A non-Indian recounts his childhood on the Navajo Reservation.

A non-Indian recounts his childhood on the Navajo Reservation.

Thrust Into Reservation Life: Jim Kristofic, From Newbie to Tough Noodle

A tough noodle.

This is what Jim Kristofic learns how to be in Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life (University of New Mexico Press, 2011), his funny, poignant, no-holds-barred memoir of growing up as a white boy on the Navajo Reservation. Moved to Ganado, Arizona, just before second grade by his Indian-obsessed mom, Kristofic quickly sees that his life is going to change completely—and it’s not going to be easy.

For one thing, at the tender age of 6, he must examine what he thinks he already knows about Indians. (“They wore eagle feathers, beat drums, shot arrows and didn’t sunburn…. They… lived on food stamps, drank a lot and ran casinos.” And “the white man had screwed them over. Big time.”) He also faces being the new boy in school, the “white apple” who gets knocked around by just about everyone.

He learns, eventually, to give as good as he gets, whether it entails fighting back, helping his classmates with their homework or undergoing the adventures and rituals of boyhood on the reservation. Those ordeals include rescuing rez dogs, bruising himself in tough-as-nails football practice and camping with friends in the desert near the wandering shadows of Skinwalkers, evil spirits that can take animal or human form.

Ultimately Kristofic learns a new language—not just the rhythms and inflections of Diné speech but also the language of the Navajo Way: “Be tough, laugh a lot, share with your friends, and don’t take life too seriously except when you have to take it seriously.”

In lively, conversational style, Kristofic tackles issues that will resonate with both Native and non-Native readers: violence as adolescent ritual, cultural assimilation, friendship, family, coming of age and the pull of “home.” He shares not only the portraits of his Navajo friends on the changing reservation but also his own journey from outsider to a walker between worlds, imparting truths about both Navajo and Anglo culture.

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Plopped onto the Navajo Reservation at age 6, Jim Kristofic struggled to find his place in the community. Recently he discussed his unique vantage point as a simultaneous insider and outsider with Lisa Gale Garrigues.

How has Navajos Wear Nikes been received on the reservation?

A lot of people have already read it. I had them read it before I even sent it to a publisher—I wanted it to be about the place where I grew up, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any toes either. So…most of the [responses] were really positive, really encouraging. With a memoir you have to write truthfully, but you also have to write respectfully. The perspective is [that of ] just one bilagaana [white man] who did grow up there. I found a lot of valuable things there. I’m kind of kicking myself that I did leave.

You eventually moved to Pennsylvania. What has that been like?

I’m still adjusting to that. A lot of phrases that I never knew growing up, like “keeping up with the Joneses,” I never knew what that was. There’s a lot of weird stuff. Lawns. Yards. Fences…. Just weird, territorial stuff.

What do you miss from the reservation?

I miss the freedom. You can go out and do what you want, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. When I was a teenager you could just come home after school and throw a rifle over your shoulder and get on a horse and ride out. I guess I miss the land, too. You can see a storm coming from 60 miles away sometimes. You can smell things 10 miles away. You can hear things, like cattle walking on the edge of a wash, maybe half a mile away—you can actually hear them breaking the sagebrush.

You teach high school. Have your students read your book?

They’ll say, “I read your book, it was really funny and really good. I read it really fast.” That’s what I wanted. I wanted the book to be able to be read in a conversational way so it wouldn’t take a long time. They said it had a lot of meat in it, too; it wasn’t just entertaining stories but [also] tried to answer questions about the places that make us who we are, and in return what we’re expected to give back to those places and what we’re expected to be responsible for.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to Indian country?

Sixty percent of Navajos don’t live on the rez because there [are] no jobs. Most people have to leave. Maybe this book will help them remember where they are from a bit better, until someone from the rez who’s Navajo writes a better book. I think that’s what will happen, I’m hoping that will happen. That there’s this great Navajo author, as good as Sherman Alexie, and that he or she is going to write some really cool stuff, make the people proud. Because that’s something that art can really do, especially literature. It can make you proud of your homeland.

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