Tribal, state candidates celebrate 49th annual Ééhániih Day with locals

(Times photo - Krista Allen)

More than 55 jockeys from across the Navajo Nation on Saturday morning took part in the horse races during the 49th annual Ééhániih Day Celebration in Naatsis'áán, Ariz.

By Krista Allen
Western Agency Bureau

NAATSIS'ÁÁN, Ariz., Aug. 7, 2014

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(Times photo - Krista Allen)

TOP: Dozens of children tested their strength in a game of tug of war Saturday morning during the 49th annual Ééhániih Day Celebration in Naatsis'áán, Ariz.

BOTTOM: The mini parade of elders and presidential candidates ends at the hub of the fairground on Saturday afternoon during the 49th annual Ééhániih Day Celebration in Naatsis'áán, Ariz. Dignitaries such as Senator Carlyle Begay and Delegate Jonathan Nez were in attendance.

Amid the dust on Friday evening raised the noise of horses neighing, people haggling over the presidential candidates, gossiping, and a country band performing beneath the announcer stand. They spoke Navajo, setting up their tents and having supper.

Sounds overlapped in layers. A handful of people sat on camping chairs as they watched men and women in Wranglers and cowboy boots kick up their heels under the spinning disco lights.

On the more tranquil side of the fairground, a cowboy rested on his saddle as the sky turned to a light, dusky purple slashed with burgundy red, coloring the nearby laccolith that locals say a Diné won its name in a footrace against a Báyóodzin.

William Tsinnijinnie from Blue Gap, Ariz. was packing up to go home. His group of five cowboys arrived here earlier in the day after a four-day journey on horseback from Tachee, spending the nights right under the stars at route stops Hard Rock, Shonto Junction, and Double Deck Mesa.

Each night, the chuck wagon driver, Lester Begay, who rightfully earned his own stripes on the trail, made supper for the cowboys. He hauled provisions and served food that the group says he mostly burnt.

"As long as it came out crispy, it was fine," said Tsinnijinnie. "The coffee was black, sometimes weak—we didn't know if it was right."
"I didn't even make food along the way!" retorted Begay. "Just coffee, potatoes, beans, and a ‘Cowboy Special.'"
What he described as Cowboy Special was beans, green chili, and potatoes.

"He made us pick firewood," continued the sooty trail boss. "It was fun. We learned a lot from it."

The younger riders were taught about the backcountry and life on the open range. They were surely young. Cowboy Lorenzo is 25 and chances are, he's mastered Angry Birds. But he'll tell you that slingshotting a sparrow through the air is nothing compared with learning from a vaquero like the trail boss who taught him and the others about campfire cooking, horse care, and outdoor survival.

"This is what our grandparents did," added Tsinnijinnie. "That's how they traveled."

It's the group's first time to the Rainbow Plateau, and they say the area is nothing but grand.

Meanwhile at Craig Jordan's campsite, the young cowboys were eating hotdogs together with the appetizing Pork and Beans.

It's a tradition for Jordan's family to journey here every year on horseback from Ts'ah Bii Kin. And his family's tradition started from humble beginnings when he was a child and taking part of the Ééhániih Day festivities.  
This year, he drove the cow truck sheltering everything from bedrolls and food to a horse trailer that three cowboys would need for Saturday's events.

It was sometime after 8 p.m., but time didn't matter and the band continued to play.

The next morning, more people continued to arrive for the 49th annual Ééhániih Day Celebration.

Jim Howard from Kaibeto, Ariz. was the only food vendor on site. Dozens of people lined up at daybreak to his booth and ordered hot coffee. The Howard family, who fundraise for their annual memorial rodeo every year, began cooking.

The sunrise here looked spectacular in nature. A big, cool, empty sky flushed a little above the rim of Rainbow City. The landscape 10,416 feet below gathered itself from the dark and showed a pale gleam of red dirt and people putting away their tents, some on their morning run, and some even passed out.

The day started at 7 a.m. with a 5,000-meter race and a fun walk.

In the interim, Gene Shepherd from Chambers, Ariz. was getting ready for his day at the Navajo Beef booth. The master of ceremonies designated him different names including Gene Cage, Gene Parrish, and Gene Shepherds.

Well, Gene Shepherd is as good as they come. He's a straight shooter and can sit a horse as if he were born on the saddle. He rides his horse, "Lonesome Cowboy," 12, on the straight and narrow living by a code worthy of his high-top boots.

His group from Padres Mesa Ranch arrived here on Friday after spending the night at Double Deck Mesa. A total of nine riders including his children, Donovan, Shy, and Sage, 12, joined him for his 5th annual Trail Ride to Naatsis'áán Ééhániih Celebration Days.

Last week, he and Sage left from the ranch. A group from Sanders, Ariz. joined them as a rider from Klagetoh and another from Burnside added on. A father-daughter team from Blue Gap joined them as well. Several other riders banded together with his group along the way but turned back.

Shepherd's group journeyed 200 miles wearing their eminent Blue Bird Flour shirts, calling it "pretty good."

"We shared songs about the earth, the land, the sky, the water, the mountain, and the horse," said Shepherd. "We remembered our forefathers, our traditional ways, and our culture."
To keep up their strength, Shepherd's wife, Gwenda, made sure the group had a nutritious Navajo meal of roast mutton, chili beans, and fry bread.

The daylong celebration truly remains a time-honored tradition. Its beginnings root here where the late, most acclaimed local naat'áanii Harold Drake Sr. would collect donations from local traders such as Goulding's near Monument Valley, Kayenta Trading Post, and Navajo Mountain Trading Post.

One of Drake's daughter's, Mildred Cleo Todd said, "Each place would donate candy, soda, flour, sugar—anything. He'd ask for donations and pile it in back of our house. It was all the way to the ceiling! We'd be so tempted to try some of the (goodies) before Pioneer Day. For weeks, it'd be stockpiling and my Uncle Lee's children would come to visit, and they thought my Dad was rich."

Back then Ééhániih Day was better with events like chicken pull.

"People did many things that were so dangerous," said Hueston. "The didn't even sign a waiver. Candy was dumped from an airplane, (which) tattered everybody's windows."
And the Navajo Nation Band would perform at the celebration.

"They used to stay at our house," continued Hueston. "We were so little that we didn't understand who they were. They'd dress up in Navajo outfits and the women wore short skirts."

Eventually, a gentleman named Danny Davey from Santa Ana, Calif. donated goodies such as tennis balls, umbrellas, purses with cash and tickets to Disneyland.

Todd says it wasn't a small amount of money that was tucked into the purses.

She said, "One hundreds and fifty-dollar bills. My dad would enjoy the purse race. He'd tell the women, "Make sure you dig in the purse, you might find a lizard."
"He'd always collect stuff before Pioneer Day. He'd make sure the loud speakers were taken care of. Early Saturday morning, he'd always be trying his jokes on us. We'd say, ‘No, no, not that one.' He'd use them anyway."

For Drake's widowed wife, Stella, 91, Navajo Mountain is home.

"It's brining me a lot of memories because this was started by my husband," said Stella who stays in Winslow. "It's so good to see it the way it was. Children used to run the track. Some would stumble, stand there and cry. It used to be a lot of fun just to watch (the festivities)."

Dan Yazzie Begay Sr., 84, from Narrow Canyon, Ariz. made his annual 45-mile journey on foot as well. This year, he made the trek with 28 hikers.

"He shared with us some stories on the hike," said Carlos Phillips from Narrow Canyon-Oljato area. "Whenever we rested, he shared stories about the area. There was a bit of education involved."

Thanks to his late grandfather who used to trek to Ééhániih Day, Begay is now doing the same.

"I want my grandchildren to keep the tradition alive," said, in Navajo, Begay who didn't participate in the 5,000-meter run because he was aching. "I want to keep up with the tradition, that's why I do this, which makes one vigorous for a long life."

Visitors over the weekend enjoyed a range of traditional events including foot race, horse race, three-legged race, and tug of war.  

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