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Willie Reid Sr.

Shizhé'é, my father
A Navajo daughter remembers a parent's journey back to earth

 The wind whipped our faces as we left my father’s grave on a ridge known to my family as “The Place Where the Dirt Roads Go Up a Hill.’’

It is surrounded by holy sites: the jagged pink Echo Cliffs to the east, the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks to the south, Blue Tobacco Mountain ridge to the west and a gray butte called Long Mountain to the north.

This view belonged to my late father Willie Reid, Sr., for 69 years. Shizhé'é, my father, herded sheep, roamed the cliffs and prayed to the Holy People. Now it cradles his body.

He died Feb. 26, 1994.

It seemed as if the dust storm erased my dad’s life from Bodaway where he grew up a shepherd, a yei-bi--chei dancer, a migrant worker, a railroad worker and a construction worker.

“ Shicheii (grandfather) has a great view. You did the cool thing, ‘‘ said
my then 11-year-old daughter.

I wasn’t so sure.

Like most Navajos, I straddle two worlds, modern and traditional. I follow the Earth-based traditional faith of Hohzo, a state of beauty and harmony. Yet Christianity has seeped into the daily lives of my extended Navajo family.

Nothing I had known prepared me for the conflict between the two faiths when my father died. For four years I’ve wrestled my feelings until I could finally write about them.

After the phone call from a Flagstaff nursing home where my father stayed for three years, I remember racing from Phoenix to be with him.

As outlines of saguaros and car lights flew by, I grieved in darkness, my truck speeding north on I-l7.

I cursed at two Gods whom I believed failed to help my father ward off Parkinson’s. While my dad’s body withered over the years, I prayed to God and the Holy People to stop the tremors and restore his strength.

Here was a physically strong Navajo man who applied his strength to the right cause without the help of modern machinery. He built octagonal hogans out of scrap lumber from commercial construction sites.

A testament to his handiwork, weather-beaten structures that he fashioned by hand remain scattered throughout Bodaway, an isolated patch of rolling desert sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and State Route 89 connecting Flagstaff and Page, Ariz.

I remember a young who father organized wood-hauling trips to the top of the Kaibab Buttes in Coconino County, at the base of 12,700-foot San Francisco Peaks, the southernmost of four sacred mountains ringing the Navajo Reservation. He split juniper wood using a metal pick and a heavy sledge hammer.

He planted crops in May at Kerley Valley fields west of Moenkopi Village nestled next to the Goldtooth family, a prominent Tuba City family. He would irrigate a cornfield aided by a shovel, a pail of muddy water and kept pesky weeds at bay using a hoe — nothing more.

Though the Northern Arizona sun was intense, beating down through thin air onto the 5,000-foot desert, my father never slowed. He seemed re-energized by my mother’s coffee brewed over an open fire. He carried go’hwee, coffee, in a bright red-and-black-plaid-patterned Thermos.

As a little girl, I thought he was taller than the corn stalks. I remember the big, calloused hands.

Parkison's disease reduced my father’s body to a painful agony of muscle spasms and slurred speech that turned into a rasp. He could not unwrap a chocolate candy bar in his 60s.

It also robbed his memory. I would listen to him at the nursing home mutter about getting a hammer and building a house. “Be ah tsidi nii doo a — ”Get the hammer," he would say.

I blamed the God I was introduced to at age 7 at Tuba City Presbyterian Church in the mid-1960s. A Wednesday-evening Bible teacher told me that if I didn’t believe in God I would burn in a place called Hell.

Burned into my mind as Hell are flashbacks to movies that I watched as a wee child at the government-run boarding school. A picture of a bloody Jesus Christ splayed on the cross gave me endless nightmares.

In contrast, my father introduced me to the Diyin Diné (Navajo Holy People), their philosophy and religion.

He told me my goal is to live in a state of Hohzo -- a concept that embodied beauty, stability and order within my life.

Embedded in Navajo philosophy is a laundry list of “don’ts" and taboos to respect. If one adheres to them, Hozho is achieved.

Among the Navajo rules are:
avoid contact with dead bodies, don’t stare straight into a person’s eye, never drive away from a coyote that crosses your path without sprinkling con pollen in his tracks, never say harsh words because they have the power to kill.

According to my father, I lived with the Holy People who show themselves as lightning, dawn, rain, wind, snow, water and fog.

My father breathed and lived Navajo philosophy and religion which he learned from Dan Long Reed, his late uncle. With the power of two religions on my side, how could my father die?

I conjured up reasons why.

Maybe I asked too much of the Christian God when I crammed for college finals and escaped with a B instead of an F. I figured the Presbyterian God understood college. How was I to explain English 101 to the Holy People?

Maybe God was punishing me for holding onto my Navajo beliefs.

Or maybe the Holy People were punishing me because I didn’t cover my eyes quickly when I went to a bloody shooting scene while on the police beat for the Phoenix Gazette before my father’s death. I had the radio reporter describe the scene to me while I blocked the sight with a notebook.

Or maybe it was my chosen profession. I write for newspapers and through the power of written words, have stung plenty of Navajo and non-Indian politicians.

Recriminations and rememberances filled my thoughts as my siblings and I sat at the table in my aunt’s hogan and planned my dad’s funeral. We chose my brother William, an eloquent speaker and a Stanford graduate, as the family spokesman.

My sister and I decided that my father should be buried in Bodaway instead of the community burial plot in Tuba City. My father grew up among an extended family around Bodaway and raised us east of the Grand Canyon, gnarled land covered with purple sage and plunging canyons.

Journeys to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers were common for my father. He would take his soft leather corn pollen pouch, stand at the edge of the canyon, sprinkle pollen into the canyon and pray to the wind gods.

The idealist in me also asked that we bury him next to his uncle, Dan Long Reed. My father buried him in the crevice of a rock in the 1940s without much fanfare.

The others agreed. We would bury my father next to his uncle. The task involved cracking a hole in granite using a jack hammer, shovel and pick.

In the old days, two people quietly wrapped the body in sheep skin, placed it in a rock crevice, isolated themselves for four days and cleansed themselves during a purification ceremony. The site was never revisited.

The belief is that a corpse taints the living and has the power to physical and emotional pain. But modern ways are changing Navajos:
Since the late 1800s, missionaries and schools converted hordes of Navajos to Christianity. Many Navajos tossed aside their beliefs in the Holy People and taboos about the corpse.

Some people believed that Jesus was the answer because Christianity wasn’t as scary as Navajo religion. Attending church also wasn’t as expensive as the Navajo ceremonies.

For example, a Night Way Chant, a curing ceremony, can cost as much as $700 for food, supplies and help.

Today, Navajo funerals are places where hundreds of family members and friends gather to mourn the dead. It is usually followed by a Christian burial outfitted with a priest, a church choir and a eulogy.

Some of that has rubbed off on my family.

My sister suggested spending $2,000 for the top-of-the-line casket. I shuddered, thinking of the mortician’s promise that it would preserve my dad’s body for years.

William and I argued it would be better if he returned to the earth as quickly as possible. She agreed.

A simple wood casket would do.

We took the semi-traditional burial plan to my mother. ““What about a eulogy and a prayer?’ she bluntly asked.

““ Prayer?’’ I asked, throwing a glance at my brother.

My father believed in the Holy People and never saw the inside of a church.

I doubt my dad would recognize God. Besides God might toss him out of the heavens for dancing the yei-bi-chei dance, a curing ritual to Navajos but a heathen ceremony’ to the Christian church that taught me about God.

But my mother, rooted in traditional ways for most of her life, has seen many Navajo Christian funerals. A prayer and eulogy were now part of the culture in which she lived, while my brother and I clung to what we considered sacred ways. By then the fight was worn out of me.

Mother would have her way.

We took the burial proposal to the extended family of Manygoats, Bitter Water and Deer Water clans gathered at my aunt’s hogan. We heard grumbling among our army of relatives.

Suddenly, my Christian Navajo relatives protested.

“You forgot God in all of this, said my uncle’s wife, glaring at us. “Your father deserves a Christian burial. While you were away at college, I prayed for him once at sheep camp. I ordered him to run around the hogan and he did."

She claimed God had miraculously healed his body. “He accepted in his heart.’’

Someone mumbled in Navajo that we forgot to include my aunts and uncles when we were making burial plans.

William and I glanced at my mother.

My mother, a petite shepherd in a velveteen shirt and a calico skirt, stood. I had seen her cry only once.

Once after my father took his last breath at the nursing home. Tears rolling down her brown cheeks, she told my brothers and me not to weep because my father raised us well.

My mother also turned to my sobbing daughter.

“ You don’t know much about death, “ she said. “Your heart is young. Learn how to be strong, carry a vision. Look at the world as though you were looking, not one butte away, but 10 buttes away. Those are your grandfather’s words.”

Now, my mother stood before the crowd of relatives, tears on her cheeks, and asked the Christian faction to remember tradition and respect first word.

In the Navajo creation story, when First Man and First Woman spoke, their words carried out plans and forbid change. First word was so powerful, as my dad told me, that it created Navajos.

“My children spoke first word,” my mother said.

Our Christian relatives calmed town. Although many are Christian converts, many cling or respect the old faith.

Before my Christian relatives spoke, my brother quickly offered a game plan to the group.

We compromised.

On the Navajo reservation, there’s a third religious group called the Native American Church, a group which blends the Christian and Navajo beliefs. Peyote is used as a sacrament.

At one time, my mother sought comfort within that faith and had a relative in the Church.

Our in-law John Tsosie, a loyal member of NAC, blended Navajo and Christian prayer at my father’s panoramic grave site. As my father’s body was lowered into granite near the spot “The Place Where the Dirt Roads Go Up a Hill,” I thanked him for raising me, giving me strength and wisdom.

Today, I’ll wake up at the crack of dawn in Phoenix and say a prayer to the Dawn People. Though I can’t see the twilight made of dawn and the hissing freeway silences prayers, in my idealistic mind I envision my father sitting on that ridge with his uncle, Dan Long Reed.

They are creating new Navajo songs.

Comment on this story

About the author
Betty Reid was born in a sheep camp on the Navajo Reservation, hauled away to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school at age 7, then shipped to Massachusetts for high school before heading to the University of Colorado, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism and ultimately became a newspaper reporter for The Arizona Republic, where she now covers education. She can be reached at yuhzhee@cox.net

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