Monday, June 1, 2009

Of Cows and Men

Priscilla has lost her cows. This is not a good thing, not for a Navajo. For a Navajo, cows are income, cows are livelihood, cows are why you bother to get a grazing lease in the first place. Priscilla's family has had cows for generations. They should have about a hundred head right now. Instead, they have eighty. Twenty of the herd have been playing hide and seek for a while. Well, for about four years.

I met Priscilla in the Twin Rocks Trading Post, Utah, where she works during the day. She lives about seventeen miles from the post; when I asked her if I would know the name of the town where she has a house, she said,

"Nope. Just out in the big wide open. Out on the reservation."

Priscilla had just been explaining to me the difference between some of the Navajo baskets on display at the Trading Post. The wider the weave, the more elaborate the work, and therefore the more expensive, she said. Baskets made with a smaller weave cost much less.

"That's hard to understand," I puzzled over this (they all looked equally beautiful to me). "Isn't the smaller work much more labor-intensive?"

Not the point at all, it turns out. The dramatic, larger weaves are more sought after; the narrower weaves are rather everyday, originally made for household use.

Priscilla's family has lost twenty head of cattle down in Chinle Wash, and now the rebel herd won't come home. Every year her father, husband and son mount an expedition to get the runaways out. The cows simply retreat into the tight weaves of cane and thorny underbrush. "They just go into these little tunnels that are way too small and tight for people to go in," Priscilla told me, throwing her long, straight hair back, "and like, disappear." They take refuge in the harsh desert canyons; but since there was plenty of food and water in the wash, the cows had been doing just fine, year after year. They had no interest, apparently, in the everyday business of being rounded up, sold, and trucked off to die.

Last year, the annual cow-hunting expedition took with it a trained border collie purchased from an expert rancher in Colorado. The herding dog immediately took off after the delinquents, went into the narrow, thorny weave along with them . . . and never came out. Priscilla looked and waited for days, but eventually had to accept the dog had gone AWOL, too.

This year Priscilla and her family are having two Australian cattle dogs specifically raised and trained to work as a team to bring the animals home. At this point the pups are still too young to go into the wash, and Priscilla is nervous about them going in, anyway. She doesn't want to lose any more animals--especially dogs. I pointed to my own border collie, waiting patiently outside the trading post, and told her I could understand that perfectly.

"You know, somebody once advised me," she told me, "that if you lose a dog like that, you should leave behind some material that smells of you in whatever place you last saw the dog, and the dog will come back and lie down on it and wait for you."

I filed that away, just in case. "Do you think your dog is still okay, down in that wash?" I asked. "Do you think he might still come out?"

"That's what I tell myself. I hope so. But I don't know . . . and I don't know how much more we can take," she sighed, sitting again behind the cash register. "My dad is getting real old, you know, and all he wants to do is get them out before they come and take him away into the narrow place too."

I nodded, trying to picture it, an old man being folded into the wash with his cows, a single strand into the coffin of the desert.


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