Beauty Behind Me; Beauty Before (AFS Address)
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Beauty Behind Me; Beauty Before (AFS Address)
Barre Toelken, Emeritus Professor of English (bio)

About fifty years ago, when I quit school in 1954 (during my sophomore year), I did not know of the lifetime of folklore upon which I was embarking. A forestry major at Utah State, in northern Utah, I quit for only a term—or so I thought—to think of other majors, for one thing, and to try my hand (like everyone else) at finding uranium, a new search "going on" in southern Utah, a place I wanted very much to see. And see it I did: from investigating remote parts of the reservation and marrying a Navajo woman, to catching pneumonia and being cured by a medicine man. Oh yes—and also finding some uranium, gypsum, copper, and manganese. The Navajo reservation is roughly the size of Belgium, and in those days about 50,000 Navajo lived there, plus any number of uranium prospectors. Away from our camp, we might see one or two others a day; when we got down into Montezuma Canyon we saw no one, except the occasional sheep herder.

Two years later I was out of money, out of a job, out of just about everything except my friendship with the Yellowman family in Montezuma Creek—in southeastern Utah, the only place in 1956 where the reservation reached north of the San Juan River. There were no paved roads, and the unpaved roads were seldom passable, because of sandstorms. The nearest neighbor was around three miles away and out of sight. Surrounded by cliffs of sandstone, I heard stories every evening during the winter, ranging from Coyote's adventures with Yei Tso (a monster who is lured into a sweat lodge where he breaks his own legs, thinking he has discovered a natural treasure), to Coyote's disastrous encounter with the beaver (he bets his hide, loses, and has to be buried for a year for his hide to grow back), to the story about how Coyote played dead to trick the prairie dogs into coming close enough to kill.

All of these stories were told by Little Wagon (ca. 80) and by Yellowman (ca. 60), all of them accompanied by smiles and laughter, all of them functioning—so I was told—to illustrate for us all, especially the children, what was normal behavior. In other words, what Coyote does is something we should avoid (most of the time, for Coyote represents good as well as bad). I eventually returned to school and changed my major to English, but I never forgot the figure of the old Coyote. I had caught "the Navajo bug," and it has been with me ever since, turning me (in more recent years) slowly from Old English, Middle English, and other trivia, to the depths of Navajo language, storytelling, and religion, and from kids' stuff to the things that make adults nervous and sick.

In 1966 I went back with proper equipment and recorded Yellowman. He and his family now lived just off the reservation in a house in Blanding, Utah, and although [End Page 441] things were not ideal—primarily because of white neighbors who were baiting him—we got several stories recorded, and I went home to begin work on one of them. This resulted in a brief paper at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, which later became an article in Genre (1969) and was then republished in Folklore Genres (1976). It was called "The 'Pretty Language' of Yellowman," which, though it touched on a number of good issues, did have several flaws, among them a few things in the text that I had not heard. The positive thing was that it was translated into prose, which let me rationalize some things that did not quite make sense. I could gloss over them. I delivered the paper and at least felt I got some value out of my years among the Navajo. The tales seemed a good-natured attempt to get kids to behave: "You wouldn't catch me acting like that; people would laugh" (Toelken 1969).

But so many questions came to my mind (and to the minds of others...