Excerpt from Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Yellow Dirt

An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

by Judy Pasternak

Yellow Dirt
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 336 pages
    Jul 2011, 336 pages

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Stacey Brownlie

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Print Excerpt

S-37, SOM, and SOQ

The white men first showed up in the summer of 1943. They came from the north, from Colorado, in teams of half a dozen each, hunkered down in trucks until the roads ran out. Then they switched to horses, riding into the silent reaches of the Navajo reservation, leaving their own country behind though they were still within its borders. They entered a place that seemed mystical and wild, where the residents spoke little or no English and only a few could write their names, where medicine men chanted and sifted colored sand, and witches were said to haunt the deep night along with coyotes and bears.

But, of course, to the Diné—The People, as the Navajos called themselves—it was the white men who were the curiosities. As summer became fall, and then the year turned, the white men kept showing up, staying for weeks at a time. The Diné kept an eye on the intruders, watching as one group took over a vacant cabin near a trading post. The whites lugged in bedrolls (why not soft, light sheepskins?) so they could sleep comfortably on the floor. The quarters had a stove, but no venting system, so the white men struggled to install a pipe inside to channel the smoke away. (Why not simply build a campfire out of doors?) Their makeshift flue was too short to reach the ceiling, so they jammed rocks under the stove to jack it up. Whoever was cook for the day had to stand on a chair to prepare the meals.

The white men never, ever lacked for food. They brought with them fresh eggs, and all manner of meat and sugar and cheese, in large amounts that would cost a goodly sum at any trading post. This was wartime, and supplies like these were supposed to be strictly rationed, even for the wealthiest people in the outside world. For these crews, apparently, someone would provide. They needed their strength, after all. At daybreak, they donned khaki work clothes, pulled on boots—snakes were a constant concern—and secured their brimmed helmets to keep the sun’s glare at bay. They saddled up, crossing dry washes and galloping over brushy plains until rough terrain forced them to dismount. Carefully, methodically, they paced along the bases of layered sandstone cliffs. From leather cases they brought forth fine-tipped pens and from cardboard tubes they unfurled high-quality paper. They set up a flat table on a tripod and equipped it with a telescope device that they repeatedly looked through. The Indians had seen surveyors before and recognized that the white men were calibrating distances, fixing their location.

They scaled hulking buttes, stopping wherever they could to put pen to paper again. They climbed into mountain ranges—the Carrizos, the Chuskas, and the Lukachukais—up past scrubby pinyons and junipers, until they reached tall cool stands of ponderosa pine. From the mesa ridges and the highest peaks, the bleak beauty of the Navajo homeland unspooled clear and still beneath them, while hawks and eagles wheeled through the wide blue skies. The San Juan River glistened as it wound its way north. Shiprock Pinnacle, the stone colossus that sailed the valley floor, stood massed against the southeast horizon. On the scrolls the white men carried, a different version of the landscape, inked and flat and monochrome, began taking shape. Craggy heights and vast sand flats were reduced to dotted lines and points, each one numbered and labeled in cramped, meticulous print. Dirt roads and horse trails were reproduced, and surface drainage noted, and the prehistoric ages of rock strata upon which dinosaurs once lumbered were duly calculated and recorded.

What were these illustrators up to? One Navajo in particular let the explorers know he was scrutinizing them just as they were scrutinizing his range. From a short remove, he observed them for hours every day. Finally, he approached the one who seemed to be the leader and, through gestures, made it known that he would like to be their host. Perhaps his wife would cook some mutton and grind some corn for kneel-down bread. The leader understood but shook his head. No. No.

Excerpted from Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak. Copyright © 2010 by Judy Pasternak. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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