Thursday, October 18, 2007

Race Between the Day and Night Animals

Elsie Holiday Mates Basket
Navajo Mates Design Pictorial Basket by Elsie Holiday.

In Navajoland, tales are often told of a contest between the day and night animals. The competition to determine whether it would be always day or forever night occurred in the early days; shortly after the Navajo people emerged into this, the Glittering World. Until recently, I have assumed the stories were nothing more than superstition; that however was about to change.

Fall has brought shorter days, so my morning bicycle rides begin in almost total darkness. The uncertainty of that darkness, with all its possibilities, like the lack of predictability of a long-term lover, fascinates and excites me. I immensely enjoy the freshness of the new day and the expanding glow as the sun spreads over the jagged landscape of southeastern Utah. One Bluff pioneer used to say that when God finished creating the world he had a lot of rock left over, so he dumped it here. One glance at our local geography, and you realize the old settler may have had inside information.

Late in September, I rose early and scrambled downstairs to begin the day’s exercise routine. A harvest moon rode low in the sky, its beams illuminating the morning. As I crested Cow Canyon, my breath coming in frosty puffs, the sky expanded before me. I was struck by the Big Dipper, handle down in the northeastern sky, and innumerable mica stars populating the heavens. The air was fresh and clean, and the highway vacant.

A short while later, I topped White Mesa Hill, and although Johonaa'ei, the bearer of the sun, had not yet shown himself in the east, Tl'ehonaa'ei, the bearer of the moon, was creeping towards the westerly mesas. Turning the bicycle around, I headed back to Bluff. The semi-tractor trailers were beginning to appear on the highway, and as they sped past I was swept along in their wakes.

All in all, it was shaping up to be a great ride. Then, thump, bump, pssssst, my front tire struck an unseen rock. Seconds later, I was riding on the rim. Not wanting to lose too much time, I quickly dismounted the bike and extracted the tools necessary to replace the tube. As I began to re-pressure the tire, I felt the swoop of a raven pair over head and heard what sounded like tiny feet pattering on the pavement. Startled, and a bit frightened, I began to refit the wheel to the bicycle. About that time, I heard someone say, “Ya’ at’ eeh’, Cousin Brother Man. Whassup?”

You can imagine my surprise when I realized it was Cousin Coyote, speaking to me in Navajo-Gangsta-English, and my astonishment when I noticed he was jogging upright and wearing a pair of Nike running shoes and black T-shirt with white sleeves, which proclaimed, Septicentennial Day-Night Competition. “Get on your wheels and ride along,” he instructed me.

As I climbed aboard the bicycle and began to peddle, Cousin Coyote explained that every 100 years since the initial shoe game in which the day and night animals had failed to determine whether the world would be composed of all day or all night, the animals reconvened to see if a final determination could be had. None of the prior efforts had proven successful. Each time, the game ended without a definitive winner, so day and night continued as before. In frustration, certain day animals; Rabbit, Prairie Dog and Squirrel, had proposed a new challenge to the night animals, Bear, Skunk and Mountain Lion; a foot race from Dinetah to Bluff.

The ravens were spotters for the race, and, in order to minimize the chaos associated with the contest, coyote, still unable to choose between the day and night animals, had been given the job of scout. As Coyote and I led the way, I noticed Cousin Bear shambling upright, Disneyesque, with his sneakers on the wrong feet. At the end of the initial shoe game, Bear, in his haste to beat the sun home, had put his moccasins on backwards. Apparently he had never corrected the mistake.

Navajo Rabbit Carving - Ray & Alondra Lansing
Navajo Folk Art

Close behind Bear were Cousin Rabbit, Cousin Skunk, Cousin Mountain Lion and Cousin Prairie Dog, with Cousin Squirrel, who had apparently been smoking a little too much mountain tobacco, bringing up the rear. The animals, all similarly attired and running erect, jockeyed for position, with the lead constantly changing; now Cousin Bear, now Cousin Rabbit, now Cousin Mountain Lion. “Ouch, you tripped me,” I heard Cousin Prairie Dog bark as the group tumbled to the ground in a heap. The pack quickly recovered and the race resumed.

To the west, Tl’ehonaa’ei lingered atop the mesa, cheering the night animals. Johonaa’ei, while clearly close by, but seemingly loathe the begin the day, had still not made an appearance. We quickly covered the flats leading to Cow Canyon and were about to descend into Bluff to complete the race and finally resolve the outstanding issue when Johonaa’ei broke over Sleeping Ute Mountain and sent his rays cascading across the land. At that precise moment, the animals skittered for the underbrush, leaving me to consider what had just occurred, and whether it was all a dream.

Continuing into Bluff on my own, I parked the bike inside the Twin Rocks trading post and ambled upstairs to prepare for the day, internally debating whether to mention my experience to Jana and the kids. I was seriously concerned they might question my sanity and try to have my morning cycling privileges revoked if I did.

As the morning progressed, I checked under every bush and rock of appreciable size to see if I could locate the animals and discuss the outcome of the competition. I wondered whether one team or the other may have been declared the winner, or if the result was as it had always been. As Johonaa’ei languished in the west that evening, I questioned whether the day animals had in fact prevailed. Finally, however, the sun capitulated and dropped behind Comb Ridge, confirming the continuation of day and night as they have always been.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and The Team

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