, Muskogee, OK

December 22, 2013

Former teacher of Navajos offers lecture on tribe’s culture

By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Correspondent

— WAGONER — The Wagoner Book Club met to discuss Tony Hillerman’s “The Shape Shifter,” and although there was a lot of discussion about the Navajo culture, there was very little talk about the book.

That’s the way the members wanted it.

They were fascinated with the stories Wagoner resident and Native American historian Betty Booth Donohue shared about her experiences of living among Navajo and Hopi children as a dorm mother and teacher.

Donohue brought with her to the meeting earlier this month several of the artifacts of that experience, including a hand-loomed rug reflective of the one Hillerman’s novel was about.

Donohue went to live at a Navajo boarding school at Tuba City, Ariz., in 1964, shortly after she had graduated from college.

She immediately became dorm mother to about 250 Navajo children, none of whom spoke English. They had no television or radio and, as much as Donohue had always hated her physical education classes in public schools, she found herself forced to play outdoor games with the children to keep them entertained.

She had Navajo and Hopi assistants and quickly learned that members of the two tribes despised each other. But it worked out well for Donohue. When the Hopi women saw that Donohue was learning the Navajo culture from women of that tribe, they stepped forward to acquaint her with Hopi culture.

Both tribes believe in the shapeshifters.

“The one thing I learned very quickly — a little Christian girl hitting the res — is that there’s a whole lot more to life and religion than we know. It’s not all contained in one particular place or time,” Donohue said.

“No matter what society you’ve got, you’ve always got people who are just dedicated to evil,” she said. Among the Navajos, those people are the shapeshifters — either real ones or wannabes.

“The wannabes use fear to control people,” she said. “That’s why so many Navajos have converted to Christianity — is to get away from the evil ones.

“These people will strap on animal skins, and they’ll strap cloths on their hands and they’ll crawl around on all fours and just scare the living daylights out of people. I think they are basically harmless. But they run in packs like dogs and they can scare you witless and because there are ‘real’ shapeshifters, you get these wannabe shapeshifters and you shape up. Who’s to know who’s what.

“The real ones, I’ve heard about, but you don’t see them, or at least I never saw them. All you see is their tracks.”

She said she saw their tracks twice while working at Fort Wingate.

In both instances, she had opened the garage door to find tracks in the snow. Each time, the tracks came from the edge of the street to the garage door and stopped. There was no indication the shapeshifters went anywhere from there. The tracks just stopped.

In the second case, the footprints looked much like those of a dog wearing cowboy boots. One print pointed forward, one backward.

In that instance, Donohue called the local priest.

Donohue said with the area’s history of people in agony, having been ripped from their home and their families and gathered at the stockade for the “long walk” to new lands, it’s easy to believe there are ghosts in the area.

“If you didn’t believe in ghosts, you will after you’ve been at Fort Wingate a while, because they are everywhere,” she said.

She believes the spirits might have made the trip to her garage door because the house was built on a haunted site, one where the ground should not have been disturbed.

She said Hillerman’s books are generally well researched and accurately depict tribal beliefs. Her one criticism she had of the “Shapeshifters” book was his description of the rug supposedly lost in the trading post fire. His book described the rug as having feathers, grass and other reminders of the Long Walk woven into the fabric.

“I don’t think there’s any way Navajos would make a rug like that,” Donohue said. “They would not have put the grass and feathers and they would have taken no souvenirs from that story.”