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“The Names: A Memoir”

by N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa writer who grew up at Jemez Pueblo, where his mother taught at Jemez Day School. This is a segment from The Names: A Memoir about the Feast of San Diego on November twelfth at Jemez Pueblo.

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About midday the Navajos began to arrive. And they seemed all to come, as a whole people, as if it was their racial destiny to find at last the center of the world, the place of origin, older than tsegi, among the rocks. From the yard of the day school I looked southward, along the road to San Ysidro, and there was a train of covered wagons, extending as far as I could see. All afternoon the caravan passed by, shimmering in the winter light, its numberless facets gleaming, the hundreds of wagon wheels turning in the dust, in slow and endless motion.

“The Navajo dogs are solitary creatures. They are shepherds, and they know their sheep in the way that an eagle knows its nest.”

Never have the Navajos seemed a more beautiful people to me, for they bore about them the cherished memories of my childhood. This old man, had he not once told us the way to Klagetoh? That beautiful woman, had she not been a schoolgirl at Chinle? They were resplendent. The old people and the children peered out from beneath the canopies, dark-skinned and black-eyed, nearly tentative in the shadows, beautiful in the way that certain photographic negatives are beautiful, dimly traced with light.

The outriders were men and women and youths on handsome horses in glossy leather trappings and rich saddle blankets, the men in big hats and fine boots and bright silk and satin shirts, the women in velveteen blouses, long, pleated skirts, and red moccasins. They all wore silver and turquoise and coral—concha belts, necklaces, bracelets, and rings which flashed and glinted and gleamed in the sun. And their voices, as I hear them even now—the singing and the laughter—carried along the train like a long, rising and falling woodwind music that I have heard among bristlecones, or upon the walls of the old ruin of Giusewa.

A dog or two followed after each of the wagons, keeping closely in place. The Navajo Gathering, 1940“Navajo Gathering, 1940,” Ferenz Fedor (Photographer) Navajo dogs are solitary creatures. I believe that they assume very early the reserve and nobility of the people with whom they live and they consist in that assumption. They are shepherds, and they know their sheep in the way that an eagle knows its nest; and when they have not their sheep they concentrate themselves in the shadows of the wagons.

Some of the men of Jemez rode out to meet the Navajos. John Cajero was one of them. He was then a man in his prime, a Tanoan man, agile and strong in his mind and body, and he was a first-rate horseman. He was mounted on a good-looking gray quarter horse, which he handled closely and well, and he cut a fine figure upon it in his blue shirt and red headband, his manner easy and confident. He singled out old friends among the Navajos, and soon there was a cluster of riders holding up on the side of the road, convened in a high mood of fellowship and good humor and a certain rivalry.

Then John Cajero was holding the coils of a rope in his hands, shaking out a loop. Suddenly he leaned forward and his horse bolted into the road between two of the wagons, nearly trampling over a dog; the dog lunged away with a yelp and ran at full speed, but the horse was right upon it, bunched in motion, and the rope flashed down and caught the dog up around its hips and set it rolling and twisting in the sand, jerking it up then into the air and slamming it down hard, as the horse squatted, jamming its hooves in the earth, its whole weight cracking against the bit. And John Cajero played out a little of the rope from his saddle, and the dog slithered out of the noose and ran ahead, its tail between its legs, and went crouching and wary under its wagon.

John Cajero laughed, and the others, too, though their laughter was brittle, I thought, and the Navajos watched evenly the performance, the enactment of a hard joke, and considered precisely what it was worth. There was a kind of trade in this, a bartering of nerve and arrogance and skill, of elemental pride. Then, getting down from his horse, John Cajero drew a dollar bill from his pocket, folded it once lengthwise, and stuck it down in the sand. He gestured to the others; it was a beckoning, an invitation, but I did not understand at first what he meant them to do.

Navajo Horse Race, 1901“Navajo Horse Race, 1901,” Tom H. Simpson (Photographer)

He swung himself up into the saddle and gestured again, pointing down to the money on the ground. No one moved; only they were watchful, and he urged his horse away, prancing, a little distance. Then he turned the horse around and set it running—or loping, rather, not fast, but easily, evenly—and reached down from the saddle for the dollar bill. It seemed that his fingers brushed it, but he could not take hold of it, for the stride of the horse was broken slightly at the crucial moment. It was the barest miss—and a beautiful, thrilling thing to see—and he was upright in the saddle again, his motion and the motion of the horse all of a piece.

I was watching him so intently that I did not at first see the girl. She came from nowhere, a lithe, lovely Navajo girl on a black horse. She was coming up fast in John Cajero’s dust, faster than he had come, and her horse was holding steady in a long, loping stride, level and low. When I saw her she was already hanging down nearly the whole length of her arm from the saddle horn, her knee cocked and her long back curved like a bow, her shoulders close against the deep chest of the horse; she swung her left arm down like a scythe, and up, holding the dollar bill with the tips of her fingers until it was high over her head, and she was standing straight in the stirrups, and her horse did not break stride.

And in that way she rode on, past John Cajero, along the wagon train and into the village, having stolen the show and the money, too, going in beauty, trailing laughter. Later I looked for her among the camps, but I did not find her. I imagined that her name was Desbah Yazzie and that she looked out for me from the shadows....