Cos­mic duo

The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Mon­ster Slay­ers with text by Jim Kristofic and il­lus­tra­tions by Nolan Kar­ras James

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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.

Il­lus­tra­tions from The H ro Twins by Nol Kar­ras mes; cou esy U versi y of N xico Press

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