Seeing me now, with my hair thinning and skin rutted like a reservation road, you would not know that I was young once my eyes dark obsidian. When my feet arched over the land to the beat of the powwow drum, the People called me Nizhoni, the beautiful one; at 15 it was enough Shi’yazhi. Like you, I first came to the loom out of necessity rather than desire. It was May 1939 and men had come onto the land enforcing a new federal mandate, calling themselves Range Riders though they were the same as all the People. The Depression had changed them, as hard times will, turning them into government-handout types, loitering by the Bureau of Indian Affairs trailers, keeping their ears open for benefits and government contracts to fulfill. They’d take a shovel, a gun, a life if necessary. I saw it etched in the hard lines of their faces when they stepped down from their horses and handed my father the allotment order.
“It’s this land that’s ruined,” he said. “That bastard Collier never measured the mountains.”
No matter, the agent had come to Sweet Canyon bringing the Diné news of angry white farmers in Oklahoma and Texas, of winds blowing from our nation to theirs, leaving the faraway fields covered in dust. Our elders wondered how we were responsible for territory so far from our own, but Collier ignored them.
First he surveyed the land, measuring the length and width of gullies left by sheep, cattle, and horses that plodded along in search of food. Then he carved what he’d measured into districts of 350 acres, where each family was permitted to graze 60 sheep, six horses, and six cows. We were told to keep our livestock from meandering onto neighboring land, to sell the excess animals or give them away. My family refused. We had 90 sheep that we would lead to the Carrizo Mountains as we did each summer.
The day before, we’d packed pots, cooking utensils, looms, shovels, ropes, and lengths of wire to mend the corrals at camp. My father ordered coffee, sugar, and strands of silver to tool his concho belts, paying for it all on credit. After MacDougal finished tallying up the order he asked when we were leaving. I do not believe it coincidence that the Range Riders came to our desert home the next morning.
The men strode past my father in the sunlight and counted out 60 sheep, then pushed 30 from the corral. They strafed the animals that were left with rifle fire and it cracked and echoed against the canyon walls that bordered our home. They killed 60 so we would never forget the number of sheep the Indian agent had declared, and when the job was done, the Range Riders put their rifles in scabbards and rode off. Long after they dipped out of sight, I watched dust from their horses skim the sky.
My father gripped the corral, his shoulders tight beneath his shirt, while my mother and grandmother stepped in among the sheep, their eyes streaming. They placed their hands on those still dying, blood running through their fingers. I knelt too and stroked the dirty wool of those animals that I had helped raise as lambs, feeling their sides heave like bellows. I learned that meat rots fast and carries a sweet and terrible odor. Flies swarm to the eyes first, then the still nostrils and open mouths. Greedy, they gorge on blood while the vultures hover, patient in their waiting because there is death enough for all of them.
It was Ruby who screamed from the doorway that we should leave for the mountains that the Range Riders might come again. She was only 13, but her words rang true and my father let go the corral, mounted his horse, and herded up the remaining sheep. I helped my grandmother onto the saddle behind my mother and she squeezed my shoulder then looked in the direction where the Range Riders had ridden off.
“The Holy Ones will punish them.”
In this way, Masani echoed what each of the elders had been saying—that destroying the herds and cutting the land into lots had insulted the Holy Ones. All spring they warned that the female rains would not come to the desert lands to nourish the grasses and wildflowers that the remaining herds needed to survive. I stared at my moccasins, which were stained with blood, and wondered what the Holy Ones would do to the Range Riders for this latest offense. My father started up the rise and I mounted my horse, kicking the belly with my heels and urging him up the mountain. The dogs clipped along beside us and we made it to camp as Venus rose to the east.
In our mountain camp weeks passed without incident, the Range Riders and their rifles becoming like dreams to me conjured up in the desert lands by winds that blew nonstop, rattling against the stovepipe, whipping sand against my skin if I forgot to wrap leggings from ankles to knees. In the mountains the air was thin and clear and the cottonwoods shuddered golden-green light across vales notched in the land where my father led the sheep to eat their fill of grass each day. In the mountains I nearly forgot fear.
Late one afternoon, my father herded the sheep into the corral and I took the reins from him, leading his horse to a thin stream on the other side of scrub brush and juniper. While the stallion lipped up water, I sat on my haunches and watched moisture drip from his muzzle. His ears twitched and he shifted his head with the approach of Masani, who drew water into a bucket for drinking and washing dishes. Once, I told her that I would follow the stream to see where it trickled out and seeped into the red earth some day. She took my hand, squeezed it between her palms. “I’ve seen where it leads,” she said, “far beyond these mountains where it is not safe.”
She was talking about the Long Walk of course, of the time when she was a girl and the agents came to push we Diné from the land, sure there were gold mines the same as the ones discovered years before even farther west. Still, after four years of searching they found nothing worthy of their efforts and so they told the people to return to their homes, giving each family two sheep to start over. Now we were in the mountains beginning yet again.
The sky had the bruised look that comes just before rain and I was glad that I would not have to water the garden we had planted with melons and corn. I corralled the horse, took off the saddle and bridle, and brushed him down. The air carried the scent of creosote and the undertones of mud, and I breathed in deeply while my hands stroked the horse nickering close to my ear.
When I was finished, I ducked into the shade house, where my family was already sitting on sheepskin. I took my place by the fire and each of us grew silent, watching the flames waver when a breeze skiffed through. A crow lighted in the doorway, giving its harsh cry, but we did not stir. The day’s chores bore into us and we sat with our own thoughts, scooping kneel-down bread from corn husks to eat with steaming bowls of posolé.
After my father finished, he rose, walked out to our sleeping shelter, and returned with a length of leather and conchos he’d soldered over several nights. Now the job was to tap them in place every few inches along the length of the belt with a small hammer. While he did so, Ruby scraped leftovers from the tin bowls into a slop pail for the dogs while our mother pitched corn husks from the bread into the fire.
Masani remained seated on her sheepskin holding a tin cup, and my mother reached for the coffeepot, where it rested on a shelf of rock. She poured a ripple of coffee to the brim of my grandmother’s cup and she set it aside, waiting for it to cool and watching me plait yellow ribbons through my hair. She drew a piñon nut from the pocket of her cotton broom skirt, placed it between her worn teeth, and split it open. She smacked her lips together, worked the meat around in her mouth, then spit the shell into the fire.
“It is a shame my eldest granddaughter never asks me about weaving,” she said.
She tested her coffee waiting for my reply.
The truth is, I did not care for weaving. I knew well enough the string games Spider Woman taught that kept us connected to her when she withdrew to dream—games permitted after the last lightning storm but never before the first dusting of snow. I could make a teepee, butterfly, launch an arrow across the complicated web of string I wound between my fingers.
My lack of interest in weaving was not a failure on the part of Masani. Following tradition, she’d leaned my cradleboard against the cottonwood tree where her loom was set and there I dozed and woke while she worked the weft into complicated patterns. But it was the shiver of leaves above my head and shifting shadows on the red earth that excited me when I was a baby. My mother said I swung my fists at the cedar beads tied to the arch of wood above my head and giggled at the sway and rhythm of all living things. You were the same, Shi’yazhi, a dancer from the beginning who learned nothing is static, that everything quivers with life.
“I need time to practice,” I finally said.
“Jingle dancing,” Masani spat, “a Sioux tradition.”
Ruby walked past with the bucket of slops and smirked. She had been weaving for two years, was practically born with a spindle in her hands, and Masani mentioned this often. I stuck my leg out to trip my sister, but she easily avoided it and walked through the shade house door to the dogs that leapt and snarled at her feet.
Masani set her cup on the ground and turned to my mother.
“I warned you about that dress,” she said.
It was the jingle dress she spoke of, the one my mother sewed from pressed cotton. It was the color of moss and onto it she had stitched slender bells cast from chewing tobacco lids that had been collected from the dirt lot at MacDougal’s trading post. She’d spent weeks folding them into cocoons that were razor sharp on the edges, attaching the jingles in tight rows so that when I moved, I was, at turns, rushing water from a mountain spring and the sound of icicles splintering off a sheer rock wall. As much as I loved that dress, Masani hated it. Because it was made from fabric bought direct from MacDougal’s trading post—MacDougal, who’d likely told the Range Riders about our extra sheep.
Shi’ma poured more coffee into Masani’s cup, then set aside the pot.
“There’s nothing wrong with that dress. Hiram Brown likes it well enough.”
“For that she is lucky,” Masani said.
No, for that they were lucky. We are a maternal people and our women usually have a say in such matters. However, the loss of sheep had made them desperate and Hiram Brown, with his drooping right eye, had offered $200 as well as five merino sheep, the finest in the land, for me. His only requirement—that I be ready for a woman’s responsibilities of cooking and weaving.
My father looked up from where he was bent over the belt.
“He has made a good offer.”
“An excellent offer,” Masani said.
She watched my sister walk in with the empty bucket.
“Now, if we could teach her half of what Ruby knows.”
I picked up a stone from the floor and tossed it into the fire.
“Then offer him Ruby,” I said.
My sister looked up from the tub of water where she was soaking dishes and scowled.
“She hasn’t had the woman’s ceremony and you know it,” my mother said.
“And who would marry her even if she did?”
My sister threw a tin plate that whizzed by my ear and I lunged for her.
My father rose and snapped the belt.
I stopped in my tracks and glared at Ruby. A twig in the fire popped and the wind drifted the scent of juniper through the shade house.
“Go on to bed,” my father said.
Instead, I ran to the stream, kicked off my moccasins, and waded in the ankle-deep water.
I stared hard at the sky, trying to glimpse the moon or stars, but saw nothing with the clouds so thick overhead. Behind me I heard Masani complain that I was spoiled and too stubborn to listen properly to an elder. But I had bled, was a woman according to those other elders at my kinaalda, the woman’s ceremony. They had reminded me it was important to be strong and know my own mind.
To ease my temper, I splashed my neck and slicked my braids with water, smoothing the satiny ribbon with the tips of my fingers. Later, I felt my way to sheepskin in the shelter where we slept, removing my moccasins and turning my back to Ruby, who had settled in as my father had demanded. I drifted off to sleep listening to the rain tapping the surface of the stream and my father in the shade house hammering the last of the silver conchos onto his leather belt.
The next morning, I woke to Masani chipping wood from a log with a hatchet. Though June, the air was cold so early and she was on her knees sliding a match along corrugated tin my father had formed into a small stove. The light flared and she touched it to bits of paper and kindling. Leaning forward, she let her breath out slowly so it would burn, and the fire glowed in the darkened room where only pinpricks of light found their way through flour sack curtains. My grandmother splayed her hands toward the fire then glanced over her shoulder at me.
“Granddaughter, are you ready to weave?”
I was no more ready than I had been the night before; in fact, I wondered how Masani could stand sitting on the hard-packed earth each morning. Cold had crept into her bones, crooked her back, and twisted her fingers until they were gnarled as twigs. I rolled over and faced the mud wall, where the fire was not so bright and I could drift back to sleep like the others tangled about me in sheepskin and blankets. Already my eyelids fluttered, but Masani would have none of that. She tore the blanket away and, when I still did not move, pulled my hair until I was hissing like a cat.
A smile curved into her cheek, pressing her glasses tight against the skin.
“Them braids make it too easy,” she said.
I stomped from the sheepskin bed, reaching for the blanket, muttering curses though not loud enough for her to hear or awaken the others. I followed her outside passing the fire stick that had been burned on one end to ward off evil spirits that sometimes followed the Diné up the mountain. If only I had something as solid as that to ward off this foolishness, this waste of time and energy on Hiram Brown. I should have been practicing for the next powwow, touching my heels, then toes softly to the earth, swishing the jingle dress all around my slender hips the way I imagine you sometimes swayed at Club Cabaret.
The People still speak of the dress you wore on the night you returned home, Shi’yazhi—crimson, like a smear of sun through dense smog, the car metallic blue, a sear of butane and you its flame.
That morning when I was 15, my moccasins sank into soft dirt and I breathed in piñon and cedar wood, the scent made fuller by the previous night’s rain. I watched Masani walk east, where pale light shone above the line of junipers on the edge of camp. There, she began the ritual offering, sifting corn pollen from her leather pouch, which was white and edged in purple beads.
Toward the rising sun she lifted her face and it struck me how the skin around her mouth and ears was split like tree bark, like the earth had already begun reclaiming her. She offered the pouch to me, but that morning I turned away and so she continued to spread pollen south, west, and north, honoring the four directions in turn. She chanted prayers in the old way, in the heart language, which is deep and old as invisible rivers running below the surface of this earth.
“In Beauty I walk, with Beauty before me I walk, with Beauty behind me I walk, with Beauty above me I walk, with Beauty around me I walk,” she intoned.
The Old Ones say these words have risen up through all the worlds we Diné have traveled and each time the agents have come to us, they’ve failed to cut it from our tongues. They nearly succeeded in the darkest days of the Long Walk, but just as the mountains, buttes, and mesas remain unaffected by whites so, too, are the People.
“All is finished, finished in Beauty, hózhó náhásdlíí,” Masani said, then blew the last of the corn pollen from the tips of her fingers the same as I did this morning, before we settled once more to work the weft.
She pointed to her loom which was always there beneath the cottonwood tree, several yards from where she stood. When I did not move, she twined her fingers around my wrist and pulled me to one of the matted sheepskins. In the gray light Masani knelt on the other to remove the batten holding the wool she’d been weaving the day before. She was working a Chief blanket, just like the one we weave here, a piece popular some 60 years before.
“I’ll teach you what my own grandmother taught me a long time ago,” she said.
I could see her breath as she spoke, and I clutched the blanket to my shoulders. Masani removed hers and tucked it in around my knees. She wore a man’s flannel shirt above her skirt and drew her hand from beneath the cuff to stroke the loom like a favored child.
“First, you must remember that this is more than a wood frame. The loom is like life itself and the first bit of wool like the day you were born. The People say this piece holding the rug to the frame is where lightning, the spark of the Creator, is strung. Spider Woman taught Changing Woman to weave, this you know. But it is more than pattern and color. Changing Woman had to learn to listen to the Holy Ones, who always begin the work in the weaver’s heart.”
She took a wad of red wool and threaded it through the warp strings. From behind, I saw the clasp of the silver necklace she always wore and how her shoulders were bunched beneath the shirt as she worked the weft. Her hair was tied in the traditional bun at the nape of her neck and held in place by a length of white wool that marked her as a weaver descended from Spider Woman. The lesson went on, the morning growing warmer and the crows lifting their wings, then lighting to the ground to peck up meal my mother dusted from the metate before beginning a new day of grinding corn.
I pulled the blankets away and pressed my hands into the small of my back. I was seldom still and by this time had normally accomplished any number of chores—sweeping the dirt floor of our home, sprinkling it with water to keep down dust, weeding the garden, and practicing my dance steps.
“These are the rays of the sun,” she said, pointing at the warp. “This is the cloud that hides the sun.” Her hands seemed to have a life of their own, were brown as sparrows flitting along the loom.
I nodded my head. It sounded like a story for a child, not the kind a woman wished to hear. I chewed on the ends of my hair ribbons, closed my eyes, imagining I was rolling my hips to the beat of Keysen Jones’ drum. Out at Hiram Brown’s camp a few weeks before, the grass dancers had threshed the meadow flat so the rest of us could perform on smooth ground. My jingle dress was the sound of rushing water that night, and I held my feathered fan high in my left hand, my body pulsing, the drum skin booming, and Keysen’s fierce cries—birdlike—inhuman—prickling my flesh. I thought of his fingers, how they would feel grazing the surface of my own skin.
Between breaks I watched him by a stand of cottonwoods, the end of his cigarette winking like a firefly when he drew in smoke. For the rest of the evening, I danced only when he drummed, his hands a blur in the moonlight while my feet carved a circle around him. I liked to see his throat in the buckskin shirt, a nugget of turquoise bobbing each time he struck the drum. I imagined running my fingers through his hair and smoothing it into a single braid. I knew I could love someone like Keysen Jones.
“Now tell it back to me,” Masani said. She had turned, was staring hard.
I could not recall a single word, had forgotten she was there. I slid my fingers along the leather uppers of my moccasins, brushing so that they were light one moment, dark the next. I could tell her the order of songs Keysen sang and how he smoked his cigarettes in the trees by himself every few, another man stepping out of the crowd to take the drumstick from his hand. When he was finished smoking, he waited for his replacement to nick his chin and signal for Keysen to step up to the drum again. But I knew that Masani would not care for such matters. Cash was promised for me and in return, I was to come ready to cook and weave.
I looked up into eyes so black it was difficult to distinguish iris from pupil.
“Maybe you’re too stupid to learn.”
My cheeks burned and I stared back down at my moccasins. From the shade house, I heard my mother’s soft laughter and a spoon rapping the rim of a bowl.
“Go on,” Masani said.
She turned her face from me and I scrambled off before she changed her mind.
Sunlight had reached the crowns of the junipers when I passed my father on his way to the corral. I walked through the door of the shade house and crossed to the table, which wobbled because one leg was shorter than the others, because my father was a better sheepherder and silversmith than carpenter. My mother and Ruby were preparing more fry bread for the morning meal and the scent of yeast hung heavy in the air.
My mother glanced behind me.
“Where is Masani?”
I shrugged and moistened my fingers in water, then pinched dough from the mound rising in a clay bowl. I stretched it round and round my fingertips, careful not to make holes, then slapped it lightly between my palms.
“You made her angry and now she will not eat.”
My mother stabbed a stick in the coals to build up the fire, then slammed the fry pan onto the grate balanced between the rocks. She scooped two spoonfuls of animal fat from a tin can watching the golden liquid bubble over the top, browning the fry bread in seconds. My mother forked it onto a plate and passed it to Ruby while I brought another to her. She put it between her palms and flattened it out some more.
“Did Masani mention the Long Walk?” my mother said.
I shook my head then rolled my eyes toward Ruby, who was dusting warm fry bread with powdered sugar. She pretended not to notice.
Whether they wanted to admit it or not, everything always boiled down to the Long Walk. Masani had been pushed from the land with the rest of the Diné, then forced to march 400 miles to the fort in New Mexico where her mother had abandoned her. She was lucky she was able to return to Diné Bikéyah, the beloved land of our people, but leaving it in the first place had scarred her.
I finished stretching another piece of dough and passed it to my mother, who drew in her breath and let it out slowly.
“What happened to Masani was hard. She had no family left after that. We are all that she has now that your grandfather has passed.”
She paused, swiping a strand of hair from her eyes.
“You understand that marrying Hiram Brown means your father won’t have to travel off the reservation for a job? I don’t think he could make it a day in the mines.”
“It isn’t fair,” I said.
My mother flipped the fry bread with a fork.
“No, what happened to your grandmother isn’t fair. Marrying Hiram Brown is something you don’t want to do. There is a difference.”
The fry bread had blackened on the edges and she tossed it out for the dogs to eat when they returned with my father later.
“Masani will teach you weaving so you can help your mother-in-law. The woman’s ceremony was two months ago. Most girls have already sold their first rug by now.”
So that was it, I was meant to give up dancing and put away the jingle dress and red beaded moccasins my mother had given me during my kinaalda. I was supposed to give myself over to a man twice my age, a man who had never married—wasn’t that strange? A man who knew that my family was in no position to refuse his offer.
As though reading my thoughts she said, “Not one more complaint.”
Later that day, I found Masani at the corral circling one of the sheep with corn pollen and whispering in the old language. Stepping up to a slat of fencing I asked if the sheep was sick. Masani tilted her head toward me so the sun glinted from her glasses and straight into my eyes.
“No, Nizhoni, we’re preparing mutton for company. I forgot to tell you this morning. Your father invited Hiram Brown to dinner.”
Hiram Brown and his mother arrived with the afternoon sun sliding behind the mountains. I found the oldest skirt I owned, a red calico that I turned inside out, smeared mud on my cheeks, under my eyes, and finished by winding twigs in my hair. They were shaking hands all around in the gentle way of the Diné when I approached them. Hiram’s mother leaned on her cane, blinking several times. My mother ordered me to wash up, but I stood my ground and Hiram waved away their concerns. He complimented my closeness to Mother Earth and laughed at his own joke. I noticed the smile did not reach his eyes and his teeth were crooked as tombstones.
We entered the shade house, which was fragrant with boughs my father had stripped from ponderosa pines. I sat on my sheepskin and my father looked at Hiram then nicked his chin toward the one next to me. When everyone was settled, my mother slid mutton from spits onto tin plates, passing the first to Etta, who passed it on to Hiram. He set the plate on his thighs and tore into the meat with his thick fingers. I prayed night would come on soon so that I could go on to bed, would no longer have to watch him swipe grease from his mouth.
Etta pinched my arm.
“Too skinny. Not enough work at the metate.”
My mother began pouring coffee all around, Etta accepting the first cup since Hiram was busy eating. She took a short sip before getting down to business.
“Hiram’s brother wants to marry too,” she said. “For Ruby he offers one hundred dollars. And three more merinos.”
My mother frowned and set the pot next to the fire.
“She is only thirteen. She hasn’t had the ceremony yet.”
“I will be sure that he waits. We don’t want missionaries collecting her, putting her in the nunnery or turning her into a Mormon.”
She lifted the cup to her mouth and drank.
I wondered how Ruby could sit and listen to this with her hands so quiet in her lap and her face wiped clean of expression. Each summer Seth Brown rode the range in Idaho and we’d never seen him. What if Hiram was the better-looking one? And two brothers and sisters in the same household? Impossible.
The women drank their coffee in silence for a long time. When Masani had finished her second cup, she picked a ground from her tongue and looked across the fire at Etta.
“We will draw up the papers tonight.”
I ran from the shade house, through the juniper, then past it to shinny up a pine tree. Hiram followed me, deliberate in his steps, the hunter used to tracking his prey. Firstborn, he was accustomed to having his way, I could see it in the shine of his black eyes, in the way his hands were at his waist ready to scold me as if I were a child.
But I was firstborn too, so snapped a pinecone from a branch and threw at him. When it missed, he laughed, and thinking of those gnashing teeth, I snatched a twig from my hair and whipped it square at his mouth. He picked up a rock and lobbed it at me, cursing and gashing the skin above my eye. Not a word had passed between us yet there we were; you can imagine such a marriage, Shi’yazhi.
I pressed my fingers to my face where the skin was swelling though not bleeding. I wanted to cry but would not give him the satisfaction. I refused to go to him, was determined to sleep in the tree all night if need be. Only when I heard twigs snapping under Hiram’s feet did I look out over the land. It was filled with shadows and the moon in the center of the sky like the winking eye of coyote.
On sheepskin that night, I tossed. A contract of $300 and eight sheep had been drawn up for Ruby and me. I knew what would happen—I wasn’t stupid. Hiram would press his body into mine until I was molded into whatever he liked. I’d seen the light pitched out of other girls who once danced like me, who no longer slipped into their moccasins or picked up their feathered fans. Sometimes their men were drunk when they came home and beat them so hard they no longer resembled themselves—a cheek slung lower than the other, a front tooth knocked clean from a mouth—that’s what I could expect from a man like Hiram Brown.
In the jingle dress I was light, air, the sound a waterfall makes, and well beyond the words I speak to you now. My father’s sisters had never married, were fat and squat and beautiful when they performed our traditional dances. No, I didn’t care what the paper said. I would not marry Hiram Brown or take the time to learn more weaving.
The next morning I woke and took the marriage contract from the cigar box where my family kept livestock papers and the debts owed MacDougal’s trading post. Crouching by the tin stove, I struck a match, watched it flare then touched it to the edge of paper where my name was scrawled in ink. It was thick and the match fizzled, but before I could reach for another, I heard a sound so familiar and sweet it had me on my feet in seconds.
Masani was holding my jingle dress.
“Stoke up the fire and we’ll pitch this in too.”
Her manner was gentle, like passing a child to its mother.
I took it from her, let the contract drift to the dirt floor. For the first time since leaving the desert lands, I began to cry.