Friday, February 26, 2010

River Monsters and Such

Recently, while sitting at my desk researching Water Monster, a Navajo mythological creature, I heard the Kokopelli doors swing open. To get a better look, I scooted back far enough to see the entrance. Standing in the center of the large Klagetoh rug that graces the entry was a raggedy character. As I watched, he bobbed his head in either agitation or appreciation, I could not decide which. Raising myself from the chair, I entered the store hesitantly and greeted the shaggy young man with a smile and began to say hello when, "Boom!" he shouted in a high-pitched falsetto, "This place really grabs ya!" I am sure my step faltered and my face betrayed a trace of shock, because the youth smiled shyly and said, "Sorry man, I didn't mean to scare ya."

Navajo Klagetoh Weaving

"More of a surprise than a scare", I replied. We both laughed. "I know I can't afford anything in here," he said politely, "but I would really like to use your facilities." The kid looked like he could use a shower as well. Covering his bony torso was an old Community College of Denver T-shirt with an orange flame-looking flower on the left breast. The smock had once been a purple/blue color, but the sun had faded it and it was now the shade of well worn Wrangler jeans. Barely covering his skinny backside was a wrinkled pair of Khaki hiking pants, the kind you unzip at the knees to make into shorts. On his feet was a heavily soiled pair of once yellow flip-flops. His clump of dirty blond hair, unshaven face and bright blue eyes were pleasant enough, so I nodded my head in the direction of the . . . head.

When he returned, the twenty-something queried, "Isn't all this moisture we're getting great?" I looked outside at the slushy rain falling in the parking lot and nodded in agreement. "Man," he said, "when this stuff melts and hits the San Juan she is going to be a beast! When it does I'm going to be here. That's the way I like it!" In my brain a light came on. "So you're a river runner," I said. "Yep, a guide," he responded. Remembering my interrupted studies, I said, "Well don't let Water Monster get you." "Who's that?" he asked, stepping closer. I explained that Water Monster ruled the river, at least below the surface and if people showed the proper respect and paid him appropriate homage Water Monster may allow them access and not pull them under. "Good to know," said the young man, "What does he look like?" "According to legend" I explained, "Water Monster looks very much like an otter, but with horns like a buffalo. His young looks something like buffalo calves, but have spots of all colors, yellow hands and a generally strange appearance. Some people say Water Monster resembles Thunder, but with an elongated body." "Hmmm," mused the scruffy fellow, "so if I see something really strange, that might be him or his kids." "You got it," I nodded in agreement. The youth told me he appreciated the heads-up and assured me he would do his best to be respectful and use this new information when introducing his clients to the river. He thanked me and headed back out into the slush.

Returning to my office, something the kid said struck me like a bolt. "She is going to be a beast!" he had said. From my library, I fished out Indians and Outlaws, a San Juan County standard. Searching through its index, I was directed to Chapter Seven. In that book, Albert R. Lyman, an early pioneer and settler of Bluff, spoke of the San Juan River thusly, "If the depredations of Indians and white thieves lacked any of the stimulating elements of adversity needed by the people of Bluff, that element was more than supplied by the river, which like a 'grim monster' ravaged their irrigation ditch. What still remained of the ditch was about level-full of silt, but much worse still, a hundred rods of the ditch had been cut away with all the bottom land in that quarter on which another ditch could be made. The river boiled along the base of the vertical cliff, as if exulting in final victory over any more ditch building." Year after year, the pioneers rebuilt that irrigation ditch in an attempt to bring life-giving moisture to their minimal crops. Almost every year, however, the Mormon settlers watched dejectedly as the fruits of their labor were flushed downstream with the spring run-off.

Looking for something positive about the local rivers, I pulled Sacred Land Sacred View by Robert S. McPherson from the shelf. Turning to Chapter Four, I read, "Another powerful source in the [Navajo] universe is the river. Like the sacred mountains that bound Navajo territory, there are four potent rivers inhabited by holy beings who answer prayers and provide protection. Everything within the boundaries of the Rio Grande, San Juan, Colorado, and Little Colorado rivers is protected and sacred, but that which extends beyond these limits is foreign and dangerous. And, the San Juan is a powerful river described as an older man with hair of white foam, as a snake wriggling through the desert, as a flash of lightning, and as a black club of protection to keep invaders from Navajolands. Within it is a holy being who married a female, the Colorado River, and where the two spirits joined in nuptial bliss, they created water children of the cloud and rain people." I also pulled Gladys Reichard's book on Navajo religion and found this reference, "River waters are associated with beauty and happiness and are, often, mentioned in Navajo song and prayer. The belief is that man is aided by the elements on his walk through life. Water is significant in becoming one with the universe, it is cleansing and sustaining, in harmony with life giving and life preserving principles."

That was it, the key I ultimately realized is harmony, balance and acceptance. As with all things, we must recognize both the positive and negative aspects of our lives and what we see in others. Remembering the skinny and scruffy character who had so recently visited Twin Rocks Trading Post, I wondered at my initial impression. When he first sounded off, I thought he was a genuine Fruit Loop. After we had spoken for a while, however, I found him pleasant and unassuming; gregarious, but acceptably so. He cared only to see the San Juan River at its fiercest, while the pioneers wanted it tamed. Water Creature can drag you to your death, but only if you are careless and do not respect the power and danger he represents. When it comes to the San Juan, the Navajo seem to have struck a balance. They see the river as a living being offering protection and blessings, but they are always wary of what dwells below. One day that young man may learn to enjoy a casual float, just as the pioneers learned to love the San Juan River in all stages of flow.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

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