Scrapbook On America chapt 20

Chapter 20

The Four Corners

A Navajo Squaw Dance and a Four-day Sing

THE FOLLOWING letter, written in 1955 to our daughter at home in California, describes a week filled with intense interest, in a remote corner of the Navajo Reservation.

Dear Adrienne,
Last night we realized one of our minor ambitions that I, at least, have had for 30 years. We stood on the only spot in America where four states join—the “Four Corners.” In 1925 my folks and brother and I tried to find that spot but learned there was no way to get there by car. But last night was different. It was just dark and the moon had come up when we turned north off the Kayenta-Shiprock road at a little sign which said: “Four Corners, 8 miles.”

It was such a tortuous, gutted and rocky trail that we could scarcely drive it at night. At one place, out of the moonlight ahead, came an old Indian man on horseback. We stopped and motioned. “Is this the right way to Four Corners?” He grinned, motioned ahead with his hands, and said, “OK.” He probably thought, “What fools these white folks are, going to such a lonely place at this time of night.”

The trail led through a gutted ravine and then there it was—a low cement marker. We camped by moonlight and next morning wakened to observe a land where there was no sign of habitation—either white or Indian—as far as the eye could see. The Four Corners area—common meeting place of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona—is one of the most isolated in the land.

And it was in the backcountry below the Four Corners that, for the last four days, we have been realizing another ambition—intimately visiting and observing an important Navajo tribal squaw dance and ceremonial healing “sing.” We still have a bit of the feeling of having been in another world. And so we literally were; such ceremonies, in the true native authenticity in which this one was carried through, is a ritual of another age, which may soon die out.

The sing took place at Dennehotso, about 50 miles southwest of the Four Corners. As darkness was settling in we jounced the last horrible few miles into Dennehotso, our four-wheel drive Jeep rattling from stem to stern. Important as the place is, it is only a tiny trading post and a school. But natural flooded areas thereabout make it one of the comparatively few places in the Navajo country where corn can be raised. So a number of our Monument Valley friends have corn fields here, 60 miles by road away from their hogans, but not nearly as far “cross-country” by horseback.

George Mitchell, our Indian friend who has his hogan near the Totem Pole in Monument Valley, had a tiny field here near Dennehotso and at once we hunted up the bowered shelter where he and his family were living during the corn harvest. George speaks only a few words of English, but he was smilingly elated to see us, and we made him understand that we wanted to find the “sing.”

The value of our Indian friendships at once paid out, for we could never have come upon it by ourselves. Getting into our Jeep with us, and motioning us off the road, we followed his directions as we circled on a little trail, finally coming to an area of a couple of hogans, two or three small shelters which had been constructed of cottonwood branches, and one enormous shelter made of branches and interlaced weeds and sunflower stalks.

Night darkness was creeping in; Indians were driving their sheep and goats into a corral, and the bustle of an evening meal was underway. George Mitchell got out to announce our presence to a young Indian man. We were delighted to find he spoke fair English, and it seemed a miracle when, as we asked his name, he answered: “Ralph Gray, Jr.” It is his father and stepmother, Ralph and Sally, who are our dearest Indian friends in Monument Valley, whom we have virtually adopted. Ralph, Sr. is an Indian of the old type, picturesque as a postcard, and his wife Sally is a princess, granddaughter of the last great chief of the Navajos—Hoskinini.

We were in splendid hands. It was dark now. Some Indian women were sitting before the large shelter, so we drifted over to talk with them, seeking permission to camp nearby.

Two of the women, both middle-aged, spoke some English. One of them was Nora Singer. The older of the two was Gladys Richards who had lived for a time with the Wetherills, early white pioneers of this land. It was Gladys Richards’s sister who was ill, the one for whom this whole “sing” was being given. Although Navajo sings have various functions and aspects, it is for the purpose of a healing that they are begun. The sick woman, we learned later, had been ill for 20 years, had tried every white man’s hospital available to a Navajo, and now this great four-day ceremony was being staged, in which upwards of 400 Indians would cooperate in a mighty healing effort. We learned that Gladys had once had a sing given for her, and now she was one of the principals in this great ceremony for her sister. We asked if we might camp nearby. “Sure,” was her immediate reply. So we chose a sandy knoll just behind the main shelter, with the sheep corral at one side, from which we could observe all the nuances of this sacred event.

Moonlight softened the whole picture before us. A few yards away was the hogan and shelter of Ralph Gray, Jr. Then beyond that was the hogan of the sick woman. A special ceremonial shelter had been constructed directly in front of this, and here would be the focal center of the whole four-day event.

We were hungry after a long day and soon the scent of our greasewood fire mingled with the smoke of fires from the Indian shelters. But we were just starting to cook when I caught a sound and said, “Listen. The drums. It’s started.”

Supper for us was forgotten. Over in front of the sick woman’s hogan a group of men, 15 or 20 or more, stood in a close knot by the ceremonial shelter. To the beat of the drum they were chanting, their clear beautiful almost falsetto tenors (with no sign of the guttural sounds one might suspect) sending out rising and falling waves of song into the night air. Each chant would end with a strange interesting falling note. There was obviously a leader (a medicine man in the center), for one chant was not finished before the leader’s voice would begin another. He would carry the theme alone for just a few seconds, like a song leader repeating the words of a hymn, then the whole group would swing into the chant and it would go on and on.

Indians from the hogans and shelter were coming out, some walking closer to listen, so we did too. “Is it OK for us to sit here?” we asked of Gladys. “Sure,” came her familiar reply. “Go right down there if you want to.” So we did, although Helen was the only woman who went to the ceremonial shelter. From this close vantage we could see that the whole group, as tightly packed as though they were a single body, swayed as they sang.

It was nearly 11:00 p.m. when we made up our bed in the Jeep and were lulled to sleep by the chant of those men, which had never once eased. Occasionally some of them had dropped out for a rest and others had joined the group; otherwise the chanting could not still be so clear and bell-like and perfect. We both reflected that this was one of the more beautiful vocal displays we had ever heard. The sick woman lying in her hogan, listening to it all and realizing the cooperative love that went with it, must have had deep emotions that night.

Next morning we began to learn something of the enormous cooperative effort that a sing and squaw dance entail. As we walked over to the hogan of Ralph Gray, Jr. his old grandmother had just killed a goat and was butchering it. Asking and receiving permission to film some of it, we went into their shelter and found it nearly filled with people. Stacked at the side, for use during the ceremonies, was a whole truckload of melons. We took the grandmother to our car to give her some shoes, and soon we were fitting everyone at the sing with shoes or clothes. We had collected these before leaving home—half a car full—knowing from past experience how much they are needed on the Reservation. This at once gave us entree into the main shelter and we had a lesson in Indian cooking that we’ll never forget. A great fire was built on the dirt floor. Large openings had been left overhead where the smoke went out. These fires had warmed all those who had slept in the shelter during the night. It had gone down to freezing and we had nearly frozen in our Jeep, but now the fire was strictly for preparing food. Nora and Gladys and four or five other women were shaping flat round loaves, frying them quickly in grease, and piling them in great stacks. Outside, a tall juniper post had been erected. As women slaughtered sheep or goats they pulled them by rope up on the post, skinned them, butchered them, and took the meat inside. From the time a goat was running in the sagebrush until it was eaten was less than 30 minutes.

Some of the meat was eaten for breakfast, but most of it was for meals to follow. Sides of meat were hanging from ropes strung inside the shelter; women were making and cooking skewers of the entrails, huge tubs of cut-up meat were cooking on fires outside. The active appetites of 400 Indians needed to be taken care of.

All the activity of an Indian camp was in progress. Youngsters were taking out the sheep, recovering strayed lambs, and, closer about the camp, were making their own amusement. One girl used an empty oil barrel as a horse; two small boys galloped on a real horse up to a dune top so as to have an overall view of the world; a toddler got lost beyond the huge woodpile of juniper boughs, so big a pile that he couldn’t find his way back to the shelter. Dogs were an important part of the scene, and there were plenty of puppies to be played with. Indian youngsters are free to do much as they want and they devise their own play to a great degree.

The hair washing was a sight. We had seen the women do this before but now some of the men were washing and combing their hair, as well, as long and flowing and black as the women’s, until finally they got it knotted and tied in the familiar shank. Over half the men had long hair.

What I have described so far was a subdued scene—the gray of the desert, the dull green of shelters, and the brown of adobe hogans. But the women’s dresses were like sprinkles of shimmering paint over the total landscape. Bright greens, rich purples, deep browns, magentas and reds. Apparently every female member of the sick woman’s family was dressed in royal velvet. The spangles, silver coins, turquoise jewelry being worn at this event matched anything we had ever experienced. To see a woman garbed in splendid clothing which would put a European princess to shame—to see such a one butcher a sheep in five minutes, from skin to pot, was a study in contrasts.

A man’s voice—far-carrying and authoritative—broke into the activity; the people, many of them still working, turned an ear to an old “headman” of the Navajos, white-haired and filled with glory. For five or more minutes he expounded, a true oration, and later we sought Nora to find what he had said. He was laying down the rules to these younger people about the need for care in cutting the junipers for wood and shelter, for the decimation of the trees is becoming a problem all over the reservation. In this oration we were seeing the method of instruction of the Navajo—the elders expounding to the young, who listened dutifully.

During much of the night and day, either inside or outside the hogan of the sick woman, chanting had continued. The second night of the sing was to be moved to Chilchinbito, several miles away.

Our very dear friend, Ralph Gray Sr., had arrived, and he and Nora Singer and her baby and 13-year-old daughter, wanted us to take them in our Jeep over to the scene of this night’s ceremonies.

At the supper hour another headman of the tribe made a long oration and we again had Nora translate. “He tells them to lay off the wine,” she said. “At the Navajo sings many been getting drunk. He say it bad for health. He say there be two Navajo police at the sing tonight and if any one is caught drinking he will be arrested and taken to Window Rock.”

We had heard that some of these sings had degenerated into drinking brawls since Congress passed a law a year ago permitting liquor sales on the reservation. We had been apprehensive about staying for this reason and were glad to see that the old leaders of the Navajos were taking steps to stop it.

Piling Ralph Gray Sr., Nora, and her two children into our Jeep we set out through the night for this next phase of the sing—the squaw dance phase—several miles west of Dennehotso on the open plain. All along the way we passed bands of horsemen—Indians riding to the affair—as well as many buckboards carrying whole families. The Indian has no baby-sitting problem. The whole family goes together.

A great circle of buckboards and pickup trucks enclosed an area, in the center of which a tremendous juniper fire vied with the nearly-full moon in lighting the entire scene. We were lucky enough to squeeze our Jeep into the circle and just after we arrived the chanting started. Led by the drum of a medicine man, a group of men over near the fire began their chant about a quarter to eight.

We asked Ralph if he didn’t want to get out. “No, too cold out there,” was the way Nora translated his answer, and soon Ralph was settled back fast asleep. Nora and her teenage daughter, Letty, were also sleepy for they had been up all the night before for the sing. So they snoozed, and we made a bed for the baby. This lack of interest on the Indian’s part surprised us, for we did not realize then that the main affair was not to start yet for several hours.

I joined the chanting group so I could observe them more carefully. Actually it was two groups, only separated enough for the medicine man with his tiny drum to have a place between. A leader of one group began a chant and all of those with him joined in. As that chant ended on a low note, instantly the leader of the other group started. So on, hour on end, but the music was so rhythmic and beautiful that it was not tiring.

There were two Navajo police cars on the scene and a different headman had made another plea against drinking; as a result we saw not a single marring incident.

Just before 10:00 p.m. the squaw dance started. Another huge fire was built up and all the braves—those who had been chanting plus many more—formed a circle around it, backs to the blaze. A beautiful young girl carrying a mace of feathers and leaves selected a brave and started walking with him around the circle. Gradually other girls chose their mates and joined in the procession. I went over close to see how these selections were made. The girls were extremely bashful as they gained courage to go up to a young man. I had read that a man, once selected, had no choice but to dance. But that is not true. Twice I saw girls tug at young men who just wouldn’t budge.

Gradually the girls made their selections until a dozen or more couples were parading around the firelit circle. The men wore Pendleton blankets for warmth, for it was very cold, and the girls wore gaily spangled blankets for beauty as well as warmth. Each couple was wrapped in one of those blankets as they circled the area. A few of the lead couples actually made graceful dance steps to the chanting, but in general it was just a circling parade. To us, this squaw dance was not too exciting but this was a big event to the Navajos—virtually their only time of courtship. It was just for the unmarried, of course. As Gladys Richards explained: “Indian men different than whites. They get jealous if their women dance with other men.”

Nora’s daughter, Letty, had never taken part in a squaw dance, and her mother was anxious for the girl to do so. For this is how marriages are made. So we offered to tend the baby, and Nora went to show her daughter the ropes in hopes she might get in the dance.

For the Indians it was the very peak of life. I talked to one young Indian who had come all the way from Blanding, Utah. “It sure great fun tonight,” was his appraisal. But when the baby began crying about 12:30 a.m. we sought out Nora from the group before the fire and all agreed it might be good to go home. Home for us was our spot by the huge shelter back near the sick woman’s hogan.

We dropped Nora at the large shelter, made our camp close by and, to the sound of soft chanting which had probably been going on almost constantly, we dropped off to sleep.

The Final Day

The cooking on the first day had been on a small scale compared with what went on this morning. For, today, all the Indians who had participated in the night at Chilchinbito were to join this group, and the problem of feeding everyone was a hotel-sized affair. Not only were there now two huge fires in the large shelter, but a couple outside, and meat or bread was being cooked on them all. The women, lacking sleep, were weary-eyed as they slaughtered goats and sheep or formed and baked the endless loaves of bread. At one time, within the shelter alone, I counted 70 people either eating, cooking, sleeping, or sitting. Two tents full of people, similarly engaged, joined onto the shelter, and other large groups were busy outside. A truck arrived with a load of melons and men at once began cutting and eating them.  Other groups of men played cards.

Our car was a favorite spot. Women came to see if we had shoes that would fit them or their babies. One venerable old man liked the shade cast by our Jeep so he tied his horse to the tail gate and curled up in the shade for a nap. But the nap was short-lived because other Indians came over for a talk and soon a large group had made the Jeep their headquarters.

Most of the time we spent back at the huge shelter. At intervals, two headmen had given orations. One, as Nora translated for us, had told about the immense organization necessary for an affair of this kind and had assigned duties—some to gather wood, some to go to the post for flour and salt, others to cook or butcher or whatnot.

These orations by the old leaders of The People, given about the campfires as the men and women worked, were deeply impressive to us. It demonstrated how these sings are a part of the government of the tribe.

As we listened, another of these men gave an oration about the cost of one of these sings and how great cooperation was needed. We had in fact read that sometimes a family will go in debt for life to put on one of these great ceremonies. So this headman appealed to everyone, when the proper time came, to go into the hogan of the sick woman and deposit gifts or money—a quarter or 50 cents, or whatever, to help with the cost.

In talking with Gladys Richards, she had told us that it would be appreciated if we brought some gifts. In fact, she said that we could take pictures of the “gift-throwing,” when presents of all kinds are thrown out the hogan firehole and people scramble after them.

The cooking activities were at their height when we heard the firm booming voice of another “headman” commencing an oration. We recognized the voice; we looked back and saw that it was Ralph Gray, Sr., our friend from Monument Valley. We were proud that he was speaking to this great gathering of over 300 Navajos.

Then we noticed that the eyes of two Navajo women were turned our way. Other Indians started looking at us. Ralph talked on for many minutes. Many Indians looked at us. Apparently his oration had us as its subject. We sought out Nora.

“He tell all about you,” she said. “How you befriend him and the other Indians. How you love them. How you even go to the store to buy things to give them for the gift-throwing.”

As we saw Ralph Gray standing in his stiff rigid dignity and beauty, hurling his words out to that great throng of Indians, and realized that he was saying those things about us, we experienced our supreme moment in the two years we have spent among the Navajos.

Suddenly across the hills we heard Indian war whoops as in the days of old. Horses and riders, dozens of them, came charging upon our camp. It was the rival clan from Chil-chinbito, where a portion of the sing had been held two nights before. This was the “war”—the mock battle on horseback— which is a part of these affairs. The horses charged in at lightning speed. From our camp, other riders charged out to meet them. Guns went off. Then the whole thundering herd of horses and riders, with whoops and shouts, clattered through the camp to the hogan of the ill woman and began madly riding around it. What a thrill, to the woman inside, all this centering of affection and attention must have brought.

A shelter had been erected for the visiting “warriors” from Chilchinbito and soon another entire camp had sprung to life as they moved in. Men and women from our camp started carrying over to them pails and tubs of food. And whole groups of them came over to eat at the big shelter, forming knots of men (and other groups of women), all squatting on the ground.

The arrivals from Chilchinbito was signal for commencement of the festive “gift-throwing.” As soon as the guests had eaten, everyone assembled about the sick woman’s Kogan. Chanting began, and gifts and packages began to be thrown, from inside, through the smoke hole. There was a scramble to catch them. These gifts were all donations from the participants. Helen and I had given Gladys a big supply of Cracker Jacks, candy, and knickknacks earlier.

And, along with the others, we had flocked into the sick woman’s hogan to bestow our offerings on a blanket before her and her husband. Helen took three more bags of things from the trading post, and a woman’s coat. I put a dollar bill on the pile, and responses of “Bless you” and “Thank you very much” were our reward.

Wearied now for lack of sleep, we started in our Jeep to leave the scene, in order to catch a nap. But as we passed the sick woman’s hogan, observing five medicine men and headmen sitting solemnly under the shelter before it, Helen had an impulse to go offer some gifts. She came back saying that chanting was going on in the hogan and for me to come listen. The principal headman was the one with whom we had talked the day before, about drinking. At our query as to whether we could sit down under the shelter with them, he motioned full approval.

For half an hour nothing happened except the chanting inside. Then quite suddenly from somewhere about 12 women—all of them relatives of the patient—came to take seats under the shelter with the medicine men. All wore rich blue blouses but the central position was occupied by an oriental-type beautiful young girl who seemed to be the “high priestess” of the occasion. She carried a mace in her hand—a stick topped with a bunch of yellow grass, four upright feathers, and a long trailing red ribbon. This was the girl who had led the squaw dance the night before.

Presently a medicine man from inside came out with a shallow pottery urn of finely-ground juniper drink. Giving it to our friend, the headman, this latter drank some and rubbed a handful of the green chopped juniper over his face. Then he gave the bowl to the “high priestess,” who did the same. In turn, it was passed to all the medicine men and to the women in the shelter.

Next a small black ball of greased charcoal was brought out and the beautiful girl in charge rubbed a black mark across her chin and cheeks, passing it then to the others. This young girl was obviously not used to the procedure but her aged aunt on one side and her grandmother on the other, in great seriousness, instructed her carefully as to just what to do.

In turn, a tiny red ball was brought out, which all proceeded to use in marking on their cheeks as well as their bodies, the women modestly reaching under their blouses to do the latter.

When a ball of fresh dough was brought out, our headman divided it into pieces. The “priestess” and others of the women rolled it into a long piece, then proceeded to rub their faces, ankles, thighs, and stomachs. There followed a sack filled with powdered charcoal and when this was rubbed on by all, much of their bodies were blackened. Some of the younger women did it in a smiling and perhaps joking or embarrassed mood. But to the older ones it was deeply serious; for all of these things were also being administered to the sick woman. Those outside, by being privileged to do the same, were partaking of the healing values.

From inside the sick woman’s hogan came a man with a .22 rifle and he hurried to a small bluff nearly a quarter of a mile away. At a point in the chant inside, two headmen with us at the shelter gave a sudden war whoop. This was a signal for the man to fire the gun—probably the last killing of the evil spirits. Four times this went on.

Now suddenly the headman gave an order and every woman covered her face with her shawl. The young girl not only covered her own head but completely covered the mace. Helen and I were looking, and we saw—emerging from the hogan—the sick woman herself, with two young nearly naked boys, their bodies decorated with charcoal and paint.

The boys ran to the man with the gun, bringing him back. There stood the sick woman, facing the sun, her face blackened with charcoal, her long black hair streaming beautifully. As the boys returned, she extended her hands and bowed three times to the sun.

The women uncovered their faces and the sick woman walked slowly up to the big shelter to join the feast. The healing was over. “She hadn’t been able to walk but a few steps before,” the headman told us. “This is a good sign. Now we hope she is cured.”

Later we visited the sick woman in the shelter and told her we were joining our prayers with the others for her recovery. There was to be another squaw dance this last night but the real ceremonies were concluded, so we were ready to leave. We had seen the home life of the Navajos, as well as their social, religious, medical, political, educational, and moral aspects, all carried on as a part of this great four-day ceremony and sing.