Honor the emergence stories; the hair conundrum

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

October 11, 2012

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T he annual hoopla is settling a bit now that Columbus Day is over. But the holiday remains controversial in our modern times.

Many tribal members favor changing the day to honor the First Americans since the lost traveler is a symbol of the genocide and oppression that followed the arrival of the first Europeans.

Clarifying the past is a noble goal since, as the saying goes, the conquerors write history.

To be accurate though, how far back to we go to honor whoever "discovered" America? There's the Norsemen from Iceland who preceded Columbus and the Polynesians who preceded them.

Every tribe has a story about where they came from and how they got here. Perhaps honoring this collective cultural wealth is the way to lay to rest the Columbus Day controversy.

As other writers have pointed out, emergence stories and origin legends of tribes are based on actual events that have been filtered through the lens of time, their essence kept alive in songs and ceremonies.

For the Diné, it was the administration of Chairman Peterson Zah that in the 1980s removed Columbus Day and instead gave tribal workers a day off the day after Thanksgiving, calling the new holiday Family Day. Other tribes and two states have taken similar actions.

Some call Native American protests against Columbus Day political correctness. How about reality?

Facial hair

Speaking of the arrival of the Europeans, not having to shave every day since I semi-retired in July, a scattering of whiskers gradually appeared on my upper lip and chin. Most of the chin whiskers were white and looked like a jumble of tumbleweeds in the corner of a fence.

While driving near Gallup the other day a pickup truck zoomed by and in the instant it passed I glimpsed a man with a white beard. On Tuesday, just south of Fort Defiance, a man with a white goatee was hoofing it towards Window Rock.

A general impression of Diné and other tribes is that not many of the men grow facial hair. Although some men are named for mustaches, such as Curly Mustache or Mustache Boy, Diné men in general appear smooth and clear over both double chins.

My late mother remarked that not many males in our family had facial hair except a long ago bald relative who had a robust beard. One of my uncles has a mustache as do a couple of friends (one said, "It shows you are a man").

Old photographs of Diné rarely show beards, only a mustache here and there. The pristine faces of our people stand in contrast to Mexican and Anglo traders and soldiers who always had large mustaches and beards. Whether genetic or cultural, we cannot compare to the foliage on the faces of other races. We have Navajo Santas but they put on fake beards only once a year. However, with the aging of the Baby Boom generation, we may yet become a tribe of Santas.

The Internet chatter on the subject ranges all over. One post stated that the reason an American Indian guy had whiskers was because he ate white man's food. Another said whiskers on Native men's faces was the result of intermarriage with other races.

Whether the reason is diet, environmental factors or the gradual mixing of genes, we may see more elderly Diné men wearing their facial hair for everyone to see.

Among our leadership, we haven't seen one single hair mar the shiny faces of President Ben Shelly or Vice President Rex Lee Jim.

Among the members of the Navajo Nation Council, who could also use a makeup artist's powder, at least six of the 24 delegates sport facial hair. Those with a faint fringe mustache include Nelson Begaye, Jonathan Hale, Leonard Pete and Alton Joe Shepard. Joshua Butler favors a shadow above his upper lip. Charles Damon uses a clipped look for his semi-walrus growth.

If some predictions come true, our tribe may merge into homogeneity with all other races. Our leaders in the distant future may resemble a council of Vikings with long, flowing white beards.

A local family, upon discovering one white hair on the back of the head of the mother, said it must mean she is smart. We can only hope beards and mustaches will impart wisdom to our leaders.

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