THE EASTERN NAVAJO AGENCY SPELLING BEE
kurt caswell

Author’s note: In the fall of 1995, I lived in a remote Navajo community in northwest New Mexico where I taught middle school language arts. It was a year of failures, and a few successes, a hard year, but a year I would not trade for another. The story you are about to read is an excerpt from my book In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation. I hope it opens you to a part of our world, a part of our country, that you may not have seen before.

The Thunderbird Inn was usually crawling with tourists, but it was early in the season and we had the place largely to ourselves. We checked in at the front desk. Betty took us around the building and parked the bus. When the room doors opened, the kids rushed inside in a wave, the boys into one room, the girls into the other two. They inspected everything: the beds, the telephone, the TV, the running water, the free shampoo and soap, the clear plastic drinking cups. They looked at themselves in the mirrors, bounced a little on the beds, turned on the bathtub spigot until the water was too hot to hold their hands there. They pressed their faces into the fresh white towels. They pulled open all the drawers in all the dressers. In the boys’ room, Tom Charlie discovered the Holy Bible, placed by the Gideons. The telephone rang.

Tom, who was leafing through the pages of Exodus, looked at the phone as it rang. He had probably used a telephone only a few times in his life, and he certainly did not have one at home. It rang again. And then again.

“Well, pick it up,” I said.

He did, and pressed it to his ear. He waited. Nothing happened. We waited with him, and still nothing happened.

“Say hello,” Miles told him.

“Hello?” Tom said.

“Hello?” said Valeria Benally, calling from the girls’ room. I could hear her voice coming from the phone and also from the open door.

They both sat there.

“Hello,” Tom said again.

“Ask her what she wants,” Miles said.

“What do you want?” Tom said.

In the other room, Valeria turned to Lauren and said, “What do we want?”

Lauren told her to ask if we were ready to eat dinner.

Valeria asked us. “Are you guys ready to eat dinner?”

Tom looked at me. “She wants to know if we are ready to eat dinner.”

“Are we?” I asked.

“Yeaaaah!” everyone said.

Tom sat there.

“Tell her yes,” Miles said.

“Yes,” Tom said.

“Wait,” I said. “Tom, ask Valeria if they want to go up to Spider Rock before dinner.”

“What rock?” Tom said.

“I know,” Miles said. “The one up there in the canyon.”

“Go ahead, ask her,” I said.

“Do you want to go up to Spider Rock before dinner?” Tom said.

Nothing happened.

“She didn’t say nothing,” Tom said. But he had let the receiver drop under his chin, and Valeria probably couldn’t hear him.

Renee poked her head into the room from the open door. “Talk into the phone,” she said. “We can’t hear you.”

Miles raised the phone up for Tom and said, “Ask it again.”

“Do you want to go up to Spider Rock before dinner?” Tom asked.

Valeria turned to Lauren in the other room. “He says do we want to go to Spider Rock before dinner?”

Lauren and I had already talked about driving up to the canyon overlook, so she told Valeria to say yes.

“Yes,” Valeria said, and hung up the phone.

Then Tom hung up the phone. He went back to looking at the Bible.

Everyone waited, staring at him.

“What did she say?” Miles asked.

“She said yes,” Tom said, turning pages and not looking up.

“Then let’s go,” I said. Tom dropped the Bible on the bed, and we filed out the door to the bus.
  
None of the kids except Miles, the white boy, had ever been to Canyon de Chelly, even though it is one of the most important historical and spiritual centers of Navajo culture. It was first occupied by the Anasazi some two thousand years ago, then by the Hopi people, sporadically, from about ad 1300. The Navajo displaced the Hopi about ad 1700. Until the early 1800s, the canyon was a Navajo stronghold; its sheer walls and a winding system of spur canyons offered good protection and defense. It was a place of dependable water where the people grazed sheep and goats and grew melons, corn, squash, and peaches. The Navajos looked after some five thousand producing peach trees in Canyon de Chelly until 1864, when Colonel Kit Carson and his soldiers burned them all.

Today Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument of about 83,000 acres under the joint management of the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Except for the trail to White House Ruin, to enter the canyon one must hire a Navajo guide. The canyon floor is still private property. Navajo families live and work down there, as they have for the past three hundred years.

The kids clustered in the back of the bus waiting for the bumps, and sometimes stuck their arms and heads out the open windows as Lauren and I sang in unison, “Don’t put your arms or heads out the window!” while the bus chugged and strained along the steep grade and we rose up and out and above the town. The air cooled and patches of snow dotted the landscape. We wound along, curve after curve, and we could see into the canyon now, see how high above we were, then again how much higher.

At the top, where the road changed from National Monument pavement to reservation dirt, we angled north along the drive and into the parking lot. The kids filed off the bus and into the evening air.

“Take your coats,” I called to them, but most of them didn’t bring a coat, or didn’t have one.

Valeria turned to face me at the bus door and said, “We don’t need no coats. We’re Nava-joes,” and she laughed and leaped down into the world.

By the time Lauren and I got off the bus, the patches of snow had already become a thousand snowballs launched among the short, twisted pines, helter-skelter. The parking lot was empty except for an older couple who hurried into their Lincoln Town Car and shut the doors. We watched as the red taillights faded into the dust kicked up from the road.

Now we were alone.

At the overlook, we stood before the canyon, which is shaped like the footprint of a great dinosaur. The toes are the north and south canyons, and the heel is the mouth of the canyon, spilling west into Chinle Wash. The sun was dropping fast into the western lands, and the light on Spider Rock was muted a soft red. The kids stood together along the railing, looking over into that huge open chasm, all the way to the bottom. A hawk sifted in and out and along the cliff face. We watched the soft movements of the wings in shadow for as long as we could see them, out over the empty space and across our dreams, all of us. It drifted beyond where we could see now, away and beyond somewhere inside the belly of Canyon de Chelly.

As we stood there together looking out on Spider Rock, the wind came up and blew through us. The air was sharp and cold. I was ready to go, ready for supper. Then Valeria called everyone over to the plaque on the sandstone retaining wall that told the story of Spider Woman in both Navajo and English.

“All right, everybody, listen up,” Valeria said as we gathered around her. “I’m going to read this story.”

Valeria had never been a strong reader in class. Most days she was reluctant, even frightened to read aloud in class, especially in English. That she was volunteering now to read to us was surprising. Perhaps something about this moment had taken hold of her, something about this place; perhaps, seeing her own language on the plaque next to the English, she felt a sense of ownership, even kinship with that language, with the canyon, and with Spider Rock. She read the story aloud, first in Navajo, then in English. The story she read goes something like this:

It was Spider Woman who gave the Hero Twins power to find the path to the Sun’s house. They claimed the Sun was their father, and after passing a series of tests, the Sun agreed. He gave them magical weapons, and taught them how to slay the monsters of this world. And so Spider Woman is revered by the Navajo for helping make the world safe. After her great deed, she chose this rock spire, now known as Spider Rock, to make her home.

Spider Woman is regarded as both generous and potentially dangerous. Navajo children know that if they misbehave, Spider Woman will descend on a silken thread and take them to her home on top of the great sandstone spire. There, she will devour them as punishment for their crimes. The top of Spider Rock is white because it is blanketed with the bones of bad Navajo children.

But Spider Woman also taught the Navajos how to weave. Spider Man, her husband, constructed the loom. He made the cross poles of sky, and the chords of earth. The warp sticks he made of sun rays. He made the healds of crystals and lightning. The batten he made of a sun halo, and the comb of white shell. It is because of Spider Woman that the Navajos know how to weave, a skill that has sustained them for generations.

After the story, we lingered for a few minutes as the mood of the place and the moment transformed into memory. The children became children again, and a few snowballs went sailing. We walked back on the paved path, got on the bus, and drove back down into Chinle to find a place to eat.

We stopped at a diner with all the usuals: burgers and fries; chicken-fried steak; soups and salads; Navajo tacos. What I didn’t realize as we waited for a table was that these Navajo kids had never been to a restaurant with a waiter. On most school trips, the driver stopped at Furr’s Cafeteria in Gallup, an assembly-line style of dining that offered large portions for little money, and a comfortable degree of self-service. And of course, at school too, they ate this way in the cafeteria. What they were about to experience, they didn’t know existed.

The hostess led us to a table, and everyone sat down. Judy sat next to me at the end of the table, and across from Lauren. She noticed a big, barrel-chested Navajo man with a broad, flat nose walk by with his wife or girlfriend. They laughed together, holding hands, and he repositioned his black felt hat on his head.

Little Judy Yazzie tugged on my shirtsleeve. “Navajo people come in here?” she whispered. “They eat in here?”

I nodded. “Yes. They do.”

Our waiter appeared and handed around menus. Judy opened hers. It was big and colorful, almost as big as she was. She looked at me, then back at the menu. What did it all mean? She had never seen a menu before, never been asked to read the options and make a choice. She could read all right, as well as any third grader in America reading English as her second language, but she didn’t know what she was reading. A description of a mushroom burger made little sense to her. I tried to give her some options. Navajo taco? (She had never heard of such a thing.) Patty melt? Roast beef and mashed potatoes? Double burger?

“Double burger!” she said. “And hot chocolate.”

“That’s a pretty big dinner,” I said. “That’s two burgers on one plate.”

“Yeah,” she said.

The news that Judy had ordered a double burger spilled around the circle, and because everyone was equally befuddled by the menu, they all decided to have double burgers and hot chocolate.

“Can I have dessert?” Judy asked.

“Sure,” I said. “But let’s wait until after we eat. Then you can order again.”

“I want the double burger,” she said. “Can I have it?”

“Yes,” I said. “But you have to wait a moment. When the waiter comes over, he’ll ask you what you want, and you tell him the double burger.”

“Okay,” she said.

The waiter came over.

“Double burger!” Judy said.

He wrote it down. As he went around the table, each of the children ordered a double burger. Miles joined in. Lauren and I ordered Navajo tacos.

When the waiter returned with a round of hot chocolates, Judy smiled. She picked up her cup. She looked inside at the dollop of whipped cream. She stuck her tongue into it, and set the cup back down.

“Can I have this?” she asked.

“It’s yours, yes,” I said.

“This?” she said, holding up the cup.

“The cup?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“No,” I said. “That cup belongs to the restaurant.”

“Oh,” she said.

“What about dessert?” she asked again. “I want apple pie.”

“You have to wait until after you get your supper,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, and went back to licking the whipped cream.

Each of the meals came with a salad, and the waiter brought them out, along with a tray of dressings and a basket of crackers.

Judy looked at me. “What’s this?”

“A salad,” I said.

“Don’t you get one?”

“No. The Navajo taco is like a salad. So I don’t get one.”

She reached for the crackers. “Can I have this?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Can I take this?”

She meant the basket. “No,” I said. “It belongs to the restaurant. If you take that home, they have to buy more baskets next time. And if everyone took them home, they would have to buy so many baskets the price of the food would be very high.”

She paused and considered. “This costs money?” she asked.

The waiter brought the food out on a big tray and set it down on the stand next to the table. Everyone’s eyes got very big. Double burgers all around. The waiter dealt them out like aces, and the kids went to work.

Everyone was eating happily until Lauren asked for the salt and pepper. They looked at each other. They waited. “Tom,” Lauren said. “Could you pass the salt and pepper?”

Tom looked at her. Then he looked behind him. Then he looked at Miles.

“Pass the salt and pepper,” Miles told him.

Tom didn’t move. Miles pointed out the two little shakers on the table. Tom picked them up and handed them to Lauren. Everyone started eating again. I don’t know how these children used salt and pepper at home?— maybe they didn’t at all?— but at school, it came only in little paper packages, and there weren’t any little paper packages on the table, except for the crackers.

“Can I have dessert?” Judy asked again.

“In a little bit,” I said. “First the waiter will come back and ask if everything is okay. You say yes. Then he’ll come back again when you are finished to take your plate. That’s when you ask for dessert.”

“Okay,” she said.

And it happened just like that. The waiter came back. “Is everything all right here?” he asked.

Judy looked at me. I nodded to her. “Yes,” Judy said.

The waiter went away.

“Now he’ll come back one more time when you are finished eating,” I said. “And he’ll ask if you are finished so he can take your plate. If you are, you say yes. If you aren’t, tell him no.”

And it happened just like that. The waiter came back. “Are you all finished here?” he asked.

“No,” Judy said. “Can I take this?” She looked at me, a little sad this time, because every time she had asked so far, the answer had been no. The double burger was so big that Judy only ate half of one. Most of the kids were able to eat one burger, and still had one whole burger on their plate.

“Yes,” I told her. “This you can take.”

“For reals?” she said, and smiled big.

“Me too,” everyone said.

“I’ll bring some boxes,” the waiter said. He went away.

“Can I have dessert?” Judy said.

“He’s coming back,” I said. “He’ll give you a box to take home your double burger. And then he’ll ask if you want dessert. That’s when you tell him apple pie.”

“Okay,” she said.

He came back. The waiter set a stack of Styrofoam boxes down on the table. “All right,” he said. “Will anyone have dessert tonight?”

Judy looked at me. Her moment had finally arrived. I nodded to her.

“I want apple pie,” Judy said. Then everyone ordered apple pie.

“Thank you,” the waiter said, and went away.

Then Judy, who had been holding it back for far too long now, leaned across the table to Lauren and whispered, “Mrs. Sittnick, how does Mr. Caswell know what’s going to happen?”

After supper, we loaded onto the bus and went back to our rooms. Valeria had brought a Nintendo video game console. She didn’t have a TV at home, so she rarely played. Like the cash that miraculously appeared every time we stopped for gas, the Nintendo seemed to me a mysterious possession. Why own one without a TV to hook it up to? I wondered where and how she got it? But no matter. We plugged it in and all the children sat on the bed around the TV in the girls’ room. They played until about ten, then Lauren and I sent them all to bed.
  
Saturday. Spelling bee day. Everyone woke early to get ready for the big competition. In the boy’s room, Tom and Miles showered and dressed and sat on the bed watching TV. We waited on the girls for a long time. When they finally came out, primped and ready, we walked to the restaurant at the Thunderbird Inn for breakfast. That’s when Lauren told me the story about the showers.

She was sitting on one of the beds waiting for the girls as they got ready for the day. She has roused them early so that they would have plenty of time to shower and get dressed. Two of the girls had showered and now stood at the sink outside the bathroom drying their hair with the blow-dryer built into the wall. The others were in the bathroom together, still using the shower. Sitting there, Lauren noticed a wide, dark stain on the
carpet near the bathroom door. It was water. She knocked on the door.

“Yeah?” the girls called from inside.

“Are you okay in there?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah,” they answered.

“Can I come in? There’s water all over out here.”

“Yeah,” they answered.

Lauren went in. The shower was on, and steaming water poured from the showerhead as the girls took turns under it. They had pulled the shower curtain back and left it hanging outside the tub. Rotating in and out of the shower, one of them lathered up her hair with shampoo, and then stepped out for someone else to take a turn. Water and soap were everywhere, dripping off them onto the floor and splashing out of the shower. The carpet was soaked. The wallpaper was wet up the side of the walls. Even the framed picture on the wall was soaking wet.

“Oh my gosh,” Lauren said. “You have to put this inside the bathtub,” she told them, pulling the shower curtain closed.

“Okay,” they said, unmoved by Lauren’s panic.

“Oh my gosh. All this water,” Lauren said.

You see, this is the way they had always done it, when they showered at school. They did not have plumbing at home. They did not have running water. They did not take showers except at school, and those showers, sometimes called “gang showers,” did not require shower curtains. The water fell all around them in a tiled room with a central drain. So here at the Thunderbird Inn, how were they to know?

“Hurry up now and come on out when you’re finished,” Lauren said. “I’ll have to try to mop this up.”

“Okay,” they said.

The girls took turns, standing in the shower for a very long time, with the curtain pulled closed now. Finally, after each of them had taken a shower, they came out, dried their hair, primped at the mirror, and announced that they were ready.

Now they had some free time before breakfast. Despite the mishap, they had been fairly efficient. They sat in the room for awhile watching TV. Then Valeria got up and went into the bathroom. She closed the door. The other girls heard the shower come on, but Lauren
wasn’t paying attention.

“Can I take a shower too?” Carmen asked.

“No,” Lauren said. “You just did. We’re almost ready to go.”

“But she’s doing it in there,” Carmen said.

“Yeah, me too,” Judy said. “Can I again?”

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Can we? It’s so nice for us.”

“No,” Lauren said. “We have to go soon.”

But it was too late for her to change their course, and soon most of the girls were in the shower going through the whole drama all over again.

After breakfast, we loaded onto the bus and drove out to the Chinle High School gym for the Eastern Navajo Agency Spelling Bee. Tom, Valeria, Vanessa, and Miles were all very nervous. Vanessa decided she really didn’t want to compete after all.

“But we drove all the way here just so you could,” Lauren told her.

“Is it?” she said. “But that’s okay,” she said. “I don’t mind.”

She did compete, though. When her name was called, she stepped up to the microphone. She looked out at the crowd of a hundred people from all over the Eastern Agency, foreigners to her, all of them, except the little island that was us in the back of the room. A man at a table called out a word. He wore thick glasses and an unkempt beard. He pronounced the word clearly, almost too clearly. It was a word Vanessa knew, or at least a word I had known her to spell correctly in practice. Maybe it sounded funny to her, or maybe standing in front of the crowd like that was too much. She didn’t need to get this word right only to have to stand up there again in the second round. She missed it and sat down, her lip jutting out like she wanted to cry.

Everyone consoled her, put their hands on her shoulders and said, “That’s all right. You did great,” and other kind things. Her lip returned to its usual position and she was okay again. It was all okay. In fact, she smiled. She was finished. Her long trial was over.
Valeria made it into the third round, and so did Miles. Tom made it all the way to the finals, but didn’t place. And that was it. The Eastern Navajo Agency Spelling Bee was over. There were a few panicked moments when the judges didn’t seem to know what they were doing, and spelling coaches from various schools raced around in the hallways of the high school looking for a higher power. But things settled out, maybe because the teachers and parents put things in perspective and realized that these were just kids playing a game, trying to spell English words in a little town in Arizona on the Navajo reservation.

We thanked our hosts and loaded the bus for home.

 

Excerpted from In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation by Kurt Caswell, © 2009. Reprinted by permission of Trinity University Press.

Kurt Caswell is the author of In The Sun’s House, as well as An Inside Passage (University of Nebraska Press), for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He is the lead editor of an anthology of nature writing, To Everything on Earth (Texas Tech University Press). He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. Visit his website.