Peterson Zah

Peterson Zah

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It's one of those things when you're growing up and it seems like so far away, but as I go back nowadays, I would say we were about maybe eight miles from the trading post.  It was in a northeasterly direction, about eight miles.  So if we had to walk, maybe it took us a little less than an hour to get there, on horseback maybe thirty minutes.  And in a wagon, maybe about an hour.  But the roads were bad, and so… we kind of made it the event of the day to go to the trading post.


My responsibility as a young boy was one of always helping out the family.  My grandparents and my own parents would assign a task to me, and my duty was to make sure that those were carried out from day to day.  For example, my parents were responsible for letting the sheep out in the morning.  And then while that sheep corral was being opened, I was always having my breakfast.  Once they got two, three miles up the canyon, then it was my job to follow the sheep.  No questions asked, no argument--that was your duty.  And the other thing was, that when you came home, there was always wood to be chopped, wood to be gathered… You don't go to bed without any wood inside the hogan, for example.  You always had to have that, because it gets cold--particularly in the wintertime.  The animals had to go out and graze, and they had to be tended to from day to day.  So that was a duty that was an ongoing duty all the time.  It was one of those things where you just had to learn how to be responsible by doing, and very little talking about things.  But you just worked hard during the day, even as a young kid…

The water for the animals we either relied on the rain--there were a couple of dams, one maybe three or four miles up the road in one direction, and maybe one further out, two or three miles going the other direction.  And so we always took the sheep there for water.  If for some reason we were unable to do that, or if there was not enough water there for the animals, then down the canyon maybe four or five miles away, there was a windmill.  I remember the water that came from there was not muddy, as opposed to the dam water.  So the windmill water was a lot cleaner, but it required taking the sheep down the canyon, then bringing them back up.  And if it's five miles away, that's ten miles.  So on occasion, we took our sheep down there.  Of course we always had the option of going on horseback to do that.  And I think on many occasions we used the horses to herd the sheep to the water.

Drinking water, we had a spring at the first camp there.  We had a spring where that spring was good to the family.  It was always producing good drinking water.  We kind of fenced it up so that the sheep and animals wouldn't go there.  And it was preserved for family use.  That well [i.e., spring] was something that we utilized for many, many years.  And I remember we used to have to take a bucket, a gallon- or two-gallon bucket, and going over there daily to get the water, both to my grandparents and to our camp.  And that was a task that my father mainly did, because I guess he wanted to make sure that the water wasn't contaminated or anything like that.  Sometimes on occasion I would take a gallon jug, and I would just follow him, and he would fill the gallon jug, and my job was to put it on my back and take it home.  And my father always had two buckets with him.  That was how we got our drinking water.


My grandfather was a very interesting man.  His name was Guy Malteen [phonetic spelling].  He was a carpenter, I guess, by trade.  He went to school and learned how to do carpentry work.  He was also a coal miner in Keams Canyon.  Into the canyon and by the mountain they have coal that comes right out of the rocks there.  And the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Keams Canyon Agency decided that they should employ some people--maybe three or four people--and they put a great big hole into the mountain.  And then they had a railroad that they placed in there.  And then they had a mule, I remember.  And my grandfather always used to drive the mule into the mine.  And then sometimes I would sit there and just watch the men going into the coal mine.  Maybe I would go from our sheep camp with one or two other boys who were a little older than I, and we would just sit there against the mountain, and we would see the men going into the mine.  And then maybe a couple hours later, the mule would come back with the wagon just full of coal.  Then they would load it onto the truck.  Then the truck would take it up to the school, the local school, and probably to the local BIA headquarters there, and at the powerhouse they burned it all day.  And that's what was keeping those houses and offices warm. 

So my grandfather, because he had that job, meant that he had to ride his horse between Keams Canyon over to our camp, eight miles down the road.  Sometimes he would ride that distance every day, but on occasion he would ride his horse in, but stayed at Keams Canyon in a little hut, a little stone and brick building.  He would stay there, and then come back the following evening.  So he may leave, let's say, Monday morning really, really early, like four a.m. in the morning, five a.m. in the morning, and then he would come back Tuesday night, instead of Monday.  That way, he only rode in maybe three days out of a week.  And so he had his camp there. 

He may have one or two other grandchildren during the summer months when school was out, older boys, with him.  But mainly, I was the main one that was always around there with him.

My grandmother and my grandfather had a house--not a hogan, a house--because my grandfather was a carpenter, and he managed to build his own house.  And so I sensed right at an early age that he was living a little different than most Navajo families in that area.  In other words, inside he had a table and he had some chairs.  But everything that was in that house was handmade, he built it himself.  And so my grandfather was very handy with his hands.  And he was considered a good individual to have him build your house.

My mother and father, we had a hogan.  We had a hogan maybe about fifty to seventy-five yards away from each other.  In between was the corral.  And that was a camp to me, because we had two families.  And then on occasion, my grandfather's kids, one or two of them, may come back, and so they built a hogan.  During the summer months they would come back to Keams Canyon, Low Mountain area, and they would stay there.


My father later on also started working at the mine.  And my father was one of these individuals where he, and maybe one or two other people in the community, were the only ones that had the ability to speak English.  And so the Navajo people gave my father a name.  His Navajo name was Ólta'í yázhí,"the short person with education," or "the schooled short person."  And the reason why they gave him that name was he had the ability to write, and had the ability to speak the English language.

My grandfather was also a good English speaker--perfect English speaker--because during his young days he used to work in White Mountain Apache.  He worked with the San Carlos Apaches, and he was down here in Phoenix.  He was all over the place, and spoke very eloquently in English.  His brother was Scott Preston, who was the vice-chairman of the tribe at the time.  And I remember Scott Preston used to come over and visit his brother, and they used to build sweat baths, start a sweat bath going, and I used to go over and participate with them.  And all day they would just talk politics.  As a little boy, I was there to listen.  Of course my interest always was politics, and so I used to love to listen to Scott Preston, what was going on in Window Rock with tribal politics and all of that.  It was interesting times.

Early on, my father went into the service, maybe around 1937, 1938, 1939.  He was training and preparing to become one of the Navajo Nation code talkers when the war was over.  When he came back, he came back to the family as an alcoholic.  He liked his booze, and we could never get him away from that.  But he didn't drink all the time.  He was one of these, I guess, individuals that drank very heavily for a short period of time, and then left it alone for the next couple of months or so.

He had a great sense of responsibility towards his people.  For example, he would go to the trading posts and he would get mail, an envelope like this, because he knew all of these people whose name was on there.  Mary Yazzie.  He would look at it and say, "Mary Yazzie is our neighbor, seven miles up the road."  So he would get all of that, and then he would ride his horse to Mary Yazzie's house, and then he would deliver the mail to Mary Yazzie.  Well, Mary Yazzie can't read or write, so then he would give it to Mary, and then Mary Yazzie would open...  He always had them open the letter, and then they gave him the letter and he would read it to them in Navajo.  And he would interpret from English right into Navajo words.  And nine times out of ten, those Navajo ladies would say, "We want you to write back to this person for us."  And so my dad would sit there and the ladies would tell him what to say.  And so he would write back to the people. 

Most of these letters that I remember as a young boy were letters that came from young men that were in the service during the war.  And I remember him reading to his own brothers and sisters what kind of war was going on, what happened at night, and the Japanese, what they looked like, and how they were so lucky, and all of that.  And the letters would say something like, "I don't know if I'll return home, but I'm just telling you the way life is here when you're in the service."  They would describe the food that they would eat, and the long walks that they had to take, and how they got thirsty, let's say, on one trip, and one of their buddies would get killed.  That kind of some horrible war stories that they would write about.  And I remember some elderly Navajo women would cry as my father would read the letters to them.  And then my dad would say, "Let's go to another camp to deliver another letter."  So I would sit on the back of the horse.  We had one horse, so I would just sit in back of him, and then he would deliver the mail to the next person.  The same thing would happen.  And I remember a lot of times when the people who are in the war, they will not put their address down, and the ladies want to write back, but there's nobody to write back, so they know that the letter came from their son.  So my dad would just say, "We'll wait for the next letter.  Maybe they'll have a return address.  That way I can write back to them for you." 

Now, my dad didn't get a cent for that.  And I don't think he even wished to be paid for that.  That was his sense of service, his sense of duty.  And he used to say that "I have the ability to read, and I have the ability to talk English.  That's why I went to school.  And these other people didn't go to school and they can't read or write English.  So I have a duty to them."  And he used to tell me, "When you go to school, you also have a duty to those people."  And I guess that's where I got my sense of dedication, the urgency to serve, because of what he was doing.  And the amazing thing was, we would be hungry, but he never got paid for all of that.  And I think that's why they gave him that name, Ólta'í yázhí, is that he was a schooled person that can be their ears and eyes and their mouth.