“Left Handed, Son of Old Man Hat: A Navaho Autobiography”
by Walter Dyk
In Son of Old Man Hat: A Navaho Autobiography, Walter Dyk describes how his uncle and father taught him the ways of his people.
~ ~ ~ ~ “John Joe Family, ca. 1938-1950,” Fraser (Photographer)
That winter, while we lived on Black Mountain at Willows Coming Out, Who Has Mules came to our place. I was out herding. When I returned with the sheep towards evening he came out of the hogan and rode away. He’d been with my father all day; they must have been talking about something. The next day he came again, and when the sun was pretty well down he began gathering up some wood. He gathered together a big pile and then went back to his home. In the evening he came again. My father was lying in the middle of the hogan. He put out a sheep pelt for his nephew, and Who Has Mules sat down at his right side. My place was always on the south side, my mother’s place was always on the north, and my father’s on the west.
Old Man Hat said, “I’ll tell the stories first, then you’ll know and remember. You can easily learn if you hear the stories first. If you want to learn about the horses, sheep, cattle and properties, if you want to have all these things, you don’t want to be lazy, you don’t want to go to bed early at night and get up late in the morning. You have to work hard for all these things. You have to fight everything, the heat in summer and the cold. Everything is hard to get, even little things. If you’re lazy you can’t get anything. If you do nothing but sleep and lie around you won’t get anything, you’ll starve to death. You must be lively all the time.”
“Then, when you learn about all these things, there’s a song for each one. Even though you know only one song for each of them, everything of yours will be strong. Even if you have only one song for the sheep, you’ll raise them, nothing will bother them, nothing will happen to them, you’ll have them for a long time, the rest of your life. You may live a long time, you may die of old age, even though you’re old, you’ll still have lots of sheep, horses, and cattle. When you haven’t a song for the sheep, you may raise them for two or three years, maybe longer than that, and you may have lot, but those sheep will not be strong. Something will bother them all the time. Something will happen to them. They’ll get lost every day. Sickness will bother them, and they’ll be dying off. Soon you’ll have no more sheep. You’ll raise them all right, for two or three years, but once it begins they’ll go back and disappear, and you won’t know what’s happened to them. That is, when you haven’t a song for them.” “Navajo Family,” W.T. Mullarky (Photographer)
While they were talking, I was sitting up listening to what they were saying. My father said to me, “Sit up and watch the fire. Keep the fire going.” So I was sitting there listening, and I was glad he’d told me to sit up. I wanted to sit up and listen anyhow. Everything my father said I was kind of picking up. So I was glad to be keeping the fire going for I was anxious to hear what my father was saying. I always liked to listen when a man was talking. When the men started talking I always liked to hear them.
“After you’ve raised everything, sheep, horses, and cattle, and have gotten lots of property you shouldn’t cuss and swear at your properties and stock. You shouldn’t say, ‘Horse of an evil spirit,’ or, ‘May the bear eat you!’ or, ‘Let the snake bite you.’ If you cuss them in this way, it will surely come to pass. If you say, ‘Horse of an evil spirit,’ they’ll soon be dying off, and when you say, ‘May the bear eat you,’ it will happen. Perhaps a bear will get into your herd and kill them all. The same with the snake, one will be bitten by a snake and poison the whole herd. So you mustn’t say anything like that. These things are like your children. You’ve got to go easy with them, then you’ll have something all the time.
“Well, my nephew, my little one, you said you wanted to learn something about the stocks and properties. If you want to learn, learn it right now. You’re young. While you’re a young man, you’ve got to learn. Learn about these things and get them. If you learn about it, you’ll surely get them. You’ll get everything, and soon you won’t know what to do with it all. So it’s up to you. You’ll have everything, that is if you’re not lazy. But you’ve got to go through hard summers and winters. If you fight against it, then you’ll soon have all these things.”
That was all he said to his nephew, and then he started singing. He started a song from here, from the earth, and went along up to the sun and around and back and came to earth again. There were four long songs. My father said, “You need learn only these four songs. If you learn these four, fix them well in your mind, the rest will be easy.” Towards midnight, or a little after, while they were working on the songs I fell over and went to sleep. From there on I don’t know what they said, nor how long they sang. Early in the morning my mother woke me and told me to go out and get some wood and build up the fire. She had the fire started. They were still sitting up. They said, “It’s morning now,” and Who Has Mules said, “I’d better be going back.” My father said, “All right,” and he went home.
Late in the spring, after he’d been gone again for two days, when I came back with the herd in the evening, there was a big pile of wood. That night he came, and they started on the songs. After Who Has Mules was through repeating all the songs and all the prayers that go with them and all the stories about them, the stories about the sheep, horses, properties, and other things, my father said, “Now you’ve learned everything. You remember everything from where we started to where we stopped. Now I know you remember things, and I think you’re a smart man. There are lots of people who can’t learn these songs, and now you’ve learned a few of them. When you start using them on your stocks and properties, if you do it right, you’ll soon have everything. Now you can go ahead. You wanted to learn, and I told you you could. I promised you, and I’ve given it to you.” He cupped his hands and spread them out before him and said, “You see, you think there’s nothing in my hands, but my hands are full. Everything is overflowing, things are falling out of my hands. That’s the way you’ll be later on. So just stick to it and learn some more if you want to.
“You must remember everything I’ve said to you. I told you that I had a handful of things, and that you’d be that way sometime, but you’ll have to have a hard time first. You won’t get this way just as soon as you learn all the songs about them. You have to work for all these things, you have to go through many dangerous places, down in the arroyos, in the canyons, and climb up and down mountains. You have to kick sticks and rocks and get splinters in your feet and hands and be cut. You may think you’ll get them all as soon as you learn the songs, but you must suffer a great deal before you get them. After you’ve suffered, then, for all your knowing you’ll have a handful of things, and you’ll look at them and won’t know what to do with them. But you’ll use them all the time. After you get all this stuff, your children will have everything. They won’t starve, they won’t be ragged, they won’t hunger for meat and other things. They’ll have everything, if you have it on hand for them. And you can help the poor and others with it all the time. That’s after you get all these things, but before that you must be stingy.”
They were up all night. Early in the morning my father said, “Now you’ve learned all that I know, all the songs, prayers and stories. I wanted you to learn, for you are my only nephew. I know you wish to have lots of stock and property, and I know you need them, I know you’ll have children. I don’t want your children to go starving. So, now, you can go ahead, tend to your stocks and properties, and do it right. And don’t talk roughly, because you’ve learned many songs and prayers. If you know the songs and prayers, you don’t want to talk roughly. If you do, you won’t get these things, because all the stocks and properties will know that you’ll be rough with them. They’ll be afraid and won’t want to come to you. If you think kindly and talk in the kindest manner, then they’ll know you’re a kind man, and then everything will go to you. So, now, just go ahead, this is all I want to say to you. This will be the end.” That’s what my father said, and Who Has Mules went home.