Laughing in Navajo: My Journey to the Rez by Dorothy Brooks

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These vignettes are from an in-progress book on Brooks’ experience living and teaching on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico.


navajo-rug-dmitrybOne September Saturday when I was exploring just beyond Shiprock, a Navajo crossroads town a half-day’s drive northwest of Albuquerque and where I now lived, I drove down a two-track beyond the Indian Health Service hospital. It seemed to go nowhere. Suddenly a whirlwind of brash dry dirt pelleted my windshield. Dust storm, I wondered? But there was the usual beaming sunshine. I hit the brake, and just in time.

Ahead, taking up the full width of the road, was a pack of ten to fifteen wild dogs—big and tough, ribs protruding, lunging and attacking in a primal, frothing-at-the-mouth fight to the death. Who would get that next carcass of food, probably road kill?

Frozen for a moment, I slammed my car into reverse and made a quick U-turn out of there. I wished I had never driven down that road. The sounds of the desperate, killer-snarling and screeching ruled my sleep for many nights after.

But here I was in autumn 1981. I’d plopped myself down almost two thousand miles from my snug Midwestern life on a sight-unseen Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of northwest New Mexico. Fortyish, single, starting to gray, I was finally realizing my burning dream to teach on a reservation. Teach kindergarten, as it turned out, after a long-distance phone call from a desperate principal two days after school had already started. So it was a quick leave-of-absence from my Michigan school, and off I headed into the unknown.

Sometimes there would be an injured dog nursing its wounds at the edge of the playground, completely ignored. I wrestled with what to do; could hardly bear to just walk on by, but I’d clench my teeth and keep going. I knew that dogs were regarded differently in various cultures and I shouldn’t meddle in Rez values. I could not know, then, that many a non-Navajo teacher in the district had a rescued dog or three at home.

But it was not my place to turn myself into a tribal humane society. You’ve gotta be tough to live on the Rez, I told myself. You’ve gotta be tough. Better that my dad, who had just died the year before, could not know where I was. Or maybe he would have cheered.


Curb Service

As the days unfolded at school my students and I began to gradually find a certain pace together, although still distant, I felt. But I was realizing that some of them spoke mostly Navajo and might not have acquired much English. I did not know Navajo, and so I often drew pictures on the board and acted things out.

But my students tumbled in and out each day—short little bundles of a mix of travails and shy smiles mirrored in their beautiful dark eyes—and I was delighted when things went well, in absolute despair when they did not. Though like sprockets in an interlocking a chain, we just kept on.

One Friday evening, I was surprised to hear a faint tap, tap at my trailer door in the teacher housing across the street from the playground—low, below its handle. Who could that be? Opening the door to the dark, I looked down. And down.

There stood a little Navajo girl, eyes downcast but reaching her hands up to me, clutching a rolled rug. Out in front was a pick-up, its motor running, the cab crammed with two adults and other children. When I called out, “Hello!” there was only silence.

Then the little rug-girl squeaked a wavering number, and it dawned on me the rug was for sale. It was dazzling, of course, as they all were. Woven Navajo rugs were never over-priced, given the requisite labor involved from raising the sheep to the actual rug. I caved without complaint, rounded up some cash, and was ecstatic to have my first Navajo rug.

The word got around quickly. I would buy. Thereafter, my monthly payday never passed without some tiny child at my doorstep the same evening, rug in hand, though never the same child, and never one from my classroom. I was rug-poor but blissfully satisfied whenever I glanced at them laid out carefully on my trailer’s uneven floor.

truck in front of old warehouse type building

1984: What’s left of an earlier Hogback Trading Company, between Shiprock and Farmington in Waterflow, N.M. A new one has been built across the road from it now. Photo by Dorothy Brooks


Healing at the Shiprock Fair

The stillness wrapping the hillside above the hogan—a Navajo shelter—was electric in the crisp moonlit air. Even in the dark, my gut shifted uneasily. I wondered if I should be there—trying to blend with the hundred or so Navajo closely surrounding me, some eyeing me when they thought I didn’t notice.

We were all fixated on the hogan below where, inside, we knew a medicine man hovered with an ill person on its dirt floor. It was the ninth and final night of the Nightway healing ceremony. The stretched hours wore even longer into the dark, as if we were carved from the red rock outcroppings.

The only stirring was the shallow exhaling of the crowd, my own joining theirs—our frosted breath rising in circles toward the splatter of stars overhead. Finally, faint wisps of a chant lifted from the far rise, undulating towards us like the twist of a silk scarf. The line of Yei dancers snaked forward—their full-head masks staring, their gourd rattles raised and clattering over their heads.

Circling the hogan, their moccasins brushed the hardened earth in unison—the aroma of fresh pinon, part of their adornment, fragrant in the still air. More chants unfolded, wafted our way, floated into the shadows. I could picture the medicine man releasing the last grain of his healing sand painting with a gnarled thumb and forefinger. Finally the dancers faded into the blackness.

Then all of us in the crowd, spent—our eyes glazed—stumbled back to the pick-ups scattered like chaff across the distant rutted field. Without a word, drivers goosed their engines in sharp staccatos, leaving me alone and white, neither of which I could shake nor escape.


Old Route 666, Second Time Around

older man in cowboy hat in front of sheep springs trading post

1984: A friend and I stopping for a break at Sheep Springs Trading Post between Shiprock and Gallup, N.M. on old route 666. Photo by Dorothy Brooks.

Come June of that year, my leave of absence was up and I had to head for Michigan. I couldn’t believe that teaching back home again would be an even more difficult adjustment. And I couldn’t look anybody in the eye (after all that practice in front of my mirror). The cloying trees everywhere boxed me in like a caged ferret. The incessant noise of traffic, people, construction grated on my nerves. But most of all I missed the Rez kids.

The day before classes began, I suddenly was assigned the task of creating and coordinating an English as a Second Language program for an extended group of Vietnamese students who had moved into the school district practically overnight. Green cards. County Health Department. Family crises. Language barriers. I dove in—appreciating yet another new culture, much of which was filled with such a fluid, humble grace.

And then our teachers’ union went on strike. In our small, blue-collar community, folks quickly took sides. No one won, and I was reeling from its divisive effects. When I could step back for a moment, all I really wanted was to be back on the Rez. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had flashbacks not only of the tough stuff, but also of the moments when things worked.

After wangling yet another leave of absence from my understanding superintendent, I once again headed for Shiprock. This time, driving north from Gallup, I didn’t notice the lack of trees, which had been so worrisome the first time around.

Half-way there, a white fluff appeared in the road ahead. It turned out to be a flock of angora goats delicately picking their way through the chamisa and stubble. Then, my gaze landed on a solitary figure on a striking paint horse much farther from the roadside. It was an “elderly:” an older Navajo woman in a traditional tiered skirt, babushka and weathered jacket—a thin stick in hand, sitting in that expansive stillness, simply herding.

As the streaming sun baked my contented face, a goat’s bell tinkled. I was back.


Postal Exchange

I found an apartment in the closest border town: Farmington, New Mexico, thirty-five miles away, as had many of the non-Navajo teachers in my school district. But it was handy to sometimes walk over to the Shiprock post office at lunch hour since the carpool in which I usually rode got back to town after its post office had closed.

Each time I went, I couldn’t help but remember my first year living in Shiprock and had no mailbox. Instead, I had to ask the post office lady behind the counter for my mail when I would stop by after school.

“Hi!” I’d chime then, stepping up to see if by some miracle there would be a letter from home.

Silence. Then she would turn, disappear behind some cases and come back either empty-handed with a slight shake of her head, or she would hand me a letter without comment.

Every single workday, as the weeks melded into months, I repeated the pattern. “Hi!” No response. But there was something in my Midwest upbringing that required greeting someone, and I just couldn’t quite let it go, never realizing the lack of response might be a cultural difference.

If I’d had a tough day at school sometimes I would mutter inside my head, ‘OK, I won’t offer any greeting. Not a word!’ She wouldn’t even notice, I thought. Then always at the last minute a small voice within me would nudge, ‘You know what you should do.’

So it was, “Hi!” all over again.

But this year, I was prepared. I knew what to expect. “Hi!” I said, the same old me.

“Hello, Miss Brooks!” My eyes flew wide open. Surely, I was hearing things. The unrelenting sun was getting to me. But no. Ever after, I received the same greeting, always including my name. I figured I had somehow earned some trust by returning for the another school year—something not to be rewarded lightly, since many non-Navajo teachers came from other states but never returned after they went home for the December holiday break.

I hadn’t disappeared.


High Stepping at the Shiprock Parade

The excitement in the October air was undeniable. Crowds pressed along the main street all the way to Kentucky Fried Chicken. All eyes riveted towards the sacred Shiprock mountain itself, a volcanic extrusion thrusting toward the clouds from the high desert plateau. It was the direction from which the parade would emerge.

Virginia, another beligaana teacher, and I plopped our metal lawn chairs as close to the edge of the parade route as we could get. Everyone else seemed to be standing.

The first float bore the Navajo Code Talkers—those last survivors from World War II who, speaking Navajo, played a pivotal role in keeping the enemy from cracking U.S. communications—waving at the respectful applause of the crowd. Next came a raggle-taggle marching band, and then swaths of jittery-eyed horses with riders in gorgeous velvet and  timeless turquoise jewelry.

I couldn’t decide which was best—the ease with which the riders rode or the beauty of those horses—groomed and gleaming, as exquisite as the backdrop of mesas and the Shiprock itself. I was hypnotized.

Then, without warning, the crowd around us pulled back in perfect unison, like a wave receding into the ocean. The next thing I knew, there were flailing horse hooves practically in my face. “Watch out!” I yelled to Virginia. We both sprung back as the Palamino, nostrils flaring, reared and snorted. Then in an instant, only inches away from me, its hooves crashed down on my lawn chair that I had just vacated and squashed it into a twisted mass of mesh and aluminum.

Without a flicker of reaction, the horse’s rider rode on, never glancing our way. The Navajos around us also paid no attention—as if we were invisible, as if nothing had happened. Perhaps they knew something we did not know. And was it the sun reflecting off the chair that spooked that horse?


Driving Grandma

Being in a different school building than my first time at the reservation meant working with other Navajo teacher aides. One, Arlene, split her days between working with another fifth grade teacher across the hall and being in our classroom.

I was beginning to catch on that my Midwestern warmth and friendliness (my own cultural stereotypes, but I fit them) did not immediately sync with many of those around me. So I pulled back a bit, reframed some of my expectations—and hoped my sincerity still came through.

Over the months, a rather comfortable relationship developed between Arlene and me. I was never sure how she got back and forth to work but I did know it was precarious at times, and some days she could not make it.

It was to my complete surprise, though, when one morning she asked me if I could drive her and her grandma to Cortez, Colorado, right after school. In passing, she mentioned that Grandma was a medicine woman and needed to go see a patient there.

A couple of hours later the three of us in our varying degrees of roundness were stuffed in the cab of my little four-cylinder truck—bouncing up and down on a forty-five minute ride towards more mountain foothills.

There were no introductions and all their talk was in Navajo, punctuated by frequent outbreaks of laughter. Which left me joining in the giggles, since laughing is contagious even though I hadn’t a clue what was so funny. Hopefully, not me. When we arrived, there seemed confusion about the person we sought being home. So we stopped off by some men sitting cross-legged in a field rolling dice. Grandma got out and chatted with them for a brief time and then we were headed back, squished like melted marshmallows and laughing like teenagers all the way home—about something. Even if I was the topic, I loved laughing in Navajo.

A’wee Chi’deedloh, “The Baby Laughed”

Bustling through the teachers’ lounge one day on the way out to my classroom I happened on several young Navajo women standing close to each other, chattering in Navajo and laughing. I knew the one, a teacher aide who had been extremely helpful even though she did not work in our classroom. But the other two were strangers. Louise, the teacher aide, called me over. Pleased, on second glance I saw that one woman held quite a new baby, bound in its traditional cradleboard.

I had sometimes wondered about that practice, about the reserve of many of my students and about a possible connection between newborns laced in place against wood rather than held against the warmth of their mother’s skin. But of course I never voiced the question. All that was forgotten, though, with the privilege of being invited to admire the baby. Who could not dissolve at the sight of that tiny rose-bud face?

All of a sudden as I was baby-talking myself silly, the infant broke into a smile and wiggled. A lot. It was the warmest welcome I had received ever on the Rez, and I basked in it. The three women looked at each other in amazement, said something more in Navajo, looked back at me again.

“Dorothy,” Louise said. “That was the baby’s first smile! You should give a shower.”

I thought she was teasing me, so I just offered a pleasantry and went on my way. During afternoon recess break when she passed me in the hall, she mentioned it again briefly. I smiled and nodded, certain, now, she was kidding me because the idea seemed so improbable.

The thought of me throwing a party for Navajo women, most of whom I wouldn’t even know, was beyond my imagination. Especially at the beginning, I had internalized our cultural differences and their response to me as general distrust and dislike. To add to that, I had a certain social shyness that I could mask fairly well in my own environs, but the thought of hosting a Navajo party just floored me. Plus, I rationalized, they wouldn’t come. To my house? I automatically assumed I was too white for that.

Soon I was caught up in more immediate priorities, and the notion of a shower seemed to fade on its own volition. Only now, in retrospect, do I realize my “sin of omission.” I had no knowledge, then, of the Baby’s First Smile ceremony, such an important and joyful part of Navajo culture.

That tradition is that the person coaxing forth that first smile should invite guests to a celebration, with the baby the star. There would be gifts, special food and, with help, the baby would offer rock salt crystals to each person to honor goodness and to set its pattern of a life of sharing. Then there would be a blessing of the baby.

But through my ignorance and hesitation I slammed the door on the most significant opportunity for acceptance offered me during my entire time on the Rez. I shudder to think what inadvertent bad vibes I created. I blanch at how I trampled on genuine good intentions.

Most probably that little baby, somehow, had a delightful, purposeful celebration hosted by a “stand-in” and it brought goodness, happiness and kind wishes for a wholesome and tradition-rich Navajo life.

I can only hope for that.


Beverly and Her Magic Shoe Box

It didn’t come easy for Beverly to make friends. She was a lovely child—my fourth-grade student during my seventh and last year on the Rez, and she was shy as a fawn. No matter what I did—give her and a couple of other girls a particular task together, move her seat next to some bubbly talkers—she hung back, with a tough façade that didn’t begin to cover her vulnerability. I even found a story in the library, based on a Navajo myth about a shepherd boy who was lonely and finally discovered the wind would always be his friend. It didn’t help.

She was a brilliantly talented artist. Her paintings made my heart skip. At parent-teacher conference time, I tried explaining to her mom the depth of Beverly’s talent, but I wasn’t sure I succeeded. So I’d say, “When you get to high school you’ll have a chance to really do art!” Or, “When you are all grown up, I hope you can find some paint and keep making art!”

Sometimes I’d let her stay in for recess and we would both paint. Separately. Wordlessly. I am a painter, and it was a joy making art with that little girl.

One day at the end of the school year I noticed her with her head down most of the morning, brushing tears away every now and then. “Are you all right?” I whispered as I walked by. She nodded fiercely, ducking her head deeper. I kept her in for recess and just sat with her.

Eventually it came out, in blurts and sobs. Her dog had disappeared. Her Grandma said it was gone. Forever.

“Um. That’s so hard, isn’t it, Beverly? Would you like to paint a picture of him?” I asked.

The rest of recess, she was lost in her painting. I let her continue on into the afternoon while the rest of the kids and me did other school lessons.

The next morning, sitting on my desk was a beat-up shoebox tied with twine. Inside, wrapped in old newspaper, was a well-used “Cat in the Hat” book; half a Hershey bar—nibbled deep on one end and wrapped in scrunched foil; a soiled, small stuffed rabbit minus an ear; and a “Slinky,” a toy coil that could walk down stairs.

Plus, this keep-forever letter that started with  “Dear Dorothy”:

handwritten letter to dorothy from a child that thanks her for letting her do artwork at recess while the other kids play outside; she tells dorothy to keep what's in the box forever and that she hopes nothing bad ever happens to her.

And so there was no way not to keep going back.

dorothy-brooksExcerpts of Dorothy Brooks’ book about her experience teaching on a Navajo reservation have also has appeared in Weber – the Contemporary West. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, Swamp Baby, in 2012. Her poems have appeared in Persimmon Tree, Washington Square Review, Eleventh Muse, Border Crossing, Temenos, Blast Furnace, Driftwood, Rockhurst Review, Garfield Lake Review, Enizagam, Tall Grass Press’ Deep Waters, 200 New Mexico (Centennial) Poems, among others. Brooks won an International Merit Award in the 2011 Atlanta Review poetry competition; that same year she was a runner-up in the Wild Leaf Press competition and took an honorable mention in Passagers’ poetry contest.

Image credit for Navajo rug: Flickr Creative Commons, user Dimitry B.

  32 comments for “Laughing in Navajo: My Journey to the Rez by Dorothy Brooks

  1. Ms. Brooks,

    I was a student in your 4th grade class in a small Grand Rapids area sub-urb, must have been 1988-ish.

    I’m not sure how I stumbled on this page, but thoroughly enjoyed the reading. I remember you telling some of these stories to us in class, seeing your pictures of cross country skiing in New Mexico, and it brought back memories I hadn’t thought of in years. Of all of the elementary teachers I had over the years, you are one of the only two that still stand out, and come up in conversations with my own children when we discuss school, class work, and teachers. Reading this story brought me back to that 4th grade class room and a particularly happy point in my life. Thanks for teaching me how to appreciate art (even if I don’t always like what I see), the love of reading and story telling, and how to ask the lunch lady for a green hotdog in German!

  2. What a pleasure to read! The difference in cultures has always fascinated me and your ability to express your experiences truly made me feel as if I was there with you. Thank you for dedicating so much of your life to unconditionally loving children of all cultures and walks. The gifts of good teaching live on in the lives of students far beyond their school age years. Blessings on you!

  3. Mrs brooks thank you for writing such a lovely story I have a hard time calling you by your first name since I used to be a student of yours at comstock park schools in Michigan I hope this comment finds you well I just want to thank you for everything you have taught me

  4. Hello Dorothy, my name is Donna Gable and I do believe I met you in 1990-91 in Tabernash, Co, or at least I am hoping it is the same gal. Please let me know if you were in Colorado in those days. Thank you

  5. As a teacher, poet, artist, musician, and administrator, you have already touched so many lives! Now, through this book, may you extend your warm and wise spirit even farther!

  6. I so enjoyed reading your words and was swept up into your experience. You continue to teach by sharing – wonderful!

  7. What an amazing and beautifully told story! I felt as if I was there, watching the dogs, standing at the dancing ceremony, seeing the baby’s first smile, and peering in the shoe box. It made me think of a lot of things, like the spirit of adventure, the art of teaching, the landscape of the west, and also how very different – and very similar – people can be, even across the gulf of different cultures. Thanks for sharing the great writing!

  8. Dorothy, you captivate the reader of your works, by drawing us in and making us feel we are there. You are an excellent author!

  9. Wonderful journey through sacred lands. What a privilege
    to travel with such a thoughtful, creative and caring
    guide. Many thanks for sharing such touching,
    colorful memories.

  10. Few are capable of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting as you do. Fewer still are capable of FEELING as you do.

    And only the most gifted of the very, very few are able to blend music, painting, and sculpting to create word pictures that CONNECT as yours do. That you have perceived and articulated the native spirit in all of us is special medicine, Dorothy.

    Your writing ranks, truly, with that of the writers we have studied, learned from, and loved all through our lives.

    Write on, Medicine Woman!

    Dale Herder

  11. Hi Dorothy,
    I love, love, loved your stories from the “Rez”. Your descriptions of the people, places and scenery evoke
    every sense. I could “smell”, “taste”, “see”, “hear” and “feel” everything you painted in your word pictures.
    Thank you for sharing this preview of what I hope will be I will be able to reading in its entirety soon.

  12. Dorothy,
    I’m a Littlefield, TX, classmate of Sue Thomas, who shared your Navajo Rez memories with me. I was a dust bowl kid raised on a dryland cotton farm in Bula near the New Mexico border, and my only family vacation was a trip to Taos in the early 50s when one could actually climb the cliff dwellings and explore the Great House without ropes or a sign of security. My first teaching experience was in the hills of Tennessee, so your stories resonate with me. (My dad liked to tell me that I am 1/64th Cherokee since one of my great-greats married a Cherokee woman.) I only taught a few years and most of my 35 years in education was as a superintendent of schools in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. Over the years I have kept a file titled, “An Upperlifter for a Downer Day,” which includes notes like the one Beverly wrote to you. The following quote which I have kept in my wallet for over 30 years, now yellow and torn, was from a teacher and it it reminds me of you:
    “Only the brave teach, only the men and women whose integrity cannot be shaken, whose minds are enlightened enough to understand the high calling of a teacher and whose hearts are unskanably loyal to the young … It takes courage to be a teacher, and it takes unalterable love for the child.” — Pearl S. Buck
    Thanks for sharing your teaching experiences in the Land of Enchantment.

    • Hi, John,
      What a real pleasure to read your post just now! And what a range of educational experiences you have lived. I am so pleased that one child’s note, and after all these years, continues to touch lives. I had not come across the Pearl Buck quote before, and treasure it — thank you for that. I count myself fortunate to have been in education all those years at the particular time I was. Always a challenge, but so many more issues now. I give great credit to those just entering the field… Thank you so much for responding to my stories and for making the time to comment. I appreciate it, and all good wishes! Dorothy

    • Thank you, Kenny! I’ve thanked those I know, personally, but it means just as much to hear from those I don’t know.

  13. Beautiful stories. They resonated so much with my experiences there as well. The little girl’s note was the kicker. Really choked me up and I understand how you couldn’t leave after that. Bravo!

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