I went to Barnes&Noble with my grama today (partly because I didn’t want to go home right after my appointment, and mostly because I miss having a bookstore five minutes from my house). I actually found a beautiful book of dresses from the Costume Institute at the MET. But this book was near the front of the store.
My sister and grama had been talking about how Chester Nez was going to write a book. He was one of the original 29 Navajo code talkers in World War II. This article explains it better than I could. I had met him when I was very young— I wasn’t even a year old— after my great-grama Zuni died, and my mom was asked to help in the preparations for the funeral. I still don’t know all the details about what happened in the house, but all she says is that the women (for it is always the women) felt her spirit leave the house. Like there was a storm in the house.
I still don’t know how I’m related to Chester Nez. Well actually, I don’t know how I’m related to half the people in that side of my family: they, like many Native families, use titles like ‘aunt’ or ‘cousin’ or ‘sister’ to refer to those of your same age. Some who are technically my cousins are (and always have been) referred to as my uncles, because they are older than me.
I don’t really like to talk about this side of my family, because, in all honesty, they have burnt a hole in my heart where any feeling for them lived. Anyway, that’s not the point of this. The point of this is that, while I was in the bookstore, I was looking through the faded black-and-white pictures towards the back of the book when I saw Ethel Catron on her wedding day. She had to be younger than I am now. Sixteen, at most. We think both she and Chester Nez kept their given names, instead of giving Ethel the family name of Nez, although we’re not sure about that. The Nez’s were jewelry makers— I have a bracelet of Navajo turquoise and silver that was mined in Arizona. I think Ethel’s family were the pot and plate makers. Probably the most expensive thing we have in our house is an ancient Dine pot that was given to me and my sister.
I didn’t buy the book today because Karly had told me (a couple moths ago, actually) that Chester Nez had signed copies for the both of us. When I got back to my Grama’s house, I told Karly that I had seen the book, and I told her about Ethel. She said, “I’LLBERIGHTBACK!” and then ran to her room.
This isn’t exactly out of the ordinary for her, so I waited.
She came back with a ring.
She told me that grama Esther told her that it was her ‘grama’s’ wedding ring. It was simple; five pieces of turquoise on a silver band. It was the most lavish thing they could afford.
We (meaning my mom, grama, grampa, Karly, and I) think it was Ethel’s.
It fit my wedding-ring finger.
I didn’t mean for this post to get so long. It’s just… in my whole life, I have never felt a connection to the Native half of my heritage. Ever. I’ve been to dances and feasts, and I’ve met people who tell me they knew my dad when he was in his band, knew my grama Esther when she was my age, and that at the right angle I look like her, or otherwise they knew me when I was “this big!”
I don’t think I’ll ever have a full understanding of the culture, simply because my brain associates it with my biological father. But there’s history somewhere in my body. Somewhere in my blood, there’s Ethel and turquoise and battlefields.
It’s not much, but it’s there.