He will keep the vision as long as he lives. It is simply a signature of God, the universe drawn with light, wholly gratuitous and unexpected…. The boy is here, here in the world, in the embrace of eternity.—N. Scott Momaday, “The Threads of Odyssey”
On a cold spring day in the early 1860s, in the wild Utah/Arizona borderland country near Monument Valley, a young boy woke at early dawn and prepared to meet another day. Words from his mother’s bedtime story still echoed in his mind. “The chief of the people, Yoolgai (White Shell, or White Light of the Heavens) was married to the beautiful Spirit Woman,” she had recounted in her tale of their ancestors’ epic journey through time.
Stepping out of the hogan, the boy was transfixed by what he saw. “I looked over the mountains far to the east and saw the white light above them. Never before had the sky looked white and glistening as it looked that morning—like the inside of a shell, all bright and beautiful. Then, as the sun came over the horizon, the mountains turned to red and yellow, and then to blue. It was beautiful! Why had I never seen it before?” His senses were keen as he breathed in the crisp air and heard the quiet sounds of nature.
The boy felt good to be alive. It was a revelation that caused him to realize that he was rich beyond measure, even though he had no money and very few possessions. He perceived a universe beyond his doorstep that was full of wonder, possibilities, and promises. It was an enduring inspiration that would profoundly influence his character for the rest of his life.
A few days earlier, his grandfather and mother had started teaching the boy to follow the “path of light”. They began by encouraging him to replace his childish self-pity and complaints with a spirit of gratitude for the many blessings of his life. The grandfather gave a history lesson to help bring things into a proper perspective.
“You have not heard of the times when the hunters went out, but found few deer and had to come home nearly empty-handed. You have not heard of the times when we had to dig roots and gather a few berries to keep life in our bodies through the long winter months. We had to camp under any kind of a shelter that could be built, with few robes to keep us warm. You have not heard of the times when we went out to gather the yucca fruit and dry it for our winter’s food, and how we had to guard our camps day and night for fear that the Utes would come to steal all our women and children to sell or keep as slaves for themselves. You have not heard how mothers with young babies died because they could not feed two people on what would have been too little for one, and, when the mother died, how the old women kept the tiny babies alive on the broth from dried meat and the juice from the inner bark of the cedar. You have not heard of the time when our people went out to gather pinyon nuts, and at night had to build their camps on poles in a tree to keep the wolves from getting them. These are only a few of the hardships our people have gone through.“
That evening, as the family gathered around the hogan fire, the grandfather further elaborated. “Though the wind is blowing very hard tonight, we are warm and should feel thankful for the blessing of having the sheep you were saying you hated. The sheep are safe in the rocks with the dog to guard them through the night. You boys complain about working through the day, but the dog does not complain although he is always on guard and does not get half the reward you get. You said today that you were doomed to lead a dull life, just going out in the wind, snow, rain, and hot sun to herd sheep. Do you not know that everything about you is interesting if you see things in the right light?”
The grandfather began encouraging the boy to respect nature even when it seems unpleasant. “Do not worry about the wind blowing,” he counseled. “We cannot help it, and there is some reason for it…. Keep your thoughts on the beautiful things you see around you. They may not seem beautiful to you at first, but if you look at them carefully, you will soon learn that everything has some beauty in it.”
“My brother and I had never heard any of the old people talk like this before,” the boy said. “It made us ashamed that we had complained about the wind and the sheep that we had to herd.” He began taking his grandfather’s teaching to heart. “The wind did not bother us half as much now, although it was blowing even harder. We had thought the wind was just a useless thing to cause us unhappiness, but now we saw that it had many purposes. It cleared the air of the odors of decaying plants and dead animals, brought the clouds on its wings to give us rain, and made us strong.”
The recognition of nature as a source of gratification and delight, rather than an enemy to be avoided, was a profound revelation. Through some easy adjustments to his own attitudes, the boy was freed from the futile search for happiness through avoidance of nature, artificial environments and manmade devices. In subsequent lessons, his elders helped him see beauty in nature even when it is harsh, such as during storms, heat, and cold. He learned that his childish fears and dislikes were often inconsistent with the level of actual danger and he could miss out on some valuable experiences if he gave in to them. Following a violent thunder storm, his grandfather took him back outside to view the aftermath. “We went with him. He told us he wanted us to watch the storm as it passed over the rock to the north of us. ‘See how beautiful it really is,’ he said. ‘How black the clouds are. See the streaks of white lightning coming down. See the rocks over which it has passed—how they glisten. And you can see how fresh and green the cornfields, grass, and trees are now. We needed the storm to make things beautiful.’”
The grandfather encouraged the boy to carefully observe the natural things around him—even the commonplace ones—to learn for himself the important lessons of life. “All things are beautiful and full of interest if you observe them closely and study them,” he said. To help get his point across, he would make up stories about nature that always ended with moral principles. Then, whenever the boy encountered the animals and plants of the stories, he would be reminded of the deeper truths his grandfather associated with them.
For instance, the boy recalled a time when a desert sparrow flew out of the sagebrush near where the he was herding the sheep. “‘Do you see that little bird?’ Grandfather asked. ‘Don’t you think he is beautiful?’ I replied that he was just a little gray bird and not nearly as pretty as a bluebird or an oriole. Grandfather promised to tell us the story of the making of the desert sparrow when the sun had finished his work and we could again sit by the hogan fire.” That evening, he told of the mythical first sparrow that, though drab-colored, came to an appreciation for his lot in life. “It all depends on yourself as to what people will think of you,” the bird was told. “If you act right, they will think you are pretty, but if you are always angry and mean, they will think that you are ugly. You can be happy and cheerful and everyone will like you, or you can be cross and mean and everyone will hate you.”
The boy recounted the events of the next day. “We sat quietly to wait for the sparrows to come from among the sage to fly around in the sunshine. We did so want to see all of their marks since Grandfather had told us the story about them the night before. We watched them for a while, but we could not see them very well, as they were afraid to come very near us. We lay close to the ground and were very still, but it was a long time before they came close. At last they were close enough for us to see them clearly. They really were very pretty, with their gray feathers and bright eyes. For the first time we noticed the red around their bills.”
The grandfather helped the boy with his self-esteem by telling him a fable about the creation of the first burro who, though homely, was made of jewels and other precious things inside. “From now on, you must think and talk about this animal in a kindly way,” he counseled. “Think of what he is made of inside and not what he looks like on the outside. You know how it depends on what a person is inside as to whether they are worthwhile or not. From now on, try to find the good in people and do not look for the evil. When one looks for the evil in things, they poison themselves as well as the people around them. If you look for the good, you will help yourselves and the people around you.”
The next time the boy took the sheep out to graze, he was fascinated by their real burro. “I told my brother that I wished we would have been made of beautiful things, as the burro was,” he said. “How nice it must be to be made of beautiful things inside.” Overhearing their conversation, the grandfather interjected. “You are made of beautiful things inside, but you can turn all of the beautiful things to ugly, mean things if you do not try to keep them beautiful. If you allow yourselves to become angry and think evil thoughts, it will soon poison you so that you can no longer find the path of light. You will soon be like a tree that has stood in stagnant water until the insides of its roots turn black and soft. From this day on you must try to keep your thoughts on the straight path ahead and not look for evil and feel discontented.”
The boy’s new-found appreciation for his place in the world included his home life, as well. He reflected on his sudden change in attitude: “Our home, with its pallets of sheepskins and robes and a fire in the center, seemed like a different place to me tonight. I was thinking of what Grandfather had told us about the blessings we had that we should be thankful for. Somehow, the hogan looked different, and so did our mother and sister. I thought of what Grandfather had said of the beautiful things we were made of inside, and I thought he must have told the same thing to our mother when she was a little girl, as she was always ready to do what she could for everyone. She was never angry or cross, but was always smiling and ready to give us our supper when we came home. I looked at her and noticed how black and shiny her hair looked in the firelight.”
The training stimulated the boy’s inquisitiveness and spurred him to ask his elders many questions. “We ate just two meals each day, as our people think it is not right to eat too much. I had not thought much about this before, and decided to ask Mother why we believed this. ‘My son,’ she replied, ‘you must be waking up like the earth awakens in the spring, when the first clap of thunder comes to call her from her winter’s sleep and to tell her it is time to be up and send forth the plants for the food for her children. Have you never seen a snake when he has eaten too much—how helpless he is? He cannot even protect himself. He lies quietly and does not notice anything around him. Now a snake was made that way and must live his life as he was made to live it, but you are different. You were not made to lie dormant until you have digested your food. You would have a hard time hiding away for the time it takes you to digest it. Have you never noticed how sleepy you get if you eat too much? You do not even want to play. So, if you are greedy and always eat too much, you cannot live the life you were meant to live.’”
In addition to moderation and contentment, the boy’s elders encouraged him to be generous. One of his grandfather’s stories involved a wasp and an ant who fought over some stored-up food. He related the counsel that the stingy ant was given. “Even if it is a little work to gather food, it is not polite not to ask one to eat when he comes to your house. Besides that, the wasp had plenty of food of his own, and I do not think he even thought of taking yours, as he would much rather have meat than your seeds. He does not eat seeds if he can get meat. You had to be suspicious just because you had done a little work gathering your food. In this world, we must help each other or we cannot get along. After this, when anyone comes to your house, you should be kind and polite. The story I have told you, my grandson, is to teach you not to be selfish and stingy. Those who give what they have will always have plenty for themselves.”
The boy still needed to learn that self-satisfaction is not an excuse for laziness or inactivity. “If we want the good things of life, we must work for them,” his grandfather counseled. “I do not expect things to come to me unless I deserve them. We must give something for everything we receive. I must give up the comfort of the hogan fire and face the wind if I am to find my horse.”
Through the wise advice of his elders and his observation of nature, the young boy saw that he needed to change his childish notions of good and evil. He learned that his feelings were not reliable indicators of morality. Situations that cause displeasure are not necessarily evil, and those that cause pleasure are not always good. He learned that the tendency to harbor bad feelings was the cause of much suffering. “We know that anger is the worst sin, as it leads to all kinds of evil thought, and we know that evil thought is just a black path that leads us nowhere but into the dark,” his grandfather said. “The path of light is always running beside us on either side, but we cannot see it for the darkness in our hearts…. Fear is just a part of the evil spirit in us, as hate, anger, and envy are parts of this same evil spirit or evil thought. To live the right life, we must live within ourselves. Our thoughts are our own. It is ourselves that we must control…. You are not the only ones who are hurt by your evil thoughts—they cause trouble for many others.”
The predominant culture failed to recognize the wisdom of this type of teaching, and the proponents of “progress” believed that they had a superior alternative. “Barbarism and indolence are the distinguishing characteristics of the red man,” one commentator exclaimed. “If he can be taught the importance of industry, we should have some hope for him” (Atchison Union, December 17, 1859). The progressives had no regard for truths that could only be learned by observing nature, and they valued unnatural, man-made living conditions above all else. At about that time, a push was begun to separate Native American children from their families and indoctrinate them into the modern way of thinking in boarding schools.
The young boy was spared this fate, but he, his family members, and most of his tribe were captured by the U. S. military and forced on the “long walk” to a concentration camp at Fort Sumner in New Mexico where they would be sequestered for several years. The captors never got around to doing much in the way of indoctrinating the children during that period, but they intended that the encampment be the genesis of a new, permanent reservation in which the People would learn to adapt to modern ways. They also had designs on the homeland of their captives. “The lands thus vacated will be open for the occupation of the whites and will be converted from the dreary wilderness to the fertile, productive fields,” the commander, Major Wallen, wrote (“At Fort Sumner,” Santa Fe Weekly Post, December 26, 1863). If the boy had heard this, he undoubtedly would have taken exception to the characterization of his revered home country as a “dreary wilderness” that needed to be redeemed by transformation into farmland.
Eventually the authorities allowed the People to return to their homes. They boy grew to become a man, and he was given the name Wolfkiller. The wise teachings he received when he was a boy had a dramatic positive effect on his outlook throughout his life. Decades later, my great-grandmother, Louisa Wade Wetherill, met him and came to greatly respect his sweet disposition, integrity, authenticity, and depth of character. Together, they worked to record his amazing story for the benefit of posterity (see my articles, “The Wisdom of Wolfkiller” in the October/November 2018 Canyon Country Zephyr and “Slim Woman of Kayenta” in the February/March 2018 issue).
In a much different time and place, a boy is awakened and told to prepare for school. He is learning from his teachers, family members, and peers how to follow the modern path of progress rather than the ancient path of light. Within his field of view is nothing that is natural, but only an unnatural environment filled with manufactured objects. His possessions, though many, fail to bring him much joy. He is not happy with his lot in life. He exhibits none of the virtues of the Indian boy.
Even before he gets out of bed, the boy grabs his cell phone and begins fiddling with it. He then gets dressed and heads down the hallway. In the main room, a television is blaring out some insipid program that no one is particularly interested in, but that discourages any meaningful conversation between the family members. They exhibit no natural affection for each other. On the way to school, the music of nature is drowned out by the din of traffic, but even that clamor is blocked by an electronic device that pumps the sounds of who-knows-what into the boy’s ears. The air is heavy with pollutants. Haze mutes the brilliance and colors of the sky.
Through his progressive education, the boy is being taught that happiness comes from the expectation of a better future through more technology, possessions, and wealth. In the dog-eat-dog world in which he lives, dissatisfaction, anger, and revenge are thought of as strengths. Humility, moderation, generosity, and mercy are weaknesses. He has little contact with the ways of nature that could provide him insights to help him deal with life’s challenges. He does not conceive of nature as a source of wisdom, pleasure, or delight, but, rather, as something to be avoided.
Those who follow the path of progress expect to obtain gratification through artificiality, possessions, technology, and money, but that route ultimately leads to maladjustment, societal turmoil, and irreparable damage to nature. They substitute momentary good feelings for being good. They sacrifice their integrity for the transitory illusion of feeling immortal. They practice self-deceit, pretending that they are transcending nature and ignoring the reality that they are natural beings. Their attempts to escape from nature are exercises in futility, because, in the end, nature will gain the upper hand.
The path of light leads to true fulfillment. Its pilgrims develop a heightened ability to comprehend and appreciate the real world when all of their innate faculties respond righteously in concert—senses, intellect, emotions, intuition, and conscience—uncorrupted by artificial stimuli and manipulation. They are the ones who are really wealthy and have all they need, because they recognize nature as their source of knowledge, wisdom, and delight. “I told my grandfather I was glad that we had all we needed,” Wolfkiller told Mrs. Wetherill. “He said I should not fear the future. ‘You must live today and keep your thoughts in the path of light. Everything will come out all right. You must always think that the next year of your life will be more happy and peaceful than the year before, and must try to make it come true.’” Wolfkiller followed in the footsteps of his elders and in turn strove to lead others down that path.
More than thirty years ago, Harvey Leake began researching the history of his pioneering ancestors, the Wetherills of the Four Corners region. His investigations have taken him to libraries, archives, and the homes of family elders whose recollections, photographs, and memorabilia have brought the story to life. His field research has led him to remote trading post sites in the Navajo country and some of the routes used by his great-grandfather, John Wetherill, to access the intricate canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. Harvey was born and raised in Prescott, Arizona. He is a retired electrical engineer.
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