Rez People

The faculty and administration of our reservation college was about 70 percent Native American, mostly Navajo of course, but other tribes as well. When it was created in 1968, NCC enjoyed the distinction of being the first tribal college in the United States. As such, it attracted academic talent from other tribes across the country.

In the early years of Navajo Community College, when both tribal and federal money was easy, the college enjoyed a luxurious budget. That changed in the early 1980’s, when much federal support dried up, and the tribe declined to make up the difference. When I worked for the tribe at NCC, our budgets were barely enough to operate with, and unstable.

After several years of this, the college was in the red with its vendors and suppliers, and in deficit spending mode. The school would declare ‘financial exigency’ with some frequency; until this condition was ‘undeclared’, all spending would stop, and I’d need to ration welding supplies, and limit work at the shop. Predictably, in our trade shops, I struggled with a backload of deferred maintenance, and operated on a shoestring budget. Occasionally, faculty and staff payrolls were delayed, an alarming development, but the college always finally paid us, if a few days late.

I needed Navajo workers who could act as go-between between me and the community people, many of whom spoke little or poor English, or were wary of me, a white person. Certain young men in my program turned out to smart, reliable, and skilled. We recruited these people as teaching assistants, and they made my life a lot easier.

Two in particular, Ed Laneman and Walt Klitscho, did a lot of fabrication and welding for me, building things for the school, or handling the endless walk-ins from the community, who needed welding, and rarely could pay. I turned away some projects, mostly because our load was already too much, but often, because the work was crude, absurd, or the person obstreperous.

Walt Klitscho was from the remote village of Shonto, west of Kayenta, in the slickrock and range lands that lead up to Navajo Mountain. Sharper than most of the other students, an excellent mechanic and welder, Walt did a lot of repair and service welding for us, on plows, backhoes, and graders. Besides being a quality worker, he helped me in our business dealings with the local people, which were often a source of friction for me. And of course, I spoke no Navajo.

Freddy Hardy was an older student, a Vietnam veteran, and a good worker. Large and stocky, he had excellent welding skills. He was an angry drunk, but when sober, was a handy guy. One time, while we were chatting, during a busy shop day, I asked him if he’d learned welding in the service; no, he said, he actually was a combat veteran, a flame-thrower specialist, whose job, as he proudly said, was ‘to fry them gooks’. Freddy was a good guy most of the time, but his demons haunted him, so he drowned away those memories with booze.

We had several older men, seniors, who attended our program. Their reasons varied, but mostly they needed something to do, and enjoyed the college environment. One of my students had been a ‘Code Talker’, one of that special group of Navajo soldiers who, in the Second World War, as radio operators in the Pacific theater of war, confounded the Japanese military by speaking in Navajo, their native language, defeating all attempts by the enemy to break their code.

I had an older student from Kayenta named King Mike, whose nickname came from his days as a rodeo champion. A short, cheery, silver-haired man in his 60’s, with a marine buzzcut, he wore substantial eyeglasses that gave him a permanent myopic look. He was funny, too. His welding skills were abysmal, and he was only semi-literate; nevertheless, he was enrolled because, needing something to do with his money, he’d purchased a welding shop, which he gave to his grandsons.

King Mike was rich. He’d come by his money because of coal. When the Peabody Coal Company began strip mining the mesas south of Kayenta, in the 1960’s, King’s clan had been forced to move, and were compensated with big cash, and jobs. King Mike and clan moved onto a new ranch nearby; when, in the 1970’s, the coal mine again displaced them, they were again compensated with big cash, and jobs. The clan fortune was built up due to good management by the senior clan matriarchs, who invested the money, rather than let it be frittered away. And, King received a decent pension from his years as an employee at the mine.

I figured out, eventually, that our friend King was a tribal elder, and well-connected; his wife was one of those senior clan matriarchs who, being the ruling class in Navajo society, controlled the bulk of the wealth and resources of the Navajo tribe. King was mindful of the young students around him, who treated him with some respect, and he’d give them money if they had a serious need. He clued me in when someone might be screwing up, or fooling me, or causing trouble.

One morning in October, I arrived at the shop at 8:00 am, opened up, and put on the coffee. King Mike was first to arrive, and set about some task. I was sipping morning brew when the shop door opened, and a shaman came in.

This man wore a ceremonial mask that concealed his face; he was in jeans and boots, but unclothed from the waste up, his body painted white. In his left hand, he carried a gourd rattle; in his right, he carried a pounce, a little bag filled with fine corn pollen. Singing in a low voice, he gave me a small nod, then began his circuit around the shop. He stopped in front of every machine, bench, or tool, always chanting, and dusted everything with the pounce.

I’d begun to object about all this dusting, but King Mike hushed me with a look, so I just stood by silently. The ceremony was over after five minutes. As he left our shop, he dusted me little, and we all laughed. King explained that this was a normal blessing ritual of Navajo culture, and today was the ceremonial day. Later, when I started wiping down a machine, he stopped me from cleaning off the corn pollen, and told me to just leave it alone. The pollen gradually blew off after a few days.