Navajo country – summer 2000 – Patrick Nouhailler © byNouhailler


Sailing Past Shiprock

by Laurie King-Billman   “This part of 666 creeps me out,” Martha said. We were nearing the border between Ute and Navajo country, Colorado and New Mexico. No cars, homes, gas stations, or signs broke the lines of Sagebrush and Chico covered sand that hugged the highway. We had passed Gallup thirty miles back, and would go another hour before seeing another town. Shiprock with its rock mast full, loomed over the horizon. A mountain of shattered rock and jagged lines, it rose above the desert its rock mast full above the sea of sand. It took over the horizon as we drove from Albuquerque, our ears ringing from the city’s noises. Kevin drove; Martha and I sat next to him on the front seat of a white van. We drank strong gas-station coffee and ate chili Cheetos that burned my sissy white woman’s tongue. Outside, autumn sunset covered the land. Pink light moved from the sky leaving miles of stars over our heads. “Utes are never comfortable in Navajo country,” Martha said. “That is not really true,” Kevin said. In the window, my reflection was pale like a ghost floating out on the sand next to her dark eyes, gleaming black hair, white teeth. The two were cousins by some kind of family line that was such a zigzag I could never figure it out. While I worked with them, I was kept from forming any set idea about the Utes as they would argue with each about the nature of their people during any discussion. The Utes of Towaco were such a small band that everywhere you went, you hit people related. They had started getting nervous a few days before leaving for the training, as both were clean and sober but not so their mates, and there was usually some type of drama to be dealt with when they left town. We all were counselors for the tribe’s alcoholism prevention program, and enjoyed a kind of determined work ethic that would wear off by the time our own small children got big enough to get high themselves. Kevin once told me the prevention part needed to have been started two hundred years ago. Now we were into a flood, and sometimes prayers were all we had to stop it. “I will tell you a story of this area,” Kevin said. Martha moaned. “Come on,” I begged him, “it will help you stay awake.” He turned off the radio and began to speak with his storytelling tenor voice, developed to go along with his drumming where his group were often prize winners. Martha had a modern short haircut, but Kevin kept the traditional waist-length braid. At the hotel we’d stayed in that morning, we had had to wait for him to get it just right. Then there was the fight over me taking the hotel soap and shampoo as he said the traditional native way was to never rob a place you were a guest at. Martha just said, “go ahead; take it; we paid for it.” Kevin began his story after a long pause of silence that I had learned better than to interrupt. “Many years ago, a Ute girl was taken as a slave by the Navajo.” “That’s wrong,” Martha said. “Native Americans did not take slaves.” “Not true,” he answered. “You think white people invented slavery? Everybody did it at some point. “Anyway, only thirteen, she was captured among the mesas, so far no one could hear her scream. Her given name meant wind in English, and later the tribe elders felt this name had started the trouble. She ignored her mother’s warnings not to wander and it was her mother who mourned her most.” “In my family’s version her name was ‘beauty,’” Martha interjected. Kevin ignored her. “From Wind’s first days of captivity,” Kevin continued, putting emphasis on Wind, “she planned an escape. She hoarded dry venison and cornmeal, hid it in a secret place, watched the stars, and waited for the right season—a time plentiful in the water and plants necessary for a long walk. Wind had a child by her captor, a girl of unusual beauty, with the eyes of her father’s tribe, the mouth of her mother’s. Wind tried her first escape when the child was only a few months old, wrapping her in warm furs on the cradleboard the father had made. Before they had gone a day’s walk, they were found and brought back. Two years passed, ten tries. She prayed to her silenced God, made special sacrifices, fasted for days, yet they were always found. Soon the child began speaking a tongue harsh to Wind’s ears. Wind went to the mother of her captor, a woman she had grown to love, and asked how the son kept finding them. The mother said, ‘You are being tracked by hair in your brush. Give up; you and your child are of our tribe now.’ But Wind still felt her body turning north, toward the mountains of home. Her captor was a man of silence, and she longed to speak her heart in her family tongue. After three days of fasting and silent prayer, she devised a plan. To fool her trackers, she collected hairs from the mane of a horse. Placing them in her brush on the eve of her next escape, she hid the brush in a place where it would be easily found. As the child’s father slept, she crept out by the full moon, walking all night, sleeping in the day, using Shiprock as her guide. The walk took a year. On the way the mother taught the child her own true tongue. When they reached home, the whole tribe rejoiced with a feast.” “When my grandmother tells it, the journey took five years,” Martha said. “Your family has always been long-winded,” Kevin said, and we laughed. The dashboard light shone into Martha’s bright eyes. “The white men found our hairs and kept tracking us,” she said. “The hair is booze; it caught us like a spiderweb,” he said. “It’s a thing we have chosen; there is no slavery now,” Martha said, her voice hard. “Now we are marrying the captors, trading for his electric life, growing so soft no one can walk home.” I gazed out over the western scenery that my people helped unsettle. “Well, it was a great story,” I said, and no one spoke again that night. We moved through the dark desert, our headlights reflecting the glowing eyes of small animals watching from the roadside, crossing the Colorado border past midnight; the Shiprock still moored upon the desert beach, its sandstone prow turning to shadow before we reached Ute Mountain.  

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Laurie King Billman has been published in 13th Moon, San Pedro River Review, MacGuffin, Penmen Review, Rambler, Streetlight Magazine, Mom Egg, and Not What I Expected: The Unpredictable Road From Womanhood To Motherhood and Night Whispers. I hold a master’s degree in guidance and counseling and work as a mental health therapist, previously for several Native American tribes and currently for youths and their families. I have studied with Joanna Catherine Scott, Ruth Moose, and Karen Pullen.