Thoughts on Reservations
July 1976

“Thoughts on Reservations,” New Era, July 1976, 35


Thoughts on Reservations

Sarah sank back against the dusty seat and peered anxiously out the streaked window ot the bus. She managed a shaky smile at three figures peering up at her. Tears came unbidden, and Sarah drew back quickly, dashing them away. Then the bus began to snort and cough as the motor turned over in protest. Sarah felt her heart jump to her throat as she watched the faces search the windows for a last glimpse of their daughter. She waved frantically as the bus shook itself a final time and lumbered out into the street that ran by the Placertown meetinghouse. The bus, with it’s chattering load, swung laboriously around the corner, and the farewells were over.

Sarah settled back against the seat and fastened her hands around the small suitcase resting on her lap. She smiled down at the brown case that held the “reminders” her foster mother had chosen for this trip home. Each year for seven years Sister Allen had tucked a small package under her daughter’s arm and placed a warm kiss on her cheek as the bus drove up. Every year the long, anxious ride back to the reservation had been made bearable as Sarah examined each article and note enclosed. This trip, however, the case was not opened. Sarah was 17 now and anxious to test her newly discovered maturity. She would wait to open the package after she had returned to her home and blood family. Later, perhaps, in the privacy atop some wind-cooled mesa with only the rustling sagebrush to interrupt her thoughts, Sarah would examine her treasures.

Sarah stirred sleepily in her seat and glanced wearily out the window. With a start she realized that she had been asleep for several hours as the red rock mesas of the Navajo reservation came into sight. Her heart leapt as she saw the old trading post that signaled Keyah Tso and home lay only miles up the long, barren highway. Sarah shook out the folds of her dress and smoothed back the straight black hair that had tumbled into her eyes. She was excited as she thought of the reunion with her family.

Suddenly Sarah realized her lap was empty. The case was gone. Frantically she looked about and discovered it laying in the aisle beside her seat. Snatching it up, she clutched it protectively.

As the bus ground to a stop before the red-roofed building, Sarah caught sight of a small group of velveteen and dungaree-clad Navajos. One anxious figure stood shyly apart from the others. Sarah saw that her mother had donned her favorite red velveteen blouse and green cotton skirt for the occasion. The woman’s wrists and fingers were covered with silver and turquoise, and around her neck hung the beautiful turquoise necklace Sarah’s father had made just before his death. Her long, gray-streaked hair had been tied back in the traditional bitsi yaal knot. Her mother waited patiently as Sarah climbed down from the bus and ran to meet her. The two stood looking at each other for a long, silent moment. The older woman put her shoulder against her daughter’s in a shy gesture of welcome. Sarah placed her hand on the velveteen-covered arm and gently squeezed. A smile, a sigh, and the encounter was over. The girl turned back to the bus, waved a cheery goodbye to her friends, picked up her suitcase, and turned to her mother. Sarah cleared her throat, a little embarrassed, and spoke to her mother. The sharp glottal sounds of Navajo felt strange and unaccustomed on her tongue. Soon she found herself chattering comfortably to the small group of Navajo women and children riding with her in the back of a ’56 pickup. As the clay-smeared vehicle bounced its way down the road to the Yazzie home, Sarah became the center of attention as the women and children listened avidly to the description of her way of life away from the reservation.

Suddenly the air seemed heavy with the odor of sagebrush, and Sarah knew she was home once again. Overhead an eagle winged across the sky before soaring behind the face of a red rock mesa. Then she saw the smoke curling from the mud chimney of the Yazzie hogan. The pickup stopped with a loud screech of brakes; children jumped over the sides. The wooden door of the home flew open, and Sarah saw the excited faces of her two brothers peering out. They showed no embarrassment as they greeted her and drew her impatiently to the sheep corral to meet the shaggy newborn lambs.

It wasn’t until the sun had gone down and the family had gone to bed that Sarah remembered her case. Already the memory of her other world had begun to dim. The familiar odors of the one-room dwelling and the sounds of a desert summer night had replaced the buzz of city life. The mutton stew and fry bread at dinner had seemed more than delicious to Sarah. She would have it again and again, but it would never seem as good as it had this first night home. She turned over on the skeepskin bed, burrowing herself into its warmth, when a gentle tug of memory brought forth the image of the brown case. “Tomorrow,” she thought. “Tomorrow.”

Sarah woke abruptly, gazing into a mischievous face. The face was attached to a small, wiggling body that was firmly planted on her stomach. She guiltily realized that she had slept in. Daylight was already beginning to fill the hogan, and she knew her mother had been up for several hours. Sarah put her squirming brother on the dirt floor of the room and scrambled into her faded jeans and calico shirt. She dashed cold water from a large metal bucket on the heavy wooden table into her face and ran a wire brush through her thick, tousled hair. On the table she found some cold potatoes and fry bread that tasted good with the chilling-cold well water. Outside in the distance Sarah could hear the bleating of the sheep. As she stepped out of the hogan into the bright sun, she saw the kneeling body of her mother. Sarah leaned over her and watched her work-roughened hands push the shuttle back and forth rapidly, marveling again at the beautiful and intricate designs appearing on the loom. Sarah felt proud as she realized that this rug would bring a very good price at the reservation trading post. Almost unnoticeable to the inexperienced observer was the tiny flaw in the colorful design. Sarah’s mother had left one thread unbound so that her soul would not be caught up and forever imprisoned in the rug—an old Navajo custom.

She felt a flash of fear as she realized how different her two worlds were. A hand reached out and tugged her to the loom. Sarah crouched beside her mother and took up the shuttle. Her fingers were clumsy as she worked to place the bright threads in their proper order. Soon she was engrossed in the project and didn’t notice her mother rise slowly to her feet. The old woman shook out the folds of her full yellow skirt and disappeared into the hogan.

An hour had passed before the young girl’s legs began to ache from the unaccustomed position. Her fingertips were sore from the pressure on the strings of the loom. Sarah tossed her hair from her eyes and, groaning a bit, rose to her feet. As she shook her legs, her mother appeared in the doorway. In her hands was a parcel wrapped in cloth, a remnant of an old skirt Sarah had worn years ago.

“Take this to John, my daughter,” the woman said. “He will be hungry.” Sarah took the package, waved to her mother, and started off across the sage-covered ground at a trot. She knew every bush, hole, and rock on this part of the reservation. Her brother would be with the sheep some miles away to the west. The fodder was good there this time of year; it was also their share of the reservation land. Good manners decreed that each family honor his neighbor’s grazing rights.

Sarah could hear the sheep not far ahead. She approached quietly. Her brother was perched on a rock, chewing a weed, his eyes half-closed against the sun. Sarah dropped down beside him.

“Mom sent your lunch,” she said, a bit out of breath from the walk. “Why don’t you let me keep it, and you go on home. I’ll watch the sheep the rest of the day.”

“Sure you remember how?” teased her brother.

“Go on,” grinned Sarah, “get out of here,” and she aimed a playful kick as he jumped out of the way. He set out across the desert at a rabbit’s pace.

Sarah leaned contentedly against the rock and closed her eyes, basking in the warmth. As the complacent animals grazed, Sarah dreamed girlish thoughts. A pesky fly buzzed about her ears and lit on her face. Lazily she batted at it, but it clung persistently to her nose, and she opened her eyes in exasperation. A darkly handsome face grinned familiarly down into her startled eyes. Sarah gasped in fright and jumped to her feet, her heart pounding wildly.

“I’m sorry, Sarah!” The boy choked with laughter. “It was too good a chance to pass up.” He waved a long slender twig in front of her nose. “You looked too peaceful lying there.”

“Oh, Benny!” Sarah’s voice shook. “You scared me to death. Where did you come from? I never even heard you come up.”

“Oh,” he returned flippantly, “you know how Indians can sneak through the grass.” He eyed her for a silent moment, then added, “You’ve grown some.”

“Well, one does that after a year’s time you know. And what,” she demanded, “have you been doing for a year, Benjamin Johnson?”

“Well, now,” he drawled, “I’ve been here and there, doing a bit of rodeoing, a bit of dancing, and so on. And what,” he returned, “have you been doing with yourself this year?”

“Oh,” Sarah faltered in embarrassment, “the same I do every year.”

“Do I detect a white lining inside—sort of like an … apple,” he mocked.

“Honestly, Benny!” she snapped. “You act so, so …” Sarah cast wildly about for the proper word, “Indian!” she finished lamely.

Benny grinned at her confusion. “Truce!” she cried holding up her arms in mock surrender. The uncomfortable moment passed, and soon Sarah found herself up to date on the happenings of her reservation friends. Ben had a quick wit and sense of humor. Several hours passed and shadows began to stretch across the prairie. The air carried a hint of the coolness of the oncoming desert night. Soon they began the walk back to the corral. Ahead of them moved the animals. In the still, nippy air Sarah shivered, and Benny draped his green sweater over her shoulders, laughing as the arms swallowed up her small hands. After several moments of silence, broken only by the calling of lamb to ewe, Benny glanced down at her.

“Sarah,” he began a little shyly. Sarah looked up in surprise at the serious note in his voice. Benny kicked at a clod of red clay with a boot, then, casting a rock high into the air, announced quickly, “My folks are throwing a squaw dance tomorrow night at our place.” He glanced down at the girl and asked, “Will you come?”

Sarah hesitated, caught between ready assent and nagging doubt. Some of Benny’s friends were not her friends. Sarah had watched with regret over the past few years as Benny began to fall in with some rough company. Word had come to her this year at school of some trouble that had concerned Benny and his friends. Word was they had been involved in drugs. Sarah had seen students in the city school with glassy eyes and slack mouths. Indoctrination from both sides of the drug question was intense, and Sarah had felt the pressure at times. Now as she eyed him, Sarah felt a pang of uncertainty. Benny’s friends would be at the dance and her friends were back in the city.

“I’ll try to be there,” Sarah offered in a low voice. The boy released a pent-up breath and kicked a rock in embarrassed delight. The flock bleated in alarm and moved as if to break ranks. Sarah could see the smoke from the Yazzie hogan rising against the darkening sky. She turned to Benny.

“I can take them on in from here,” she said softly. A silent moment, and then he said hurriedly, “I’d come for you tomorrow night, Sarah, but I’ll have to help with things. You will come, won’t you?”

The sheep were moving on toward the corral, and Sarah went after them. She called back over her shoulder, “I’ll try.”

The hogan was warm. On the black, pot-bellied stove a pan of beans bubbled. A kerosene lamp threw shadows on the walls as Sarah sank down on a rickety chair and surveyed her family. Her brothers were engrossed in a game of marbles on the hard-packed dirt floor. Her mother sat vigorously carding the dirt and burrs from a pile of sheep’s wool at her feet. The dislodged dirt fell on the apron of her skirt. After a moment, she arose and began serving the evening meal of fry bread and beans. Sarah spoke softly to her mother as she, too, moved about the room, helping to dish the steaming beans into bowls. She spoke shyly of her visitor at the grazing grounds, and the mother listened with quiet interest. As Sarah talked of the invitation to the dance, a frown of concern crossed the older woman’s face. Sarah changed the subject quickly, wishing that she had not told Benny she would try to be there.

After the dishes were washed and stacked away in the small wooden cupboard, Sarah moved to a corner of the room, Placing the brown case on her lap she drew back the lid. There was a deep crimson scarf. Inside the scarf she found a note scribbled in childish letters. Her eyes watered as she read the short love note from her foster sister. In the bottom of the case lay another card. On the front of the card was the picture of a single white rosebud against a background of royal blue. Sarah turned it over, and written on the back in the neat printing of her foster mother were the words “To Thine Own Self Be True.” That was all; but to Sarah it spoke volumes. She could remember the night she had received this card. How proud she had been of her mother that evening. They had been invited to a mother-daughter dinner, and Sister Allen had been the featured speaker. Her stories of chastity, honesty, and loyalty had touched hearts, and at the end of the program, each girl received a single rosebud and the accompanying card.

Sarah pressed the card to her lips and felt a warmth within her. To Thine Own Self Be True. It had not been an easy doctrine to follow, but she had had friends with the same goals, and they had helped each other. The girl sat lost in her thoughts until the friendly squabbling of her brothers disturbed her.

Too soon the evening of the dance came, and Sarah could not still her doubts. Yet she found herself dressed and standing at the door of the hogan. Already the fires could be seen flickering in the distance, and the rhythmic beat of the drums and the sing-song of the chants floated across the summer air. She clutched her jacket and stepped out into the cool desert evening. She half-turned toward the lantern-lit hogan and, seeing her mother at the loom, forced a cheery wave, hurrying off toward the Johnson camp.

As Sarah neared the huge fire, she paused in sudden shyness. She searched the faces and found many familiar ones. A strong hand came from out of the darkness and grabbed her wrist. She jumped nervously and swung around to find Benny grinning down at her. Her heart beat rapidly, half in alarm and half in wonder at the expression in his eyes. Ben drew her closer to the circle of his friends who greeted her. The dancing started, and Sarah found herself caught up in the beauty of the Navajo chants. Young and old alike joined in the round dances, and the rhythm of shuffling feet began to weave a spell around her.

Sarah and Ben danced silently together for a moment, then Ben said in a serious tone, “You’re the prettiest girl here tonight, Sarah—and the nicest.”

“You’re pretty nice yourself, Ben.” Sarah returned with a smile. “If only … ,” she stopped in confusion. The boy stopped dancing abruptly, causing Sarah to stumble against him.

“If only, what?” he demanded.

Sarah glanced over at the small group of his friends huddled together in the darkness outside the circle of the fire. She was saved from answering the question when one of the boys in the group called to Benny, “Hey, lover boy, come on over and bring your girl.”

Ben hesitated for a moment, then took Sarah by the hand and pulled her over to the group. The circle moved apart, and Ben dropped to the ground, pulling Sarah down with him. She glanced around apprehensively. Several of her old girlfriends were there, and they had always been nice girls from good families. She relaxed a bit and took their teasing in good humor. They began their own chants, and the feeling of companionship grew. But Sarah realized that she had grown out of touch with many of her Indian friends, and she was surprised to see that they were maturing too. The girls were clean and dressed in style; the boys had lost their adolescent shyness. Leaning against Ben and listening to the group, Sarah wondered why she had felt such a reluctance to come. Maybe she had been too quick in labeling Benny’s new friends as roughs. She felt a quick flash of pride that they had accepted her so fast. She knew now that it was important to her that she remain their friend.

“Having a good time?” Benny asked softly, breaking into her thoughts.

“Oh, yes.” Sarah sighed. “It’s been such fun.” She leaned her head shyly on his shoulder and breathed deeply of the freshness of the night air.

Slowly Sarah became aware that Ben was nudging her with an elbow. “Here.” he whispered softly, thrusting a small, long object into her hand. The girl glanced down in surprise and saw that he held a cigarette in his hand. She looked up questioningly at Benny, but his attention was on the others in the group. Sarah became aware that each one in turn was lighting a cigarette, passing the match around until it sputtered out in someone’s fingers. She could smell the smoke from the lit cigarettes, and it carried a peculiarly sweet odor with it. Her new friends smiled encouragingly across the circle. Suddenly she realized that every eye was on her.

The match became a torch, telling her to catch hold of its fire. The odor was stronger now, overwhelming her with its sweetness. She reached for the match, wanting to be a part of this group, wanting desperately not to lose Ben’s friendship. It would be so easy, she reasoned. No one need ever know about this one time.

Sarah became dimly aware that a voice, quietly but clearly, was sounding in her head. The words took focus, and Sarah gasped as the match burnt her fingers. The voice whispered, “To Thine Own Self Be True.” She looked around in confusion and saw that her new friends were all watching her.

“No! I can’t!” she blurted, jumping to her feet. Sarah stood a moment, then turned and left the circle, stumbling in her haste. She realized she had probably forfeited her friendship with them all. She was sick that Benny had been a part of it.

Her hot cheeks began to cool as she said a silent prayer of thanks for her escape. She straightened her shoulders as a sense of returning strength came to her.

“If only Ben had not …” she began to herself but could not finish as she felt a sharp pain in the region of her heart.

“Sarah! Sarah!” The words came sharply over her shoulder, making her jump in alarm. She whirled to stare unbelievingly at Benny who stood grinning at her, panting a little from his run.

“I won’t go back, Ben,” she announced firmly.

“Who wants you to?” Ben returned tartly. “I’m coming with you,” he added in a gentler voice.

“But your friends?”

“You’re my friend, Sarah.” Then he added in a serious voice, “I’d very much like to be your friend, Sarah.” He waited quietly, ready to accept her answer, knowing it might be a refusal.

Sarah’s eyes began to shine, and she gave Ben a playful push. “I’ll be dull company,” she said teasingly.

Ben grinned as he recognized and accepted her answer. He reached over and gave her long hair a gentle tug. “I’ll get used to it.”

“C’mon,” Sarah laughed. “I’ll race you home.”

Illustrated by Sherry Thompson