An­i­mal in­stincts

Black Sheep, White Crow

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - BLACK SHEEP, WHITE CROW

INthe six years since Jim Kristofic re­leased Nava­jos Wear Nikes: A Reser­va­tion Life (Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press), his mem­oir of his child­hood as a bi­lagáana (a white per­son) raised on the Navajo Na­tion, the au­thor has been teach­ing high school and work­ing on a se­ries of il­lus­trated books aimed at con­vey­ing Navajo myths to chil­dren and young adults. But as he made clear in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Kristofic doesn’t think be­ing raised on the Navajo Na­tion makes him in any way Na­tive. So as he es­tab­lishes at the out­set of Black Sheep, White Crow and Other Wind­mill Tales: Sto­ries From Navajo Coun­try, newly out from Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, this col­lec­tion of myth­i­cal tales set in Diné­tah is not tra­di­tional Navajo lore re­told for pub­li­ca­tion. In­stead, th­ese sto­ries are Kristofic’s cre­ations, salted with cer­tain stock fig­ures and hu­mor, along with themes from tra­di­tional Navajo mythol­ogy. They are peo­pled by de­vi­ous coy­otes, wise grand­pas, loyal sheep, and sor­cer­ers. At the cen­ter of each tale is of­ten a young man, woman, or an­i­mal who must find a way to grow up quickly and em­body the can-do spirit of the crow, even as they face off against the per­sis­tent death taboo that runs through­out much of Diné lit­er­a­ture and folk­lore.

“I didn’t write them alone. Some sto­ries were told to me while I was grow­ing up on the Rez,” writes Kristofic. “Some sto­ries are blends of my own imag­i­na­tion with the tra­di­tional ideas of the An­i­mal Peo­ple and the les­sons they can teach.” Kristofic, who lives in Taos, will tell sto­ries from Black Sheep, White

Crow at Col­lected Works Book­store on Satur­day, Sept. 16; chil­dren from ages eight to twelve are wel­come. Join­ing him in story and song will be Nolan Kar­ras James, who drew the book’s il­lus­tra­tions. (The pair also col­lab­o­rated on the 2015 chil­dren’s book The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Mon­ster Slay­ers.)

The tales are told by a grand­fa­ther fig­ure, who ap­pears sand­wiched in be­tween seg­ments of the life of Kameron Nez, a fifth-grader whose life is turned up­side down when his fa­ther loses his weld­ing job, forc­ing his Navajo fam­ily to give up city life in Farm­ing­ton and take up res­i­dence with Kameron’s grandma, who raises sheep on a rugged, re­mote part

of the Navajo Na­tion. Ev­ery time Kameron stum­bles in his new life in Navajo coun­try, he leads the sheep out to the wind­mill-pow­ered trough, where there ap­pears a chéí, an old man sit­ting on a stump ready to weave a story rel­e­vant to the boy’s strug­gles.

There is a deep dis­con­nect be­tween grand­son and grand­mother — the for­mer pines for his city life, the lat­ter can­not un­der­stand why an able­bod­ied boy is not en­thu­si­as­tic about run­ning sheep, chop­ping wood, and liv­ing in a ho­gan. So the char­ac­ter Chéí jumps in. “To your grandma, you are strange. She doesn’t know your ways. But strange friends are of­ten the strong­est. Dif­fer­ences can bring you to­gether,” says Chéí. “Your an­ces­tors knew that. Their k’é — their clans — weren’t al­ways some­thing you were born into. They would adopt all kinds of peo­ple into the clan if they felt it would make the fam­ily stronger.”

Then cue the folk­tale. A stray young white crow and a wan­der­ing kid black sheep be­friend each other. To­gether, they fend off a lurk­ing coy­ote by pass­ing them­selves off as a ter­ri­fy­ing hy­brid black-and-white beast. But not much changes. The black sheep re­turns to an in­dif­fer­ent herd. The white crow re­mains a loner. But each, Chéí says, now knows the strength that comes from a “got your back” friend­ship.

True to Navajo tra­di­tion, most of th­ese sto­ries are set dur­ing win­ter or au­tumn. “You’re not sup­posed to tell sto­ries in sum­mer. Snakes will hear you. They will in­vite bad spir­its and bring light­ning,” Kristofic said. “Be­sides, it’s sum­mer you should be work­ing, not telling sto­ries.” Un­like his pre­vi­ous two books, which deal with as­pects of con­tem­po­rary Navajo life and tra­di­tional Diné lore, Kristofic says he has seen some push­back from tra­di­tional tribal mem­bers on his new re­lease. “I have reg­is­tered some neg­a­tiv­ity with this book. There are peo­ple who told me they thought it was a stupid idea,” Kristofic said. The idea of us­ing tra­di­tional Navajo themes and folk­loric char­ac­ters — but in sto­ries of his own in­ven­tion — poses an un­wel­come break, for some, with the norms of Na­tive sto­ry­telling. “But keep in mind you can also find a Navajo tra­di­tion of wo­ven blan­kets with Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coy­ote, and Road­run­ner,” Kristofic said. “I have seen bead­work with Daffy Duck’s face.” And in Kristofic’s view, that’s not an in­sult. De­spite all the folk­loric an­i­mal tales that fill the book, in White Crow,

Black Sheep, the true hero — or at least the per­son with the most wis­dom — is the chéí, the old man who has spent his life amass­ing wis­dom. “There’s that tra­di­tion in Navajo cul­ture to pass on to old life and walk in beauty, sa’áh naagháí bik’eh hózhó,” Kristofic said. “That’s cen­tral to the cul­ture and it’s what I hope to show in this book.”

de­tails

Au­thor Jim Kristofic and il­lus­tra­tor Nolan Kar­ras James present Black Sheep, White Crow and Other Wind­mill Tales: Sto­ries From Navajo Coun­try 3 p.m. Satur­day, Sept. 16 Col­lected Works Book­store, 202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226

Th­ese sto­ries are Kristofic’s cre­ations, salted with cer­tain stock fig­ures and hu­mor, along with themes from tra­di­tional Navajo mythol­ogy. They are peo­pled by de­vi­ous coy­otes, wise grand­pas, loyal sheep, and sor­cer­ers. At the cen­ter of each tale is of­ten a young man, woman, or an­i­mal who must find a way to grow up quickly and em­body the can-do spirit of the crow.

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