The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers with text by Jim Kristofic and illustrations by Nolan Karras James
Few stories of Navajo origin mythology have become as well-known as the Monster Slayers. Also known as the tale of the Hero Twins, the traditional story recounts the trials of two young brothers as they journey across the Navajo homeland, battling a race of monsters that stalk and prey upon humans. Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, marveled at the Hero Twins story’s capacity to illuminate the “hero-soul of man” and elucidate the key teachings of Diné cosmology. “According to Navaho belief, good and evil beings and conditions are relative. What appears to be hostile and confusing will become beneficent if ‘put in order,’ that is, brought under control,” Campbell wrote.
Earlier this year, writer Jim Kristofic and artist Nolan Karras James released The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers through the University of New Mexico Press. To illustrate the story, James created a visual language that borrows from sci-fi paperbacks, Navajo iconography, superhero comics, and even the fantasy-horror of heavy metal album art. Kristofic set about creating a text that would appeal to both children and adults interested in learning Diné. Kristofic is the author of the memoir Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life, which was named a 2011 Southwest Book of the Year.
In Diné creation myths, the Hero Twins story takes place at the emergence of the Fourth World, at a time when humans as we know them now are just beginning to inhabit the world. The young adolescent Hero Twins at the center of this story are born of a union between Changing Woman, the first woman, and their estranged father, the Sun.
Against their mother’s wishes, the boys wander far from the family hogan in search of their father. Seeing their mother unguarded, Yé’iitsoh, the most fearsome
of the monstrous beasts, threatens Changing Woman, vowing to devour her sons. Deeply ashamed, the boys set off across the desert to find a way to help their people and protect their mother. Riding atop a holy rainbow, they are delivered to Spider Woman. The female deity gives them a hoop made from feathers of monster eagles and teaches them powerful songs to ward off enemies. Soon, boulders attempt to crush the twins, reeds try to slash them, cactuses seek to pierce them with their spines, and boiling sand dunes do their best to shrivel them to ashes. But with their songs and hoops, the twins fend off natural forces and make their way to their father, the Sun, who can give them the supernatural tools — armor made of flint and arrows made of lightning — to vanquish Yé’iitsoh. But they must first win their father’s approval, who distrusts the twins as potential enemies and doubts his blood ties to them.
For a bilingual Navajo-English tale built around fathers and sons, Kristofic and James could hardly be a more apt duo. They themselves are stepson and stepfather, respectively. Kristofic, who is Anglo, moved to the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona in his early teens when his mother married James, an artist, carpenter, powwow dancer, guitarist, and rodeo cowboy. “Growing up, I always saw him making something. He has a degree in graphic arts; he’s a powwow dancer who still has a golden feather eagle costume he uses,” Kristofic said. “I learned from him that art doesn’t get made in a vacuum. It gets made after you feed your kids ramen noodles and you go back to your room and listen to heavy metal. It was a model for me growing up of how art actually got made, not just some abstraction.”
The two men came by the story of the Hero Twins in completely different manners. As a high-school student on the Navajo reservation, Kristofic read University of New Mexico professor Paul Zolbrod’s Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story. Published in 1984, the book translates Navajo-language religious tales into epic English-language poetry. “Zolbrod’s text is like reading the Book of Genesis, a creation
story put into this majestic language,” says Kristofic. “It’s essentially a poetic rendering of the Navajo Blessing Way Ceremony.”
James was initiated into the story as part of a family legacy. His mother is Apache and his father is Diné, from the Many Goats Clan. “My father was a medicine man, his father was a medicine man. The Hero Twins were told to me through ceremonial ways.”
Among the Diné, there are two traditional ways of encountering the story. The first is as a story told only in winter. “The reason is because a lot of characters in the story — like spiders, lizards, bears, and snakes, and those type of things — are dormant during the winter time,” James said. “Out of respect, you try not to have their story being told while they are around during the rest of the year.” In James’ illustrations, each image is framed by nine Navajo calendar icons on the page’s left side and three on the bottom, indicating the months in which the story can be told.
The Hero Twins also figure prominently in The Enemy Way ceremony, conducted in late summer, though the story is never directly told but instead referenced through songs and chants of the Monster Slayer twins. “It’s for people who have gone to war and they are trying to undo their ailment or psychological ill. It reconnects them with harmony or purity,” James said.
To create the book, the men sought to create a bilingual version with both languages on the same page. Key phrases in both languages are set off with pairs of Navajo pictograms, allowing readers learning Diné to quickly match words without breaking focus. Kristofic helped conceive the idea based on his own experience learning the language, as well as from working as a schoolteacher for several years.
Kristofic and James caution that their version of the Hero Twins is but one of many that exist across the Navajo Nation. “Every region has different versions of the same stories, like ancient Greek myths that varied from island to island,” Kristofic said.
“I got interested in the Navajo mythology in the Joseph Campbell sense, something deep that reveals something about individuals and a culture,” Kristofic said. The story can be read on a number of levels, as a mythic accounting of natural formations, a children’s bogeyman tale, or a very adult bildungsroman of boys who mature into men only by discovering the true extent of their family ties and the power that comes from perseverance.
“I have been drawing and painting every day for nearly 30 years. This is the first time that I am being published,” James said. “I think the life lesson of the Hero Twins is that there are challenges, things that come up. But if you want to accomplish it, you must stick to it, no matter what happens to you or what gets in your way.”
“The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers,” text by Jim Kristofic and illustrations by Nolan Karras James, was published this year by the University of New Mexico Press.
In Diné creation myths, the Hero Twi story takes place at the emergence of the Fourth World, at a time when humans as we know them are just
beginning to inhabit the world.