Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
At the beginning of my third summer with Red-Point's family, I arrive with a white visitor; one who had never seen a Navajo before is staying for one night only. As we pull up to the trading-post, Old-Mexican's-Son greets us. "There's going to be a wedding tonight. Do you want to go? Ask John Tallman about it." "Do I want to go? I have been on this Reservation six summers and have never seen one." John is one of my interpreters, the judge at Ganado, an important man. We ask him about it. He wants to go to the wedding; we can start about nine.
We start at the appointed time. The wedding hogan is only about seven miles from Ganado. The roads are dry and good, the moon is full and bright, it takes us no time to get there. The settlement is typical. There are several hogans, in one of which the bride sits. We are ushered into this house, in which there are only a few people. One of my friends and his wife and children come in to eat with us. John explains afterward that they came in because, since we are not clan relatives, the family did not want us to feel strange as we might if we ate alone.
The crowd outside is large, well dressed, and jolly. We are served graciously and eat leisurely; my friend does not eat much. Very soon after we finish eating, we are told to go
into the house where the wedding is to take place. At the back of the fire a little to the north the groom is sitting. His relatives occupy a position near him north of the center and the rest of the space north of the fire is filled with women among whom we sit. The bride's relatives sit south of the center at the back of the hogan; men visitors occupy the rest of the southern semicircle.
Soon the bride enters carrying a small bucket of sugar and a cup. Her close relatives, each bearing some kind of food in large quantity, follow her. As they enter we fold ourselves smaller because the circle in the center of the house must be enlarged for the participants. The bride takes her place at the right of the groom; the food is placed before them. Then from a pail of water each of the betrothed dips a cup. The bride pours hers over the groom's hands. He washes them and pours water over hers. This continues alternately until both cups are empty. Up to this time the audience has been quiet, much like a Quaker meeting.
Now John interpolates in his quiet bantering voice: "Use lots of water. He's a good water-hauler. From now on you'll never have to skimp on water." This remark relieves the seriousness. Everyone laughs and quiet talk begins.
A basket of ceremonial gruel is now set before the young people. On it an old man of unimpeachable character has made a cross by sprinkling yellow pollen from east to west, south to north and around in a sunwise direction. The girl's family chose this old man in a conference at which the good and bad points of his character were aired.
Beside the basket is a dish of canned tomatoes which John afterward tells us is a substitute for jam made of yucca fruit. After she washes her groom's hands, and he hers, the girl
with her two first fingers takes a mouthful of the stiff mush from the east side of the basket, then two fingerfuls of the canned tomatoes. Her groom imitates her exactly, as he does when she takes her next portions from the south, west, and north sides of the basket and finally from the center. I cannot tell how they manage the tomatoes; I only know they do so without trailing a drop.
After sampling it thus ceremonially the bridal pair eat all the mush in the basket and the relatives of both girl and boy fall to and feast on the many dishes of bread, mutton (boiled and roasted), tomatoes, and coffee which they brought with them into the hogan. They eat slowly and long; their capacity matches the lavishness of the repast.
The feast is followed by several speeches which John interprets to us on the way home about midnight: "In old times they used to talk to the newly-weds all night. Tonight there were not so many speeches. One was a little "rough." As John settles back in the rear seat I mutter to my friend, my voice protected by the noise of Jonathan's motor, "Advice about sex behavior, I suppose."
John again leans forward as I ask, "What did you say?"
"I said that a man and his wife are like two streams running together for the common good. You may haul water and wood for a woman, but if there is no love in your heart for her she knows it and does not appreciate it anyway. It is the little attentions with love which make for happiness.
"Now I wish to bring up the mother-in-law question. I for one, basing my judgment on sense and reason, setting religion and ceremony aside, feel the girl's mother would get along better if she could "see" her son-in-law. There always comes a time when the old lady needs help and kindness. These
her son-in-law stands ever ready to give. But he can be much more helpful to her if he does not have to dodge away every time she comes in sight. Therefore, it would be wiser for you, young man, to agree with your mother-in-law not to avoid her, but to give her all possible aid and respect without doing that."
We then ask, "Did the mother agree to let her son-in-law see her?"
"Yes," said John.
One of the winter items of gossip which my white friends wrote me was that John had married. He had been a widower for eight years or longer, a period unusually long for a Navajo to remain single. John occupies an anomalous place among his people. Because his father deserted John's mother and her children when they were very young, he was raised by the Presbyterian Mission. His upbringing was that of a white institution, but it took place in the midst of his own people.
I have worked many hours on the Navajo language with John. His teaching me is interspersed with numerous questions. What is the difference between religion, philosophy, and anthropology? (Anthropology must be explained because that is what I call what I am doing, and anyway John loves big words.) What do you mean by a totem? What are other Indians like? Our reciprocal lessons show me that he is wavering in his allegiance to white teaching; by thinking, he is trying to find a satisfactory way out of the quicksands of belief and doubt.
During the many years of close contact with whites he was observing his own people and aiming to make smooth the understanding between the two incompatible points of view,
his mind has been actively at work. He notices, for example, that the Christians preach love to all their fellows while at the same time they persecute some of them, not always Indians either. One thing he finds incomprehensible is that some whites feast while others near by starve. As long as Navajo have a crust of bread and a cup of thin broth, they will divide it at least among their relatives. He finds also that promises to an Indian stand little chance of becoming fact. Above all, he is impressed with the intolerance of these whites toward "sin." True, some Navajo are incorrigible. John believes a kindly example and the sound advice of the old men can do more for these than imprisonment or preaching.
Above all he questions religion. Old men of his tribe, like Red-Point, perform cures and care for their sick. It is their religion which does so. The white people tell the Indian children never to go to a sing; it is wicked to do so. They make them learn long pages of Scripture and prayers, yet these things do not cure; it is difficult to see what use they are. John understands thoroughly the function of the hospital and doctors. When he is ill he wishes to be treated there. But repeated failures of the whites and frequent successes of the medicine-men—above all, the character of the chanters—have made him doubtful as to whether Christianity is the better part. Can it be that the "philosophy" of the Navajo old man is more desirable than the sanctity of the whites, hardly ever noticeable in practise? So dubious has he become, indeed, that he has decided to live more like the Indians.
John's marriage is one answer to his questionings. As we roll along the moonlit road I ask him, "Is your wife an old-fashioned Navajo?"
"Very," he answers. "She's from Black Mountain."
"How did you ever come to get her?"
"I was married like Jacob. I didn't know the girl I was to marry. You see, my relatives didn't think it was good, my not being married for such a long time. They kept at me, urging and advising me to get a wife. So at last I said to them: "Well, pick me out a good girl and I'll marry her. She must be industrious, good-tempered, and quiet. And I don't want one who dances. But, above all, her mother must not mind if I see her." I couldn't dodge behind a tree or blanket every time I see her coming," continues John. "Why, I'd be too embarrassed!
"Well, they found a girl that seemed suitable, and her mother said she wouldn't mind. Her family is a very good one."
"Were you married the Navajo way?"
"Yes, just like tonight. But my wedding was kinda funny. They asked me to make a speech myself."
"Who usually speaks?"
"Well, they pick those who make good speeches, and that is why they asked me to speak even if it was my own wedding."
"What did you say?"
"My speech was very much like the one I made tonight. I spoke especially about my mother-in-law, gave them the reasons why I didn't want to get out of her way. I said I thought I could help her more in this way."
I have another white guest, and we decide to go to Polacca, a Hopi village, for the Fourth of July. They are going to have races. I ask John to go with us. He suggests that we go by way of Salaine because we have a matter to attend to there. "If
we go that way, we can stop and see my wife. Maybe she will go with us."
John is a perfect guide. He knows every grain of sand in the road; he gives little but excellent advice about routes. The road is dry and hard now; it may be non-existent by the time we return although the Rain gods have not yet hung a tiny signal of carded wool in the sky. John has been on trying trips with me before. When a wash roars past, he can tell whether or not Jonathan will make it. But his experience and judgment are even more useful when the water in a small wash slinks deceitfully and innocently along. "Better wait," he says. "There are often quicksands here."
I wait until he gives the word. Meanwhile he busies himself with shovel or ax and with sounding with his bare feet. As the water runs more feebly and becomes ever more shallow, he not only announces the very first moment when success is probable, but warns me even about the point where the quicksands are likely to be and exerts himself casually to get the car over this spot. I have come through many a wash with not a quarter of an inch or a jot of horsepower to spare, but I have never been stuck when I took his advice.
However, we have nothing in the way of road or motor troubles on this holiday. As we drive along to Salaine John tells me to turn west over a track to me indiscernible. After bumping about four miles over sagebrush and hummocks we arrive at a settlement of three hogans. The absence of sheep and dogs, the brooding quiet in the glaring sunlight, and finally as we come up to the first hogan, the lock in the hasp, show us there is nobody home. John is neither surprised nor disappointed. After he has made his observations he directs me again, and less than a mile from the settlement, which
is on a flat, we come to a thickly wooded slope, the foothills of Black Mountain. Here in well-built shades made of piñon and juniper boughs, scarce distinguishable from the trees, John's wife's family are making their summer home.
The slope with Black Mountain behind it at the west, near enough to make convenient its resources of grass, water, and wood, commands a view of the Chinlee Valley. The Chinlee Valley is formidable beyond words to the stranger. It is so huge that man is of no account upon its surface. As we drive along the main highway for forty miles, there is space on either side, interminable distance unbroken by anything save color that makes me gasp with unbelief, color awe-inspiring, but devoid of all that is friendly or hopeful. No trees, no water, no houses, just earth gashed by cañons, and sky. I have the feeling of walking on a high trestle over a roaring torrent; I am afraid to go back and more afraid to go forward. So it seems, too, from the hogan of John's father-in-law.
The distance of less than a mile achieves one more of the miracles of the Southwest. At the summer camp the trees extend a hospitality which gives the views on both sides perspective; they shelter and welcome, as they bring the vast panorama into a comfortable reality which for some moments I had lost in the uncanniness of space. The people who choose them for a shelter are like a hand stretched to me as I walk over the abyss.
This family is an example of the "wildest" of the Navajo. The air of self-sufficiency makes them so. "Wild" because their dependence on the white man is at a minimum. They visit a trading store perhaps once a month or even less frequently. When there they buy only staples, flour, sugar, and coffee, occasionally some velvet and dress goods. They do not
loiter long. Many of the women's rugs are colored with dyes made from plants found on the slopes of Black Mountain. They usually wear their silver and turquoise instead of pawning it. We are greeted by John's father-in-law, a tall, straight, lean, handsome man whose poise no situation could disturb.
John looks in three or four of the camps for his wife and finally disappears for about fifteen minutes. Then he comes back to us as we sit talking with his father-in-law. We continue our talk for some twenty minutes. I ask John if his wife is going with us, and he says he doesn't know. "After I found her I had a nice little visit with her, and then suddenly she ran off."
Finally we decide she is not going, and all reëmbark. Jonathan's motor is even started when a little boy comes to John and diffidently communicates the fact that Molly, his wife, is going with us. She is dressing, we must wait. John beams with pride as we linger. After nearly half an hour Molly comes toward us overcome by shyness so poignant as to be painful even to us. Her sister's son, a half-grown boy, is with her. She has to sit pretty close to John in the restricted quarters of our rear seat, never too roomy, and filled as it is with part of our camping outfit. She does not talk even to the boy for hours.
We transact our business at Salaine, drive through the valley at the northern end of Black Mountain and turn south once more along its western edge. As the mesas cast long soft shadows, John, at my request, picks our camp some ten miles from Polacca. He knows where there is a delightful spring. We pull uphill toward it until deep sand impedes our progress. We are so near a fine camp that we stop here and carry our belongings to a large rock not far from a medium-sized pine.
[paragraph continues] John has made us a splendid fire, and he and the boy have assembled a large pile of wood. Carrying all the empty canteens, they go exploring for the spring. As my friend and I prepare our simple but ample supper, Molly sits by at the edge of the flickering firelight and watches. The virulence of her affliction has so far abated as to allow us an occasional brief smile implying just a shade of trust. As the setting begins to take on the polish of perfection I am unpleasantly reminded of a large anthill near the rock which is serving as our table. A red ant bites me on the ankle. Now I know why "sitting on an ant" is a bogy to Yikadezba. All ants are uncomfortable, not all bite, but any ant might be a red ant. Its bite does not sting for a moment unmercifully. It hurts, pains, and settles down into an ache which rivals toothache and lasts for several hours. I overcome the unpleasantness by rubbing and considerable grumbling.
As our fire strengthens and our coffee cheers, several Navajo come within hearing distance, where they stop and sit. By this time John has returned and we are ready to eat. "Do we feed those Navajo? Navajo always feed Navajo, do they not?" "Sometimes we ask them, and sometimes we don't," answers John. "This time we don't."
He goes over and talks to them briefly, returning with the report: "The one man lives in that hogan there"—pursing his lips toward a fire about two hundred and fifty yards distant. "He wanted to know if we were stuck in the sand or something. I said, "No, we are camping for the night." Then he told me if we need water there is a good spring where I already found it, and he says they have lots of water at the well down at their hogan."
"A hand on a high trestle," think I, as we settle comfortably to our coffee.
When John replenishes the fire, he notices a piñon stump about ten feet high a short way from it. With his foot he shoves the glowing embers to its base, reinforces the fuel supply and we soon have a flaming pillar of warmth.
As we settle comfortably with cigarettes I have a feeling that this is adventure. A full stomach, quenched thirst, the warmth and brightness of the burning stump, the cool softness of the air, the friendliness of the man who lives in the hogan, the presence of a friend too overcome to speak her joy, John's beaming face, even the smiling timidity of Molly—it cannot be that these simple components can define such a will-o’-the-wisp! Yet for me they do!
The next day we attend the rodeo at Polacca. It is very tame. We agree to return home early as John remarks: "The Hopi are no horsemen. They do not travel enough. Burros are their speed."
My friend answers: "Yes, and a half-hour between events. It is too hot to wait for them."
Arriving at Ganado, we relate to our white friends our impressions of John's wife. Two days later they tell me, "John's wife has gone home."