THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS
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 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. (After Shiyowin’s death, I donated most of Standing Bear’s personal possessions to the Crazy Horse Museum in South Dakota).
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.
Shiyowin Miller, who had been adopted by Luther Standing Bear (author of "My People the Sioux" and other books) interviewed her best friend to write this true story of the harsh life in the Navajo lands during the 1930s. It's a wonderfully-told story, written mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shiyowin died in 1983, and when Shiyo’s daughter, Dolores (my wife) showed me the manuscript in the late 1990s, 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.
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.
From chapter 7: The Sing
And then Shimah was telling him about the yellow pollen. Juanita could almost follow the story by her mother-in-law's excited gestures. Shimah's face was strong and tense, no room for gentleness, and her voice carried a new undertone--like fear. Only her hands seemed natural, although excited, as she gestured. Strange that Shimah should tell about the yellow pollen, rather than ask the rider about himself, about news which he was surely carrying. Of what interest could the yellow pollen be to him?
But he was interested. He leaned forward as though better to hear her words; his eyes narrowed and his face looked very grave. He asked many questions. Shimah answered and sometimes Yee-ke-nes-bah. Through their conversation one word seemed to repeat itself until it began to echo and re-echo in Juanita's mind: ma-itso . . . ma-itso.
...And then Lorencito began to talk seriously to Luciano; Juanita heard the work ma-itso repeated
again and again. Shimah sat nodding her head as her oldest son talked, occasionally adding a word to what he was saying. Luciano turned to Juanita; his face was marked with gravity as was his older
brother's. "Lorencito says that it is not safe to keep this from you any longer; I should tell you now."
Juanita waited. Her mouth and throat felt suddenly dry. She could not have spoken. Her thoughts
raced: this is in some way connected, ma-itso and yellow pollen. Perhaps it's all connected, all of the puzzling and unexplained things that have happened. And somehow, the looks on their faces, Shimah's and Lu's, Yee-ke-nes-bah's and Lorencito's, are a little bit frightening.
"Before we came here," her husband began, "when I tried to tell you about everything which might seem strange to you, I didn't tell you about ma-itso--the wolf clan. One reason, it no longer seemed as believable to me as it once had; perhaps all the years in school did that; anyhow, in Hollywood I seldom thought of it. When we came here, my mother told me the wolf clan was still strong in Cañoncito. I didn't tell you then because I could see no reason why they would try to harm us. But to be sure you were safe, my mother and sisters watched you every minute.
"There were times when I almost told you, those times when you were upset about things you didn't understand. And yet I hated to frighten you needlessly. Already there was so much for you to worry about. It seemed better to wait until I had a job, until we were living in town and then tell you. "But now two things have happened which make me sure the ma-itso is for some reason after us. I found yellow pollen in an X mark on my hat brim, and today my mother found pollen on our clothes. That is their warning. Lorencito thinks you will be safer if you know about this evil thing." A hundred questions sprang to Juanita's lips, but her husband went on talking, interrupted now and then by Lorencito or his mother.
"The wolf clan is as old as the Navajo tribe. From the beginning some men turned certain powers, which should have been used for good, toward evil things. Corn pollen, used for blessing, is used by the ma-itso as a warning to a person marked for death. And death does not come in a usual manner; it comes in a round-about way which cannot be easily traced. The victim sickens suddenly; sometimes his mind leaves him. No Medicine Man can cure him. Sometimes the victim meets with a mysterious and fatal accident.
From chapter 13: Wolf Tracks
Juanita had hung up two diapers when she became suddenly aware of something across the arroyo. When she looked carefully nothing seemed unusual; in the dim light she could see the sharp banks of the arroyo, the clumps of juniper in dark patches on the other side. Then gradually, two of the dark juniper patches began to take on the indistinct forms of dogs sitting on their haunches.
That was what imagination would do for you. She even thought now that she could see the large
pointed ears. Juanita smiled to herself. This must be what Lu had seen, the queer-shaped juniper
bushes. They looked surprisingly like coyotes, only larger. The likeness had even startled her for a
moment and her mind had certainly not been on wolves or wolf tracks. She pulled her eyes away and began resolutely to hang up more diapers.
A sudden movement, one dark figure detaching itself from the other and moving farther down the arroyo, a third form appearing almost directly across from her on the opposite bank. Juanita stood absolutely still. There was no sound except the flapping of the clothes on the line.
When Juanita reached the kitchen door, she called to her husband to bring the shotgun. "Those
figures that you saw are out there again." This couldn't be her voice, tight and choked.
Two of the dark forms were loping off down the arroyo when Luciano reached the bank, but the
third sat directly across from him like a very large coyote on its haunches. Luciano raised his gun and fired directly at it. The animal seemed to gather itself into a ball and plunge down the bank of the arroyo--across the wide, sandy bed.
"Lu! Watch out! It's coming for you."
He raised the gun to fire again ...
From chapter 20: The Wolf Hunt
"What do you know about this wolf hunt?" Juanita finally asked.
"Something has been stealing lambs this spring; the dogs bark but when the men get out to the sheep corral there's nothing around." Alice paused to consult Pah-des-bah.
Now that she thought of it, Ginger and Bob had been restless for a few nights. The dogs had
awakened them once, howling, and Luciano had gone outside to look around.
"There's nothing out there," he had said upon returning. "Bob must have started baying at the moon and now Ginger's doing it."
Alice began to cut potatoes into chunks; they fell plop, plop, plop into the pan. "Richard Platero
heard something around his corral last night and took his rifle with him when he left the hoghan. He saw what he thought at first was a shadow. When it moved he fired at it. It got away. He couldn't trail it last night so he started out early this morning. The tracks were wolf tracks. When he met Pah-des-bah's husband, they talked about it and decided to get some of the other men to go with them."
Juanita cut the stew meat into small pieces and dropped them into the boiling water of the stew kettle. Coyotes ran near Cañoncito. Early mornings she had heard the weird yelping cries of coyotes from the direction of Apache Wash. They could have been stealing lambs. ...
Alice listened for a moment. "They've been following the wolf tracks, and the trail doubled back
several times but always went ahead again. Then they lost it on a ledge of rock on one of the mesas." She pointed north with her lips. "One of the men found a spot of blood below the ledge."
Alice paused to listen again, and then the women began to talk in low voices and move away from the doorway as the men separated and went back to their horses.
"The men said the nearest hoghan was Wounded Head's on that same mesa. They rode up there to ask him if he had seen anything or anyone that morning."
Juanita started back to the washing machine, a frown puckering her forehead.
"Wounded Head's wife met them at the door of the hoghan; her son stood beside her. The men could not see past them. She would not let them in. She said her husband was very sick. A horse had kicked him."
Excitement spread through the whole community. Some of the men began to carry guns--rifles across their saddles or old revolvers in their belts. The women who gathered in the day school kitchen or sat outside around the back door talked together in low voices. But no one rode again to Wounded Head's place on the mesa.
A fascinating glimpse of Navajo life during the depression through the eyes of one woman. The Winds Erase Your Footprints is available from the School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, for $22, or check the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com