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Left Handed, Son of Old Man Hat: A Navajo Autobiography

Left Handed, Son of Old Man Hat: A Navajo Autobiography

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With a simplicity as disarming as it is frank, Left Handed tells of his birth in the spring of 1868 “when the cottonwood leaves were about the size of [his] thumbnail,” of family chores such as guarding the sheep near the hogan, and of his sexual awakening. As he grows older, his account turns to life in the open: nomadic cattle-raising, farming, trading, communal enterprises, tribal dances and ceremonies, lovemaking, and marriage.

As Left Handed grows in understanding and stature, the accumulated wisdom of his people is revealed to him. He learns the Navajo lifeway, which is founded on the principles of honesty, foresightedness, and self-discipline. The style of the narrative is almost biblical in its rhythms, but biblical, too, in many respects, is the traditional way of life it recounts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496206213
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Series: Bison Classic Editions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 354
Sales rank: 568,766
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

​Left Handed (Navajo) (1868–?) was a Diné man who was born at Hweéldi (the Bosque Redondo prison camp), where the American military held Navajos from 1863 to 1868, and then returned to the Navajo homeland with his family. At the time of Walter Dyk’s interviews about his life, he was positioned as an elder who had lived well and prospered. Walter Dyk (1899–1972) was a linguist who studied under Edward Sapir. He studied Navajo language and published Old MexicanJennifer Denetdale (Diné/Navajo) is the first Diné/Navajo to earn a PhD in history and is an associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita and The Long Walk: The Forced Exile of the Navajo.


Read an Excerpt


He is born before his time and is taken by his mother's older sister to live with Old Man Hat ... Trials and tribulations ... He has lots of fun playing with Paiute children ... Jealousies and quarrels.

I was born when the cottonwood leaves were about the size of my thumb nail, but the date was not due yet for my birth. It should have been another month. Something had happened to my mother, she'd hurt herself, that was why I was born before my time. I was just a tiny little baby, and my feet and fingers weren't strong, they were like water. My mother thought I wasn't going to live.

She was very sick when I was born and had no milk, so her older sister picked me up and started to take care of me. She didn't have any milk either, but she went among the women who had babies and begged them for some. She had many necklaces of different-colored beads, and when she brought the women and their babies home with her she'd divide a necklace and give each one a string. Then she'd pick me up and hand me over to one of them. That's where I got my milk. After a while she didn't have to go around among the women anymore, because four of them lived right close by. All four had babies, and every day they came to our place. Whenever they wanted to nurse me one of them would come and give me my feed. They helped me out until I was able to eat. All four were still feeding me while we were moving back to the reservation from Fort Sumner, as far as Chinlee. There they quit, and I was able to eat anything from there on. My mother1 and her husband were the only ones who took care of me.

When we returned from Fort Sumner we settled at Chinlee. My mother's husband had another wife in a hogan close by, and he left to visit her. While he was gone my mother's former husband came. She had been married to him before the Indians went to Fort Sumner, but he'd stayed behind on the reservation by himself for four years. When he heard we were back he started to hunt for my mother, and at Chinlee he found her. From then on he lived with his wife again. His clan was Many Goats, his name was Old Man Hat.

My mother decided to go with him to Black Mountain where some of his relatives were living. She took me to a hogan where an older clan sister of mine lived and said, "I'm going away, and I'm leaving my baby here with you. Please be sure and take good care of my baby, your younger brother, just as though he were your own child." My sister said, "You can go. Don't worry, I'll surely take good care of him."

This was a year after we returned from Fort Sumner. There were no sheep, and we had nothing to live on. My mother had gone to Black Mountain, but when she got there it was the same. At that time her husband had a slave, a Paiute woman. He took his slave to a man who owned many sheep and traded her. He got seven head and brought them back to where he lived.

A year after she left me my mother came back. She looked all around, outside and inside the hogan, but she couldn't find me. She looked all over and asked, "Where's the baby?" but no one said anything. She asked again, "Where's the baby?" Someone said, "The baby was around outside; he must be outside somewhere." I'd been outside, playing where the ashes were piled, and while playing in the ashes I fell asleep. There she found me, lying in the ashes, fast asleep. She grabbed me and picked me up and began to weep and cry as she held me to her breast. She had a broken heart. She took me to where her horse was standing, and as I stood under the horse she reached down and lifted me up. She didn't say a word. We just started off for Black Mountain and got home where my father, Old Man Hat, was living.

All at once, quite a few days later, I took sick. My bowels became loose, and I got worse and worse every day. Soon I was hardly able to walk or play or do anything. I was so weak I just lay in bed. My mother and her husband wondered what had happened. My father said, "He must be hungry for mutton." My mother said, "That must be it." So he saddled his horse and rode to where the sheep were and killed one of the seven he got for his slave. When he brought the meat home I was lying in bed and saw the horse stop in front of the hogan, right at the doorway, with the mutton tied on the saddle. I said to my mother, "I saw meat outside on the horse. I'd like to have some meat." Then they both hurried and built a fire, and when the meat was done they gave it to me, and I ate some mutton and broth. Sure enough, I'd been hungry for meat, and I got well.

In winter we lived on Black Mountain, but in the summer we moved down to the foot of the mountain, to a place called Another Canyon. In this canyon, where there were many lakes, my father, Old Man Hat, and my uncle, Bitahni, planted corn. One day, in a summer when we planted there, it started to rain. It rained hard, I remember that. Outside our hogan stood two cedar trees, right close together, and the one closest to the door the lightning struck. Three times, one after another, it struck the same tree. When it struck the third time my father ran out with his pouch. As soon as he got under it the lightning struck again; my mother and I could see it twisting all around him. She thought, "The old man is gone. He's struck by lightning." She told me not to look at him, so I turned and looked the other way. But he came in; nothing had happened to him. He said he had mixed beads and corn pollen out there with him to give to the thunder. As soon as he placed the beads and pollen there it never struck any more, not on the ground anywhere close. Lightning flashed, but it was in the air, and the sound of thunder was way off and low. From there on it just rained heavy and slow.

I had a little puppy, and I played with him in the sunshine every day when it was nice and warm. I used to talk and play with him as though I were with another boy. One day we were playing on the top of a little rocky hill. I ran around a rock, and he ran after me, but he wasn't running fast enough, and I ran down the hill. All at once I saw a coyote running towards me. As soon as I saw him I screamed and ran towards home. My mother came out of the hogan, and at that moment the coyote caught the puppy and carried him off. Then I cried more than ever, and my mother was going after the coyote as hard as she could, screaming and hollering and running. She was gone quite a while. When she came back she said, "I couldn't find the puppy anywhere. The coyote has carried him away." I was about to quiet down, but when I saw her coming without my puppy I started again, crying as hard as I could, and I remember I was dancing as I cried. She said, "It's your own fault. I told you not to go far from the hogan. You've given the coyote your puppy. If you'd minded me you'd have your little dog with you right now. If it hadn't been for the puppy the coyote would have gotten you and carried you away. You mustn't go far away; you must stay close to the hogan all the time, because you know coyotes are around here. If you go far from the hogan he'll get you and carry you away."

At lambing time they always separated the lambs from their mothers every morning when they took out the herd, and as soon as the herd left I went among the lambs and played. One day I was chasing the lambs and running after them when, all at once, I fell flat on my belly. It was a sloping place, and I slid to the foot of the corral into the mud. I had on a new muslin shirt, and it was full of sheep manure. When I looked at my shirt I began to cry. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid to go back in the hogan. However, I gave myself up and went over. As soon as I got inside my mother looked up, and as soon as she saw me she scolded me for that. "You dirty little thing. Look at yourself," she said to me. "Now you can just go like that. You don't want your shirt to be clean." She picked up a stick and cleaned a little off my shirt and let me go. She said, "I told you not to go in the sheep corral. You mustn't play with the lambs. You'll kill them. You might run over one, or fall on one. So you stay around here." And my clean white shirt was all black with manure.

In the evening my father returned with the sheep. "Well," he said, "what's happened to you?" As soon as he said this I began weeping again. My mother said, "He was out chasing the lambs and fell in the sheep manure. I've told him many times not to go in the corral and chase the lambs, but he doesn't mind me at all." My father said, "That's all right. You mustn't stop him. Let him play all he wants to. While he's out there chasing the lambs he's making all kinds of noise. In that way the coyotes won't get them. If it's quiet the coyotes will surely get them. So let him play."

About this time I began to herd around the hogan in the morning and evening when the sheep came home. But I was so small. I went out with the sheep like a dog. I just walked along with them and stayed right in the middle of the herd. I was afraid to go around them, but while I was in the middle of the sheep I wasn't afraid of anything.

They used to tell me to race early in the morning, and so every morning while it was still dark they woke me, and I'd start to run. I'd run for a little way, and then I'd start to walk. I'd walk a little way from the hogan, and there I'd stop and sit. I'd sit for a long time, until I could see a long way. I was afraid of something — I don't know what — I was afraid to go away from the hogan. That was why I hid myself. Then, when I could see things way off, I'd get up and start running as hard as I could back to my home. And I'd be standing, or lying, or sitting around, making believe I'd run a long way, making believe I was almost out of breath. I'd been doing this for a long time, but in that I was mistaken; they grew suspicious of me and found me out. They said, "You don't run, you walk from here and sit and hide yourself, and when it's almost daylight you come out and start running back."

But soon I ran a little way, and soon I was getting not to be afraid in the morning while it was still dark. They always told me to run every morning. "If you do that you'll be lively all the time, even when you get to be old you'll be lively. That's what running a race early in the morning is for. It's good exercise for you and your lungs."

In the winter, when they both went out, my mother used to tell me to grind up corn. So while I stayed at home, watching the place, I used to grind corn for our food, but I never ground enough. Once she told me to grind some, but it was a little too hard for me; I wasn't strong enough to break up all the kernels. All at once, as I was grinding, a man came in. His name was Red Wife Beater. He said, "Are you grinding corn?" I said, "Yes, I'm grinding some corn." "Do you have to grind corn?" he asked. I said, "Yes." "Why do you have to grind up corn?" "Because we want to eat it," and I said, "My mother told me to grind it." "Why doesn't she grind it? You can't grind all that corn. You're not strong enough." I had a dishful of corn sitting beside me. He said, "Get up." I got up, and he began to grind the corn. While he was grinding he said, "Look, and watch how I'm holding this rock. Watch how I'm working it." I did, and I learned how to hold the grinding-stone and how to work it. My mother never did show me how to hold the rock, and how to use it. She'd just say, "Go ahead and grind up the corn," that was all, and then she'd go out with the herd. After he'd ground it all up he said, "Now I've made it easier for you. Go ahead now, and grind it a little finer." Then he went away.

One summer, just as the corn was getting ripe, a woman and her daughter came to our place to help us. She was a relative of my mother's. A lot of crows were getting after our corn, and I used to go to the cornfield and watch and scare the crows away. The girl's mother said, "Go with the boy, so that he won't hurry home. You can stay with him until you get hungry, and then you can both come back." The girl and I were the same size. She was half Navaho and half Mexican.

So we stayed where the crows always went, way in the end of the cornfield. We made a little brush hogan, and she made a knife out of a tin can and got some corn and cut it up and started grinding it. But we had no fire with us, so she ground the corn for nothing. She said she was going to make corn bread, but we didn't have a fire, we weren't allowed to carry fire around. When she sat in this little brush hogan I'd be lying right close beside her, "because," I thought, "she's my wife, and I'm her husband." I remembered what my mother had said when I asked her about men and women. She'd said, "The man who goes around with a woman is husband to the woman, and she's wife to the man." So I thought, "I'm a husband to this girl, and she's a wife to me."

Mostly Paiutes lived along the foot of Black Mountain, and in the summer at Another Canyon we lived with them. These Paiutes were poor. They had only an old rag around their hips and camped under the trees in brush hogans. But they used to help us a great deal; they were always willing to do something in order to get clothing or food. We were not much better off, but we had enough to eat and enough clothing.

There were many Paiute girls, and once I went among them and began to play. They said to me, "We'll be goats, all of us girls will be goats, and you be the billy-goat." That's how we started, and they said, "Do to us as the billy-goat does to the goats. Get on top of us." I did that. Just like a billy-goat I jumped on the girls and laid over them. Some had on only one dress, and when I'd get on them they'd scream, and I'd bend over and throw myself back, just like a billy-goat. They sure did like it. After we became acquainted we liked each other, and so we played that way every day.

A Paiute girl came to our place, and my mother told her to herd for us. "Go out with my boy, so that later on he'll know how to herd." She was a big girl. While we were out herding she'd lie down in the shade and go to sleep and tell me to watch the sheep.One day, as she lay all stretched out and sound asleep, I went up to her and lifted her dress. There I saw something. I thought it was a black sheep pelt, and I wondered why she had a pelt on her like that. I tried to see something besides, but all I could see was a great, big thing that looked like something between her legs. Twice I did that to her. I always thought she might have a c — k.

One day we were out of salt. The Paiute Indians got a kind of salt out of the rocks, and this girl, with whom I used to herd, knew just where it was. They said to her, "Go and get some salt, because we haven't any." My mother told me to go with her. We went a long way up in the canyon, and then we started climbing. It was way up, half way to the top of the canyon, where they got the rock salt. In places where the rocks were high she picked me up and lifted me on to them. About half way she said, "Stay here and wait for me." She climbed on, and there I was, sitting all alone for a long time, and I began to cry. I thought, "She's left me here. She's gone away, back to her place." I got up and stood around and walked a little back and forth, and then sat down again, crying as hard as I could. And in the canyon all the wall around me helped me cry. I thought it was some kind of people making fun of me. She must have heard me and came down. When she got up to me she grabbed me and held me to her breast and started crying too. She told me not to cry. I thought she was awfully kind. She had a little salt, and we started back. She carried me all the way down to the foot of the canyon.

Once I was out herding with four Paiute children, three girls and a boy, and we took the herd up in the canyon. There were lots of lakes up in this canyon, and around them were all different kinds of brushes and weeds and lots of flag. Something sweet grows on the end of this flag, and we got into the brush for these sweet things. We took them off and ate them. After a while the girls went away, and the boy too, and I was all alone there in the brush at the edge of the lake. When I started to go, there was a snake lying in front of me. I started back, I went back a little way trying to get out of the brush, and there was another. Then I called the Paiute children. The boy came, and I said, "There's a snake." There was nothing around, no sticks or stones, and when we'd try to get out one way a snake would be lying there. Soon they were all around us. We called for the girls, but they were away, and we started crying. We were afraid of the snakes.


Excerpted from "Left Handed, Son of Old Man Hat"
by .
Copyright © 1966 Walter Dyk.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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