There’s a temptation to believe we moderns living within the boundaries of the US have a lot in common with one another, and in many ways we do. But what we have in common with one another isn’t necessarily what we believe we do. One of those areas of commonality probably has to do with the perception of Native Americans as a somewhat generic group of people with a lot in common with one-another and far less in common with whites and Hispanics.
This leads to a lot of packages of thinking among people not living on the Rez, whether they’re whites, second or third generation off-Rez Native Americans, Hispanics, or folks who carry a bit of tribal blood in their veins a few generations old, but never lived on the Rez.
One of the packages contains a romanticized view that the cultural heritages on the Rez still exist, still carry some similarity to those before the coming of Europeans, and are similar to one-another. The phrase, ‘the old ways’ has found its way into the language of those seduced into buying the package. The “I-know-the-old-ways-too-because-my-granddad-was-a-Cherokee [or Apache, etc]” syndrome frequently found among artists, blue-eyed-blond-haired ladies in Atlanta, and in cities across the nation among those who see something wrong with modern life and hunger for a deeper spiritual life.
The fact is, those tribes don’t have much at all in common with one another, aside from being packaged and treated as though they were similar for at least a century-and-a-half by the US Government, far longer for some in the eastern US. Bits and pieces of the original cultures have survived on some reservations, less on some, almost none on some. And those cultures remaining are as unlike one another as they are different from European.
But I’ve digressed. I began this blog entry with the intention of talking about a particular cultural phenomenon re-emerging on Navajo tribal lands, strange and not easily understood by anyone including the Din’e living there. The Skin Walker. A person who voluntarily adopts witch-like and other behaviors that violate the most fundamental religious/spiritual forbiddings of the tribe. The subject, even the name is such that even most Din’e have only a general understanding of what those practices are. But there’s no lack of agreement that Skin Walkers are a threat to everyone, a cause for revulsion, anger, fear, hatred.
On the Pine Hill Navajo (self-determination) Rez south of Ramah Chapter there’s a place that’s come to be called, “Skin-Walker Valley” by everyone who’s willing to use the word. Interestingly, the valley extends into an area checkerboarded with white-owned lands called Candy Kitchen.
What’s surprising is that, while the Skin-Walker phenomenon clearly began on Din’e land, the weirdness and negativity spills over and permeates into the white community. Although some good folks, both white and Din’e, live and make out as best they can in this remote area, it’s shockingly pervaded by all manner of crime. Speed freaks and laboratories are drawn there as by a magnet.
Violence is pandemic. As an example, a few years ago three Navajo youths tortured and killed an octogenerian white woman in her home, puncturing her skull with a screwdriver eighteen times until she died. She had nothing much worth stealing. They did it for ‘fun’. When the lads were identified they were arrested on the Rez, where tribal authorities resisted giving them up for white justice for several days.
Meanwhile, deep in the Rez to the north, near Pueblo Pintada, another valley is rapidly coming to be known as ‘Skin-Walker Valley’, and another at Alamo, far to the southeast.
This phenomenon, were it discussed openly and recognized as in need of investigation, would be far easier for tribal officials to develop strategies to deal with. Open discussion would also help nearby residents and authorities off the Rez toward a clearer perspective concerning an energy and a belief system that is oozing up through the cracks of their lives, slouching across from tribal lands.
But this is getting too long and it’s time to turn out the chickens. Maybe more later.
This poem was written a few years ago about an event on the minds of northwest New Mexico at the time. The fact it happened near ‘Skin-Walker Valley’ was a cause for a lot of concern and confusion.
Last Friday Night
“It’s just too deep in the Rez
For a white-man style killing,” he says:
“A bullet each to the back of the head,
At Pueblo Pentada two brothers are dead;
Two Navajo brothers are dead.
“It isn’t a skin-walker killing;
No feud, not a woman too willing.
A knife, a club, a thirty-ought-six
Is common enough and at least doesn’t mix
White man logic with Navajo tricks:
No bullet each to the back of the head!
But at Pueblo Pentada two brothers are dead!
Two Navajo brothers are dead.”
From Bread Springs to Shiprock you’ll hear people say
“No place is safe now! You can’t get away!”
Nageezi to Yah Ta Hay
You’ll hear the Din’e people say
“The killer’s from Pie Town or Santa Fe.
Some white, somehow, somewhere must pay
For a bullet each to the back of the head!
At Pueblo Pentada two brothers are dead!
Two Navajo brothers are dead.”