Friday, October 24, 2014

Ceremonial Buckskin

One of my favorite memories as a kid is going deer hunting with my father and brothers. Dad would roust us from bed early on crisp October mornings and advise us to quickly get ready. It didn't take us long to get out of the house when we were excited about going somewhere. This can often be a good thing, except that young boys seldom comb their hair, brush their teeth or dress properly in their rush to escape into the wild outdoors. In comparable situations, I have noticed similar behavior from my son Spenser. My wife even sometimes claims that I still have not outgrown this troubling behavior.

Since we were not preparing for entry into the world of humans, Mom would allow us out "as is." Dad would take us to the juniper groves and yellow grass of Bally Flats. Upon arrival we would pile out of the old truck and line up behind him in order of age. In my mind's eye, I can still see us trooping along behind our father, each stepping exactly in his footprints, one after the other.

Dad would occasionally stop short upon hearing the definitive sound of a "buck snort." "Hear that?" he would ask. "They're close boys, so close I can smell ‘em . . . Quiet now!" The time period would have been the mid-sixties. We were quite young, and thrilled at the thought of being out with our father. Dad was usually fairly reserved in public, but getting out into the hills seemed to loosen him up and ease the stress of supporting a growing family. It was a golden time; one I will always hold near and dear to my heart.
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One of my first introductions to Navajo culture came when I was a teenager; after a successful hunt. Our parents had moved us to Blanding, and we were managing the Plateau filling station on the south end of town. It was a full service operation, which brought us into close contact with both Navajo and Ute people on a regular basis. Opening day of the hunt had provided me with a heavy bodied three-point buck. I was home by 9:00 a.m., and had the animal hanging by a ladder near the station.

I was looking forward to Mom's famous hunting season breakfast of fresh, thinly sliced venison; homemade biscuits; and white gravy, but first I had to skin the deer as quickly as possible to get the tenderloin. As I stood there scratching my head, and looking for the best way to approach the situation, a beat up old pickup truck packed to the gunwales with a Navajo family nosed right up next to my game and me.

I was surprised by the intrusion and quickly turned to face the raiding party, armed only with a sharp knife and a bad attitude. An old, bent, white haired Navajo man scrambled out of the passenger side of the vehicle and walked right up to me speaking rapidly in his native tongue. Ignoring my aggressive stance, he plucked the knife from my hand, nudged me out of the way and went to work skinning my deer. As the old timer worked, one of his entourage filled me in on what he was saying.

All I really remember was being chastised for almost wrecking a perfectly good ceremonial buckskin, and that he was a medicine man who was going to put it to good use. In approximately fifteen minutes, the old man skinned the animal from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, right on down to its four black hooves. He handed back my knife, rolled up the buckskin, placed it in the back of his truck and drove away with his clan.

I stood there somewhat stunned and amazed at what had just taken place. Looking again at the deer, I realized my work was done. The tenderloin was exposed and only minutes away from Mom's magic kitchen. It was some of the most educational, memorable and tasty venison I have ever eaten.

I have since learned that the Navajo people believe ceremonial buckskin and corn were used to create the first people, who were made in the image of the Yei-be-chei. Buckskin is an important element in ceremonies such as the Beauty Way chant, and represents the honor and the respect game animals are given in Navajo traditions. Properly prepared buckskin is valuable, both economically and ceremonially. That elderly Navajo gentleman was one of the first to introduce me to the ways of the Navajo, and to him I am grateful.

The love of the fall hunt was definitely instilled in me by my father, who taught me many lessons about life and death, and also gave me a healthy respect for nature during our outings. I have also taken advantage of this initiation ceremony to build a closer relationship with my own son. We have spent many a frosty morning huddled close on a canyon rim or tree covered knoll, waiting for that monster buck to show himself. We have often failed to put venison on the table, but have been very successful at bonding, sharing and gaining a better understanding of each other and the ways of the world.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

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