Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler found a new way to celebrate old values at the 43rd Annual To’Nanees’Dizi Western Navajo Fair here Saturday.
This year’s fair theme honored the memory of Chief Manuelito, one of the Navajos’ principle war chiefs and a signer of the Treaty of 1868 who encouraged his people to embrace education.
Because Navajos of his day relied on the donkey for all sorts of reasons, Fowler said she also wanted to honor that lovable beast of burden.
So she rode a five-year-old jack named Jumpin’ Jack Flash in old-styled high-cantle saddle, a traditional hand-made Navajo saddle blanket, and snaffle bit bridle.
“A donkey is highly-valued in Navajo culture, Navajo way of life,” she said. “Long ago it was the donkey that transported all the water and all the supplies, the wood, everything that was in Navajo life.”
The crowd lining the parade route was surprised and happy to see Fowler riding a donkey because it reminded them of how they grew up.
“Especially the elders, she said. “I had a 93-year-old man stop us and take a picture with him because of the donkey. And they bless themselves also. It’s the strength of the donkey that they really love.”
That was Ram Herder, 93, of Sanders, father of Irene Herder, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fort Yuma Agency.
The elder Herder grew up herding sheep around Howell Mesa east of Tuba City and remembered using burros.
“He just loves it,” Irene Herder said.
Another grandpa said this was the first time he had seen a donkey in a parade.
“It brings back old memories and I like it,” he said. “Like the good old days. I miss those days.”
Fowler said in the old days, Navajos used donkeys to get all their chores done.
“The donkey was used on a daily basis,” she said. “And after using it all day long, they would let it go and the donkey would go directly to the ash pile and roll in it. They love the ash pile. I remember our donkey rolling in the ash pile. Only a donkey does that.”
The donkey is important in Navajo culture because it represents the foundation of many Navajo teachings.
“There’s songs and teachings, and there’s even prayers and ceremonies that surround the donkey,” she said
But the donkey is not important to Navajo culture alone.
Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, who grew up in Moencopi just across the highway from Tuba City, said he was happily surprised to see a donkey in the parade.
“We used to see them do our farm work, haul water, haul coal,” he said. “They were our main mode of transportation for our older people.”
With the passage of time, he said, came the passage of the donkey’s era.
“I had not seen a donkey for all these years and it’s good to see them again,” he said. “I didn’t realize they were still around. I have to go back and say the last time I rode that was when I was 12 years old and I’m now 69.”
Fowler, dressed in a period Navajo blouse with the arms and collar lined in dimes, said she got a similar reaction all along the parade route from the crowd who could not see her coming on her little mount until she was practically right in front of them.
“People came up to greet dear Jack,” she said. “They just absolutely loved it. It was something that was funny and at the same time they knew it really struck the culture, because we all grew up with that teaching. This year’s theme was Chief Manuelito and he rode a donkey back in those days, and that’s the days people really relied on the donkey.”
“People are saying they haven’t seen a donkey ridden in that way for a long time,” she said. “It’s missing from the Navajo way of life.”
“They associate the donkey with the value system, especially the elders,” she said.
Children especially were thrilled, she added.
“Kids, oh my goodness,” Fowler said. “They had eyes lit up, and they came up and said, ‘donkey, donkey.’ A little girl came up and said, ‘zoo, zoo,’ and so they were able to pet a donkey.”
A grandma from Gray Mountain said seeing Fowler riding her donkey filled her with happy memories of her family donkey hitched to a wagon pulling a load of supplies. Something spooked the donkey and it took off through the brush, spilling everything out of the little wagon, she told Fowler in Navajo.
In winter, they would travel to the top of Gray Mountain, put ice into bags and have their donkey bring it home, she said. That was the family’s source of drinking water.
“It was very nice. That’s the way we lived,” she said in Navajo. “We didn’t think that we needed anything. That’s how we lived. And now we don’t see the donkey anymore.”
Written by George Hardeen