Children's Books

TURQUOISE BOY -- A NAVAJO LEGEND, by Terri Cohlene illustrated by Charles Reasoner, Watermill Press (an imprint of Troll Associates). 48 pages, paperback. $3.95 US, $4.95 Can., 0- 8167-2360-5

While the other Cohlene re-constructs are based on what are often called "little tales" -- instruction for children, entertainment stories, and maybe a couple created by shake and bake a number of such stories -- this one is a distortion of a major sacred mythic cycle (Blessingway) in a religion still alive and practiced by many Navajo people today. That this should be trivialized into a little story for children is itself a new low in demonstration of cultural insensitivity and ignorance.

Turquoise Boy is one of Changing Woman's twin sons. Changing Woman is a principal Navajo creator-deity. Her sons have many names and functions -- Turquoise Boy he is also Enemy Slayer, Monster Slayer, and other names.

Everything is distorted in this story. Cohlene has Turquoise Boy bring horses -- of four colors "to make life easier for the people." Actually, the Navajo knew very well where horses came from -- Spanish introduction. Horses in the mythic cycle here symbolize, because of their beauty (especially running) life forces, primarily water: rain and the rare springs of the desert, but also plants:

"Sprouting plants being their ears, with their voices for me they are calling; great stars, dark, being their eyes, with their voices for me they are calling. Waters of all kinds being their faces, with their voices for me they ar calling. Great shell being their lips, with their voices for me they are calling." These mythic horses are described at great length in this part of the song most of their description is of rain, storm, lightening, clouds, but also of the life these bring to the desert and the people, and the beauty of such storms with their life-giving water is emphasized. Horses galloping like thunder, manes and tails swirling like clouds or hanging down like falling rain, legs flashing like lightning -- these are a metaphor for the sacred beauty of life that is sung of in the Blessingway, which invokes psychic and spiritual renewal, increase, health, safety, and above all, balance among personal and natural forces, described as walking in beauty.

Important ceremonies of a living religion should not be made into a distorted little children's story about a teenaged youth going out and about on a maturity quest. Cohlene hasn't a clue to what it's all about. It's kind of questionable if any non-Navajo can. Luci Tapahanso, a very talented Navajo poet, who is thoroughly at home in her own language and culture, but writes beautifully in English as well, doesn't think it can be or should be. While Cohlene's other books in this series are merely generally distorted and culturally inaccurate travesties, this one is a desecration.

Her mini-history is also poor. She does mention (in her significant dates chronology) that American officer Kit Carson led a death march to "concentration camps", but not the slaughters and burnings that preceded this. And actually there was only one concentration camp, Bosque Redondo, why not name it? Again the "Battle of Wounded Knee" shows up and the Indian Civil Rights Act, supposedly "gives Native Americans the right to govern themselves on reservations."

"Today many Navajo live in the traditional way, tending their flocks and practicing the old ways. Others have jobs in tourism, oil or other more modern careers." Cohlene fails to mention some modern aspects of the Navajo situation. Black Mountain coal mining and a huge, foul electrical generating plant fed by the coal from it at Page, Arizona, generates electricity for California. Not only does it desecrate Navajo land and foul the clear desert air, but Peabody Coal and other energy corporate giants have played the Navajo and Hopi against each other, and are forcing hundreds of Navajo families to move off land their families have occupied for hundreds of years. A short-lived uranium mining industry left radioactive wastes in huge piles, and has already caused deaths in the Monument Valley area. Seepage from the radioactive waste material into the water table, and river threaten land and people for future millennia. So some Navajo have the "more modern career" of working with geiger counters and environmental experts, trying to create temporary solutions (there are no permanent ones) to these mountain-sized problems left by white military and industry on their land. As usual, actual, pertinent history (white-caused problems, real, current major Native struggles with them) is totally ignored.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM