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Today on the Rez


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36.1708° N, 109.9465° W

Nali Boy visited us
               before he left for the Navy
His Másání made him a bunch of frybread
               to take with him
I walked him out to his car
               and I gave him
                         all the money I had
                                   twenty-three dollars and forty-five cents


Aunty ate three slices
               of Sonny Boy’s birthday cake
                         then she drank two cans of pop
               Then she took her insulin shot

We wanted to chop wood
               but we couldn’t find
                                             the axe and wheelbarrow
               so we had to hike through the deep snow
                                             to my other grandma’s house to get them back


Last night on the rez
               Uncle and Grandma drove all around
                                             until ten o’clock looking for the sheep
                              because me and my cousin
               forgot to bring them back
We thought it was OK
               but Grandma got worried
                              so Uncle took her looking for them
Me and Cousin stayed behind
               We watched Uncle’s truck headlights
                                             going down one way
                                             then up another way
               They weren’t even using roads
                              Uncle’s truck just rolled over sagebrush

Aunty called my mum on Saturday
               She said she got a hotel room in Chinle
                                             so my mum drove me and my sister
                                             over there to swim with my cousins
                              We swam all day and had a lot of fun
                                             My mum and Aunty just sat by the pool
                                                            They talked and laughed
                              When we finally drove home
                                                                           my little sister fell asleep
                                                            with a bag of Cheetos on her lap
                              When I got home
                                                            I sure fell asleep real fast
                                                                           because I was all tired

When I went to school
                              I smelled like smoke and mutton
                                             that’s because we butchered at my grandma’s house
                              The silly janitor at school said to me
                              “Hey      son      you smell like a rich Navajo”
                                             No one laughed                just him
               Then he said it again and laughed some more
                                                                                                         all by himself

My teacher fell asleep in class                               again
               She falls asleep because
                              she takes care of her dad
               She told us kids
                              her dad is old and can’t take care of himself
                                             so he lives with her
               She said no one else will take care of him
Whenever she falls asleep like that at her desk
                                             our class stays real quiet
                                             and we just let her sleep

This weekend
               I sang for the first time at a peyote meeting
                                             I’ve always liked the four songs I sang
               My uncle and I practiced them
                                             for a long time before I sang those songs
               After the meeting was over
                                                            Uncle came up to me
                                                            He hugged me and said he loved me
                              He gave me twenty dollars and told me
                                                                           “Keep Singing”

My sister got mad at a white lady
               we saw driving on the road
                              My sister honked her horn
                                             and drove real close behind that lady
               We could see that lady was scared
                              My sister always does this to nice looking white ladies
                              My sister thinks it’s funny but
                                                                                          it’s so embarrassing

I rode my brother’s horse real hard on Saturday
               Then the head went up
                              and it jumped straight up like this
               and                damn
                              it sure landed on top of me
               I got up OK
                              but my brother’s horse
                                             coughed up a lot of pink blood
                                             then it died
                              My brother cried                for a long time
                                             even though I gave him
                                             two of my own horses
                                                                           He’s just like that

For a month                people kept telling me
                              they heard my wife was seeing another man
               My wife and I are always together
                              so I don’t know what they’re talking about
Last week                someone said something again
               and my wife got real mad
                              she went to work
                              and smashed another lady’s windshield
Today                 for the first time
                                             we stopped hearing those stories

I had to sleep in my truck again last night
               because my uncle has been drinking
                                             for eight days straight
               When he’s like that he starts shouting shit like
                                             “This is my goddamn house
                                             Give me my goddamn money”
               I keep telling him
                                             I already paid him
                                             but he keeps calling me a liar
                                             and saying it’s his house
               This morning                    he woke up and didn’t remember anything
                                             He just started drinking                 again
                              But it’s OK
                              because the work at the job site is almost over
                                              then I can go back home

Out at Másání’s house
               I saw a single blade of grass
               Even though it is really cold and windy
                                                            and snow was around too
                              I showed Shimásání
                              She didn’t say anything
                              and she went back in the hogan
               But when I showed Cheii
                              he smiled and hugged me and told me
                                             a long story in Navajo
               Then he kneeled down
               and he told me to kneel down               too
                                             Then he sang an old song
                                             over a new blade of grass

Grandma says
               she likes the nursing home now
                              and she doesn’t cry for her sheep anymore

My english teacher      keeps          looking               at me
                                             real weird
                              And I don’t know what to do

Uncle came over to wash Nali Man
Uncle got the bath ready
                                             and put all the towels and stuff out
                              He did everything
               Then he wheeled Nali Man in his wheelchair
                                                             into the bathroom
Uncle has to talk loud to Shinali                because he is old
               All I heard was Uncle talking loud to Shinali
                              but then                after a while
                              they started laughing
               Pretty soon
                              I heard Shinali telling stories
                                             something about sheep and horses and kids in the snow
                              I heard Uncle asking questions
Then they laughed
                              When they came out
                                             they were still laughing
Then Uncle got Nali Man dressed
                              When Uncle left the house
                              he was all happy

When I got home from school
               I had to crawl
                              through the window
                                             and eat cereal
               I even slept by myself in the house
               Mum and Dad haven’t come back
                                             from the casino
               I don’t know what to do
                                             But I know
                                             when they come back
                                             they’ll be mad

Out at Uncle’s house
               I took the sheep out
                              early in the morning
               It was real nice because
                              I got to saddle up Starla
                                             then we rode
                                             behind the sheep
                              When we got to the windmill
                                             I got off Starla
                                             and brushed her down
                                             I cleaned her hooves
                                                            but they were already trimmed
                              I don’t ride Starla as much
                                             ever since school started
                              It’s OK
                                             I guess because Uncle takes care of her
                                             and he rides her sometimes

Last night                my brother had another attack
               He woke up                and thought
                              everyone was the enemy
               He even tried to fight me
               He crawled on the floor
                              saying he needed his M4
               I had to talk with him for a long time
                              until he recognized me
                              then he cried and went back to sleep
               This is the fourth time this month

Aunty and Cousin came to visit us
               In my room
               Cousin told me she got her Moon
               for the first time
               but she didn’t tell anyone
                              just me
                                             She said
                                             she doesn’t want to run or work
                                                            for her kináaldá
                                                                           all weekend
                                                                           I had to help her
                                                                           I had to sneak her
                                                                           my mum’s Maxi Pads
                                                                           four at a time
                                                                           She told me not to tell anyone

At Shinali’s house
               the ground was too frozen
                              for thekináaldá cake
               We used axes and pickaxes
               and everything to dig that pit
                              We worked hard
                                             and it got all muddy and messy
                              My mum even gave us
                                             hot coffee and hot water to drink
It was hard work but
               that whole time
                               we just laughed because
                               the guys told old Navajo jokes
                               I never heard before
                                              Even Nali Man was there
                                              in his wheelchair smiling
                                              and listening to us
               At the end
               my mum fed us breakfast with hot bread
                              That cake came out pretty good too

My husband hitchhiked back home
                                             after running out of gas
                              When he came back home
                                             he ate some food
                                             got some money
                                             then he left with a gas can again
                              I just borrowed that twenty dollars from my sister
                              I gave that to him
               Even though he came back late with the truck
                              I stayed up and waited for him

My three-year-old Grandson was cussing again
                                             and I don’t like it
               Whenever I babysit him
                                             he says all these bad words
                                             some words I don’t even know
               When his dad’s around
                                             his dad will laugh at all that cussing
               I keep telling my daughter
                              she should tell her son to stop
                              but she doesn’t do anything
                              I just have to babysit
                                             and listen to those bad words all day long

My mum cleaned out Grandma’s house
               because bed bugs took over
My mum hauled everything out of the house
                              and it took a long time
                                             Then she lit it all on fire
Only my uncle was there to help
                but he smelled like Nyquil
                               so he was slow and took a lot of breaks
My mum told me to stay in the truck
                              because she didn’t want me to touch anything
That fire got so big
                              it made the telephone wires flap around
                              and the oily smoke went up
                              and made the sky all black
Mum wore a shower cap on her head
                              and a trash bag over her clothes and shoes
She even wore a bandana over her mouth
                              she was mad the whole time
When we got home
                              she threw away her clothes and shoes and took a long shower

Cousin got tossed in again for fighting
               Last month
                              he came from Albuquerque to live with us
                              He was all skinny
                                             and always got mad
                                             and slept all day
                              He always scratched bloody sores on his arms
                              Those sores looked like woodpecker holes
                                             on a tree trunk
                              we drove to Gallup to get him
                              and mum bailed him out
               When we were in the car
                                             my dad told Cousin
                                             he couldn’t stay with us anymore
                              My dad said he already packed Cousin’s things in a bag
                                             and he got him a bus ticket
                              Then my dad drove to the Gallup bus station
                                             and got Cousin on a bus
                              That whole time
                                             I couldn’t look at Cousin
                                             I just looked out the window
               A long time ago
                              we used to play
                              but this time he never talked to me at all
               At home
                              my mum and dad
                              sat at the kitchen table
                              and didn't say anything
               They just sat there

We went to visit Másání
We had just got there
               when Uncle came over with his new girlfriend
                              and it was weird
                              because he didn’t tease me
                              or make me laugh like usual
               He just sat with his girlfriend
                              and held her hand
Then mum asked the girlfriend with long hair
                              what her clans were
                              She said she didn’t know
                              and she didn’t care
Then the girl looked mad so they both left

Grandson graduated
from high school
but he never came back home

Granddaughter graduated from high school
               That’s good
                              because she can help us
                              at home from now on

Cousin came over to Másání house
               with his new white girlfriend
                              The white girlfriend wore sandals
                              turquoise earrings and a cowboy hat
               She kept saying
                              “UC Berkeley      UC Berkeley      UC Berkeley”
                              but I don’t know what that means
               I guess she’s OK
                              but she didn’t eat
                              Másání food
                              because of something called “gluten”

After the funeral
               my back hurt
                              because I was hunched over all day
                                             and I didn’t even know it
               But                all of a sudden
                                             when Aunty hugged me
                                             her hands felt like hot sand
                                             burning my back
                              It was weird
                              because her hugs are always nice
                              but this time it hurt
Then when everyone hugged me
                              I only felt
                              their warm hands
                              burning my back
For the rest of the funeral
                               I tried to stand up straight
                               but I kept going hunched over
When I got home
                               I just sat on the couch
                               by myself
                               and my back was screaming
I didn’t cry the whole day
                               but I think I will pretty soon

Dad talked with his girlfriend on the phone                again
                              I can always tell it’s her
                              because Dad talks
                              real low and quiet
                              He’ll even laugh low too
                              He never talks to Mum that way

I saw Dad push Mum to the ground
               She got up real fast and shouted at him
               but I couldn’t hear what she said
                                             because I was in the truck
               Dad just shouted something back at her
               then he walked back into Basha’s
When Mum came back into the truck
                              she yelled at me
                              “Sit Down And Put Your Seatbelt On”
                                             then we drove home

Grandma kept talking about
               buying a new truck
Grandma likes those car people
               by the road
               with their new vehicles
               and those red and yellow triangle flags
The last time we stopped
                              they gave us free hot dogs and pop
                              A white man in a cowboy hat and sunglasses
                                             smiled at us and shook our hands
                              Then he said to me
                                             “Ya-tah-hey      Shi Buddy”
                              Grandma laughed and laughed
                              Now she wants a new truck
                                             and she can’t even drive

Uncle won big at the casino
               He played all night
               and came back
               and took us out for
               pizza and pop
                              He kept giving us money
                              for tokens that whole time
               At the pizza place
                              Aunty held onto his waist
                              and kissed him on his neck
Uncle kept telling the story
He was saying
               “double down                double down
               split aces”
                              but I don’t know what that means
At the gas station
               Uncle filled up the tank
                              Aunty was out there with him
                              She kissed him on the mouth
                              for a long time
                              Us kids laughed
                              and looked at them through the window

Sister brought home a white guy
                                             He wore a pink shirt
                                             white short-cuts and sandals
                              And even though
Sister never said
               he was her boyfriend
                                                            Dad got up and left the room
                              Sister’s friend was real quiet
                              He just sat at the table
                              and looked up at all
                              the Leonard Peltier
                              and NO DAPL posters
                                             on our walls
When Dad didn’t come back out
Sister and that guy just left

I cut my hand on a barbed wire
                              Aunty picked me up
                              she said
                              she wanted to show me
                                             how to put up a fence
                              She drove me to her house
                              She showed me how to cut the wire
                              and how to hook it on a metal pole
I was helping her
and I was listening to everything she said
                              but that wire cut my hand
                              when she was stretching it
                                             Some blood came out
                                             but I didn’t tell her
                              I just kept my hand in my pocket
When we drove back home
                              she asked me
                              “Are you OK”
                              So I showed her my hand
                                             She looked at it
                                             then said
                              “Stay Here”
                              She went into my house
                              and came back with
                              some medicine and a cloth
                                             She cleaned my cut
                                             and put some sticky pine sap on it
                                             then she wrapped it in that cloth
After she was done
                              she hugged me and said
                                             “You’re a strong and smart girl
                                             You don’t need a man
                                             to put up a fence for you
                                             You can do it yourself
                                             I’ll teach you all these things
                                             You can take care of yourself
                                             You can work all by yourself”
                              Then said she gave me twenty dollars
                                             and said she was proud of me
When school started
               my hand was OK again

                                             Today on the rez
                                             Uncle talked
                                             about Jesus Christ

At the flea market
                              people kept asking me
                              if I sang or if I did artwork
               Everyone thinks all Navajos are artists
                              but I just ride bulls and that’s all

I woke up smelling cedar smoke
                              Mum said she had a bad dream
Later on
                              Aunty came to our house
The two of them talked for a long time
Then Aunty took her to the casino

I was at my daughter’s house
               when I woke up and smelled
               a strange smell coming from Grandson’s room
                              It smelled like a sweet burning smell
                              kind of like wild onions and lemons
                                             His door was locked
                                             and he was playing
                                             rap music but not too loud
I just left it alone and tried to go back to sleep

My girlfriend’s man almost caught us
               We were at a restaurant
                              I went to the restroom
                              When I came out
                                             I saw him talking to her at our table
                                             They looked like they were arguing
               She’s right
                              his eyes get all big
                              and his mouth hangs open
                              when he gets mad
She and I lucked out because
                              after we finished eating
                              we started talking
                              the waiter took our dishes away
                                             and I got up
                                                            to pay our bill
                                                            then I washed my hands
                              It was during that time
                              her man found her
                              and started his argument
               I sat at a nearby booth
               and watched them for a little while
               I saw her look at me
                              like she was tired of his shit
                                                                                          so I just left

I finally found my tádídíín bag
               I thought I lost it
                              seven years ago
               It was in my old college things
I was so happy
               I said a quick prayer with it
In the morning when it was still dark
I went out to pray with it again

Shida’i sang a couple of good songs
               at the peyote meeting
                              When he sang
                                             he didn’t sound like he usually does
               He’s always silly and makes jokes
                              but that night he was all serious
His singing was weird
               because it went in circles
                              around the hogan
                              then came behind me
I didn’t believe my ears
               but no one else’s singing
                              that night did that
                              only Da’s singing did that
I don’t know how he did that
               I just sat there looking at him
                                                            When the sun came up
                                                            he started acting silly again

Uncle had another seizure this afternoon
               He was drinking too much again
                              His friends used a wheelbarrow
                                             to carry him
                              They dumped him on the couch
                                             then they left
Uncle just laid there and didn’t move
               He asked me to get him some water
                              When my mum came home
                                             she got mad and told him to get out
He took a long time to get up and leave

The car didn’t start again this morning
               so my dad and I hitchhiked
                              to school
               but it was OK because
               I got to school in time

My metal t-shirts keep disappearing
                              Even my CDs started going missing
I don’t know who’s doing it
                              Everyone in my wife’s family
                              listens to metal
But I can’t fit into my old metal shirts anyway

Másání sat on Cheii’s lap
               Us kids laughed for a long time
                              All Cheii did was smile
                              and listened to
                              Másání saying something to him

Uncle fired his rifle by accident
               when he was cleaning it
                              For the rest of the day
                              he kept reminding us
                              always check if the chamber is empty
                              and never to pull the trigger
                              in the house
                                             When he fixed the hole in the roof
                                             he reminded us
                                             always check the chamber
                                             and never pull the trigger
                                             in the house
               I don’t know why he was mad
but me and my sister and my cousins said OK

Uncle said he’s going to Oklahoma
               early tomorrow morning
                              Cousin called
                                             She said she got beat up
                                             by her boyfriend again
               She said she was in the hospital

Early this morning
               I woke up crying again
                                             so I went jogging
                                                            I thought about my kids
                                                            the whole time
                                             I miss them
                              When I came back
                              my mum was up too
                              she cooked some breakfast
               We both ate and we didn’t say anything

Granddaughter named the entire Cardinals offensive line
               She even knew their positions and their numbers
                              She’s only six years old

Aunty wouldn’t hold my new baby boy
                              because she didn’t want to make him laugh
                              and she doesn’t want to cook for him

Sister came back home and showed me her hickies
               She had three of them
               She put a spoon in the freezer
                              ate some food
                                             then took a shower
               When she came out
                              she put that frozen spoon
                              on her neck and said
                                             “This gets rid of hickies”
After that she went to bed and slept all day

The medicine man said
                              someone was jealous of me

Uncle got back with his boyfriend                again
               All summer they fought
                              on Facebook & Twitter & Instagram
                                             They said all kinds of things
                                             and put up pictures
                                             about each other
               By the time school started
                              they were sleeping together                again

Son smelled like alcohol
                              but he said he didn’t drink anything
               He came to my house
                              to pick up his kids
                              It was real late
                              and the kids were
                              already asleep
I just looked at him
I don’t know what else to do

Grandma cooked all day
                              but no one came home to eat
Grandpa just sat on the couch
                              and listened to KTNN

Dad said “shit” last night
               He said it when he messed up
                              on this silversmith work
               We just giggled
                              and pretended we were sleeping

Baby smelled the center of
                              her wedding basket
                              She brought that basket
                              into the hogan to say a prayer
               I thought it was a good idea
Then we talked about her wedding day
                              She showed me her wedding
                              pictures on her phone
                              We looked at the pictures of
                              her friends and our family
                                             and my mum
We talked a little bit about
                              Másání’s passing
                              and how she made
                              good bread at the wedding
Baby is now in her third trimester
                              and she’s a little scared
Time really does go by fast
                              but my own wedding feels like
                              only yesterday at the same time
I still remember holding Baby
                              for the first time at the hospital
After her prayer
                              Baby wanted to sweep the hogan
                              and sprinkle water down because
                              she likes that smell
But I told her
                              Those footprints are all the good spirits
                              all the things that come
                              and go in our lives
                              We don’t want to brush them away
We’ll sweep later


Erik Bitsui photo - Hostiin Ruins (1).jpg

ERIK BITSUI, a Navajo from Blue Gap, Arizona, has an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Bitsui’s first book, Mosh Pit Etiquette, Volume One: Secrets of a 21st Century Navajo Headbanger, will be published in 2023 by Tolsun Books. Hostiin Bitsui lives with wife and two daughters in East Flagstaff.


"Today on the Rez" is a day in the life of many Navajo people. The voices of single mothers to elementary kids to crazy uncles speak throughout "Today on the Rez."

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