Wednesday, August 01, 2007


[Note: This review used by permission of its author, Doris Seale, and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Begay, Shonto (Diné), Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa, illustrated by the author. New York: Scholastic (1995). 48 pages, color illustrations; grades 5-up; Diné (Navajo)

In his first non-fiction book for younger readers, Begay explores “facets of Navajo life that are rarely touched upon in Western literature.” This is not a coffee-table book. It is not “American Indian wisdom,” it is not “Mother Earth spirituality,” it is not designed by those who are fascinated by Indians. The words tell the story of a life lived at such far remove from the clamor of urban society as to be nearly incomprehensible to those who inhabit that environment—although even here, what is called “civilization” impinges on the lives of the people.

A grandmother called Small Woman, so strong and gentle that she lived 113 years; the blessing of rain and how sweet the earth smells after a summer thunderstorm. An eclipse and a father who sang prayers for the sun’s return. Tribal fair with its throngs of people—every size, every shape, every color. Ceremony that brings balance back to the world. And the things that come in the night, mysteries, to test that balance: “Sounds pounding from within/Threaten my spirit/More than the sounds on the roof.”

And then there is that other world, the one that surrounds us, that requires us to make some sort of accommodation with its presence; the one, in fact, in which many of us live. The European hitchhiker of “Coyote Crossing,” in the bed of the truck, “quietly sitting there, nibbling on his organic snack, oblivious to what just happened.” The coal mines on the mesa with machines as big as buildings, the trucks, the trains, the jets, that disturb Grandfather’s morning prayers. But “still we sprinkle pollen for another day/Still we have faith.” Ancient truth still exists, “Like pictographs, like broken pottery shards/We have yet to see the picture whole.” Still the spring comes, “For this generation, and many more to come,/This land is beautiful and filled with mysteries./They reveal themselves and their stories—/If you look carefully and listen....”

The pictures are magnificent, and there is much to see in them that might not at first be noticed. Look carefully at the pattern of earth and snow on page 12, for instance, and you will see a running horse, a man with what may be a dog—or something, a deer, a jackrabbit, Cousin Toad—the life of the land.

This is a strong and beautiful book. There is healing in it. Accept the gift as it is given.

—Doris Seale


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