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.”
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.