TUBA CITY, Ariz. -Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler showed a new way to celebrate old values at the 43rd Annual To'Nanees'Dizi Western Navajo Fair here Saturday.
This year's fair theme honored the memory of Chief Manuelito, one of the Navajos' principle war chiefs and a signer of the Treaty of 1868 who encouraged his people to embrace education.
Because Navajos of his day relied on the donkey for all sorts of reasons, Fowler said, she wanted to also honor that lovable beast of burden.
So she rode a 5-year-old jack named Jumpin' Jack Flash in a old-styled high-cantle saddle, a traditional hand-made Navajo saddle blanket, and snaffle bit bridle.
"Long ago it was the donkey that transported all the water and all the supplies, the wood, everything that was in Navajo life," Fowler said. "And it is the donkey that holds the foundation of the value system in the Navajo way."
" The donkey was used on a daily basis for just getting the necessary daily chores done," said Fowler, who chairs the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. "And after using it all day long, what they would do is let it go and the donkey would go directly to the ash pile and roll in it. They love the ash pile. I remember our donkey rolling in the ash pile. Only a donkey does that."
Fowler said a donkey is highly-valued in Navajo culture and in the Navajo way of life.
"There's songs and teachings, and there's even prayers and ceremonies that surround the donkey," she said.
But the donkey is not important to Navajo culture alone.
Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, who grew up in Moencopi just across the highway from Tuba City, said he was happily surprised to see Fowler riding a donkey.
"We used to see them do our farm work, haul water, haul coal," he said. "They were our main mode of transportation for our older people."
With the passage of time, he said, came the passage of the donkey's era.
"I had not seen a donkey for all these years and it's good to see them again," he said. "I didn't realize they were still around. I have to go back and say the last time I rode that was when I was 12 years old and I'm now 69."
Fowler, dressed in a period Navajo blouse with the arms and collar lined in dimes, said she got a similar reaction all along the parade route from the crowd who could not see her coming on her little mount until she was practically right in front of them.
"People came up to greet dear Jack and take photos," she said.
"They just absolutely loved it. It was something that was funny and at the same time they knew it really struck the culture, because we all grew up with that teaching. This year's theme was Chief Manuelito and he rode a donkey back in those days, and that's the days people really relied on the donkey."
"People are saying they haven't seen a donkey ridden in that way for a long time," she said. "So it's missing from the Navajo way of life. And even Hopi."
"They associate the donkey with the value system, especially the elders," she said. "And they bless themselves also with the donkey. It's the strength of the donkey that they really love."
Children especially were thrilled, she added.
"Kids, oh my goodness," Fowler said. "They had eyes lit up, and they came up and said, 'donkey, donkey.' A little girl came up and said, 'zoo, zoo,' and so they were able to pet a donkey."
Irene Herder, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fort Yuma Agency, said her 93-year-old father Ram Herder wanted a photo taken with Fowler and Jack. The elder Herder grew up herding sheep around Howell Mesa east of Tuba City and remembered using burros.
"He just loves it," she said.
Another grandpa said this was the first time he had seen a donkey in a parade.
"It brings back old memories and I like it," he said. "Like the good old days. I miss those days."
A grandma from Gray Mountain said seeing Fowler riding her donkey filled her with happy memories of her family donkey hitched to a wagon pulling a load of supplies. Something spooked the donkey and it took off through the brush, spilling everything out of the little wagon, she told Fowler in Navajo.
In winter, they would travel to the top of Gray Mountain, put ice into bags and have their donkey bring it home, she said. That was the family's source of drinking water.
"It was very nice. That's the way we lived," she said in Navajo. "We didn't think that we needed anything. That's how we lived. And now we don't see the donkey anymore."
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