Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hogans: Homes and Ceremonial Lodges

In Chapter 38 of THE BISTI BUSINESS, our investigator, BJ Vinson, goes to a deserted hogan on the Navajo Reservation where his helpers, Jazz Penrod and his half brother, Henry Secatero, are hiding someone for him. What is a hogan? The simple answer is a hut, but maybe it goes deeper than that. Let’s take a look.

According to the 2010 Census, the Navajos are the largest tribe in the United States by population (308,000). As a matter of interest, the Cherokee (285,000) and the Sioux (131,000) are the next two tribes in order of ranking.

A Conical Navajo Hogan
The Navajo (so named by the Spanish) are an Athabascan-speaking people whose ancestors probably migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska (as did the Apache, a related tribe) to the southwestern United States. They were believed to have made this migration circa 1400 CE and were well-established by the time the Spaniards arrived. They call themselves Diné. Their homeland, Dinétah, is a 16,000,000-acre reservation in the Four Corners Area that spills over into three states: Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Their traditional home is bounded by four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak (Sisnaajini or Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado, Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks (Dook’o’oostííd or Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona, and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa or Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado. Navajo toddlers are told they should never go beyond these boundaries.

Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajo were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop farming from the Pueblos, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. After the Spanish arrived, the Navajo began herding sheep and goats as a main source of trade and food. At that time, meat became an essential part of their diet, as well as a form of currency for trading. Eventually, the size of a family’s sheep herd became a status symbol.
Today, the tribe is world famous for its fine silver and turquoise jewelery-making, especially its hallmark piece called the "squash blossom" necklace, which first appeared in the 1880s. They are equally renowned for their weaving skills. Two Gray Hills and Teec Nos Pos and Ganado and Chinlee are just some of the distinctive styles and patterns that have become so well established. Some of the rugs go for thousands of dollars.

Historically, Navajo society has been matrilineal, meaning women owned the livestock and land. Upon marrying, a Navajo man moved in with his bride in her dwelling among her mother’s people and clan. As anyone reading the popular Tony Hillerman novels of the two Navajo cops, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, is aware, the tribe is a clan society. Offspring of a marriage are “born to” (and belong to) the mother’s clan, and are said to be “born for” the father’s clan. When strangers meet, it was (and perhaps is) customary to identify the born to and born for clans as a means of identifying background. A Navajo must date and marry an individual outside of his or her own clans, which include the clans of their four grandparents.

Log, mud caulked Hogan
The hogan, the traditional home of the Navajo, is a shelter built for a man or a woman out of wood and often covered in mud with a smoke hole at the apex of a domed roof. The door always faces east to welcome the sun each morning. A blanket is hung like a curtain in place of a door. In the winter, there might be a second blanket draped behind the first as added protection against the cold.

Those who practice the Navajo religion of seeking harmony in all things, regard the hogan as sacred. The religious song, “The Blessingway” (hozhooji) describes the first such structure built by Coyote with help from beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God.

Sometimes, there would be a summer hogan with a brush wall surrounding an open space where much of the family’s time was spent. Many families still live in hogans, although trailers and modern houses are beginning to replace them. Even so, there will still be a hogan nearby to be used for ceremonial purposes.

The Navajo sweat houses are a smaller version of a hogan, except there is no smoke hole, as a fire will never be built in one. The rocks are heated outside and carried into the building using tongs.

The hogans Jazz and Henry took BJ to were abandoned huts of relatives. Probably long-dead relatives, although they did not die in the structures. Had that been the case, the buildings would have been destroyed, or at the least had a large hole torn in the sides to allow the spirit of the deceased to escape. Even so—modern guys though they were—Jazz and Henry would have been reluctant to enter them.

Next week: Inspiration hasn’t struck, as yet.


New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Just when I think I’ve got it figured out…

As readers of this blog know, I lost my wife, Betty, a little over four years ago to pneumonia. Still miss her terribly, but by now I figured I had this bachelor life all figured out. Of course, it’s had its moments. I blogged about my tussle with folding fitted sheets. I’ve also gone anemic twice in those four years…I don’t cook, you know. Toppled over a few times…once ending up in the emergency room. That earned me back surgery. Also washed my clothes using fabric softener instead of laundry soap for a month, but that’s all just part of the learning process.

I figured the learning curve was pretty well behind me until the other day. Let me explain. My wife had a small dog-sitting business when she passed away, and I’ve continued to help out two of our owners. I’ve had opportunities to take additional four-legged members from other families, but I’ve declined, holding it to just the two. One, Gizmo (or Gizzie) is a Papillion who stays with me regularly. He’s a great guy. The other, Oslo is a little white, curly-haired mix with the sweetest nature you’ve ever seen. He comes to me only intermittently, when his mom and dad travel.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying we saved all of our plastic bags to hold the pups’ poop. Betty sewed a large “sleeve” she could hang in the hall closet for easy access. She did it with needle and thread because her sewing machine pre-deceased her by decades and she refused to get another. Nonetheless, she did quite a fancy job, sewing elastic in the open end at the bottom and puting a loop at the top to hang the thing up out of the way. We’d stuff empty bags up the sleeve as a convenient place to store them until needed. I’ve continued to use this contraption since her passing.

The other day, I noticed I was getting low on my supply of bags. That didn’t make a lot of sense, as I generally acquire more than I use, but I gave it no more thought. Then one day when the weather was colder than usual, I pulled out my heavy jacket. When I put it on, six months worth of poop bags came flying out the left sleeve.

Gee, if I’d only been thinking, I could have spared Betty the trouble...and she despised sewing.

Next week: Back to THE BISTI BUSINESS..

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

There's Shiprock...and then there's Shiprock

The Rock
The Town
To explain: There’s the town of Shiprock, New Mexico, and then there’s the nearby 1,500-foot monolith from which the town takes its name. I've labeled the pictures to spare you the angst of guessing which is which.

Our protagonist, BJ Vinson, goes to the town of Shiprock only once and never visits the rock formation at all, but both play a part in setting the scene for mystery I call THE BISTI BUSINESS.

In Chapter 17 (bottom of Page 129), BJ describes the landscape as he and Jazz Penrod, a mixed-blood
gay kid who’s helping our PI on the case, head toward a place on the Navajo Reservation called Black Hole Canyon to check out a brown Ford automobile Jazz’s half-brother, Henry Secatero, had heard about. The passage giving us our first glimpse of the big rock follows:


This is not really the red rock part of New Mexico, but the massive, wind-carved sandstone shelves—some the remnants of ancient barrier reefs—glowed red and orange, striated with layers of black and yellow and brown and white. I identified feldspar and hematite, quartz and dark-brown calcite, degraded coal and gypsum embedded in the host rock, all deposited eons ago when the shallow marine sea retreated with the upheaval of mountains in what is now southwestern Colorado. Volcanic eruptions had spewed fire and ash over the entire area. As the water retreated, sand dunes consolidated into cross-bedded Entrada Sandstone. Over the ensuing ages, the ceaseless battle between wind and rock and water had chopped the terrain to pieces, creating the present landscape.

The Shiprock monolith, which lay in the distance ahead of us, was the throat of a volcano that had died long ago. The terrain around it eroded and washed away, leaving a 1450-foot pile of black basalt towering over the Navajo Nation.


Later (on Page 164 of Chapter 21), BJ accompanies FBI Special Agent John Gaines, BLM Agent Larry Plainer, and San Juan County Deputy Sheriff Lonzo Joe to Shiprock (the town) when certain items belonging to Lando Alfano, one of the two men BJ is searching for, show up at the fictional Shiprock Pawn Shop. The recalcitrant owner, Abe Novich, somewhat grudgingly provides them with a clue as to where the items were obtained. Portions of that scene are reproduced below:


I rode with Gaines, while Lonzo followed in a county unit with Plainer as his passenger. Gaines did not seem inclined to talk, so I concentrated on the view outside the window. The trip wasn’t long, but it was interesting. We stayed on State Highway 64, by-passing the town of Kirtland, founded in the 1880s by the Latter Day Saints and presently boasting a population of around 6,000—and Fruitland. I didn’t know much about Fruitland, but Upper Fruitland across the San Juan River was predominately a Navajo town. One of these days, I was going to visit both.

Before long, the huge volcanic plug called Shiprock hove into view like a massive, ocean-going vessel improbably landlocked on the high desert plain. A bustling commercial center bearing the same name sprawled across the mesa about 7 miles short of the monolith.

The Shiprock Pawn Shop was right on the highway, housed in a one-story cinderblock building with two display windows crammed full of Native American jewelry and crafts. A weathered oak coup stick festooned with eagle feathers on a beaded leather band was the centerpiece of one display; a short lance similarly adorned dominated the other. I took a closer look. Hawk feathers, not eagle.

Lonzo caught my double take and muttered. “Replicas. Tourist junk.”

Abe Novich, the owner, was a small brown man with a lean face and a jutting nose. His eyes sat well back in his head, which gave him a sly, crafty appearance. Given the trade he had adopted, the look likely reflected who he was. Pawnshop owners often have reputations as cheats, but in truth, both sides of the pawn game sought the upper hand. Unless they were sharp, the lenders were victims as often as they dealt a bad hand to others. A long-time pawnbroker friend in Albuquerque was one of the most knowledgeable men I knew. His expertise covered an astounding range of subjects. He could spot a fake Anasazi pot as quickly as he could pick out a genuine Han Dynasty urn.

Gaines greeted the man by name—apparently they’d had dealings before—and then introduced me. The shop owner gave Lonzo a glare, which likely meant they’d crossed paths, and then fixed me with a fishy eye without saying a word. Plainer, the shopkeeper totally ignored. People skills were not included in his résumé.

The FBI agent laid Lando’s toilet kit on the counter, and Novich’s face revealed he’d known all along the thing would prove to be trouble. In response to questions, he shuffled back to his office and started leafing through small pieces of paper. The computer age had not reached this store. Eventually he came back and uttered his first complete sentence since we entered.

“Old man Hernandez brought it in. Crespido Hernandez,” he clarified. “Claimed he picked it up in a flea market down in Albuquerque.”

Gaines took Novich over his story several times. I gathered from the tone of the conversation Shiprock Pawn had had a few problems with its tickets over the years. We learned nothing beyond the original statement that Mr. Hernandez had brought in the kit.


Now for a look at the two Shiprocks.

Let’s tackle the hunk of rock first. At my age and in my shape, this is the only way I can tackle it. Known to the Navajo as Tse Bit’a’í or the Winged Rock, it is a monadnock. If that word sends you scrambling for the dictionary, let me save you the trouble. The term describes an isolated rock, knob, ridge, or small mountain rising abruptly from gently rising or virtually level surrounding plains. It is thought be an Abenaki term for an isolated hill.

This particular monadnock rises 1,583 feet above the high-desert plain on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County west of Farmington.  Of course, when the Anglos came along, they saw things through different eyes and called it The Needle. USGS survey maps indicate the name Ship Rock came to the fore in the 1870s.

The geological description of the peak is full of words like fractured volcanic breccia, black dikes of igneous rock called diateme, erosional remnants, and the like. Suffice it to say it is the throat of a volcano that solidified about 27 million years ago. Its dikes were exposed by another few millions of years of erosion. Shiprock sits in the northeastern part of the Navajo Volcanic Field.

The Navajo name for the peak refers to the legendary great bird that brought the Diné from the north to their present lands, so it plays a significant role in their religion and tradition. According to myth, after being transported from another place, the Navajos lived on the monolith, descending to plant their fields and get water. When the peak was struck by lightning, the trail was wiped out, stranding women and children on top to starve.

In another context, Shiprock is tied to a gigantic mythic figure made up of several mountains throughout the region. The Chuska Mountains are the body; Chuska Peak, the head; the Carrizos, the legs; Beautiful mountain, the feet…and Shiprock is either the medicine pouch or bow carried by this legendary giant.
Other myths involve Bird Monsters nesting on the peak and feeding on human flesh. Legends differ over who rid the peak of the Monsters (Monster Slayer or the Warrior Twins), but two of the young Bird Monsters were turned into an eagle and an owl. The peak is mentioned in the Enemy Side Ceremony, the Navajo Mountain Chant, and is associated with the Bead Chant and the Naayee’ee Ceremony.

The first recorded ascent of the monolith was in 1939 by a Sierra Club party, featured in the book, FIFTY CLASSIC CLIMBS OF NORTH AMERICA. The expedition was the first in the US to use expansion bolts for protection. At least seven routes have been climbed on the peak, all of great technical difficulty. Climbing has been illegal since 1970. The Tribal Council forbids the climbing of the rock lest intruders stir up the ghosts of those who died there…or rob their corpses. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—rockers continue to see Shiprock as an interesting place to climb and continually seek to thwart the ban. Permits are issued to camp and hike in some areas, but not on any of the Sacred Mountains—including Shiprock.

The town of Shiprock (or Naatáanii Nééz to the Navajo)—which is located on the Navajo Reservation twenty-eight miles west of Farmington—was founded by Superintendent William T. Shelton as a government settlement for the San Juan School and Agency in 1903. The Navajo name means Tall Chief in honor of Shelton.

Shiprock is a key junction for tourist and truck traffic in the Four Corners, lying at the intersection of US 64 and US 491 (formerly US 666 until a petition resulted in a change of designation). Despite this, the town is noted for having no hotels or motels (a recent online search still didn’t reveal any).

With a 2000 census of 8,156, the town is billed as the largest Navajo community in the Navajo Nation. It is the home to the Shiprock Chapter, a branch of the Navajo Nation’s government (which is probably the unnamed chapterhouse mentioned in BISTI). Chapters were initiated in 1922 as a means of improving agricultural conditions at the local level. They grew to be the basic political subdivision of Navajo Tribal Government. Each Chapter elects representatives to the Tribal Council, the Navajo’s legislative branch of government.

The Shiprock Chapter has a checkered history. A few years back, some of the officials were accused of thefts and mismanagement to the point the Chapter could no longer pay utility or phone bills.

The town is home to one of the eight campuses of Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College), a tribally controlled school. A Bureau of Indian Affairs agency, an Indian Health Service Hospital, and a branch of the Farmington Public Library are all located here.

Since 1984, the town has hosted the Shiprock Marathon and Relay, and is home to the annual Northern Navajo Fair, which is the oldest and most traditional of the Navajo fairs. The event is held at the Shiprock Fair Grounds, typically after the first frost of the year, generally around the first weekend of October. The celebration includes arts and crafts, horticulture, science, agriculture, and livestock exhibits. There is a rodeo, and the Miss Northern Navajo Pageant, an Indian Market, parade, and carnival.

Northern Navajo Fair Parade

Sounds like another interesting New Mexico locale to visit.

Next week: Back to something personal.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It’s Off to Farmington…

Seal of the City
of Farmington
In Chapter 8 of THE BISTI BUSINESS, BJ and Aggie Alfano approach Farmington by air in Alfano’s dual engine Mitsubishi Marquise. Aggie is the older brother of the young man BJ has been hired to locate. A couple of tenuous leads in Taos have sent them to the Four Corners area of New Mexico on their quest. The following is a passage (told from BJ’s viewpoint) from Pages 49 and 50 of the book:


A massive fluffy plume boiled up out of a gigantic smokestack and rode the prevailing air currents beneath our wings like one of the malevolent spirits of native folklore, spreading mischief far to the southwest. Plans for a new electric power-generating plant, to be fed by area coal mines, were slowly making their way through the bureaucracy to one day add dollars to the economy and carcinogens to the environment.

“Those emissions look nasty.” Aggie reflected my own thoughts. “You know much about Farmington?”

I chuckled. “I’m a history buff, so I know a little about a lot of places, and not a lot about any of them.”

Farmington, a small city of just under 50,000, which the early aboriginals called Tótah, or the Meeting Place of Waters, perched on the Colorado Plateau at the conjunction of the San Juan, Animas, and La Plata Rivers. Combined, these three rivers accounted for twenty-five percent of all the water in the state. The local economy was carbon-based: natural gas, coal, and oil.

“There’s something that worries me more than that smokestack at the moment,” I said. “Farmington’s been the target of several civil rights investigations, mostly for hate crimes motivated by racial discrimination. The place is virtually surrounded by Native Americans—the Navajo Nation west of Farmington, the Ute Mountain Reservation to the northwest, and the Southern Ute to the northeast—and that’s sparked trouble at times. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that a couple of gays might run into the same type of prejudice.”


Looking over Farmington
west toward Shiprock
BJ’s stated concern about hate crimes in the area were based on actual fact. Farmington has earned headlines in the past for hate crimes against Native Americans, particularly Navajos. The city spent years attempting to shake it’s designation as “the Selma, Alabama of the Southwest.” The 1970s were the heyday of “Injun rollin’,” when youths from border towns in the area beat up Navajos (usually sleeping alcoholics) with rocks, pellet guns, bottles, and baseball bats as a rite of passage.

Rodney Barker’s book, The Broken Circle – a True Story of Crime and Magic in Indian Country, recounts the April 1974 “Chokecherry Massacre,” the murder and mutilation of three Navajo men near Farmington. Their bodies were thrown into a nearby canyon. Three Farmington high school boys admitted to the killings but were never tried for the crime of murder. They were sent to reform school as juveniles, instead. Attempts by tribal members to march in protest of this lenient treatment turned into riots when permits for peaceful demonstrations were denied.

Thirty-two years later, fears were raised again by violent, racially charged incidents between whites and Navajos which started with the beating of a forty-seven-year-old Navajo man who was offered a ride by three white teenagers in Farmington, driven to the outskirts of town, and beaten. Six days later, a twenty-one-year-old Navajo was killed by police responding to a domestic dispute in a Wal-Mart parking lot. When the Farmington police declared it a justified shooting, the FBI declined to investigate. They later reconsidered their decision.

Aztec Ruins Near
Aztec, New Mexico
Although BJ’s concerned had some basis in history, the City of Farmington is not totally defined by its racially charged past. The area was settled by the Anasazi in the Seventh Century (visit the nearby Salmon and Aztec Ruins as BJ and Aggie do while following the trail of Lando Alfano and his companion, Dana Norville). In 1868, the Navajo Nation was ceded the western half of San Juan County, New Mexico. A number of settlers moved into the remaining territory from Southern Colorado and established Junction City. In 1901 the town was incorporated and renamed Farmington. At the time it boasted a population of 548. By September 19, 1905, the railroad connected Farmington to Durango, Colorado. The 1920s saw investments in natural gas and oil in the area, although significant production did not occur until the 1950s.

Something I didn’t know: In 1967, an underground nuclear explosion took place 50 miles east of Farmington and about 25 miles south of Dulce, New Mexico in the present day Carson National Forest. This detonation was the pilot project of Operation Plowshare (Project Gasbuggy), an attempt to fracture underground bedrock for greater extraction of natural gas from wells in the area.

Something else I hadn’t known: On March 18, 1950, over half the town’s population reported seeing large saucers in the sky flying at rapid speeds—a mass UFO sighting!

Today, Farmington is an active, vibrant town that has hosted the Connie Mack World Series baseball tournament for players between 16 and 18 years of age for 43 years. The games are played every August at Ricketts Park.

The three local rivers are celebrated by the Farmington Riverfest each year. The festival boasts music, fine arts displays, food, entertainment, river rafting, and a 5K and 10K run and walk.

The city sponsors an annual strongman competition on the last Saturday of July on San Juan Plaza. There is a Four Corners Storytelling Festival and a Renaissance Faire in October, and youngsters from the Four Corners Home for Children dress in traditional clothing and pose for the Live Navajo Nativity Scene on the 23rd of December.

This piece wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the excellent fishing, both in the rivers and on the lake.

It’s a great place to visit.

Next week: Probably something else from THE BISTI BUSINESS.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

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