Running Deer's Last Pow-Wow
The inside was dark. Tonight, as on other nights, the blackness enveloped my hogan. In the dimness, I tuned the big RCA radio to WNAD out of Norman, Oklahoma. I wanted to hear this week's Indians for Indians Hour. Keshkekosh talked about the new pow-wow season that was just getting underway. I sat in my chair, listening.
My name is Mary Begay. That's not my true name, of course; it's what the biligaana called me at the boarding school. It's the name on all the documents the white man requires. Our people don't keep written records. We don't need to. Our history, our traditions, are all passed down through the generations, told from grandparents to parents to children, passed on through dances and sings and ceremonies. That's how we keep the Navajo Way, and our ancestors, alive.
My real name is Big Bird Who Flew Into the Sky. My grandmother received this name in a dream before I was born. Grandmother spoke with the spirits. She was a very powerful woman — a healer. She lived in her hogan with her pouches of herbs and medicines everywhere. She went out every day to search for more gifts of the earth, listening to what the spirits told her about which ones were for good and which for evil. Most healers were men, but she had the gift. When the spirits want to work through you, there's no way to deny them, and everyone knew this. The men revered her, but they were frightened of her, too. She had the power to banish sickness and to bring life where there was no hope before.
Even before I was born, she knew my fate. Knew that I would carry death with me. Knew that I could give life only to take it away.
As I listened to Keshkekosh speaking of the new pow-wow season, I thought of my son. He used to take part in the pow-wows. He was a dancer who would travel throughout Indian Country, competing, singing. He was given the gift, and he used it in a good way. The spirits were pleased. He won prizes. The pow-wow money was needed. He did not misuse his gift. He did not win too much or compete too hard. He stayed modest, keeping himself in harmony.
But then the biligaana warriors came. They brought promises with their papers, and they filled my son's head with their white man's ideas. He came to me one day to say that he was signing their papers. His face was lit with the hope of youth. “A new truck, Mama,” he said, glowing. “Just think of what you can do with the money I send home each month.” I think his head was turned by the uniforms. So shiny. Creased just so. The warriors made promises I knew they would never keep. How does a mother tell her son that his dreams are destined to turn to ashes?
A code-talker. That's what they told him he could be. My son was not that well educated. I had been sent to the boarding school, but we needed him to stay here with us for most of his years. How was a boy without much formal schooling supposed to be a code-talker? “No problem, Mrs. Begay,” the biligaana warriors said, SMILING. “This is wartime. There is plenty of opportunity for all Navajos.” I could see past their grins to the death's heads beneath their skins.
It's not enough they took our land and killed our people, but they wanted to take our sons from us, too. We were citizens less than 20 years. My cousin, Charlie Tsosie, wasn't required to serve in the last biligaana war, but he did. The family hired a shaman and held a sing for him to protect him before he left Dinetah. He came back and there was another ceremony to welcome him back into the clan. He was cleansed during that ceremony because he had touched dead men, and he needed to be free of their chindii, the evil spirits of their corpses. I suppose my son saw the ceremony as a boy and was impressed. Such ceremonies stay in the memory of a young man.
My cousin was the one who gave my son his war name. Every boy has one, and it is a secret. Even I, his mother, do not know his secret name. When he was born, we called my son Running Deer, but the biligaana knew him as Jack Begay. “Sign here, Jack, and we will send your mother money every month. Sign here, and we will give you a uniform and a gun and teach you to kill. Sign here, and serve your country. Sign here, Jack.”
And he signed.
We had a sing, of course, before he left the reservation. His face was alight in the glow of the fire, and his feet danced as I knew they were always meant to from the day his name was visited upon me in a dream. I spoke to him that night. Spoke of the need to stay in harmony — to maintain chozro. But a mother's teachings fall on the deaf ears of a young man about to go to war. I turned to Charlie. “You gave him his war name,” I pleaded. “Speak to him. Tell him the truth.”
But Charlie said there were some things he had to find out for himself. And I knew then that no good would come of this.
On the radio, Keshkekosh spoke about the pow-wow at Pawnee. “Lots of good food, a dance in the afternoon,” he reported. Two or three hundred people had been in attendance. I thought of Running Deer. He would have liked to have been there. Always happiest at the pow-wow, dancing, my son. Instead, the United States Marine Corps beckoned to him. Shiny uniforms, a bed, food every day, the money at the end of the month — so attractive to a young boy from a Navajo sheep camp.
I thought of my own youth. Had I been so deaf to the voices of my elders? I didn't think so. I listened to my grandmother, who spoke with wisdom. I wished to learn from her. I knew she had the experience, as well as the communication with the spirits. And I learned too well what she knew.
Grandmother knew my fate. She knew that I was named for the bird of death. “You must go where your path takes you, Big Bird,” she would say to me.
David Apekaum came on the air next to introduce the Carnegie War Mothers Chapter Singers. Each of the war mothers has at least one son in service, many of them two and three, he said, serving overseas and in every branch in the military.
“They have proven themselves one-hundred percent American,” he told us. Raising money for the Red Cross and losing sons — is that what America is? That wasn't the way it was when our grandfathers lived here, before the biligaana came. Then, when we fought, we fought for our own causes. Not for the white man's beliefs, not for the biligaana who had destroyed us. It made a difference to the spirits, this I know.
The radio program was dedicated to the Gold Star mothers. Gold Star fathers, too. Lose a son, gain a song. Come down to the next pow-wow.
The Gold Star treatment: they hand you a flag and some money, and they wash their hands of you. “Your country appreciates your son's service,” they say before they turn their backs on you. And what are you supposed to do with that flag? Can the flag tend the sheep? Can the money buy you another son?
“Be proud, Mary,” Charlie told me. “Running Deer did an honorable thing. He served for all of us. To keep us all free.”
But the biligaana warriors had sold Charlie the same dream Running Deer bought. Only Charlie came back, so he felt entitled to say these things. He participated in the pow-wows, carrying the veterans flag.
My son's flag hangs on the wall.
I knew that my grandmother's vision had been right. I could give life only to take it away. I did not protect my son, as mothers are supposed to. I did not save him from his death.
And this is my fate: to know that I, Big Bird Who Flew Into the Sky, was the reason that my son lay in the ground in a box. It was my death-giving powers that were visited on him.
Listening to the radio now, I cried. I tried to think about my own chozro. I thought that maybe I needed a sing to cure me, to restore my own harmony. Instead, I heard the Carnegie War Mothers Singers praising our Indian warriors in their Kiowa songs.
And I knew that all the sings in the world would never take away the power of death that surrounded me. So I sat in the dark, and I listened. I tried to hear the spirit of Running Deer come to me through the drums. I thought that I would fall asleep, listening for him, and he would speak to me in my dream. But all I experienced in sleep was a black nothingness.
And I knew that this was where Running Deer was. I had put him there. This was my fate — to listen to the emptiness, as vast as the plains. Running Deer would dance no more, not even in my dreams.
[nb: powwow (or pow-wow) now meaning a council or conference, and a rite or ceremony, originated (ca1624) as a referent for an AmerIndian priest ("powwaw", Narragansett) or an AmerIndian shaman/seer ("pawewa", Proto-Algonquian)]
by Liz Martínez
... who is a Guachichile tribeswoman, an adjunct professor at Interboro Institute in New York City, the former editor of Family: The Magazine for Military Wives, and is a former military wife herself. She is the author of several short stories, including Kris Kringle which was Orchard Press Mystery's Christmas 2000 Pick; and of the business guidebook The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (2004). She edited Cop Tales 2000, an anthology from .38 Special Press, in which two of her short mysteries appear; and wrote the novel Sticks and Stones as her Master's thesis in Popular Fiction Writing from Seton Hill University.