Part V By: Jerry Barksdale
It was mid-morning, and the sun was hot in a turquoise sky when Bonnie Pitts guided the Chevrolet Caravan down a dusty road toward the Taos Pueblo. I wanted his 12-year-old son, Leslie, to experience a Pow-Wow. The Taos Pueblo covers some 18,000 acres that sprawls eastward from Taos to the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Native Americans still live there in adobe apartments that date back to 1300 A.D. and get their water from Sacred Blue Lake, located somewhere high in the mountains, a place where no white man is allowed. The Taos Pueblo tribe, and rightfully so, is sensitive about who comes onto their land. In January, 1847, following the occupation of New Mexico by the U.S. Army, a mob of Taos Indians went on a rampage, vowing to kill every American. They murdered Governor Charles Bent, along with several other Anglos. Retribution was swift. The Indians took refuge in St. Jerome Mission at the Pueblo. American artillery battered down the adobe walls, killing and wounding numerous people inside. Years ago when I was on a tour, the Indian guide pointed out the mission rubble and stated that the American Army blew down the church. “Ohhh, how awful!” a tourist exclaimed. And it was. The guide said nothing about the rampaging Indians.
Several years ago when my daughter, Shannon worked in the Ski Valley that adjoins Pueblo land, I met, “Crazy Jerry” - that’s Shannon’s term of endearment. Jerry, a Vietnam Veteran, worked at the same lodge with Shannon where he lived with his long-eared Bassett hound, Emma. On long winter nights, Jerry enjoyed drinking beer, watching TV and shooting rats with his .22 pistol during commercial breaks. To prevent snow from accumulating on high ridge crests and triggering an avalanche, a 40 mm gun was regularly fired at night to break off the snow crust. The duty occasionally fell to Jerry. After a few beers and perhaps bored of shooting rats, Jerry raised the gun elevation a couple of clicks and lobbed a few rounds onto Pueblo land. The Pueblos took offense. The following morning an old pick-up loaded with angry Indians rattled up the canyon and issued a stern warning to locals. And it wasn’t couched in diplomatic language. Jerry was immediately relieved of further artillery duty.
At the Pow-Wow, a gourd dance was in progress. We found a shady spot beneath the circular brush arbor and watched. The dancers, many displaying military patches next to feathers and beads, formed a circle, (representing the Earth and four directions,) and while rattling gourds filled with pebbles, chanted and danced toward the center. It was a spiritual and somber event. On the other hand, Anglos usually get fired up on alcohol and sling each other around on the dance floor.
I wandered through the crowd and down a row of tents where I spotted an elderly, bronze faced Indian wearing a Marine cap. He was Chester Nez, the last survivor of the original 29 World War II Navajo Code Talkers. Leslie walked up. “Leslie, I want you to meet a real American hero, I said. One day you can tell your grandchildren about him.” The old man smiled and spoke. “Good .. to … meet… you.”
Later, I sauntered into Jason Youngbuck’s tent, where he was painting a leather pictorial. After hearing him say he had served in the Marine Corps, we struck up a conversation. “I’m a full blooded American Indian, half Southwestern Pueblo and half Navajo,” he said. His father is a well-known southwest artist and a Marine Corps retiree. Jason, also recently retired from the Marines, said his brother was currently serving with the Marines in Afghanistan. I was intrigued. “Tell me why so many Native Americans are Marines,” I asked. “We are warriors. It is our tradition.” In spite of previous mistreatment by the U.S. Government, in early 1940, with war clouds gathering, the Navajo Tribal Council, representing 50,000 people passed a declaration of allegiance. “… we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918 to aid and defend our government and its institutions against all subversion and armed conflict, and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the great people of our race.”
In 1942, the Navajo declared war on the Axis powers. Native Americans set a new national standard when 99% registered for the draft. A War Department official stated that if all Americans had enlisted in the same proportion as the Indians, the Selective Service would be unnecessary. When the grand entry was made at the Pow-Wow, I watched quietly as military veterans in feathers and full regalia entered, carrying the stars and stripes and their tribal flags. A hush fell over the crowd. Every Native American stood. At that moment, I was ashamed that as a child I played cowboys killing Indians.
Later, we checked in at the nearby Kachina Inn and prepared for the two red-headed women to arrive from Alabama. They had been on the road for two days, no doubt defaming my honest little pick-up with its stick shift on the floor.