We publish opinions to help people think about things and to help them understand issues that pop up in our lives.
We also publish opinions to help people understand us and our lives a little bit better. Johnny Rustywire, an old Navajo, helps us accomplish that. In his stories you will catch glimpses of not only our many personalities but the issues as they impact our day-to-day living. In every vignette of Rustywire’s, if you look, you will see the people and glimpse the issues. Promise.
He sat at the bus stop on the main drag, Central, and smiled at me as I stepped up to wait for the city bus. He was quiet at first, but looked unafraid to look people in the eye way out here in the big city.
Downtown Phoenix, Arizona is pretty rough toward evening. A lot of strange types move around the street, but he sat there.
His features were finely chiseled, high cheekbones, narrow eyes that had laugh lines around the edges and his perfect teeth gleamed white in the evening light.
“Where are you from?”
“Shiprock,” I said, and he looked at me and smiled real big.
"I come from Tuba City, down by Moenkop, Washington. Went to school there in Tuba.”
He went on about the old trading post and dorm there, the way he used to play on the bluffs behind the school up near the water tank. He said somewhere there his initials are colored on it. He originally comes from the Gap, a slice in the red rocks where he spent his youth. Born for the Edge of the Water People, he said. His teeth were sure white.
He just sat there and said “hey” to everyone who came up and smiled at them. Some said hello back; others just stared off into space.
He talked to everyone but no one, really. His hair had wisps of gray around his ears and was kind of shaggy. He finished school back in ’62, he said, and spent his time working for the Union Pacific, seeing the west from the rails. He took some time and saw the West Coast, hitchhiking from Washington to Mexico.
He sat there and told me all this and so I missed the bus to listen to him. He was from around that way because when he spoke of snow he said “yas” like the Western Navajos say it, instead of how the Shiprock Navajos say “zas.” He was sort of an old guy.
A young Navajo girl came up with her book bag and sat down, looking tired and worn out. He smiled at her and said, “Where are you from?”
She looked at him and turned away.
He said, “There was a girl one time from Carino Canyon, Salt Clan she was. She could really make me laugh. Her hair was long like yours. You look like her,” he said.
“Her name was Ella Mae Benally. Left to go Wingate and I never saw her no more. Don't know what happened to her.”
The girl looked at him and said, “I am from Tohatchi, born for the Salt people. My mother is named Ella Becenti, and she used to be Ella Mae Benally.”
He smiled really big and said, “When you see her, tell her you saw Bedonie from Navajo Mountain.” And he laughed, remembering a time when he was young and full of life and when his spirit ran free and there was a gleam in his eyes as he told her, "Your mother was a nice girl. She wanted to be a dental technician.” Went to Oakland for school, he heard.
The young girl extended her hand and there we were, three Navajos in the big city sharing a little bit of home. She got on her bus and waved at him as she left and then the handicap bus pulled up and they lowered the ramp and picked him up. He said he was going back to his daughter’s place in Mesa and he liked to sit there at the bus stop and visit with the people who came by.
And then he was gone.
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.