“To the Country of the People”
by Francis Gilmore
In the 1900s, the Wetherill family settled in Navajo country. They were farmers, ranchers, and traders. John and Louisa Wetherill opened and ran isolated trading posts far from towns. Louisa learned the Navajo language and many Navajo traditions. Her Navajo friends and neighbors called her Asthon Sosi, Slim Woman, and considered her a wise and healing person. In the paragraphs below, taken from her memoir, Traders to the Navajo: The Story of the Wetherills at Kayenta, she describes an early experience at the new trading post. The New York Times wrote about her memoirs, “If whites had dealt with Indians as the Wetherills did, there would have been few Indian wars, and no ‘century of dishonor.’” (“Century of dishonor” is a term another writer used to describe the terrible way white Americans treated Indian peoples in the 1800s.)
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....[O]nce more Louisa heard the names of the places they had seen with a strange longing in her heart.
A country where there were no white men. A country where the scattered hogans of the people were the only dwelling places. A country from which men in velvet blouses and silver bracelets had come to Mancos with arms upraised, saying, Navajo, Navajo, knowing that in that word was their security. A country of wind and hot light. And somewhere there among the great high rocks, a spring that caught the moonlight shining through a notch in the hills. Oljato
The third year the Wetherill crops had failed, destroyed this time by rust. Little Ben and Sister had to be supported. John and Louisa Wetherill consulted.
They had once or twice gone to Pueblo Bonito to visit Richard Wetherill at his trading post. The buildings stood in Chaco Canyon at the foot of the cliff and in the very shadow of the ancient ruins. Above and below them in the canyon were the mounds of other ruins still unexcavated. And when Louisa and John Wetherill climbed the tawny face of the cliff, they could see more ruins dotting the wide country that sloped away to the far white streak of Escavada Wash. Louisa Wetherill, there at Chaco Canyon, had seen Navajos in their own country.
There she and John had seen the work of the Hyde Expedition going on. The Hydes had come to the Alamo Ranch in 1891, had gone with the Wetherill boys to see the ruins, and in 1893 had put up the funds for excavations in Grand Gulch for the American Museum of Natural History. In order to help finance the work and in order to corner the Navajo blanket market, they had decided to start a chain of stores. Al, who for a year had been running a trading post at Pueblo Bonito, sold out to the Hydes and his brother Richard. Now the Hydes were planning to buy the post at Ojo Alamo, and they wanted John Wetherill in charge.
In 1900 John and Louisa Wetherill seemed to see their path ahead of them. Late in November they loaded their wagons with their household goods, sold the ranch in the Mancos Valley, and left Mancos for Ojo Alamo.
Out beyond the settled places into new country as traders had gone for a hundred years carrying the frontier from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, out into the country of the Navajos, John and Louisa Wetherill took their place in the march of the moving people.
It was a wide and barren country into which they came with their wagons. The winter snow lay over the endless hills of the badlands, and only from an occasional rounded hummock of snow that looked like another hill did smoke rise from the fires of the People. They saw occasional flocks of sheep herded by little dark-eyed children, who hid as they approached and peered at them from behind a bush, fearful of the strangers who were coming with their wagons over the snow. “The young white woman welcomed the squaw as the only woman to whom she could talk.”
Early in December they reached their trading post at Ojo Alamo. Little Louisa Wetherill, who had been afraid of Indians all her life, was left in charge while John Wetherill carried on excavations seventy miles away. Her younger brother John, sixteen years old, stayed with her, and only to him and to the children could she speak English. One old squaw who had been a slave came sometimes to the post, and her broken English was sufficient for some communication. The young white woman welcomed the old squaw as the only woman to whom she could talk.
Knowing only the words necessary for trading, she wondered often as they stood around the store, talking in low even tones, what they talked about. But she could not understand these men with their calico trousers and bright velvet blouses who rode in from the badlands, bringing silver and turquoise and coral to pawn, bringing blankets and goatskins to sell.
Hardly had they settled into the routine of the post when John Wade fell ill. His sister Louisa, alone at the post, soon realized that she would have to see him through pneumonia without help. The Navajos would not be able to understand her directions if she sent them away for assistance or for medicines. With her husband seventy miles away, her two children to be taken care of, and her brother facing death, Louisa Wetherill carried on alone.
One day two men rode through on horseback and dismounted at the trading post. The slim girl ran out to meet them. She told them how ill her brother was, how no one else was near.
Stay here with me, she begged. Stay just for a day or two until he is better.
The two men could not or would not stay.
But when they promised to take a letter, she wrote to her father and mother in Mancos, telling them of Johns illness and asking them to come.
Then she watched the two men ride away, and knew that again she was alone.
A few nights later, sitting by her brothers bed, she felt that his life was ebbing. She had done her best and failed. She did not know what next to do.
Sitting there she heard the sound of a wagon. Out of that January night came a white man, and as he stood in the doorway, she saw with a flooding relief that it was a man she knew.
I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life as I am to see you tonight, Mr. McKinzie, she cried. I think my brother is dying and theres no one here to help me!
McKinzie stayed with her. They managed to get word to John Wetherill to come home. Her father and mother arrived from Mancos. And John Wade pulled through.
But the twenty-two-year-old girl, who had known those desperate days alone with a brother who was near death, knew that never again must she be so helpless. She resolved to learn the language of the desert people, to make them her friends. Then, far from white settlements as she might go, she would never as long as she was with Navajos be alone; she would never be cut off from them by the barrier of language.
In the trading post at Ojo Alamo, the slim young wife of the trader set herself to learn dinne bizad, the language of the People.
By the time spring came she understood a little more of what the low-voiced people in the trading post were saying.
One day when she and John dismounted after a ride through the badlands she showed some fossil bones to an old Navajo in the post.
They are the bones of a big animal, he told her. Many big animals used to live in this land. I can show you more.
Through the early weeks of the summer they hunted for fossil bones. The Navajos told the slim girl of Yeitso, the great monster which long ago had devoured many of the people, of the other alien gods which the child of the sun had slain. These were the bones of Yeitso, Big God, these bones that John Wetherill and his slim young wife were hunting in the desert.
In their hogans they began to say that Slim Woman at Ojo Alamo was interested in what the People had to tell her, was even learning their language and speaking it with astonishing accuracy.
They came to her with more of their legends. And a man one morning told her of a ceremony at his hogan.
If you come this afternoon when the sun is dipping toward the west, you can see a sandpainting.
Early in the afternoon she went to his hogan. In the brush shelter nearby the women were cooking bread, mutton, and coffee for the people who had come to sing the songs of healing. While she waited for the finishing of the sandpainting, she sat beside the fire with the women.
At last the white woman was allowed to enter the hogan. And there on the smoothed sand of the hogan floor she saw the colored sands that had fallen, red and blue, black and yellow and white, from the skilled hand of the chanter, that had fallen in lovely patterns of mountains, birds, antelope, corn, beans, pumpkins, and mountain-tobaccothe patterns that belonged to the Peace Chant.
The light fell from the smoke hole on the sandpainting and the white woman from her place on the north side of the hogan looked at it in amazement. Through the hogan door she could see the gray hills of the badlands stretching away. Where in that desolate country had these people found this colored sand? Where had they found in this hard land such beauty?
While she waited, the chanter and his helpers who had made it rested and ate. Then the man for whom the healing ceremony was being given was called in and seated on the center of the painting. The chanting began. Song after song in the hogan, dim with the light of afternoon. Earnest-faced men chanting the songs that were prayers, chanting to the beat of a rattle. The white girl listened to the songs, saw the patient drink from the pottery bowls and abalone shells the medicines that had been prepared, saw him bathed in the medicine by the chanter, saw the others in the hogan drink what was left of the medicines that they too might gain the benefit of this ceremony of song. And always there was the beat of the rattle, the earnest faces of the singers, the throb of the chanted prayer.
While she watched the ceremony the sun sank lower. The patient went out of the hogan, and the sands that for a brief hour had lain in lovely patterns on the hogan floor were swept into a robe and taken from the hogan.
Louisa Wade went home with the throb of song still in her heart, the breath-taking colors of the sandpainting still in her memory. From these gray hills, from this hard country had come beauty. She knew that there was much for her to learn. And she set herself to learn it.
Soon in the hogans of the People they were speaking with wonder of the Slim Woman of Ojo Alamo.
Asthon Sosi must be one of the People herself, they said. She could not learn our words so quickly if she were white.
As she learned the slow speech of the desert people, as she listened with sympathy to all that they told her, never showing surprise or incredulity, these people sitting on their sheepskins around their hogan fires began to feel that Asthon Sosi, the Slim Woman, belonged to them.