball in one of the four nearly-buried moccasins on their side of the blanket. The blanket was removed and the Night team had to guess which moccasin the ball was in, using the cedar pointing stick to indicate their choice. If the other side guessed wrong, the team hiding the ball got between four and ten points (signified by yucca strips) depending on nuances of the difficulty in guessing. If they guessed correctly, the ball went to the guessing team, who would hide the ball in one of their own four nearly-buried moccasins. The team who collected all the yucca strips won the game.
The first Késhjéé’ went on for four days, with much rooting and cheering from both teams. Each made great efforts to distract the opposing side. The singing of highly descriptive, teasing, and occasionally negative songs about bad traits of animals on the other side took place, to keep the opposing team off balance.
First one side appeared to gain the lead, then the other. Coyote went back and forth, changing which team he was on and trying to pick the winning side. He did lots of switching and lots of interruptive howling. The whole affair proved tiring for everyone, but the outcome was very important, and so they played on.
On the fourth day, the Day team began losing so rapidly that they felt something was wrong. Giant agreed. Antelope said the Night team must be cheating. Day team members Gopher and Locust tried to find the cheater. Gopher even dug under the sand and into each of Night team’s moccasins. No ball. Owl had a guilty look on his face. So Giant, certain the ball was being hidden by the guilty-faced Owl, took the cedar stick and whacked Owl on his talons. The yucca ball dropped out, and with it one of Owl’s talons, forever lost. This ended his being among the five-fingered.
Owl decided the game had gone on long enough. “The two teams are even,” he said. “Let’s call it a tie and go home.” All the animals, Day and Night, agreed. Since neither team won, the earth has both day and night in harmony and balance.
In the traditional Navajo way, you create the world around you with your words.
Up to this time in creation the animals were without color. As they arose to leave the first Késhjéé’ they each went over to a slab of rock with an assortment of colored materials on top of it. The Holy People prepared these for them, and the animals painted themselves as they were leaving in the way they would be known from then on.
Some animals didn’t care much, colored themselves quickly, and went home with a monotone look. Others painted spots, stripes, or other designs. The birds generally chose the most beautiful colors. When it came time for Coyote to color himself the other animals stopped him, upset with him for being two-faced during the game. They said he could not be colorful like he wanted, but could have only the mottled tannish-grayish color he has to this day.
Crow, from the Day team, would leave last. Despite the great importance of the occasion, he slept through most of the moccasin game and woke up only after all the colorful hues were gone. Charcoal black was all that remained. Crow had no choice but to roll around in that to color himself before he trudged wearily home.
The story was over, but not the relating of key lessons and commentary. These follow-up interpretations are never broached by the Aunties during the course of so important a story. “Doo jiníi da.” (You don’t do that.) In the traditional Navajo way, you create the world around you with your words. To inappropriately interrupt a creation story, or a medicine ceremony, creates an imbalance. Traditional people like our Aunties perceive such transgressions as having potentially dire consequences. That is why they and other traditional storytellers and medicine people will often start over if a mistake is made, or a wrongful interruption occurs. Corrective action puts things back in harmony.
After their coffee was re-warmed, Aunties A. and M. selected and summarized three moral messages from the story.
The lesson from Owl: Dishonesty is not part of the Holy People’s plan―even those thought of as very wise, like Owl, and esteemed by others can be dishonest, but they will have to pay a dear price if they are.
The lesson from Crow: Don’t allow yourself to fall asleep, or to otherwise be distracted or away, when important matters and opportunities are at hand.
The lesson from Coyote: It is bad character to be a two-faced opportunist, or to avoid the worthy struggles that others engage in.
Auntie A. remarked that, like all societies, every tribe has its scoundrels and good people, and therefore its share of the behaviors featured in the story, and more. From earliest times, tribes intentionally linked positive and negative behavior with familiar animals―in creation stories and parables―so there were everyday reminders available, like social street signs, of right and wrong.
Auntie M. then described how every ancient tribe’s known world was both its classroom and chapel, all rolled into one. Knowledge of and reverence for the surrounding universe, the natural order of things, and the culture―informed by deities, like the Navajos’ Holy People―were inseparable. Moral behavior, inspiration, individual lifeways, and society’s function and goals were thus established. But the more that humankind, through the ages, has severed itself from the original ways of things, the more that modern life has taken on an artificiality. She and her sister openly lamented this, and the enormous collateral loss of language and culture witnessed during their lives.
Yet, as the four of us noted shortly thereafter, on the Navajo Reservation there has been a resurgence of interest in the Navajo language and culture over the past year. As we listened, not long before sunup, to KTNN (Navajo Nation radio), the station announced an upcoming and unusually large moccasin game tournament in Shiprock. We all smiled, and presumed the sizeable venue would support scores of players and hundreds of observers.
After the long night, and with happier hearts, our Aunties decided to drive home so they could be there just prior to shándíín (sunlight) hitting the frozen dirt track leading to their homes. Christine and I followed them in our four-wheel drive pickup.
Near the turnoff at Klagetoh, where juniper woods line both sides of the road, a mą’ii (coyote) crossed to the east, maybe 50 yards in front of the Aunties’ pickup. It was ‘ałtso hool ’įįh (at the grey dawn time between night and day). The Aunties pulled over, as we knew they would, and waited for us to stop behind them, exit our truck, walk up to theirs, and discuss the coyote’s passing, about which we knew they’d feel somehow. Coyotes, like owls, can be omens.
After a lengthy discussion about the coyote’s size, color, direction of travel (very important), speed, direction of gaze (very important), and whether or not it stopped before, during, or after crossing in front of them, we concluded the positives outweighed the negatives and there was no need to feel anxious or to have a cleansing ceremony performed by a medicine man. Auntie M. sprinkled a little sacred corn pollen where the coyote’s tracks left the road, and said a brief prayer.
We followed our Aunties safely back to their homes, saw them in, and took off to return to our own. Lingering goodbyes are uncomfortable for many older Navajos. T’áá ‘akódí. ‘Ahéhee’ Shiyázh. Hágoónee’. (That’s all. Thank you my son. Goodbye.)
As Christine and I headed home―ending another Navajo night and beginning another Navajo day―we pondered the Holy People, Giant, Day Animals, Night Animals, the Moccasin Game, Owl, Crow, and Coyote. We wondered what our next Navajo creation story might be, and when we might hear it.