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Return to the Mountains

Return to the Mountains

by Catherine Holder Spude

A Historical Novel

Based on a true story

The Navajo People have been held against their will at Hweeldi, known to the Bilagaani as the Bosque Redondo, for more than three years. General James H. Carleton's grand experiment to provide a lush garden for these farmers and sheepherders to start a new life has failed miserably. Their only hope for simple survival is to return to the land between the four sacred mountains.

How can they win approval to do that, not only from unfriendly government officials in far off Washington, D.C., but also from the Holy People who cast them out of Dine Bikeyah in the first place? It will take more than endurance, faith, friendship and, yes, beauty to make it happen. It will take cooperation between those who most mistrust one another: Dine, Bilagaani, Mexican, Ute, and Pueblo peoples all must do this thing together to return the Dine to their mountains.






            First Man and First Woman took four stones from the fourth world and placed them in the fifth to protect the new land of the Diné. To the east, First Man placed the white stone, and he named it Sisnaajini. On the south he lay the blue stone Tsoodzil.  To guard the west he placed the multi-colored jasper, Dook’o’oosliid. And in the north, First Man laid the black stone, Dibé Nitsaa It, like all the others, grew tall and wide. They became dzil, mountains, the strength of the People, to guard their borders.

At the center lay Ch’ool’ii. From this place, out of the fourth world, came all the people: the Diné, the Hopi, Coyote, Owl, Shash, the Bear, Grasshopper, and all the others, both good and bad. They came to Dinetah Bikeyah, the Navajo Heartland. This sacred land lay in beauty, sang in beauty, lived in beauty. Oh, the Diné had their enemies, but First Man and First Woman kept them strong between the sacred mountains. As long as the Diné stayed between the mountains, they thrived in harmony with the land. They walked in beauty, lived in beauty, thrived in beauty.

Then the Bilagaana came, those pale, ghost-like people. Like all the spirits of the dead, they descended on the Diné. Some could be killed, made real ghosts. But others, well, even the magic of the most powerful witches and hosteens failed to vanquish them. The balance teetered; the harmony warped; and the strength of the People waned. The Diné began the Long Walk to the land of suffering, Hwéeldi. Many suffered, many despaired, many lost hope entirely. More than half the People died.

At the depth of Diné despair, First Woman sent hope from the most unlikely source of all.



June 1867

            Hosteen Dooti-izhii sat at the back of his old-fashioned split-fork hogan. He stared at the shimmer of heat waves on the parched corn field to the east of the cluster of mud huts. No deep shadows of canyon walls brought relief from the glaring sun. No clouds gathered to absorb the harsh rays, to drop rain to soften the brittle leaves on the stunted corn stalks. He contemplated the sing he should organize to call upon the Holy People to send them rain.

A blast of wind-blown dust obscured his view of the starving fields of Hwéeldi, the place the Bilagaana called the Bosque Redondo. Good. There was nothing of beauty to see, anyway. He shut his eyes in order to concentrate on the sing. The Salt Clan would need food to feed the guests, but their allotments would barely last the week. Never mind. They would have to make do.

An image of a few startled sheep owned by the Yucca Fruit Clan came to his mind. He searched for a family obligation as the warmth of the sun on his face cooled. Forgetting the sheep and the favor, Dooti-izhii opened his eyes to see who darkened his doorway.

“Grandfather.” The voice of his favorite nephew came from outside the hogan. He was a young man whose name meant Red Band. He wore a broad, faded cotton band about his head to hold back his long black hair, had since he was a small boy.

“Yaateeh abini,” Dooti-izhii rose and met him at the doorway. He greeted the young man, fondly. “Rise in beauty.”

“Walk in beauty,” his nephew replied.

“Sing in beauty,” the old man smiled.

“Live in beauty.”

They repeated their variation of the people’s private morning ritual, turning it into a personal commitment between the two of them.

As he finished, Red Band turned to the shadow trailing behind him.

“I bring a visitor,” he announced.

Another silhouette blackened the doorway, this one wearing a coat and hat despite the heat. The odor of sweat and dust rose from him and sunlight created a halo as it sifted through the strands of the thin, graying hair that trailed to his shoulders. His boots thudded on the hard clay outside of the hogan. By his clothing, and by his smell, Dooti-izhii knew immediately that this was a Bilagaana, a white man. He stiffened and reached for a weapon, any weapon. None lay at hand. None had lain at hand for over three years.

“He comes in peace, Grandfather,” Red Band assured him.

Reluctantly, Dooti-izhii nodded to his nephew and made the gesture that welcomed the two into his home. Red Band moved to Dooti-izhii’s left, leading the white man out of the doorway and to a place of honor. “He rode to the fort with a whole company of blue coats. Captain Updegraff defers to him. He asked for you in particular.”

Only then did Dooti-izhii look at the face of his guest. With a violent start, he recognized the man who had rounded up the people in Tseyi, Canyon de Chelly, broke the power of the Diné, and forced them to the Long Walk. With all of his strength – and he had considerable – he maintained his manners.

“What do you want of me, Red Clothes?”

The grim-eyed elder winced.

“That is what the Navajo call me?”

Dooti-izhii nodded.

The unwelcome guest looked away. Dooti-izhii suppressed a smile, triumphant. Not many of the blue coats, let alone one of their great leaders, had ever been so mannerly. They had a nasty habit of looking at a man in the eye, something a Navajo avoided doing.

Dooti-izhii sobered. These crafty coyotes often affected a humble demeanor when they wanted something from the Diné. They were not to be trusted. Especially Red Clothes.

“Why do you seek me out?” the old medicine man demanded.

He knew was being rude. He should offer something to share, a bite of food, or simply a drink of water. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed Red Band’s shock at his lack of manners. With a look at the jar of water standing near their sparse rations, and a lift of his chin, Dooti-izhii indicated that Red Band should bring a cup to share.

Carson hesitated. With an audible sigh, Dooti-izhii waved him to a thread-bare rug, indicating he could sit. To the elder’s surprise, the general began to unbutton his uniform jacket. He held the labels aside and showed them that he hid no weapons. About his neck hung a polished turquoise pendant suspended on a simple leather cord. A flint chip dangled from the same hole as the pendant, and a bluebird’s feather adorned the nether end of the stone. Dooti-izhii stared at the pendant, captivated. He knew what a blue stone, blue feather and flint together meant: Tsoodsil, that which the Bilagaana called Mt. Taylor.

Carson removed the coat, laid it on the hard, compact floor, and, with difficulty, eased himself onto the rug.

“You are ailing,” Dooti-izhii said with sudden understanding.

“Yes,” Carson nodded. “It is for that reason I seek you.”

“Me? The blue coats have their own medicine men. I cannot … no, I will do nothing to help you, my greatest enemy.”

Carson grimaced.

“I have seen a platoon of doctors. None of them can cure me. I know that I am dying, and I know why. I don’t come to you for medicine, but to take care of things that must be done before I die. And I will die before a year is passed.”

Red Band appeared with a crude cup of water. He handed it to the man who was neither a grandfather nor an uncle, but both. As Red Band’s mother’s mother’s brother, he took the place of a grandfather in the white man’s world. In this time after the Long Walk, Dooti-izhii was Red Band’s closest relative, and vice versa.

Dooti-izhii took the cup and sipped from it. It was the first moisture that had passed his lips this day, and he relished it. He would like some coffee or tea, but that could wait until the dangerous guest left. He ignored his body’s craving and passed the cup to Red Clothes.

Carson nodded his thanks and touched his lips to the rim of the cup. He drank one shallow sip, enough to be polite. He nodded again and handed the cup to Red Band. Without sitting, the young man took his sip and returned the rest of the water to the olla. It would not be wasted.

“Go on,” Dooti-izhii invited, once the ritual was complete.

“You are the one they call Hosteen Blue Stone? The elder of the Salt Clan?” Carson asked.

Dooti-izhii nodded. Blue Stone was what his name meant. On his vision quest when becoming a man, he found a large raw chunk of turquoise and still carried it in his amulet. The coincidence, two powerful men wearing blue stones, drawn together at this time of trouble, could not be ignored.

Red Clothes shut his pale, gray eyes as if offering up a prayer of thanksgiving.

“I will tell a story,” he began.

If the man was Diné, Dooti-izhii would not have been surprised. Most men, especially at their age, would have begun a visit in such a way. The Bilagaana did not tend to such loquacious beginnings, nor had the medicine man ever heard that the blue coats would sit and share tales.

Intrigued, in spite of his distrust, Blue Stone remembered to nod again, inviting this enemy, this man who had brought endless death, hunger and suffering to the Diné, to tell his story. He knew the man to be a coyote, a trickster in disguise. He could not resist inviting the subterfuge. He felt mesmerized by a man who wore the symbol of a sacred mountain and had a story to tell.

“Make us some breakfast, Red Band,” Dooti-izhii instructed. “We will have coffee to drink.”

“The rations …” Red Band began.

“There is a pound of coffee in my saddle bags,” Carson offered. “Bring that in, as well as the five pounds of flour and the tin of syrup. You know how to make flapjacks?”

Red Band grinned. Blue Stone knew it was one of his favorite dishes, and he admitted to liking the sweet taste as well. He shrugged to his nephew, giving him leave to get the makings for the meal. Yes, he would hear the devil’s tale. But he must remember that Coyote was a trickster.

            Red Clothes left at sundown, when a soldier came to escort him back to the fort. Blue Stone walked with him to his horse and watched with concern as the frail old man mounted.

“I will call the elders to council at noon tomorrow,” he promised. “The captain, he will not object?”

“I’ll tell him you meet at my suggestion, to discuss General Carleton’s latest terms,” Carson assured him from atop his horse. “I’ll bring two assistants only. They can be trusted.”

“No Bilagaana can be trusted,” Blue Stone scoffed. “But I will speak for the three of you. It will be up to the council to decide whether they will hear your story or not.”

“The captain will not allow more than thirty to meet.”

“There are two dozen clans here at Hwéeldi, and each clan will bring others. We will have to meet twice,” Blue Stone pointed out.

“Choose carefully. Captain Updegraff will let you meet in such a large group only once.”

Carson turned his horse without taking leave. Blue Stone stood in the cool of the twilight and watched him ride away, hope surging in his chest for the first time since he saw the Bosque Redondo.





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