Swirls of dust poofed up, swallowing my truck as I sped toward the flaming field. We worried about the six boys who had stayed home to tend the sheep and goats, animals that grazed on that same field that was now burning.
The truck’s windows were open–no AC–and the acrid stench of fire mixed with the softer smell of the powerdust road. It had been a hot Fourth of July on the Navajo Reservation. I enjoyed the irony of spending America’s Independence Day with my Indian friends whose ancestors had lived on this land for centuries before 1776.
We were returning from a Squaw Dance–a traditional healing ceremony–that had been held on a remote farm off yonder behind a red mesa I could never find alone. My Navajo friends Norma and Pearl Duboise and their young daughters rode with me, all of us crammed together in my pick-up. The truck was a patchwork now of blue paint mottled with the constant road dust that swirled around us.
We had all dressed up in full traditional garb for the occasion. A Squaw Dance was an elaborate and important gathering that blended spiritual healing with food, fun, and dance. Think Bar Mitzvah or Quinceanera. I wore a long, multi-colored broomstick skirt, leather mocassins, and a bright pink velvet shirt, stifling in the hot July sun. And turquoise jewelry. Lots of it. Heavy with the pure silver they used years ago. Bracelets halfway up to my elbow, rings on every finger, dangle earrings, and a heavy squash blossom necklace Pearl had worn to her wedding several children ago.
But I truly felt authentic in my Indian get-up when Norma styled my long dark hair in a Navajo bun, complete with a clump of beige yarn left over from her rug weaving.
After the sun had set, in the erratic light of the huge bonfire at the Squaw Dance, I molded and patted the dough for frybread and poured Sunny D orange drink into paper cups for the little ones. I was the only belagaana (white person) within miles of the place. But I felt at ease and except for the women I was working with was scarcely noticed at all.
Until the dance.
A small leather bag hung from my waist, to hold the money I would get for each dance. It was Sadie Hawkins, Indian style. The girls asked the guys (or the squaws asked the braves). I did well. I made $3.25. Not bad for a belagaana. Most of the men never noticed I was white.
But once, a guy started chatting, amiably, I think, as we danced, side by side, the shuffle step I had learned the day before.
“Talk English,” I said in a low voice, staring straight ahead.
“What?” he asked.
“Why?” Then he looked at me and his dancing faltered just a tad. “You’re Anglo!”
Not hardly, I thought. But I wasn’t about to get into my Sicilian ethnic heritage just then.
“Keep dancing,” I ordered, and pulled him along.
“How did you get here?” He was obviously incredulous at my presence, my attire, and my dancing.
“With the John Duboise family,” I said, mentioning my host family.
And all was well, as the Duboise family was well known and respected on the Rez.
A Squaw Dance lasts until dawn. Around midnight, we packed up some frybread and mutton stew to bring back to the six boys, ages seven to mid-teens, who were home with the family livestock.
That’s when we saw the fire. A line of flames crossing the field, heading directly for the pens, and beyond that, the house. The boys were trying to beat out the flames with sheets of burlap and leather. There was no water for miles. And no phones.
Just then a New Mexico state patrol car and Gallup fire truck drove down the access road and turned in toward the fire. Someone passing by on the highway had spotted the flames and called it in. I pulled over near the police car as a tall blond officer stepped out.
“Are the boys OK?” I asked him.
“Get out of the way,” he yelled.
We were out of the way. We were on the side of the road and the fire truck was up ahead, parked, with the men unloading their gear.
I’m worried about the boys,” I insisted.”Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Yeah. You can get the hell out of here, the whole bunch of you!” He glared at Norma, Pearl, and their little girls.
“Hey!”I snapped. “I want to know about the boys.”
“They’re okay. Now get out of here. I don’t need to put up with you.”
He stomped off.
“What the heck is his problem?” I ground it into reverse. “He didn’t have to be so rude. I just asked a question.”
On I babbled, agitated. Meanwhile, the others were silent. Finally, little Debra, eight years old, spoke softly in Navajo. I caught only one word of it.
“What did she say?” I stopped the truck. No one looked at me directly. It was very still. Even the dust had settled.
Then Norma spoke. I remember her tone, apologetic, as well as I recall those words.
“He thought you were Navajo.”
So. There it was.
“You’re dressed Navajo, and here with us, and driving an old truck,” she added. “He didn’t know you were white. That’s why he spoke so mean.”
“Yeah. He didn’t know you were a belagaana.” It was little Debra again, with an explanation and apology, as if it were her fault, not his.
A few days later it was time for me to leave my friends and head back east to work. I drove the dusty road past the half-burned field, drove past the sheep and goats grazing on the grass that hadn’t burned. As I reached the paved highway the dust settled behind me.
At an intersection a few miles on, a patrol car was parked on the edge of the road and an officer was directing traffic around a stalled truck. It wasn’t the same officer from the fire, but he was tall, light, obviously Anglo.
I was back to being a belagaana dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, no more turquoise, my Navajo hairdo gone. As I slowed to pass the truck, the officer waved and smiled. I hesitated an instant, then raised my hand, smiled back, and drove on.