Historical account of Leo Natani's paternal grandfather

This is a story written by the wife of one of the traders at Toadlena about his paternal grandfather, Natana. It is a wonderfully touching story, insightful about the Navajo way of life before the many changes that occurred as a result of the incursion of the Anglo culture.


In this story I have changed neither names or dates. Why change anything when facts are better than fictions? Some of the dates are guessed at because of no written record or history among the early day of Navajos.

In order to refute that old adage that “A dead injin is the only good injin,” I want to tell some of the life story of our friend and neighbor, Natana. In order to do it, I will have to tell some of our own story because we were traders to the Navajo for thirty-six years at Toadlena, New Mexico, and Natana was one of our customers; but he was much more than that. He was our counselor, our friend, and our neighbor. He was also, as his name means, chief or head man.

Most biographies start with, “He was born at _________” and on a certain date, but only the year of Natana’s birth has been ascertained. The place is only in the records kept in the Happy Hunting Ground. He thought it was somewhere near Ft. Defiance, Arizona. The date was gleaned from an old document that he once showed us. It was an appointment to act as Chief over his people and was issued from the Army when they were located at Ft. Defiance, some years after the Navajos came back from the round-up of the tribe at Ft. Sumner in 1864. Natana was born in 1850.

There is no record to tell us what his father’s or mother’s name was. He says he always just called them “Si-ze' e” (father) and “Si-mah” (mother). There was no paper and no one knew how to write, and so dates and names were soon forgotten. He told us that his mother said he was born when the cold was deep in the ground and they caught the rabbits by their tracks in the snow. He laughingly said, “I think it was on kismush (Christmas), but that was just his little joke because the Navajo people came to set much store on kishmush. At that time the traders generally gave the Indians a feed and nuts and candy.

Natana told us he well remembered the “Long Walk” when the soldiers rounded up the Navajo tribe and they walked all the way to Fort Sumner and four years later walked back again. He told of how he had nothing to get his rations in, and of how he held his shirt tail out to catch every morsel.

We asked him about his parents one day and such pride and love shone in his eyes as he said, “My father was much good man and my mother was very kind.” He said, “All the Navajo people came to my father for advice and council on everything.”

When we bought the Toadlena Trading Post in 1911 from the two Smith boys who had started it a year previous, Natana was one of the assets. He would be at the post when we opened the door in the morning and was still there when we closed up at night after the last customer had been traded with. It gave great privilege to any issue to have Natana’s approval. If our prices were right and to suit him, they were right for our customers. But if we carried an article that was inferior or too high priced, we just as well throw it under the counter because none of his people would buy it if he said, “Do-ya-a-son-dah” (no good). The respect and heed they paid to his every word was something we paid much attention to also.

If the permits to start to buy the Indian lambs in the fall came from the Indian Superintendent, and Natana said, “U-ta-hunda” (wait), we waited. If the grass was good that year, he would sometimes tell his people to not sell for a couple of weeks longer and their lambs would grow more and weigh heavier and they would get a better price, and wait they did, ‘til their Chief came driving in his lambs for sale. Then and only then did our customers start to sell. This often rushed us to buy all the lambs in the allotted time before the permits expired.

Those were the days of no cars on the reservation. All our “Nal-yeh-gae” (merchandise) came in by Navajo freight teams, usually a four pony team and a wagon. It took a full week to make the trip from Toadlena to Gallup and back, around a hundred and fifty miles. One fall the permits came to guy the lambs, and I was sick and unable to run the store while my husband rode horseback to Gallup for the money with which to pay for the lambs; so we sent Natana on his little pony for the “Pe-so.” Sent a note by him to the bank to give him $2,500.00. We gave him a fifty pound flour sack to bring it back in. It took him three days to make the trip. Just after dark on the third day he came riding in with the heavy sack, mostly in silver dollars because the Indians loved to have us count out the shiny dollars for each lamb, generally around five dollars a head in those days. The bank in Gallup became greatly worried and the fourth day they sent a man in a buggy to see if we had gotten the money okay. We had never worried a minute. Natana would have protected our money with his life.

The Navajos have a ceremony called (for what we lack for a better word) “Sings.” They are religious ceremonies, held mostly for someone who is sick - elaborate affairs where many of the tribe collect and stay for the duration, sometimes as long as nine days for their “Yebechi.” It would take many pages to describe these events. There are “Fire Dances,” “Squaw Dances,” and ceremonies for rain, besides dances for thanksgiving. They are generally presided over and managed by the “Medicine Man.” We have attended many of them at their invitation.

At a given signal, which I always failed to catch, the singing and dancing and chanting would stop, and the dancers would find seats on the ground; then Natana would step in to the firelight in all his dignity and regalia and address them. I have been present when you could have heard a pin drop if there had been a pin to drop. Mothers would nurse their babies to quiet any crying and everyone quickly found a seat on the ground or sheep skins. Natana would speak to them for an hour or more. We used to sit enthralled at his advice and wisdom. He would really lay the law down to them in those days and his word was really their law.

The inroads of the example of the white people that have so undermined their honesty and morality had not started in those days. There was very seldom ever seen a drunk Navajo. Natana told them to leave the “To-dil-hit” (whiskey) alone. He told them it was like fire water or snake water, and could kill them besides making them crazy. He told a clever little story to illustrate his point. Said he went to Gallup one time with a trader and saw the places where they sold the fire water and bought himself a bottle and brought it home unopened. After he got home he took the cork out and set it on the floor. When a fly came buzzing and lit on the cork and took a swig, he said it buzzed harder and flew around the room and came back for another drink, but this time did not fly so far. The third time it came back for a drink, it did not fly away but just started to clean its beak with its front legs as a fly will do, and pretty soon it pulled its own head off. He said he just picked up the bottle and poured the contents on the ground and said, “If whiskey does that to a fly, I want none of it.” He never drank in all his life. And then he would give them a lecture on morality. There wasn’t much immorality in those days. Their marriage ceremony was much more sacred and binding than the ceremonies later introduced by missionaries and Indian service laws. There was seldom a divorce. He would say, “Husbands, be good to your women and wives be good to your men and don’t even look at others.” He not only preached this but set them an example worthy of imitation.

Natana was always in demand as a public speaker at different functions, both by Navajo and whites. If there was a bridge to be dedicated, a school to be opened on the reservation, a meeting of Government officials with the Indians or a Christmas or Fourth-of-July celebration, it was Natana who was called on to orate for the occasion.

He was a firm advocate for education for the Navajo children, and sent most of his children to boarding schools.

Our children grew up along with his, played together, and even went to the Indian boarding school for a few years until we finally got a public school, and then his children and ours attended the little white schoolhouse on the hill until they finished the 8th grade.

One of our boys, Monte, got to reading his father’s WILD WEST magazine and got ideas from it. One Saturday when the Indian boys came to the post to spend their dimes, nickels, and pennies for candy and gum, Monte lined them up back of the corn house, swiped his father’s .22 gun, and told them to “Run for your lives.” Natana was on the front porch and heard the commotion, and ran to see what was up. He caught up with Monte just as he had the boys running at top speed over the little hill between the school and post. He then and there gave him a good trouncing. He came back to the store and told us what he had done for which he got our profound thanks. We never said a word to Monte about it ‘til years later and even then he swears he was only shooting over their heads. He never repeated the performance. Natana’s licking was all sufficient.

Natana was ever progressive. He built the second house in Toadlena. The first house was built by a prospector named by the Indians “Red Shirt.” He married One-Eyed Doc’s sister, and built her a nice log cabin. He panned for gold in the mountain back of Toadlena. Natana was quick to see the advantage of a nice house over the round “ho-gan” that all the Indians lived in at the time.

After building his “Kin” he decided he needed some peaches, so he mounted his pony and rode away to Farmington, on the San Juan River, and brought back a sack of peaches. The trip home was hard on the peaches, but the peach pits were all okay, and they saved every one and planted themselves an orchard, the first of such an experiment on the reservation. In time, he came to have a fine orchard of seedling peaches and, besides having all his family and friends could eat, he sold many bushels and dried many flour sacks full for winter use.

The year before we moved to Toadlena and bought the post, Natana traded some peaches to the Smith boys for a rooster and two hens, and this brings me up to the first Christmas we spent in Toadlena. We moved there in August and only saw one white woman (a missionary) and three white men for six months, but we made many friends among our Navajo neighbors. We had our Christmas, “Kismuch” for the Indian as they called it, on the 23rd and then came all our customers and friends for the handout. Then on Christmas Day we locked up the post and had a quiet happy time with our family. About ten o’clock there came a timid knock on the front door and there stood a daughter of Natana, with a five-pound lard bucket full of eggs. She said, “My father send you Kishmush present.” It touched our hearts to tears. It takes quite a while to save two dozen eggs from only two hens. I appreciated the children going without eggs in order to make the gift. You may be sure we sent little Anna back with her bucket full of peanuts and peppermint stick candy.

I remember that Christmas an old lady brought us a winter squash she had raised. She was ninety-nine years young.

Any description of our friend would not be complete without mention of his dress. For all “Sings,” ceremonies, and state and Government affairs, he always wore modern men’s attire bought at a trading post or far away town, but when not on parade, he dressed more comfortably in his old Navajo attire which consisted of a pair of white muslin trousers and a calico shirt. The trousers were made from Indian Head muslin 36 inches wide. Grandma Natana would tear off a strip four inches wide from the length of one and a half yards and then tear the remainder in two parts lengthwise. She would then sew the legs up to within six inches of the bottom and join the two legs at the top but with the crotch left open. A hem at the top and bottom with a drawstring at the top, and they were made. The four inch strip was used as a G-string, the ends pulled over the top and hanging down back and front. It was a fine art to keep this adjusted for complete coverage. They were cool, especially for summer. The calico shirt was lined with muslin and very simple to make - just two sleeves sewed to the double of calico with a slit left open under the arms for ventilation. Buckskin moccasins and a bandana twisted and tied around his head and he was fully and comfortably attired.

For state occasions Natana always wore a leather pouch hung from a strap over the shoulder and decorated with quarter dollars made into buttons and threaded on the strap with buckskin thongs and a fancy cast silver ornament on the pouch. He kept in this pouch some staple medicine and his money and a clean white handkerchief. He also wore what the Navajos call a “Kato.” This was a leather wrist band about four inches wide and fastened with buckskin lacing, and it too was decorated with a fancy silver and turquoise medallion.

Most of the time these two articles together with a turquoise pendant threaded with buckskin to tie it to the beads were in pawn to us. That is, we let him have what he wanted and he left the articles with us for security as was the custom of the Navajos. Natana was different though. It never mattered what he wanted, his pawns were good for it. Their value was intrinsic compared to the amounts we put on them. If he wanted to buy some sheep to increase his herd and needed a hundred dollars, we just handed him the cash and put it on the pawn tag. When a “Sing” came up he would borrow the articles for the occasion. We could not extend this privilege to all our customers, but Natana, being the honest gentleman he was, we knew we took no risk. He always returned them and always redeemed them when he sold his wool and lambs.

Grandma and Natana had one grievous cross to bear. One of their girls had a serious illness in childhood which left her with a mind that did not develop beyond a two-year-old. She grew up tall and strong, but all they could ever teach her was to herd sheep. When the rest of the children gained their education and grew up and married, then the grandchildren came along to bless their lives. The poor girl blessed them with her babies, too. We once asked him why he allowed such a thing. His answer was, “I can’t herd the sheep, the girl, and the no-good men day and night. One must sleep sometime.” Her children were beautiful and smart and they ate Natana’s peaches in the summertime and he sent them to school in the wintertime. The Navajos too have their axioms, one of which is comparable to our “Every cloud has its silver lining.” Theirs goes like this - “Life’s sorrows often bring great joys.” Strangely enough, it was one of the beautiful daughters of the poor afflicted girl that tenderly nursed both grandma and grandpa Natana through their last illness. But this is ahead of the story.

Prior to 1933, the Indian service officials urged and helped the Navajos to increase and improve their sheep herds. Most of them had sufficient to live on and always there was plenty of their beloved mutton to eat.

Then in 1933, John Collier, Indian Commissioner, had a brain storm brought on by Hoover Dam construction experts. They maintained that the reservation was over-grazed and the result was erosion which eventually found its way into the big reservoir. Be that as it may, “Washintons” ordered all the Navajos to reduce their herds by more than half. This was accomplished by officers of the law forcing sale of their sheep and goats. The price paid was not market price at all, but amounted to less than half of what they were worth.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the tribe.

One morning when I opened the store and was sweeping off the front steps, there was Natana sitting on the ground with a pile of stones and pebbles and a stick marking a circle in the dirt. I said, “Well, Natana, are you a little boy playing with stones for sheep?” His answer was, “Either I am crazy or Washington is,” and he proceeds to illustrate by picking up the stones, one by one, or a handful, and putting them in his corral. He said, “Get a sheep here, get a sheep there, pretty soon heap big herd; no more worry, plenty of mutton, plenty of wool, plenty of lambs, sleep good all time.” Then he picked up handfuls of “sheep” and threw them away, and said, “John Collier, him take our sheep, him think he smarter than God, him dan-sona-bish.”

As the years began to creep up on us and our neighbor, we used to have long talks about the past and the future. Many fine traditions he related to us and then we talked of our future life. Ours was in the Great Beyond while his was in the Happy Hunting Ground. On some things we were in complete accord, one of which was that we were both dead sure there was a future life beyond the grave.

Then we began to notice that he was not so spry as usual, and one day he bought a new lantern and a gallon of coal oil. Then grandma came to tell us he was sick and did not eat. So after we closed the store in the evening, we walked down to see him. It was not yet dark, but he had his lantern lit and hanging at the head of his bed. We asked him why he lit it so early. His reply was, “Sometime I am going to die and if it is night I want a light to see which way to go.” He kept his lantern ever filled and trimmed and lit for the rest of his life, at night.

He thanked us for the crackers, tomatoes and bottle of soda pop we had taken along, and after a few days he recovered but was never so active afterwards.

Death and a century caught up with him at the same time, and although his lantern was still there burning away, at the head of his bed, yet we are sure that the light of his faith illumined his way to the Happy Hunting Ground of the Indian people.

As is the age-old-custom, he was buried with many of his prized possessions so he will have what he needs in that place to which he has gone.

We shall soon join him and if his abode is not in the same place where we abide, we hope it will not be far distant and that there is a good trail between so that we can visit back and forth with our friend and talk of the good old days of earth life together at Toadlena.

His memory will live forever, green and respected in our hearts. HE WAS A GOOD INDIAN.

And when the Books are opened and we are judged by our capabilities and deeds done in the body, we are pretty sure St. Peter will say to our friend, “Natana, I appoint you chief over a considerable number of your tribe.”