The Books That Brought Bad Luck

Johnny Rustywire

What were their names?

I can't remember their names.

It was 1901. No-tats was sitting in a room with plain walls painted white like the outside of the small building. It was the Indian Agency and there was an old white man with spectacles. His name was Baker, the Indian Agent.

Next to him sitting stiffly straight was a white woman with her hair tied up in a ball on top her head. It made her eyes narrow slits. Some said she came from back East after giving up on looking for a man to take her in and now she wanted to bring God to the Indians. But she was afraid to be alone with Indians, and so she became the Agent’s writer for the big books. She had a hard face and she listened to every word, writing everything down in the book.

The book was big leather one with red colored cloth pages.  There were several on the shelves in the office. The old ones said those books brought bad luck to people who went in to see them when Baker called, when somebody died. It was during the time of the allotments when Indians were moved from their ancestral homelands. These people who had lost the forests of Colorado in 1865 and then again in 1880 had moved to the high deserts of Utah.

“What is your name?”


“How old are you?”

“Sixty-eight winters.”

The lady with the stiff face pointed at the ration books, and told Baker, “The record shows he is 78 years old, not 68.” The two them talked quietly to each other.

The old man, No-tats, sat there and remembered a day long ago, when he was a young man.  A long time ago, when the forests were green, and the water pure; a place called by his people Buffalo Pass, Cochopah. It was a beautiful place and their people lived there. It was where he was born and grew up riding a horse he called Stolen From Spanish.  It was a time when there was only them, Nuche, The People, they called themselves.  The whites called them Utes.  The Nuche lived there with Arapahos and Comanches who roamed the mountains occasionally back then.

He remembered a woman, a young Indian girl back then. Tagah, she was called. She was born near a place they call Peno. Later, the army called the place Los Pinos, up north of Saguache. The tipis were buckskin and elk hide, the buffalo many, and the hunting was good. In those days, Nuche could break camp and disappear into the forest within minutes when danger was near, but it had been a long time since the Spanish came to fight.  Now the Mexicans brought wares to trade. In the midst of all this, he grew up with Shavano and Uncasam.

It was Shavano who met this young girl, Tagah. Her family camped up high to the North, in the way of the going to the mineral springs of what is now Glenwood.  In those days the Nuche called it Where the Ferns Bend Near the Water. It was named for the ferns that grew even in the dead of winter, when the heavy snows fell, because the hot waters gave them life. This is where she came from.

“Did you know this woman, Tagah, who died at Bitter Creek last winter?”

“Yes, I have known her all my life.”

“Did you know her before the allotments?”

He nodded his head and the woman wrote it down in the book.

“How many times was she married? By the law or by Indian custom?”

He remembered how a group of them had ridden across the plains, from the Garden of the Gods east, seven days to the Red Earth people, Comanches, and how Shavano had stolen good horses from them. In those days, Nuche were as quick as lightning, and could ride day and night. They brought back the horses.  No-tats rode so hard his hair was all bushy and so he came to be known as Mexican Hair by everyone in those days.

Shavano rode up the mountain with eight of those horses, paints they were, and gave them to her people and Tagah became his wife. They camped below the pass and made their home there, until the wagonloads of people came to cut the trees for homes below the pass down toward Saguache. Then the white men who came who were strange, outcasts from their own people. They wanted to share the land with Nuche.  One day, in 1870, they took the land away with their papers.

“Tagah was married just one time.”

“How many children did she have by Shavano?”

“She had some children. A boy named Yagah, one called Moav, and Voo-muw-watch. In the English way of speaking she is called Maggie.”

“Are those children still living?”

It was winter. The snows were deep and Tagah was going to have a baby. It was a bad time to have a small one. Those looking for gold were pushing Nuche back deep into the forest, away from the hot springs they loved, their winter camp.

A boy was born. His name was Yagah, because that is the sound he made when he was born. His head was full of thick black hair, his arms swinging at the air. The old folks shouted out with an old song about him growing to be like Tall Trees, a name he would receive when he was of age. He died after one night, a winter night long ago, and No-tats went up high on the mountain to a ridge facing the sun with the boy's father and they put him in a cleft of rock at the pass so the sun would shine on him and he could see the whole country below him.

“The oldest child, Yagah, died long ago, way before the allotments,” No-tats said.

“What about Moav? Moav was a boy or girl?”

Moav was born in the place of mosquitoes because his people had retreated to the lowland rivers to hide from the settlers pouring into the valleys and mountains, killing on sight any of the Nuche they saw. The Nuche were on the run. Along the wide river the boy was born, but he was small and not able to grow to be a man. He died after four winters on the trail to the North Country, seeking refuge in the Uintahs.

No-tats looked at the agent Baker and said, “Moav was a boy. He died many winters ago. He lived four winters.

“Are there any other children that Tagah had?”

“Yes, she had five children all together, Moav and Tagah, and the one girl
sitting over there. Now she is called Maggie, but her name is Voo-muw-watch. She is the only one left. She is the only child from that time.”

He remembered her as a child growing up with them, learning to stay away from the trails they knew, knowing life in a containment camp set up by the cavalry. She had been sent to boarding school for a while until a sickness called the flu killed many of the children there. She went to live with her mother and never returned to school. She grew up in the high desert valley of Bitter Creek, far from any gold or good land. She grew up knowing the taste of bitter water. She was the only one who carries the songs from that time when they knew the taste of mountain streams.

No-tats told Baker there were two other children that were born to Tagah and Shavano but Tagah had told him they died when they were babies.

Baker asked, “What were their names?”

“I don't remember; it was long ago.”

“They were buried in Colorado on Blue Mountain, near what white people call Steamboat and we call Topanas,” Tagah had told No-tats.

It was wintertime and the people were starving. The soldiers were sent out after the Meeker Massacre to find the Nuche and bring them back. The winter was too hard on women with small children, and it was said by a Holy Man that food would be found to the East, high on the mountain---an elk would lead them there from that place. The trip was too hard for small children, and so Tagah was left behind with hers. She told No-tats that the children had died from the cold. She said this as she caught up to them where what they now call Steamboat, Colorado is.

It was years later and after a long time, maybe six or seven winters, she told him the real story of how she left them at the steps of a log cabin, a white man's cabin at the place called Woman Cuts With a Knife. An Indian woman had killed some Arapahos who tried to attack her there and so the Nuche knew the place by that name. Tagah never spoke of them again. She never went that way anymore after then; no one ever knew if they survived or were left to freeze.

“What were their names?”

“I don't remember them.  They were too small and it was a long time ago.”

“Is that all you have to say about Tagah?”

“I have nothing more to say.” No-tats then got up and left the room, going outside and getting on his horse to ride back to Pino Nuche and wait for his name to go into that big leather book.

The Stiff Woman wrote in the book: “Two children died before the allotment. Names unknown.”

Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah. He expects to publish a new collection of stories called Dinetah this year, as well as reissue his first book, Navajo Spaceships.

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