Fall 1995, Volume 12.3
Dan L. Crank
Dan L. Crank (M.A., U of New Mexico) is an author whose poetry and short stories have appeared in Storm Belt, Message Amerindien International, and several anthologies. His collection of poetry and short stories, In Navajo Canyons Where Horses Collide, is forthcoming in October.
The tan colored United States Government postal truck arrived and parked unobtrusively, and two officials began unloading the paper goods at the old granite-stone building, which was used as a Navajo reservation post office. When the postmen finished delivering the mail and packages, they quickly departed as if to avoid any contact with the festive Navajos, who in the vernacular called themselves the Dine, the People.
It was the day of general assistance payments from Washington, or as pronounced in Navajo "Washiindoon." The Navajo people, ones who depended on this economic subsidy, upon seeing the mail truck speed off, began converging on the post to investigate their mail boxes. Or maybe to visit and trade news with each other. Some had waited, sitting on the stone fence, most of the morning. Now, with the mail truck gone, they gradually worked their way through the growing crowd at the entrance of the post office to locate their boxes and to retrieve their checks. The ones who were finished with their mail business and with no one in particular to visit hurried out the doorway and were already walking to the Trading Post, a mile away.
Meanwhile, inside the tiny narrow post office, the Navajo men and women stood, watched or shook hands and made their way to their post boxes. Some peered into the little windows of the boxes to look for a tan envelope. The taupe clad people retrieved their secret numbers from old, worn wallets or from black, missionary-issued vinyl pocketbooks.
Most of the Navajos, unschooled in the American ways, saw their mail box combination numbers as remotely mysterious, yet it somehow led to Washiindoon, somewhere in the place where the sun rested each night and arose from each morning. The Navajo men (Haastwii) and women (Saanii) had school children working their boxes for them. The school children might later receive a soda pop for his or her effort.
It was ventless inside the small post office and the heavy air was sharp and pungent. But at this exciting moment, a monthly diversion in otherwise mundane lives, the Navajo people smiled and jested about small matters. They made insipid tasks pleasurable and eventful. An old man had a difficult time opening his mailbox; he attempted whirling the numbers on the lock several times—finally, he realized he couldn't see the miniature digits well. He asked in Navajo, "Where is one of those school children?"
"They all left," said a woman in dirndl southwest garb. "To the Trading Post, they all left."
A Navajo man in a bright western cowboy shirt offered help, "Shi Chei [grandfather], I can do it for you; here, let me do it." The helpless old man cursed in a bad form of the English language. He finally relented; but what he said and what he did that day in the post office would probably be elaborated on for the next few days. He might have even invented a new Navajo name for himself, like "Haastiin who can't get his check."
Every little thing, event or gesture that occurred today would embody the traditional Navajo concept of time; the one mile walk to the Trading Post would be made without haste or without complaint. In time everything would be done.
When the People arrived at the Trading Post and finally, individually made their way to the cashier counter they cashed their government checks. Before they received the cash, some had Trading Post accounts (only the Trader knew by heart the exact amount each man or woman owed, down to the last penny) to pay off. If anyone disputed their bill, the Trader would show them a yellow, legal pad filled with esoteric numbers. In Navajo demeanor, challenging the Trader was actually a way of sending a message to the Navajo onlookers that you were in control and not to be contended with.
One thing for sure, though, was that much of the money (beeso) from Washiindoon would be used up today. Even though the cash was spent, one could easily survive for the next thirty days because of a practical philosophy: under the umbrella of the Navajo clan system, one could ask for help and one could receive it without questions. There was a perennial hope and wish for the best available life for each other. And it would be unthinkable to proclaim someone as homeless or indigent. It was profoundly absurd to act as if you had no home; in fact the People would laugh at you.
Meanwhile, back at the post office, the remaining crowd and new arrivals lingered on, visiting and collecting their mail. Some young Navajo men of infamous character, that had been deemed lazy and possessed wild streaks, languidly stood off to the side. A few of them might be fortuitous today. They would try to latch onto an older clan relative, saying "father" or "grandmother," and attempt to be of favor and accompany the elders to the Trading Post. The act of destitution and politeness might yield a few extra quarters, which might go towards the purchase of a bottle of wine. As a last resort, these hapless fellows would try to borrow a few dollars.
Finally, any Navajo who had a check seemed to have retrieved it at the post office, and now the rush and shoving would be at the Trading Post.
The B.J. Trading Post hadn't changed much on the outside: a rough stone structure built by local Navajo labor no one knew when—as one Navajo said, "the year when the snow was this high"—heavy gauge iron bars on dark windows, a repainted wooden door, and an aged wooden hitching post.
The previous white man that owned the place had earned a comical and descriptive Navajo name. Though he moved back to his own land he would always be remembered as "Big Belly." Another way the traditional Navajos remembered him was his way of wearing huge, bibbed overall jeans. The old ones laughed at that; Big Belly reminded them of a ram before rutting time.
The new owner, Big Jaws (B.J.), modernized the eroding Trading Post by constructing long, narrow shelves in rows, and stocking groceries and other dried goods on them. At first, some of the Navajos, young and old, thought this was a trick and nervously contemplated the logic behind it. They had never been trusted to this degree and allowed this much freedom. Big Belly had always done your shopping for you. All you had to do was walk into his store, and after completing your visits, lean against the wooden counter and point, with your fingers or your lips. He voluntarily opened your soda pop for you and gestured to a new product. The older Navajos had taught Big Belly common Navajo words, and he in return taught them English names for grocery items. For some, Big Belly had actually transformed into a good friend, a reliable human being.
One time an acculturated Navajo who had traveled extensively, courtesy of the first World War, came into Big Belly's Trading Post. He walked in and planted himself by the woodburning stove and helped himself to a cup of coffee.
"Well, Mr. Gray, where are you off to today?," asked the Trader.
The Navajo, dressed in new clothing, replied, "I am here to see you. I have a letter from the army that I hope you can read and interpret for me. It's the big words I can't understand."
"Let me see," said the Trader. He took the letter and looked at the envelope. He pulled out the paper, and after a few moments, he said, "This letter says you have some compensation, some army money, coming back to you. It doesn't say the amount—but in the next letter, they will tell you."
The Trader was perplexed. He asked the Navajo, "I thought you can read well, and I know one of your sons can read, too. Why did you ask me?"
The Navajo military man shrugged, and let out a grin. "Because," he began, "I had to hear it from you, to make sure it sounded correct. Also I want no one to know it until it happens. If my sons knew, they would already be borrowing money against money that doesn't exist yet. That is why."
Then the Navajo man bought several cans of orange soda, and when he was ready to go out the bell-ringing door, he shook the white Trader's hand. The Trader then knew of the invisible nonverbal compact that was arranged between them. The memories of those past trading days still rang as true and clear as the small silver bell that hung over the entrance door, to announce arrivals and departures.
Today, inside the B.J. Trading Post the crowd had swelled to full capacity. Some of the buyers visited, some whispered and some redeemed their checks for cash or credit on accounts. There were more lookers than buyers, but while waiting there was much joking and laughing.
Big Jaws talked Navajo with one of the long haired ones, whose hair was tied backwards into a knot, in the traditional way. The old Navajo said, "I am thinking of taking my check and money elsewhere; you don't give me enough for my money."
Big Jaws laughed. He said in Navajo, "Dooda, ei beeso shi." He laughed out loud again and the others laughed too, because what he said, "No, that money is mine," was too direct and blunt.
The old Navajo man laughed, too; he then jested further, "If I give you one of my wives, will you give me more money or more credit?"
The Trader was now red-faced, laughing hard and trying to breathe. He retorted, "I already have too many wives; just give me your check and I think it would be easier to give you back money."
The roomful of people laughed, and even after a long interval, there was still a buzz and rumbling about the old Navajo man and the Trader. Soon, serious businesses were being discussed again.
Big Jaws, knowing today was his biggest sale day, encouraged the people to cash, to buy or to get more credit. To a special customer he might add a free candy bar or a six pack of soda to the groceries. He knew that a few small items were usually short on his inventory, but he also knew somehow his total gross receipts for the day were usually a few dollars extra.
Big Jaws learned his skills as a trader from an obscure, bohemian uncle who traveled many times through the Southwest. His uncle started several trading businesses but never stayed long enough to see them grow. Big Jaws bought out another trader who had reached retirement, and now he tried to make the best of his situation. He didn't really understand the Navajos, his main customers. Their culture was too basic, and they didn't seem afraid or worried about the future; he surmised that the Navajo might have a different definition of the future. They practiced their old ways very seriously, yet there would be days when some would create disharmony for themselves and their people, for instance, like drinking bootlegged wine and disrupting Navajo social or ceremonial gatherings. They seemed to come out alright, though. Unlike many ethnic groups that were forced to come to America, the Navajos were indigenous to the country and were still deeply rooted. They still talked in the Navajo language and still conducted year round individual and group ceremonies.
On a slow day Big Jaws sat, smoked a cigar and admired the older Navajos. The solitary thinking was also a newfound skill he had developed. His long thinking process led him to believe he was writing a novel about the Navajos, but the whole book was playing itself out in his head.
In recent years, more and more white writers had come by his post to inquire about the Navajos. Some said they were from New York, Santa Fe, or an eastern university. And most all of them said they were writing the ultimate book on the Navajos. But to Big Jaws, the way he saw it, much was missing from those writers' works. It would take a lifetime to learn the truths about the Navajos, and then it would take another lifetime to report it in a form where outsiders would begin to understand the written work.
Once, in the early 1960s, Big Jaws had directed a friend, a white writer, to a Navajo family that lived out in the wide sandstone valleys. As one family member later reported, the writer arrived amongst a family activity of butchering a sheep. The curious writer saw the entire process: the cutting, the cleaning, the cooking, and was invited to dine inside one of the hogans.
He adjusted his eyes to the darkened interior, and instantly began studying and making comments about the architectural structure of the hogan. "It looks like it might fall inwards," he said and motioned to the juniper logs, stacked vertically.
An English speaking child said, "It was built that way, so far it hasn't fallen in yet."
"That's good, very good," replied the writer, while eyeing the interior designs and eating the food. The Navajo kids laughed.
Later, after lunch, the writer asked about the food. He said, "It was good and sweet, but the coffee had a little too much grind in it."
The English speaker interpreted what the writer had said to the others, then he said to the writer, "You ate some of the fried intestines, a piece of the liver, and some pieces of blood sausages."
"Really?," the writer said with a look of worry on his face. "It was great," he said again, then he excused himself and was seen hurrying off to find a bush. He returned shortly, but looked feeble and was kind of bent over. He said his good byes, then was seen walking rather pathetically down the road, back to the Trading Post.
Tales like these, whether true or not, kept Big Jaws' outlook on life optimistic. Since leaving his native land in the east, it took the Trader about two years to release the buildup of urban noise pressure from his ears. With the street buzz gone from his ear channels, now he could sit back and endlessly enjoy the quietude. One time, a lone Navajo man stood at the end of the counter and shelves and drank a soda pop in silence. The man was clearly thinking and resolving issues. The Trader, at the other end, understood and respected the pose, the space and the reality of things.
The Navajo crowd remained excited and entranced with the afternoon activities in the Trading Post. They liked most of the food and dried goods the Trader brought in from the bordertowns. The merchandise was mostly survival items: coffee, soda pop, dry goods, canned food, clothes, stove pipes, lamp oil, kerosene, ropes, blankets, saddles, and candies. A Navajo man said to his friend, "This is a good rope, it doesn't break even with much use."
"Yes," the friend replied.
Another customer bought a sumac ceremonial basket, some strips of cloths, food, and a whole carton of Winston cigarettes. The people around him knew that there would probably be a healing sing of one or two nights in a few days. The other Navajos would keep this in mind; it could provide some social entertainment and a good meal of mutton stew and fried bread.
It had been a long afternoon in the Trading Post. Most of the Navajos had completed their businesses with Big Jaws. Some of the women browsed through the clothes. They felt and tugged on the fabrics and measured them using their arms as tools. Soon, interest in buying had died down. Suddenly, most of the People left, as though the events of the day had been overwhelming and needed to be escaped quickly, to keep the memories intact. They left through the bell-ringing door; some asked for a lift from those Navajos who had a truck, or began walking with others to or near their homes.
Under an old cottonwood tree, a few Navajo men stood around and traded news and jokes, and some pitched in or solicited change from each other. One man was generous with a fresh can of Skoal. There was an air of celebration. Later on some of the younger men would be seen heading towards the local bootlegger. But for now, the Navajo men laughed and had a good time recalling some of the events of the day. One of their friends had begun to feel the effects of the cheap alcohol. He sat on the large exposed gnarled root of the cottonwood, looking dejected and on the verge of passing out. Meanwhile, his other friends continued to laugh and their voices carried out into the coolness of the late afternoon.
A traditional Navajo family loaded their goods onto their horses by the hitching post. They left out some food to eat under the trees, and then they would be on their way home. After stopping at some Navajo relatives and friends, they would head for their homes in hopes of arriving before sundown. Besides the stops at the post office and the B.J. Trading Post, they would also visit with anyone they'd meet along the way. Visiting was good; sometimes you heard things that were months old, but it was still good news. Sometimes, someone would make an offer to trade something for one of the horses.
Finally, the horses would become restless and prance in the cool sand dunes. Their flanks, under heavy packs, would glisten with moisture under the late afternoon sunlight. Then the Navajos, the People, would finish their visitings and continue on their way home, somewhere behind the red ridges and misty monument valleys.
With a burst of renewed energy and as a final gesture, Big Jaws began shaking the hands of some of the Navajos that were still standing in the Trading Post. The Trader, while grasping the hand of a young Navajo woman, intuitively noted that he, of course, had made the better trade in living among the local Navajos. For what it's worth, he would neither salvage his old ways nor redeem his new life.