The dirt road leading to Taos Pueblo was rough and dusty, and bordered with chamisa and sage brush. Across the vast flats was Taos Peak, and the gray and looming Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rose up against blue sky. Ahead was a round brush-arbor surrounded by tents, pick-up trucks, vendor stands and hundreds of Native Americans.
The 27th Annual Pow-Wow sponsored by Taos Pueblo was underway, and Native Americans from across the country had come to dance, socialize and celebrate their culture. Leslie Pitts, age 12, a freckled face red-head and beginning 6th grader at Tanner High had his face stuck to the window of the Chevy Caravan as his father, Bonnie pulled onto a grassy spot and parked. We had driven to Taos to attend the Pow-Wow and visit my daughter, Shannon, after first stopping off at a Dude Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
The sound of drums and singing in a language that I didn’t comprehend came from the direction of the brush-arbor. We walked over and stood in a shady spot among mostly native spectators. In the center of the arbor circle was a small fly tent that protected a handful of young Comanche drummers and singers from the hot sun. Drumming and singing began. Men dressed in colorful regalia of beads, moccasins, feathers and scarves entered the outside of the circle. Each held a gourd in one hand and feathers in the other. They began a “Ho yah, ho yah,” chant to the rhythm of the drums and rattled their gourds as they slowly danced toward the center of the circle. Most of the dancers displayed Armed Forces patches on their colorful scarves. Several were Marines.
Women dancers wearing long skirts stood at the back of the circle and danced in place, moving their feet to the beat of the drums. The closer the male dancers got to the center of the circle, the louder the drumming and singing. I found it mesmerizing. The announcer said that it was the Kiowa gourd dance and the circle represented earth and the four directions. He explained that the women stood at the back out of respect for the men. Traditionally they didn’t participate at all, he said. But the women’s movement had changed that. Go girls!
Afterwards, I strolled off to find food. “I’ll take one of those chicken tacos,” I said to a tall white woman who was wiping sweat from her face. She dumped a cup full of grilled chicken strips into a big tortilla, threw in onions, poured on red chili sauce and rolled it up like a newspaper.
“Do you want a roasted green chili on the side?” she asked.
“Heck yeah, why not?” I bit off a chunk and swallowed it. “Mmmmm pretty tasty. I took another bite. A fire ignited in my mouth and quickly spread to my stomach.
“Oooooh weeee. Hog dog almighty! Do you sell bottled water?”
“Sure, two bucks.”
I didn’t care if it cost ten bucks. “Gimme two of ‘em.”
Folks, an Alabama gringo’s stomach is designed to process watermelons and cornbread, not fire bombs. Later, I wandered off to visit other vendors. I spotted an old native man, his face bronze and wrinkled, sitting stoically behind a table beneath a fly tent. Books were stacked on the table. I walked over to check them out. The old man wore an open collared yellow shirt with military sleeve patches and a red bill cap. Pinned to the front of the cap was a Marine anchor and globe. Stitched across the front in bold yellow letters was “Navajo Code Talker.”
I offered my hand. “Sir, I honor you for your service to our Country.” He nodded, smiled slightly, but said nothing. His grip was firm for a ninety-year-old man. I had just met Chester Nez, the last survivor of the original 29 World War II Navajo Code Talkers. He was reared in a hogan in New Mexico, jerked from his happy home at a young age, and sent off to a white man’s school where his name was changed, and he was punished for speaking his native language. It was his unwritten language that helped America win the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. He fought at Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Bouganville and Guam.
Leslie walked up. “Leslie, I want you to meet a real American hero,” I said. “One day you can tell your grandchildren about him.”
Leslie’s freckled face beamed as he shook hands. “Good to meet you sir.”
This time the old man smiled and spoke. “Good – to – meet – you -.”
Judith S. Avila, co-author of Code Talker was present. It’s the first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. I had to have a copy.
“Would you like it signed?” she asked.
And it was. “To Jerry Barksdale – Walk in beauty! Cpl. Chester Nez.”
The book is excellent reading and published by Penguin Group, 300 pages and includes the actual Navajo Code and rare photographs. It sells for $26.05. I recommend it. I also recommend attending the Taos Pueblo Pow-Wow if you get the chance. It’s usually held during the second week of July. And go for the chicken taco. But do not – I repeat – do not eat the roasted green chili pepper!
By: Jerry Barksdale