A book by Shiyowin Miller
One of the books that came out of my family was “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” written by my wife Dolores’ mother, Shiyowin Miller. Shiyowin, who was part Osage, was immersed in Native American culture. I remember visiting her home in Temple City, which seemed like an Indian museum with a full library, drums, pots, and artifacts from all over the country. Shiyowin had been a music and dance teacher, and was a professional dancer. She knew Iron Eyes Cody, and worked with Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who was once the Chief. He wrote “My People the Sioux” and other books. Luther Standing Bear adopted Shiyowin, and let Shiyowin act as his agent for his various books and other legal matters. It brought the past alive to me when I was able to see and feel the pipes, sandals, robe, and other materials that Standing Bear had given to Shiyowin.
Shiyowin also had many friends from the Navajo lands. In the 1930’s, Shiyowin’s best friend, Juanita, fell in love with a Navajo man, Luciano, who’d been working as an extra in Hollywood. Juanita and Luciano got married, and moved back to Luciano’s Navajo lands in New Mexico.
Shiyowin kept in touch with Juanita, and wrote about the experiences that Luciano and Juanita underwent on the reservation, during the Depression when there was so little work.
Shiyowin edited and revised and rewrote her book many times over the next 30 years, and she died in 1983 before it was ever published. I married Shiyowin’s daughter Dolores in 1986, and when I saw the box with hundreds of pages of manuscript, I asked Dolores if I could read it. In fact, Shiyowin had hired Dolores to type many of the revisions over the years, and so Dolores was familiar with the content.
Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe that it had never been published. Shiyowin had actually received an advance from a publisher some 20 years earlier, but since she kept rewriting and revising, it never got published.
I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe it had not been published. To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!
Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft. With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles. If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book.
The story was descriptive, compelling, and you feel as if you are re-experiencing the harsh winds, the life in the Hogan making coffee, the search for work, and all the ceremonies and gatherings that were a part of the Navajo way of life. The books, which was 335 pages when published, also contained hints and clues in the backdrop about Navajo witchcraft, and the ma-itso, the wolf clan which was feared by most.
The freak death of Luciano was generally attributed to the work of the ma-itso, and Shiyowin gives the clues in bits and pieces, in the way that Tony Hillerman so masterfully slowly revealed his mysteries.
The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS are Copyright and may not be re-printed without permission of the publisher.
from chapter 3: Pentz's Trading Post
Juanita stood, head forward, her hair long and black in the sunlight; she shook it, the drops of water flying. She ran her fingers through it, the pale, yellow shreds of fiber falling lightly to the ground. Luciano was washing his head now, in water that his mother had prepared. Juanita began to comb her hair carefully, the comb snagging and tangling in the still-wet strands. She stopped and disentangled the combings, rolling them into a little ball. The wind caught it and tumbled it over and over across the ground.
"Ah-yeeee!" Shimah exclaimed and went running after the ball of combings. She brought it back and placed it carefully in the fire, watching as the flames consumed it, talking rapidly to her son. I am guilty of some small breach of custom, Juanita thought, and then was surprised at the gravity of her husbands' face. He sat back on his heels, his hair dripping unheeded.
"You must always burn your combings," he told her seriously.
"My mother says never to let any of your hair escape like that."
"I'm sorry, Lu," she began. "It was a bit untidy. But out here in the open I thought the wind would carry it away."
"That's it: the wind might . . ." He stopped abruptly.
Juanita was puzzled. It was such a little thing for him to get upset about, and she had said she was
sorry. "Is there some tabu connected with hair-combings?" she asked gently, trying to smooth the
troubled look from his face. "If I knew it I'd observe it--you know I would." Shimah stood by gauging the conversation by their voice tones. Luciano was still disturbed. "It isn't exactly a tabu, but just don't be careless." It wasn't like her husband to speak so. He'd always been patient about explaining even small things. She turned away to hide the hurt.
Shimah plucked at her sleeve, speaking gently, soothingly, as though to erase the hurt, the alarm.
"Tell my daughter-in-law to give me her jewelry so that I can put it into the soaproot suds. That will be good for the silver and the turquoise."
Juanita resolved not to mention the incident of the hair-combing again. Lu was moody, preoccupied with looking for a job. It wasn't anything important, only puzzling, and it wasn't worth a misunderstanding if she never found out. There was so much she didn't know, it would take forever to explain in detail everything she asked.
from Chapter 5: Wild Duck Dinner
Wounded Head greeted them with warm words, but his face remained impassive--cold. His son
extended his hand for a limp handclasp. Juanita and Luciano were given a comfortable place to sit at the back of the hoghan, but Juanita wasn't comfortable. She was conscious of her hair being disheveled from the race up the canyon; she tried to smooth it, putting one hand to her head unobtrusively. She wished that she had worn a skirt instead of Levis. Somehow she could feel Wounded Head's disapproval without seeing his face.
Luciano was talking to the two men. No, he hadn't as yet gone to work in Albuquerque.
Wounded Head placed his fingertips together with elaborate care. Was it true that in that Western
place, where Luciano had been, there was great opportunity for ambitious young Navajo men?
Luciano misunderstood. Was his son planning to go there?
A thin ghost-like smile passed over Wounded Head's face and was gone. He shook his head.
The stew was ladled into bowls and passed to them. Juanita cooled one of the pieces of meat on her spoon. That didn't look like mutton. She bit into it. Beef! Wounded Head and his family did eat well. Her husband had placed his hat on the bedroll behind him, and now his dark head was bent over the bowl of stew attentively. He looked up long enough to direct a sidelong glance at her when their host got up, took a can of peaches from the cupboard, and opened it with his knife.
The meal finished, they sat back looking into the fire, the men talking leisurely of unimportant things. Wounded Head's wife asked a few questions of Juanita, through Luciano: did she like it here . . . did she miss her own people?
It was a foolish thing, her imagination was overactive, Juanita told herself, but she wanted to get away. The fire was bright, warming; Wounded Head's wife was pleasant; Wounded Head himself seemed almost friendly as he drew Lu into conversation; but it was a strong feeling that Juanita had--as strong as a cold wind--as dark as a dark shadow. She was relieved when Luciano finally arose to go. He thanked them for the good meal and then the blanket over the doorway dropped behind them. She was first in the saddle and started toward the edge of the mesa.
"Not that way," Luciano called. "There's no trail--only rocks."
Juanita turned and followed Luciano as he picked his way down the other side of the mesa. Halfway down the narrow trail, Luciano took off his hat. Holding it at arm's length from him, he shook it carefully. Puffs of yellow dust scattered on the wind.
WATCH FOR MORE SECTIONS….