by Margaret King Zacharias
To the Navajo, a horse is a person.
I’m not a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and my memories of the fieldwork time I spent with them remain imbued with awe and mystery.
But I’m sure about that.
No outsider can ever fully comprehend the Navajo world view, their cosmic myths, their sacred ethos to Walk the Beauty Way on this earth. It's challenging enough to even catch the clever jokes they use to deflect a conflict.
Despite intensive study, I’m cautious of saying too much about this complicated culture. So many concepts simply don't translate. It has to be worn from the inside out.
But I can share a few facts as a witness.
I know that my Navajo friends would announce, “sheep,” or “cows,” at least five minutes before I could discern the creatures, on long drives down pitch-dark roads across the free range. They could tell that those animals were there, and they knew where.
I know that they taught me to place safely outside the house any first insect of the season, one of every kind, with instructions.
“Go tell your people that I spared your life, and not to disturb this hogan.” On their ancestral territory, it seemed to work. No poisons required.
I know that they offered me kindness, when tragedy struck in an instant, and the solace of my middle childhood disappeared in horror. They offered me comfort, because in that moment they fully shared my broken heart.
On the Army Post where I grew up, from third grade through half of high school, I was intrigued by a particular glass display case in the Officers Club. My parents, civilian employees of the federal government, had membership privileges, and we attended events there from time to time.
This large case was placed in a prominent position, right next to one of equal size exhibiting a multitude of athletic trophies. The diorama portrayed a desert, with small plants and taxidermy: a rattlesnake curled to strike, a scorpion, three lizards perched on rocks, a tarantula, and a black widow spider. Sculptures of two wild mustangs with their foal were set at the back, to scale with the rest of the display.
As a child myself, I would watch the grownups guiding their own children past the trophies. They always paused to contemplate this artificial desert with a reverence reserved for exhibits in one of the museums “back home.”
I felt the display was meant to reassure us, to make the vastness of wind, sand, and sky surrounding us seem finite, contained and comprehensible.
On the surface, we did feel safe. Friendly enlisted men in uniform caught live scorpions in old medicine bottles, and carried them around the neighborhood to warn small children. They came again to remove rattlesnakes from our grade school blacktop playground.
The Ute boys from Skull Valley snuck harmless bull snakes into their desks to startle the teachers. They brought bandanas filled with the rattles of snakes they'd killed on their Reservation, for show-and-tell.
Skull Valley, west of the Cedar Mountains, was then the territory of a proud and exuberant band of mahogany bay mustangs. Thanks to the Post Commander, a former Cavalry officer who respected the animals, these horses were allowed free run around the Army Post.
I lived in the outer ring of houses. When I was in grade school, I would lie on my bed, waiting for their twice daily circuit around a dirt road that separated our settled area from hard desert.
First, I would hear the distant rhythm of their pounding hooves. Then I would smell dust, and I would know they were getting closer. I could feel the ground shaking as their powerful bodies came galloping into view from my bedroom window.
On the hottest summer days, they would come in to graze on a patch of fresh green grass that grew in our small unfenced backyard. Its color stood out like temptation, against a grey background of scrub and tumbleweeds.
The horses rubbed their rumps on our window screens and did other things, too, in our yard; things that drew flies and made the hot air pungent with their aroma.
But that herd trampled rattlesnakes through the worst of the season, before those vipers could reach our sunny back concrete stoop to lie in wait for an unwary child.
One spring morning my father woke me well before dawn. He led me to the kitchen in silence and pointed out the screen door. I spotted a mare all alone, lying in the dewy grass. We stood there watching, without saying a word, until her foal emerged. He rested on the ground while she licked and nudged him.
In less than an hour he stood up, on still-wet, wobbly legs. Before the sun began to peek over the horizon, and daylight predators began to prowl, the foal and his mother had vanished into the desert. Within a few days, he was running the circuit with the rest of his tribe, kicking up his own miniature dust clouds with tiny hooves. I watched that colt grow up, into a stallion.
As adolescents on the Army Post, we could all hang out at tennis courts, a golf shack, and an Olympic-size swimming pool. Our Post Exchange carried any Revlon products a girl might want, if she could convince her parents to buy them.
Those same parents had little concern about our physical safety, with uniformed Military Police on 24-hour patrol, everywhere. We roamed around as free as the horses, like royal heirs in an enchanted kingdom.
Catholic and Protestant army chaplains shared one small chapel for different services, at different times. They directed together one ecumenical "youth group."
We all thought a saber sword tunnel, formed by a man's comrades outside the chapel door, as he departed from his wedding was the most romantic way possible to get married. That tunnel pledged their swords to defend his bride, in any case of his absence.
Our hearts thrummed to the rhythm of drums at formal military parades, and patriotic anthems opened the show for high school sports events. Along with a solitary movie theater, showing PG only, those high school games provided our community's primary form of entertainment.
We had a reasonable collection of library books at school, and another batch for the general community was tucked into the Non-Commissioned Officers club building next to the multi-purpose Post Gymnasium. A bookmobile traveled two hours each way, once a month, to bring us special requests from the big city library.
In high school, if you could play football or basketball, or if you could perform the Pep Club gymnastics routines, you won a place on the buses. They left school at noon on Fridays, to travel tortuous roads through mountain passes across the state, for "away" games at other equally small schools.
If we won both games, the coaches would sometimes "mix" the boys' bus and the girls' bus, for all the long miles of darkness back home again on the return trip. We were motivated.
But an unspoken underbelly always lurked.
We caught the whispers about a fourteen-year-old girl made pregnant by a lonely GI who hadn't yet reached his own twenty-first birthday. They got married, at that tender age, and her civilian family had to move off base.
We heard about the officer's wife who "suffered a breakdown" from the constantly howlng winds, and "had to be sent to the sanitarium."
We learned how to bake cakes and casseroles for funerals. We carried them to our closest neighbors, the widows and babies of soldiers who went out on duty for a "test" one night, and didn't come home.
Many years and several worlds later, in the summer of America’s Bicentennial, some Navajo friends and I headed out each day into the north Arizona high country, to interview octogenarians.
We were searching one morning for a particularly remote hogan, the home of an elderly medicine man, one of the last of his kind.
Martha was amazing us with her ability to drive a jeep straight up the forty-five-degree slope of a sheer red rock face.
Our vehicle's tinny radio music suddenly broke off, interrupted for a crackling news announcement:
“Forty wild mustangs found dead around their water hole in Skull Valley, west of the Cedar mountains.”
Through the static, a spokesman for the Department of the Army denied that chemical weapons testing in the area had poisoned them.
I sobbed. Martha stopped the jeep at the top of the mesa. Kelly hugged me. They both cried right along with me.
"For us," they said, "a horse is a person."
"Those horses were persons to me," I said. And I told them about my mustangs.
The shock I felt, though, seemed to surprise them.
With typical Navajo subtlety, Kelly asked me question. Strangely, it helped me regain my composure.
“What can you expect from the Government?”
Martha and Kelly are descendants of the Navajo people's notorious Long Walk in the spring of 1864, when nine thousand men, women and children were forced by the U.S. Army to march three hundred miles from their traditional Arizona territory to Fort Sumner, New Mexico for internment at Bosque Redondo. They were abandoned there without the food, water, firewood or blanket supplies they had been promised.
Through four harsh winters, many died. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo allowed them to return to a portion of their ancestral homeland, as a designated Reservation, in 1868, on foot, again without supplies.
Yet no American veteran was ever prouder of his military service than the Navajo Code Talkers, who knew their central role in the United States military victories during World War II.
Linguistically, the Navajo language is as different from most other world languages as it's possible to be. That difference enabled Navajo speakers to protect Allied strategic communications from both Japanese and German interceptors. The Navajo Code Talkers changed history.
They wore their pride and satisfaction with humble dignity in happy smiles. They marched at the head of every local parade, in full uniform, for the rest of their lives. Even though the last of them is gone now, their honor remains with the tribal community, and passes down to their children and grandchildren.
Perhaps Navajo culture somehow offers its people a more nuanced approach to irony and paradox. Or maybe they've just had more experience with them.
We did find the medicine man we were searching for, on that fateful day the horses died. He agreed to our request to interview him about traditional healing practices for pregnancy and childbirth.
After the interview, he pointed to his great-granddaughter, a rosy-cheeked toddler who was playing with a ball of yarn at his side.
“That one,” the old man said in English, “fell out into the snow.”
He laughed. His granddaughter, the baby's mother, wove a rug in an intricate pattern on her outdoor loom nearby, without saying a word.
Martha, Kelly and I drove back down to the bottom of the cliff and returned to our cinder block "office," a small apartment in the Bureau of Indian Affairs housing.
We translated the interview cassette tape, which had been recorded in Navajo, into English; and typed it into an electronic typewriter that contained a rudimentary computer.
The transcript traveled, by what passed in those days as "high speed wire transmission," to the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. Their Navajo Ethnomedical Encyclopedia Project, our employer, sought to record and preserve traditional native healing knowledge, before all of its practitioners become extinct.
I still wonder, from time to time, whether the Army Officers ever removed the horse sculptures from their Club display case. I wonder, what did they do with them?
I think how much more desolate that military settlement must feel now, without the wild horses to crown its horizon.
I wonder if they've had to rename the high school sports teams. We used to be called the Mustangs. Our color was maroon. And we were proud.
I wonder how I could have endured those desert childhood years without mares and foals and stallions to nourish my hungry young imagination.