Literary Orphans

The Essential Reach of a Long Term Memory: Something of an Elegy by Paul G. Zolbrod

M4 Leica Copenhagen


When my students at the Navajo Nation’s Diné College read the transcribed oral testimony of elder Ch’ahádiniini’ Binálí, their interest in the past comes alive, as I wish it would for their non-Native counterparts.  While these students are mostly first generation speakers and readers of English, many are fluent in Navajo or at least understand when elders speak it.  Still struggling to master standard written English, they have been raised as practiced listeners in an oral culture where traditional stories and retold family anecdotes vary from telling to telling depending on the occasion and its particular audience.  Unlike mainstream students taught to place authority in written texts, for them authority still resides in verbal repetition.  Just the same, young people in both cultures need to know more about their elders and literary forebears to strengthen their own respective identities, even though sharp contrasts between them prevail.  Or so I believe.

For Mr. Binálí the difference is all the more pronounced, since he could neither read nor write and grew up in a world markedly unlike the one familiar to young Navajos today.  Yet as radically as our personal histories may differ, his and mine, for me the story he recites aligns with the written one I offer here.  In a curious way our respective lives actually converge, so that his gives me pause to ruminate over what I’d like mine to disclose to today’s mainstream young readers, perhaps with the same sad misgiving he ultimately expresses. Which is why I am as happy to read his remembered account as I hope those Navajo students are in a classroom where I am now enjoying a post retirement career.

Recorded back in 1976 at age ninety-four for an oral history project, Ch’ahahádiniini’ Binali’  begins with recollections from the 1880’s and goes back further still to things his elders told him and were themselves told—an unwritten, collective memory shared beyond reach of the written page, tracing clan ancestry back to mythic origins when insect-like pre-humans gradually evolved while emerging from deep within the earth.  He recalls a childhood education not initially recognizable as such.  Once he could sit up he was thrown into snow, or so he reports elders telling him. He remembers running at dawn in bare feet as a young boy.  He remembers fetching chunks of ice barehanded from frozen water to toughen him for later years.  When old enough to absorb facts, he learned his clan identity and listened to stories of his maternal and paternal lineage back through generations.  As his early years advanced he was taught to ride, to round up horses at dawn, to watch sheep, to tend cattle.  Respect women, he was cautioned. Do not steal crops once ripe.  Return stray livestock. Leave the property of others alone.

His ancestors, he learned, ranged freely across the Southwest’s high desert, moving livestock with the seasons; planting corn, squash, and beans; harvesting peaches, apricots, and pinyon nuts; hunting and raiding. From elders who endured it he listened to bitter stories of the Long Walk some three hundred miles eastward from Navajo country to Fort Sumner in the 1860’s, where starvation and dysentery raged, crops withered in alkaline soil, and folks despaired of ever returning to their homeland, while those who evaded capture hid out in remote mountain areas where they too lived meagerly or starved.  Able after four years of forced exile to persuade their captors to allow them to return, they renewed their tribal ways and flourished once more. Thus he recites a history acquired without books and concludes by describing how early twentieth century schoolhouses replaced word-of-mouth and hands-on learning as change accelerated and written English encroached on spoken Navajo.

An underlying disillusionment emerges from that transcription, however, for one slowly discovers that Navajo oral discourse differs from written expression. Instead of a reader recognizing at the outset a main point, a listener is left to infer it from repeated hearings in a variety of settings, ranging from informal chats to ceremonial gatherings.  I once sat beside an elder where folks had come from far across the Reservation to hear a respected storyteller.  Happy to be there, she took her seat eagerly, looked at me smiling, and declared, “It takes a lifetime of hearing these stories to understand.”  Likewise, only after several years of reading Ch’ahádiniini’ Bináli’s testimony with my students did I become aware of his belief in the superiority of traditional Navajo education over what Navajo children were getting from books.  Bussing them off to school resulted in youngsters riding around in cars to church or off-reservation towns.  “Teenagers nowadays have become hard to handle,” he complains. “What grandchild listens to his grandparents? There is no listening. . . . because of the schools.”

Especially among my younger students in a classroom where ages range to upwards of fifty, the long reach of that old man’s memory touches a past not yet fully beyond their grasp, even though many now enjoy rap and hip-hop, play video games, carry smart phones to class, or sit behind open laptops. Some are Christians, consciously removed from the elaborate ceremonial activity Ch’ahádiniini’ Binálí describes.  Unlike him they grew up in an electronically linked, rapidly changing world that has encroached upon a more static tribal one.  Yet what grandparents say at home still resonates for students here within sight of mesas and canyons and ceremonial hogans.  Reservation life goes on after all, even if the world of young Navajos has widened.   Many still groom and ride horses.  Boys help brand and castrate calves at roundup.  Girls greet puberty with the familiar kinaaldá ceremony. Young males and females alike join extended family gatherings where older relatives tease and laugh together with stories of eccentric relatives, boarding school mishaps, military adventures, or chapter meeting disputes. Enough of what they hear overlaps with Ch’ahádiniiní Binali’s transcribed voice to evoke his sense of loss.

“Tickle your memory,” I say, encouraging my students to write about selecting a star with a grandmother they can both share following her death; about swapping dares with a six-year-old cousin to ride a ram in open pasture; about clasping a horny toad to the chest in early childhood to assure adult strength; about being warned as a young woman against castrating calves during roundup to avoid childlessness. An essential part of the education faculty delivery here comes directly from accepting and interpreting Reservation experience and Navajo history on their own terms. That mission materializes dramatically with their research assignments on the Long Walk Ch’ahádiniini’ Binalí invokes. Some know of it generally, but they now must add to what they find in books by exploring oral testimony they pry from elders who heard about it before television replaced the kerosene lantern or the glowing potbelly stove on long winter nights when traditional stories were recited. Primed as they have been in their formal education to neglect that strong undercurrent of their Navajo tradition, these students need to explore what they know in spite of a dominant society’s influence, or so I now urge, for I have learned enough about their past to want them to preserve it.

Before coming here, I had taught composition and literature for thirty years at an eastern private liberal arts college as a first career.  I also spent research time reading ethnological reports and comparing the spoken voices of elders with Old, Middle and Early Modern English texts in an effort to produce a written English version of the creation myth Ch’aháhadiniini Bináli  grew up with—a word-of-mouth cycle of astounding epic sweep and delicate thematic balance in which monsters must be destroyed before the world is fit for humans to be created.  Yet I did not fully reflect that Ch’ahádini Binálí’s tradition had become part of my own until a student challenged me to explain why I wanted them to recover it themselves. Surprised by the question, here’s what I found myself replying.  “Because,” I said, “as the son of immigrants who came to this country seeking refuge, I have no tradition of my own like the one you acquire from your elders.”

It’s true, I reflected that evening as I placed the portable futon on the library floor where I sleep out there on the far edge of the Continental Divide, fifty miles from any motel.  I lack such a family history.  Immigrants who arrived early in the nineteen hundreds, my parents left their former lives behind. About their personal past they told little.  Whenever we asked, they rejoined that it didn’t matter, we were Americans now. That in itself marked a major difference between how Ch’ahádiniiní learned and the education I was destined to acquire. So during that restless night I did what I instructed my students to do.  I tickled my own long term memory for something of a family past to provide my grandchildren with an enduring sense of who they are, something I neglected to pass along to my own children.



Here’s all I can secure and I do so with a sense of loss resembling Ch’aháhadiini’s.  By the time I was born my parents had made their way from teeming inner Pittsburgh to the city’s southern edge, where row houses stood just far enough apart to allow narrow passageway to a back alley on a steep terrace overlooking the street out front in a neighborhood peopled by immigrants. While women stayed home scrubbing hardwood porch floors, doing laundry, and minding toddlers, men labored in coal mines, foundries, steel mills, and rail yards; or they worked as mechanics, trolley operators, retail clerks.

One clear memory is of summer afternoons on the street hearing through open doors Sunday radio broadcasts in Greek, Serbian, and a cacophony of other languages.  But it was the grandparents who sat listening, not those in my parents’ generation.  They wanted us children to assimilate in this English speaking world as we played together free of the one left behind.  I do recall, however, how the men of that earlier generation would gather after dark on the front street and exchange stories about labor wars in Slovenian coal fields or fistfights on Baltic docks, especially in the fall when it got dark early enough for us to overhear before bedtime.  While we weren’t meant to, we loved to listen; for some of us that was all we heard about life in the old country.

Of my paternal grandfather, though, I have only the impression that he was martyred by mercenaries who crossed the Polish border to press Jewish men into the Tsar’s army.  All I retain of my grandmother is a faded memory of a babushka-clad woman I could barely understand, seemingly too frightened to talk with our English speaking neighbors.  Nor did I learn anything about my maternal grandparents except that they returned to Europe and died in a German concentration camp. Thus from no one did I learn anything of a family past like the one my Navajo students can harvest from Ch’ahádiniini’ Bináli’s transcribed words, or from what their own elders tell. Instead I found myself moved that particular night to ferret out early childhood experiences elsewhere for an inherited awareness of who I was. Severed from recited stories, what identity could my long term memory provide my grandchildren? Where were they to locate who they were?  Or did I have only direct experience to offer?

Sidestepping early disjointed recollections like waking from a tonsillectomy as a three-year-old, or crying on the first day of kindergarten at four, I can summon snippets of routine trips to school after turning five, or Sunday walks at six with my father for two Marsh Wheeling stogies at the corner store for him and a penny candy for me.  One such trip on a 1939 September Sunday in particular comes to mind. German soldiers had just overrun my dad’s native Poland, and I remember his grim prediction to storekeeper Mr. Rosen and several other men gathered there that within two weeks the war would be over—my first clear inkling that a larger world surrounded my small one—something Ch’ahádiniiní Binálí may not have realized until he was much older than I was then.

Another contextualized memory earlier that year opened a deeper reality.  With school’s resumption following Christmas vacation, first grade teacher, Miss Butler, held aloft an oversized day calendar displaying in bold numbers the year 1939. She then tore away that sheet and the next two and announced that today was January third, so that I first became fully aware of how yesterdays were separated from tomorrows.  Time was becoming a walkway through accumulated experiences, much as they would have been for a Navajo child raised in an oral culture—but with this distinction: my day-by day experiences were reinforced with numerals, his were not. Memorable too is the classroom corner where she had us repeat from cards individual words like those in the books my mother withdrew from the public library where we walked each Saturday morning–something no child in Ch’ahádiniini’ bináli’s generation could have imagined.  I had begun to acquire an identity as a reader as opposed to the one he absorbed by listening.

That same year, again led by my father’s hand, I walked together with my brother to the local park to watch a Fourth of July parade, followed by foot races, a sandlot baseball game, and speeches issued from an impressively draped red-white-and-blue stage.  Nearby was a similarly decorated refreshment stand, where dad reached into his pockets and bought us each an ice cream cone and an American flag, which he gravely bid us not to drag on the ground.  Other neighborhood parents gathered there too, especially dads whose kids also waved flags proudly, first-generation Americans all—part of a large nation, not a small tribe. On the fateful afternoon of December 7th, 1941, however, three days before my ninth birthday, that earliest remembered Fourth became fully significant with an immediacy Ch’ahádiniini’ Bináli would not have experienced on a remote reservation beyond electricity’s reach.  While sledding with my brother and two neighborhood friends on a nearby hillside, dad appeared to repeat to us the radio announcement that Japanese planes had just bombed Pearl Harbor in a place called Hawaii.  World War II had started for us.  Thereupon we ceased our play and sat triumphantly on our sleds declaring that we would beat the Japs.  That’s when the vacuum left by the old European identity my parents rejected began to fill with a new one spanning an American past recorded in print and read by many, as opposed to more narrowly limited oral one like Ch’ahádiniini’s.

Thereafter impressions became facts for the next four years, reinforced largely by the war and secured by newsprint. Tokyo was the capital of Japan. Attu was Alaska’s outermost Pacific Island.  North Africa consisted of a vast desert. Arab Women wore veils. Germans gassed Jews in concentration camps. Facts soon gave way to ideas, facilitated by print.  At school I was learning to enjoy reading. At home I began doing it on my own, reaching further into the English literary world with stories like Treasure Island and Robin Hood, no longer needing my brother’s help. Instead I remember reading to my little sister, now able to do that.

But It was the war above all that made reading urgent, and me if not yet a world citizen at least a fledgling witness to the West’s literary tradition, while my locus as an American sharpened without needing to know about immediate family origins. And that with special thanks to a great fifth grade teacher, Miss Ramsey, who first turned my nation’s history into a stirring, unified narrative, beginning in Europe with the Age of Discovery, moving through the voyage of Columbus, the Mayflower pilgrimage, the thirteen successful revolutionary colonies, and triumphantly across the North American expanse for better and worse. We kept in our desks maps of the contiguous forty–eight states which we dutifully colored to chart that march’s progress together with a textbook we ourselves were reading, chapter by chapter.

I recall it as a quarto-sized green volume featuring the exploits of epic heroes beginning with Leif Ericson and of course Columbus; stalwarts like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; such frontier greats as Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, John Frémont and Kit Carson; and accomplishments like the Erie Canal, the cotton gin, and the combine. Little was said about tribal America, however, save for noteworthy exceptions like the more legendary than historically authentic Squanto and Sacajawea, whom I vividly remember thanks to colorfully illustrated captioned entries, he for allegedly teaching the Pilgrims to plant corn, she for helping Lewis and Clark open the Northwest.

As the war reached its conclusion my youthful nationalism intensified, thanks largely to print,

and my American identity matured further as the forties faded and the fifties got underway.   The Cold War compromised unquestioned American greatness and personal invincibility as Senator Joe McCarthy added divisiveness to our anti-Communist paranoia and a war broke out in Korea without the clear sense of purpose we boys shared on that Pittsburgh hillside in 1941.  It affected me directly by a renewed draft once I was old enough for induction, adding new complexity my Americanism. Sixteen weeks of infantry basic training taught me to kill and showed a different side of war, followed by a year in the Far East, with the ultimate result being that I managed to go to college, thanks to a watered down version of the G.I. Bill.  As a callow working class son never expecting to acquire one, my undergraduate education merely challenged me at first, but soon it consumed me.

Books became more than texts.  They made reading a joy I found myself wanting to share in classrooms of my own as a teacher.  Most important of all, American literature added substance and nuance to my national identity.  Hellfire and brimstone alone did not define Jonathan Edwards, I discovered.  Melville’s Moby Dick was far more than an adventure tale. Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales were not simply short stories casually told.  Huckleberry Finn disclosed something beyond a boyhood Mississippi River adventure.  Beneath their easy surface, poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson could be baffling and profound in a uniquely New World way.  Subsequently written works taught me that all was not inevitably well in this young country of mine.  William Dean Howells questioned its morals, Edith Wharton its manners, Frank Morris its economic and commercial integrity, Stephen Crane its social structure.  Combined such writers forged a dynamic vernacular out of the raw material of the English language.  The more deeply I was learning to watch America’s writers shape the nation’s future against Europe’s past by way of its literary experimentation, the more this country fascinated me, the more I felt part of it, and the stronger became my resolve to participate in its life as an educator.  Thanks to print, I acquired a far deeper if less intimately acquired past to impart.

All told, my studies filled the rest of the decade to that effect, including a year’s study abroad on a Fulbright fellowship in France.  There in an international community I found myself among French Marxists disdainful of American capitalism, Arabs angry over U.S support for Israel, and students from former African colonies wary of Western powers.  On the defensive that way, I burnished my American identity with a growing capacity to view it critically rather than by blind nationalism.  Graduate school followed, and America’s recorded past gained added dimension as I traced its literary tradition down to ultimate ancient roots in evolving alphabetical systems—the basic technology of converting the meaningful sounds of the human voice in one or another language to written symbols.  I studied the oldest Greek classics and followed the early production of manuscripts on clay and parchment, the invention of the printing press, the mass production of books, the spread of literacy and the establishment of public schools.  To know truly who you are, proudly place the likes of Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry David Thoreau in this long procession, I like to tell students. Isn’t that somewhat analogous to Ch’aháhaadiniini Binali bidding young Navajos to trace their cultural ancestry clear back to its mythic roots to secure their identity?



With the sixties the merging of my life’s trajectory with Mr. Binali’s got underway. It’s a long story, but I can sum it up by citing decade by decade key events, starting with a happenstance museum visit in Browning, Montana one early August Monday in 1967, where that region’s tribes had mounted the displays themselves. By then a young English professor, I had recently read Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales, which argued that the Homeric epics were not a single author’s work but some scribe’s attempt to transform a sprawling oral tradition alphabetically. Moreover, passages recognizably Homeric were still being recited as late as the nineteen-thirties in Serbo-Croatian villages.  Exciting! I thought, rehearing the voices of those old men we listened to at curbside in early autumn darkness in polyglot, industrial Pittsburgh, not only for what they said, but for their very cadences and intonations.

Teaching Beowulf now assumed a new dimension as the spoken word transcribed in a fledging English script.  What could it have been like to actually have listened to a recitation of such a sweeping story?  Coincidentally that museum exhibit suggested a possible answer.  For here I was seeing Indians so called from a Cheyenne and Blackfoot perspective, not as John Ford portrayed them on film, and as I browsed through several volumes prosaically classified as folktales in the museum book store, something occurred to me while examining a collection compiled by George Bird Grinell and first published in 1926 as By Cheyenne Campfires. Making my way through the table of contents, where individual titles were separated under headings like “War Stories,” “Stories of Mystery,” “Origin Myths” and “Culture Hero Stories,” I began to wonder.   Could these tribal peoples have their epics, too?

During the ensuing decades in pursuit of that question a series of equally noteworthy events followed.  In 1971, I took a sabbatical to the Southwest to learn Navajo, then taught by Roseann Sandoval Willink, young native-speaking University of New Mexico instructor who since has become a friend and collaborator. It was there in special collections that I discovered a literally worded English rendition of Navajo creation mythology, Navajo Legends, by the pioneer ethnographer Washington Matthews, published in 1897.  Evidently accurately translated as prose but without any overt indication of poetic awareness, it at least hinted of epic promise, which I undertook to pursue, and in 1983, after years of labor including the further examination of Navajo discourse and archival research and consultation with elders, the volume I tentatively foresaw was published.  The nineties brought me permanently to New Mexico, where I found myself drawn to the Navajo Agency town of Crownpoint, thanks to Roseanne’s collaboration in connecting Navajo weaving with storytelling there.  By then, teaching at its local campus seemed a natural transition, allowing me to incorporate Ch’ahádiniini’ Binalli’s testimony in a lively second teaching career.

One anecdote yet to tell aligns his educational disillusionment as an elder with mine as a now aging English professor, where ironically his dismay arose because children were being taught from books, while mine exists because I see mainstream students abandoning them to an electronic reality, as this example illustrates. Recently I spent several years alternating semesters between Crownpoint and a nearby regional state university.  There In an American literature course I would assign “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s erstwhile celebrated story of Ichabod Crane, the itinerant Hudson Valley school teacher older readers may recognize who takes a fancy to Katrina Van Tassel, the comely daughter of a prosperous farmer, terrorized away by his rival for her affection Brom Bones, disguised as a headless horseman.

A remarkable passage in that equally remarkable story amply describes Ichabod’s arrival at the Van Tassel farm intending to propose to Katrina, where he eyes “every symptom of culinary abundance,” including “a vast store of apples,” some unpicked “on the trees,” some in “barrels for the market” or “in rich piles for the cider press.”  He sees “great fields of Indian corn” and ripe pumpkins “turning up their fair round bellies to the sun.”  Passing “fragrant buckwheat fields” he inhales “the odor of bee-hives” until he can almost taste “dainty slap jacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle,“ prepared “by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina,” whom he smugly presumes will soon be his along with the entire estate.

Told with ironic good humor, the passage reveals a self-deceiving opportunist eager to harvest New World wealth the easy way—perhaps the earliest such inversion of the pervasive theme of the American dream. Admiring it for its cinema-like suggestiveness although written well in advance of photo technology, I asked whether students saw it similarly, hoping thereby for a discussion they could relate to, since the screen has replaced the mind’s eye for today’s readers.  But nobody had read it.  “Too hard,” some complained when I asked why.  “We don’t have to read it, we’ve seen the movie” declared one as others nodded in agreement. “Johnny Depp was in it,” she added by way of justification as the nodding continued.

Able to surmount disappointment at such moments, this time I could not. I designed this course to explore how a shared storytelling past shapes an evolving collective identity for mainstream American students whether they realize that or not.  Remnants of an old literary canon like this one can shape that possibility, outdated as they might seem in a digitally charged, postmodern world.  With gentle satire “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” projects an early archetype of the misguided con artist, for example.  With a subtlety the movie lacks, the story calls for careful rereading the way a Navajo oral presentation requires repeated listening; and it contributes as much to a legacy young Americans need to acknowledge as Ch’ahádiniini’ Binali’s mythic roots belong to my Navajo students. So when I see them favoring the film over the written story, I fret that what books and school buildings had done to draw Navajo youngsters away from Ch’ahádiini’s tradition, digital technology now seems to be doing in today’s mainstream classrooms.  I wish it weren’t so, but then maybe as with that Navajo elder, the world that defined me is vanishing.


Although some fifty years separate us by age, what Ch’ahádiniini’ Binali and I have in common is that each has crossed nearly a full century, he by slightly more years, at least so far.  Thus our respective long-term memories both reach far back in their essential way.  A broad difference underlies that narrow similarity, however.  Unlike with him, literacy feeds my identity with the luxury of the relatively simple technology of print. I need no amanuensis to write down what I remember, nor any mechanical recording device for that, whereas someone had to transcribe what he could only recite.  Furthermore, what I have read in books amassed over centuries supplements my direct experiences, while only what he was told by elders adds to his.  Hence I have far more to say about a deeper past and—perhaps it can be said—an ultimately more complex identity, just as my children ostensibly do, however less directly I or they have it.  That makes our shared story longer than his and far broader if less intimately direct, perhaps further burdening the responsibility of passing on its nurturing traditions.

So why should his more orally curtailed long-term memory matter to me in a world so rapidly changing?  One answer may be found in his tribe’s mythic cycle which I was privileged to shape in literary form based on stories he actually heard—published thirty years ago and still very much in print under the title, Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story.  In the final section of that written version, following the defeat of monsters created as the result of male-female conflict, the Navajo people coalesce when random bands of struggling wanderers are welcomed to join the growing tribe so that all can flourish together. To forge that bond, they are asked to share their separate stories for the sake of unity.  It is a fine conclusion to a magnificent narrative cycle, and for that reason I call Navajos the original melting pot people.

As a child of immigrants absorbed into this country’s masses without an intimately recited clan story of my own thanks largely to print, I find that notion appealing. All of us should appreciate it, especially the first-generation Americans among us. Thus it comforts me that to my broad identity as a literate American I can add Ch’ahádinii Binali’s narrower oral one, and share that with mainstream readers wishing to expand theirs.  So I continue to celebrate the life of a Navajo elder whose long term memory merges with mine and becomes all of ours, spoken and written alike, and whose combined worlds should never be entirely lost by my children and theirs in the face of a likelihood that both very well could be.


Johnson, Broderick H., Ed.  Alk’idáá Yeek’ehgo Diné Kééhal’inéé Baa Nahane’:  Stories of 

   Traditional Navajo Life and Culture.  Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1977.


Zolbrod, Paul G.  Diné bahane: The Navajo Creation Story.  Albuquerque:  University of New

Mexico Press, 1983.

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 Paul Zolbrod’s long teaching career includes thirty of those as an English Professor at Allegheny College and eighteen in a post-retirement career at the Crownpoint, NM Campus of the Navajo Nation’s Dine College. In addition to his translation of the Navajo Creation Story, he is the author of a number of books and articles dealing with Navajo art and culture, along with a novel, “Battle Songs: A Story of the Korean War in Four Movements.”  A Pittsburgh native, he now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he continues teaching and writing.


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