Laura Tohe was born in Fort Defiance, Arizona and raised just across the border in New Mexico, on the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation. She received a B.A. in Psychology from the University of New Mexico and then attended the University of Nebraska where she received an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English. She is currently an English Professor at Arizona State University. Dr. Tohe was named the second Navajo Poet Laureate in 2015. The images in this interview are some of Stephen Strom’s photographs from the collaborative book, “TSÉYI’ Deep in the Rock, Reflections on Canyon de Chelly,” with poems and prose by Dr. Tohe.
By Laura Tohe
Possibilities exist with you
where sagebrush dots the desertscape
where a string of crows float like beads on a
turquoise sky and where mountains hold plants spread
out like a blanket
We travel the colors of brilliant red rock cliffs
that form within ancestral space
we travel on the colors of the rainbow
and know what it means to come forth, to awaken
Here it’s possible to know that you belong to the earth
in a language that names us,
that this place formed you,
and carved the high bones in your face
Cedar and rock monoliths know the motion of wind
the patience of waiting, the gathering of strength
here it’s possible to know the world in the words of our ancestors
the simple beauty of blue horses running
SEE: We’re devoting the next issue of our magazine to the Navajo Churro sheep and we know that the women in your family were weavers. Please tell us how you got from there to here.
LT: The women on both sides of my family were weavers, although while I was growing up we didn’t have our own sheep. We had cattle and horses. Eventually, what happened in our family was that there was no one left to take care of the livestock. It’s just that there was a shift in the Navajo way of life. We started to get jobs and we were getting pay checks rather than…like in my family, there was always someone around to care for the cattle starting from when we were 10 years old. My cousin and I used to go out riding horses all day with my dad to look for the cows so we could gather them in to give them a vaccination or whatever needed tending to. And, once we grew up and went to school, that part of the work force was gone.
SEE: Where did you go to school?
LT: I went to school at the Albuquerque Indian School. My mother sent me because there wasn’t a school near where I lived. And then my cousin, she went to school in Navajo, NM, which was half a day’s drive, I don’t know, about 3 or 4 hours drive.
SEE: So, you didn’t have sheep at that point?
LT: No, we didn’t have sheep at that point. And then my aunt retired and she sold all the cattle and she bought a herd of sheep. So, when she retired, that’s what she did. She herded sheep and did weaving. And then it got too much for her, because I think it was just her and my Dad at that point. So, it’s a lot of work to have livestock and a house.
They were elders by then. That was probably in the mid-nineties. And she finally just said it was too much for her. She did the same thing, she had to sell all her sheep.
And that’s really heart-breaking for Navajo people because sheep are so much a part of their life. We get our meat from them, we take care of them. All of that was gone and also there was no one around anymore to take care of them.
SEE: Did your aunt and your father live near each other?
LT: We lived maybe half a mile away. The younger ones were going to school and they were leaving so that just left the older people and when they couldn’t do all that work…. The Navajo way of life has shifted dramatically from my generation to this next one. There’s more native people living in cities and urban areas now than there ever used to be and that’s another reason why all the sheep….It’s really hard.
SEE: It seems like it would be lonely with so many people moving into the cities. It would take a really special person to be able to be alone there. At least alone in the sense that there’s not a lot of outlets around or family and friends herding the sheep. And, in our interview with Dinah DeWald, she said she found that challenging—she had to learn to just be with the sheep by herself. So I’m wondering if that’s changed, too.
LT: I don’t think so. When you’re growing up and you’re raised among livestock, that’s one of the expectations to be out by yourself. It is a lot of responsibility for younger people. They’re responsible for a whole herd of sheep. They better watch the sheep and not fool around. But I don’t think being lonely was a big issue for them. And sometimes they would go out with maybe a cousin or a brother or sister. Or a grandmother. So, someone was there.
But nowadays, because of the jobs and young people going to school, colleges or universities, that takes them away too. But then, for Navajo people, I can’t say this for all tribes, for those who have sheep, they do go home on the weekends or maybe summer. But again, someone has to always be there, taking care of them because other animals can get them and sometimes they can be stolen, unfortunately. People can steal the sheep. So, you always have to have somebody at home to care for them.
SEE: And taking them somewhere in the summer….
LT: Yeah, if they’re taking them up to higher ground. And, someone has to stay with them up on that higher ground too. You can’t just leave them.
SEE: Did you grow up weaving? Or did you learn it later?
LT: I learned it later. But like I was saying, all the women in my family were always weaving when I was growing up. So when I started weaving, it just came to me. I just remember hearing that sound of the ‘tap, tap, tap.’ There’s a rhythm to it. It always sounds so soothing to me because it means ‘home,’ and something’s being created, and things are going into a beautiful design. And so, when I started weaving, I’d seen the other women in my house weaving so much that it was a little easier for me. I actually have a loom up now.
SEE: To use in your spare time!
LT: (laughs) I don’t have any now but….
SEE: In one article we read, you compared writing poetry to weaving. Could you say a few words about how they’re similar?
LT: Well, I think that both have that sense of creation. What I came to realize one day when I was looking at these weavings, the way they grow is from the ground up. Our designs keep going upwards. And that’s also the way our emergence stories took place. There were previous worlds and humans and animals and other beings kept moving upward. And I thought, why couldn’t poetry be written like that? Instead of being written from the top, write poetry from the bottom of the page going up. I want to write a poem like that.
SEE: Since the Navajo stories of creation keep moving up, is there ever an end? Are we continuing this trajectory?
LT: That’s a good question! (laughter) I don’t know. I’ve heard some people say there are 12 worlds and right now we’re in the 5th world. But it depends on who’s telling the story.
SEE: How much difference does it make to you writing in English or Navajo?
LT: Well, the Navajo language is a very graphic—not graphic—there’s a lot of images. The language is very imagistic. A lot of verbs, everything is always in motion and that’s part of the Navajo belief that the world is dynamic, things are always moving, in motion, things are going, so our language reflects that. When I started writing poetry that’s how I used to write, by thinking about it in Navajo. And the language itself I think is also very poetic. So I would write things like that in Navajo and then in English. Thinking in Navajo and writing in English. And then I stopped doing that. I don’t do that much any more, like I used to. I still do it once in a while. But I do write bilingual poems sometimes and I put Navajo words into English poems.
SEE: Do you find it difficult to capture that imagistic quality in English?
LT: Yes. There are words in Navajo that don’t translate.
SEE: Did you grow up speaking Navajo?
LT: Navajo was my first language. Fortunately, my parents taught me Navajo first and then English.
SEE: We’ve heard that it was more common at that time that children learned Navajo at home, and then learned English when they went to school. So, to have your parents speak both, it seems like that was pretty unusual.
LT: I’m very thankful that my parents both spoke Navajo and English. When I went to school at Crystal we were one of the last generations where Navajo was the first language. So, once we went to school, you had to learn English in order to be in school. I used to translate for my classmates to English. Otherwise, they would get punished for it. That was that time, the era of assimilation. I learned how to read very quickly because I could speak English. I found school to be very easy.
SEE: Are you trying to bring the Navajo language into the classroom at ASU?
LT: I teach a class called Navajo Dine Narratives at ASU and I’ve taught that several times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get a lot of students.
SEE: So you are teaching Navajo to people who’ve never heard it before?
LT: Yeah. And there is a part at the beginning of the semester where I show them the language, the alphabet, and we do some practicing of how you pronounce Navajo words. And then I give them easy, beginner books. The students seem to really like that! Even the Navajo students. They love looking at a book and being able to read the words! It’s kind of fun. And I noticed it’s like singing too—when you go over the way some of the words are pronounced, or some of the way the vowels are pronounced, when you add the diacritical marks, you have high tones, falling tones, nasal, glottal stops—so, get it all together and the class recites the alphabet, it’s like they’re singing. They get a kick out it.
SEE: Do you find some of your American students sign up because there are so few opportunities to learn about native languages and cultures?
LT: I really like the students who have that interest and so when we do have a reading that’s got some Navajo words, and they pronounce or try to pronounce the word, I’m so proud of them! Because they’re trying and they want to read about people that they haven’t read about in their education. Our history is pretty much invisible in this country and our presence pretty much is too.
SEE: In your book, “Code Talker Stories,” the men speak from their immediate, personal perspectives and memories, without much reference to the larger context of World War II. Is that characteristic of Navajo culture?
LT: Yes. The challenge was that, when I first started interviewing the Code Talkers, I started off with, you know, a list of questions. That didn’t work. (laughter) That didn’t work at all. They would say a few sentences and then that would be it. And so I thought, I’m doing this all wrong. I should just ask them to tell me a story, which I did. Tell me a story about being a Code Talker. That’s all it took. And then they just went off on what they were doing, they were enlisted and the family and just added more….
SEE: But they knew what they were doing, and their role in the war?
LT: They knew what they were doing. And they remembered! Only a few of them said, ‘I can’t remember everything.’ But for the most part they seemed to remember their lives as Code Talkers and I think it’s because that generation relied on their memory much more than we do today. We write things down now, we put them in our phones, and they didn’t. I remember my mother was like that. She remembered things. And I didn’t even remember them but she did, because she was using that memory that we’re required to in our oral tradition.
SEE: And for the Code Talkers, the Marines chose people who had exceptional memories. It was a very hard task.
LT: Well, they also chose them because they could speak Navajo and English. That was the main thing. Because by the time they got out of the service they had had to memorize over 432 terms and everything depended on that code—lives depended on that code. So, they took on a role with a lot of responsibility.
SEE: It’s such a beautiful story. And it’s interesting in a way, because I have some Japanese friends who used to live in the Southwest. They were very interested in the Navajo culture, and maybe the Hopi too, because they said they felt kind of a kinship. So, I don’t know if there’s really much similarity between Navajo and Japanese.
LT: I don’t know, but they’re considered the older brothers.
SEE: The Japanese?
LT: Yeah, yeah. There’s stories about why that is. That’s what I had heard. But when the Code Talkers were fighting in the South Pacific, the Japanese were not considered that at all. In fact some of the Navajo men, including my father, had Asian features and they were afraid they would be mistaken for the Japanese. They were very afraid of being captured by their own people, by American military. And there was some instance, I think one of the Code Talkers said that’s what happened.
SEE: That’s terrifying! But someone finally recognized him, right?
LT: Yes, someone from his company vouched for him. Then he was let go.
SEE: Do you get to spend much time on the reservation?
LT: I do go back up there. In fact, I’ll be going back up there as the Navajo Poet Laureate to give the graduation poem recitation at Navajo Tech University. I have family in Mexican Springs, my two brothers are there. I have cousins that live near Chinle. So, when you’re Navajo you have family everywhere.
SEE: Anything else you’d like to tell us about Churro sheep?
LT: You know, I stopped eating lamb from New Zealand because it doesn’t taste right—not like Churro. I think it’s because of the food they eat.
By Laura Tohe
Anyone who’s been around this area long enough will hear echoes of stories old and recent. Once I fell from a ladder and fortunately didn’t break any bones but for weeks was left with bruised ribs and a deep purple bruise in the shape of a stingray. I met a Diné woman in Oregon and told her about my fall. She consoled me with a story about her son who fell from the rim at the canyon. He had partied with friends the night the rain greased the rocks slippery. When he stood, the canyon grabbed him. Miraculously, he landed on a ledge because he remembered to call out his warrior name. Rescue took several hours, and he was not healed until the ancestral Mountain Spirits descended the mountain through a dream and brought him the courage to remove his cast.