It was summertime in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo rez and everyone was living up in their sheep camps. There were some boys who had put in a full day of work and were heading back down to the valley below. It was 1968.
Bitsilly had received a letter from the Selective Service saying he was going to be going away to serve his country. He walked with his brothers in the Navajo way of speaking. They had worked fixing fence and stayed at the sheep camp in white wall tents where everyone slept on cots. When the work was done, word came they had to head down the mountain.
Three boys walked along, Bitsilly, Michael and Silas—boys who had grown up together. The truck was gone and so they walked down through the pine trees for a while making their own trail, then slowly the pinion pine and cedars came. The earth was at peace; the sweet smell of cedars and juniper marked the way as they walked this place above their homes.
Bitsilly’s eyes were brown. He was dressed in Wranglers, boots and a worn Western shirt. What do young men think about at such an age, when the world is new, having worked outside all day and wondering about the days to come?
They decided it was good to run and so they took off down hill following their own trail as they came off the mountain and then could see the old folks’ place: a couple of houses, and a brush summer shelter nearby. It is called a cha’oh, which is the outside living room, cooking area and sometimes sleeping area of a Navajo home.
Bitsilly could see an old green Ford pickup parked in front and smoke coming from inside the cha’oh. This was his girlfriend’s truck; it belonged to her family. Inishbizhi, the Blue Corn Mush Girl—since she liked it so much, it was what he called her.
This was Bitsilly’s 18th year and who knows what the days ahead would hold for him? School, he thought, he wanted to go to school, but he had received a draft notice. In those days people didn’t talk about Vietnam much. It was a strange place, just a word. The thought of it was a distant point in the future.
He would worry about it later. He had received an acceptance letter from college, but college was now to be put on hold until sometime later. This was a summer to enjoy, to live and take it easy before the beginning of the rest of his life.
Michael and Silas lived a stone’s throw away to the west, maybe a quarter of a mile. They were all young and invincible. They knew the green Ford belonged to the family of his girlfriend who also lived not too far off. He had spent some time with her over the summer. He wondered what they were doing at his house?
They crossed the open area between the sheep corrals and cha’oh and from the good smell of the smoke, meat was cooking. Looks like we are gonna eat, they all thought. When they got there, they could see that this was more than a visit.
Bitsilly’s grandfather, grandmother, father, mother and aunts and uncles were sitting there as well as a few of our older relations, the Natanis. They were sitting on the ground around a fire, legs crossed and talking with his girlfriend’s parents, her brothers, and some of her aunts and uncles. She was not there with them.
This was a gathering, some business was going on here, and so out of respect to the elders the three boys stood outside of the circle and wondered what was going on? They could smell the meat and their mouths watered at the thought of it, but they could not interrupt to get to it.
Bitsilly could hear the talking of those sitting in the circle; it was low and serious. He had been respectful to her so he knew it was not about her carrying any child for him. It had to be something else, but the thought was not lost on his cousin, Michael. He said, "What did you do to her?” Bitsilly told him “Nothing.” Michael looked at him and said, "It doesn’t look like it."
In the old days, Navajo families would get together and work out who you got hooked up with by tradition. It was all done beforehand. The boy’s family and girl’s family would work out a traditional wedding arrangement. The two families and their relations would sit down and work out how much the boy would give the girl’s family so the boy could become a part of her family. They would work this out in the payment of jewelry, hard goods, and horses, cows and sheep. The more horses the greater the value of the girl.
This was modern days on the rez and such practices were not being done so much anymore, so Bitsilly thought as he looked on this gathering and wondered what was going on?
He went in slowly to the left of the circle trying to be invisible and sat next to his father. Inishbizhi’s father said, “8 horses, 4 conchos, jaclos (strings of turquoise beads) and 4 cows”
Lightning came out of a clear blue sky and struck him. He sat there stunned; they were discussing him. His father looked at him and said quietly, “Do you want this girl?”
Bitsilly did not know what to say. What can you say? He had just finished fixing the fence and was looking at eating, not giving up the rest of his life. It was too fast, too soon.
Everyone’s eyes were on him. They had heard his father say, “Do you want this girl?” as if he had shouted it from the mountain. Bitsilly looked at his parents and all those there. He wasn’t ready for this. This was the twentieth century; people had a right to choose their own mates. Inishbizhi’s mother sat across from his and said, “We want six horses for her.”
He had eaten at her place a few times and helped them with some work around their house, hauled water and wood. All that time her mother had hungry eyes for him as a son-in-law. They wanted him.
He sat there and thought what about my future, my place here? Looking at all those seated there, he said, “Thank you, for your concern for your daughter and myself, but we are not ready to make a home together. I am leaving to go in the service.”
Her mother said, “They should do this. It is a good match, he has been with her.”
Bitsilly’s father looked at him seriously. Bitsilly told him, “No.” His father took it from there and after a long discussion said it was too early for such an arrangement.
Inishbizhi’s mother was not happy. She wanted those horses and cows. She was mad and left to sit in the green Ford pickup.
Inishbizhi’s father was a good man. He ate with them as well as her relations. He told Bitsilly he would be welcome at their house anytime and that maybe it was too soon to discuss such a thing. The girl’s family got up and left in the green Ford pickup.
Bitsilly’s father, after her family left, talked about life in the way of going about such things, in working to take care of family, not getting angry, not being lazy and the need to work hard to help when asked to do something and in being careful with crazy thoughts and respect for women.
He talked to everyone, but really said these things to Bitsilly—and that the meat was going to be as hard as rocks if no one finished it.
Later, washing up, his father asked about such a marriage arrangement, that maybe they should do it to make things easier on everyone? Bitsilly just looked at his father, who laughed.
He said Inishbizhi’s mother had done this before to one of her daughters and she was now a Teller woman with the family from Two Grey Hills. Her mother had gotten five horses for her. Inishbizhi had six sisters.
So there Bitsilly’s family sat and everyone quieted down after the excitement was all over. Too much had already been said.
Since then, Inishbizhi married another. Thinking on it later, Bitsilly admitted that if a little time had passed and he was a little bit older, he would have said she was worth more than the six horses they wanted for her.
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.