Local legends

Do yourself a favor and collect some local history

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, December 27, 2012

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T he Times is often criticized for not doing enough reporting in the rural areas, and the criticism is justified. With the long distances between chapters, it's impossible for us to be everywhere, and, yes, we sometimes take the easy way out and stay in Window Rock — where there is also plenty of news.

However, barring an act of God, I personally guarantee you that if I have not come to your chapter yet, I will do so within the next 95 weeks.

With my editor's blessing, I have committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order.

In 2012, I visited 15 chapters including my "home" chapter of Chinle (see article in this issue). I've found a lot of diversity, but also a lot of commonality. Most chapters struggle with poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructure, awful roads and feral animals. Two chapters I visited don't even have chapter houses.

But the chapters are also rich — rich in stories and local history.

I've heard some amazing stories I've never read anywhere. If there was a younger person following me around to translate, and we interviewed an older person, the younger person was often as amazed as I was at what we learned.

This made me sad, because it made me think that a lot of this history will be lost with the passing of the Greatest Generation.

I called up my friend Jennifer Denetdale, the Navajo historian, thinking she would agree with me and I would write a lament-full column spiked with her eloquent quotes.

Surprisingly, Dr. Denetdale did not agree with me at all. She thinks local Navajo history is riding a crest.

"There are a lot of different places on the reservation where people still get together to share stories about place," Denetdale contended. "I get a lot of calls from people who read my book (Reclaiming Navajo History: The Legacy of Chief Manuelito and Juanita) and want to share their own family or clan stories."

Just recently, Denetdale said, Ramah Chapter contacted her for help in researching an oral history of the chapter.

Denetdale did agree with me that schools teach too much national and world history, leaving out the local history that is perhaps more interesting to youngsters.

"I think you start with your own family, your own location, and that gets you interested in the broader picture of what was going on around them," she said.

In spite of Denetdale's optimism, I still believe a lot of local history is being lost, not just on Navajo but everywhere. The reason is, young people just aren't all that interested in history. As far as they are concerned, the world is their oyster and they darned well reserve the right to make their own mistakes, much as we would prefer they learn from ours. It is hard for them to conceive of their grandparents — or anyone over 30 — as having been young, vital, interesting people with something to share.


My Italian grandfather came to this country via Ellis Island with $11 in his pocket and not much education. That much was part of family legend. For some reason, it never occurred to me to ask him what it was like to make a life in a new land where he didn't know a soul and didn't speak the language. It wasn't until long after he died that I learned he taught himself to read English, and spent his afternoons translating the local newspaper into Italian for the other immigrants as they gathered at his house. In an era when educating women was considered a waste of money, he made sure all six of his daughters went to college. The older ones got jobs and put the younger ones through, then themselves.

I wish I could have heard this in his own heavily accented words, but while he was alive I was too young and stupid and self-absorbed to ask him about his life. So I am challenging you young people to go find an elder right now — now, I say! — and ask him or her a question about the old days.

Denetdale, who collected lots of oral history for her book, has some tips:

• Start by asking about family events. "They'll always have fond memories," she said. You can get into the tougher stuff later.

• Don't worry that you don't have the proper equipment, like a camcorder. "I still use an old cassette tape recorder," she said. A pad and pen also work just fine.

• Photographs are great for jogging memories. When you take a family photo, make sure you record the date and the names of the people in it. You never know if it's going to become an heirloom, and you don't want your descendants confusing you with that obnoxious Aunt Tillie.

• If you do publicize your findings, as Denetdale did, be prepared for some controversy! "Other branches of the family may not remember things the same way as the people you interviewed," the historian said. "That's OK. Encourage them to do their own oral histories."

When it comes to history — even recent history, like newspaper articles — the more voices, the better.

So...if I turn up in your chapter, and you have a good story to tell, I'm all ears. It's too late for me to talk to my grandfather, but I can interview yours.

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