I recently read a book called Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life by Jim Kristofic. I now realize my roommate’s copy has a signature on the front page in blue ink, what looks like a JK in a circle with four small triangles. The sacred mountain. I guess that’s an autograph.
It’s funny because my first reaction to the book was actually about its cover. I saw a truck with some faceless kids, the truck having a Colorado license plate. I thought, Wouldn’t that be hilarious. Write a book about real Navajo life and they pictured a couple of Utes? It’s a joke, I don’t really know. Maybe that’s one of the author’s photos. I just thought it was funny.
This story is actually an autobiography of sorts recounting Kristofic’s life on the Navajo Reservation. His mother moves him and his brother Darren to the reservation after following work as a nurse there to the IHS. The family moved from Pittsburgh, so there are plenty of references there for the city and the surrounding areas in Pennsylvania. Kristofic describes his mom’s obsession with “Indians” and her feeble attempt to teach Kristofic not to stereotype them, that the movies aren’t correct. The story then follows the family’s life in Ganado, Arizona with a later move to Page. Kristofic describes everything from Rez dogs to local shops like Mora’s at the gas station, church life, football tryouts, and a lot of racial tension. He describes life as a white person being raised in a Navajo world and therefore not necessarily fitting in with either category in most cases.
Many reviews have been made on this book from both non-Indian and Indian-based groups. I was curious to see the kinds of reactions before fully formulating my own opinions. After perusing many reviews on Goodreads, I found that some Navajo readers really enjoyed reading this book. Some non-Indian readers enjoyed exposure to a world they otherwise would never hear about, jini. The University of New Mexico Press published a number of quotes in regards to the book, many from Indian-based or “Indian-informed” groups or individuals. I was really interested to see that Indian Country Today posted an article about it, although I cringed when I Googled the author and found she claims distant Native American heritage, “tribe uncertain”. (And now I understand the outrage I’ve heard about ICT only paying non-Native authors to write Native stories.)
Kristofic is interviewed in the ICT article, which is very interesting. He is asked about the reception of his book. Probably most interestingly is the point he wishes people would take away. One of the comments I read on the Goodreads page was someone saying ‘more kids wish they could leave’, like it was a tragedy that they couldn’t get what they want. (I’ll touch on that later.) Here’s a point he makes in the interview that counters that sentiment:
Sixty percent of Navajos don’t live on the rez because there [are] no jobs. Most people have to leave. Maybe this book will help them remember where they are from a bit better, until someone from the rez who’s Navajo writes a better book. I think that’s what will happen, I’m hoping that will happen. That there’s this great Navajo author, as good as Sherman Alexie, and that he or she is going to write some really cool stuff, make the people proud. Because that’s something that art can really do, especially literature. It can make you proud of your homeland.
Here is the unedited part I wrote as my Goodreads review:
I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I struggled getting through it. However, I was very interested as a resident of the Navajo Nation and an enrolled member of a different tribe. I live down the road from Ganado, so it was definitely interesting reading about the things that are (and aren’t anymore) there. I also get a lot of the cross-cultural stuff, although for me it’s in a different form. I have a unique status as being an “other” Indian, and also part white.
Probably the things that bothered me the most, though, was what other people might take away from it. For example, his mother’s weird obsession with an entire race of people. I’m not comfortable with how this book almost started to normalize that attitude. I’m mostly not comfortable with it because of how others have even mentioned her obsession as some kind of positive emulation. Yeah, that’s how people justify racist mascots. I understand that he was also a very young person for most of this story, so probably the depth of philosophy isn’t well reflected in the way of life, but I think that’s an important differentiation that can demonstrate how there is no “Indian” obsession – the cultures are far too diverse if you truly understand what you claim to be obsessing about.
Finally, there’s the idea that I’m not sure was completely dispelled: about the Rez being some awful place. Sure, there are awful elements, just like in any community, but people too often focus on that. There is also rich culture and resilience and a very distinct way of life that people want to maintain. For those who think kids want to, should be able to, and simply can’t leave the Rez – I wish you would stop thinking like that. We are facing a “brain drain” crisis where kids ARE leaving, and if they can’t get an education and come home to jobs, what will be left in a 100 years? They need to see the beauty in it and not focus on these stereotypes. That’s all…
The autograph in the copy I read.
And just to reiterate, there were definitely points in the book where Kristofic taught the “swastika symbol” as meaning many more things to Navajos. He tried to defend his native counterparts. He definitely lived the experience. I just wonder how many people who read the book caught those elements of it as strongly as I would have hoped, or how many were still so fascinated by this “other world” that they missed the point.