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Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hózhǫ’, and Track Work


Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty:  Navajos, Hózhǫ’, and Track Work by Jay Youngdahl, 2011, Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah 84322-3078,

A vast richness of experience is lost in the world view that believes there is nothing to know from primitive or natural cultures.  This book demonstrates many necessary truths about how humans cope with existence, and sometimes—rarely—find a way to ascend towards beauty despite extreme physical and psychological hardship.

This is a book about Navajo railroad workers and their attempts to hold onto the important way of life, the Navajo way, of “walking in beauty.”    It may be not readily assumed that a book about railroad workers could reveal something every human would benefit to know.  The revelations in this book are truly hard and beautiful at the same time because they are told through the firsthand accounts of devastated peoples who have little to no hope in the American economic grip over their well-beings.  Their only hope lies within their ability to create and know beauty within the universe, or at least try to maintain an effort to be in harmony with it.

These two disparate ideas—the American economic grip (and the unlimited corruption and abuse which emanates from it) and the core of harmony within one’s self are completely at odds with one another.  This book looks carefully at what happens when the two meet in the lives of these Navajo railway workers.

Despite what is essentially unending efforts by American culture to separate them from their own cultures and even their humanity, these Navajo laborers find a way to get through the hard times, endure long separations from their families, and deal with brutal injuries by trying to keep in harmony with the natural order, mainly by having ceremonies when they come and go in order to be able to do the work that they have to do to survive. 

While there is much to be known about this way of being, many Navajo rely on the traditional ceremonies to provide protection from dangers, such as for sons who were deployed to Iraq.  The railroad workers felt an immense need to carry with them the protection of the Blessingway ceremonies.  One could argue whether there was belief in a superstition or if the harmonizing effect was able to carry them through.  One benefit certainly is the sense of belonging and community that is so desperately needed in the horrible conditions, powerlessness and displacement they suffer.  

Technically, the Navajo do not have a “religion.”  Their ancestral history is to know their place in the universe and try for harmony with that.  Traditionally, this plays out into every facet of their lives; it is an ascent to radiance, harmony, and beauty.

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Texas Weather

This review was originally published in October 1983, the same year Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut album Texas Flood was released.  Vaughan would follow the next year with Couldn’t Stand the Weather.  Author George W. Bomar might explain in this 1983 book why Vaughan felt compelled to reference the extreme conditions in Texas.

Bomar wrote, “The … weather conditions at Dallas-Fort Worth on a day during the heat wave of 1980 reveals that combination of weather ingredients that typically produce phenomenally hot conditions in summertime in Texas.  With high pressure prominent at all levels of the atmosphere over North Texas on June 26, 1980, a sky devoid of clouds — thereby allowing a maximum influx of solar radiation — teamed up with an arid desert like southwesterly wind to force the temperature at mid-afternoon to a level never before seen in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”

“Once it settles into position, the subtropical ridge often budges only a little for periods lasting as long as several weeks at a time.”

"The heat wave scorched the ground and produced an all-time record of 69 100-degree days at DFW Airport."

"In 1980, temporary relief arrived from Hurricane Allen which moved inland across southern Padre Island on Aug. 9-10, bringing heavy rain and flooding to South Texas. Tornadoes hit Austin and inflicted much damage. In DFW, high cloudiness allowed maximum temperatures to fall into the 90s, providing limited relief from the greatest summer heat wave."

Texas Weather by George W. Bomar, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1983.  Illus., maps, glossary, index, 265 pp., $22.50 hard, $9.95 paper.  LC 82-23898; ISBN 0-292-78052-4, 0-292-78053-2 (pbk).

Bomar tells you everything you ever wanted to know about weather but were too ignorant to ask.  He starts from scratch with our atmosphere and goes on to discuss fronts, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, drought, wind and similar topics.  Charts, statistics and photographs add visual impact.  Aimed at “a reading audience of varied concerns” and engagingly written, his book has something for everyone, not just Texans.  CLS

Photo:  1990 edited edition.

BSW Timeline

In April 1977, thirty-five years ago this month, W. David Laird became editor of Books of the Southwest while he was University Librarian at the University of Arizona.  He worked diligently as editor until he handed over the publication in 1997 to the far-reaches of Southwest Texas. Tonight, from a mountaintop in New Mexico, I have the privilege of looking back over some of the work and the books covered that were written about this place.  I would like to note the meaningfulness of those years for those of us who have come to love the immense and sometimes unexpected wonder of the Southwest. 

[Correction:  1997]

Walk in Beauty: The Navajo and Their Blankets

This review was first published by BSW in October 1977.

Walk in Beauty:  The Navajo and Their Blankets by Anthony Berlant and Mary Hunt Kahlenberg.  New York Graphic Society, Boston, 1977.  Illustrations, bibliography, index. 167 pp. $27.50

This is an expanded and modified version of the The Navajo Blanket (BSW 172) which was published by the Los Angeles County Museum in 1972 to accompany an exhibit.  The text combines a rather superficial history of the Navajo Indians with technical descriptions for each blanket illustrated, and traces the development of styles through the transitional period.  The color plates, of which there are many, are rich as in the New York Graphic tradition.  Barbara Bell Pitnof has done a fine job with the book design.  LL

4/26/12  Note:  The title of the book comes from the following Navajo Prayer

Photo:  National Geographic’s “Sacred Places of a Lifetime”  Chaco Canyon in New Mexico PHILIP GREENSPUN, AP / HC

Walking in Beauty:  Closing Prayer from the Navajo Way Blessing Ceremony

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty around me I walk

It has become beauty again

Hózhóogo naasháa doo

Shitsijí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo

Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo

Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo

T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo

Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Today I will walk out, today everything negative will leave me

I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body.

I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.

I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me.

I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me.

I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful.

In beauty all day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons, may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With dew about my feet, may I walk.

With beauty before me may I walk.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

With beauty below me may I walk.

With beauty above me may I walk.

With beauty all around me may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

My words will be beautiful…

"The focus of Navajo ontology…

[is] on the whole and the links,

the connections and the relationships

that unite the parts of a whole …”


Desert Sanctuaries: The Chinatis of the Big Bend

Desert Sanctuaries: The Chinatis of the Big Bend by Wyman Meinzer with introduction by David Alloway, 9/2002, Texas Tech University Press, Box 41037, Lubbock, Texas 79410, 96p., 8 ½ x 7 ¾”, $32.50, Hard 0-89672-488-3

Wyman Meinzer accomplishes the feat of capturing on film the allure of Big Bend National Park and the canyons of the Chinatis Mountains without losing any of the prime moments of light and timing that give the place and scenery more grandeur.  Meinzer is meticulous about the feeling of the place that should, according to reason, be available only through the experience itself.  This is his talent, however: make it true and immediate.  He transforms his camera into a time machine that offers the experience to others just by opening the pages of his book.  Review originally published by BSW Issue 483.

Californio Voices: The Oral Memoirs of Jose Maria Amador and Lorenzo Asisara

Californio Voices:  The Oral Memoirs of Jose Maria Amador and Lorenzo Asisara translated and edited by Gregorio Mora-Torres, April 2012, University of North Texas Press,, Paperback ISBN 978-1-5744-438-7, $19.95 

The Southwest has a brutal history much like the rest of the world.  This is a story told firsthand of the Spainards, Mexicans, then Anglos who came in to pillage and dominate the land and peoples natively populating the area.  This book offers an oral history of what is now Santa Clara Valley in California as told by an eighty-three-year-old Don Jose Maria Amador in 1870s California. He lived a lifetime in the area with Native Americans, Spanish, Mexican, then Anglo-American rule.  Amador gives his account of growing up in the Spanish Presidios, working as a soldado de cuera and then as a “Forty-Niner” during the gold rush and of his experiences as far-removed and unsupportive governments and religious institutions dominated the landscape and peoples, propagating their own self-interests and leaving others poverty-stricken.

Photo source:

Amador’s voice resurrects this time and place and human experience and shows the battles humans have always waged against each other.  The setting here, though, is one of the bountiful and boundless Southwest.

Amador’s Native American friend, Lorenzo Asisara, a former new convert in the Mission Santa Cruz, also describes how he and other Native Americans were treated cruelly by the parish priests, some getting flogged daily.

Ironically, Amador’s story gets told because he was going to be used as a source for telling a grander Euro-centric California history.  He was interviewed by those he had learned to mistrust.  This is likely why he tells only of his younger years and doesn’t go on to the point where his ranch title is voided by the newly formed California Land Commission.  He knew the interviewers were free to take the information and use it how they pleased, even against him.

This book, however, takes away that framework of profit and interpretation and lets Amador’s wit, intelligence, and humor tell of his life in his own words.

The Great Frontier

The Great Frontier by Walter Prescott Webb, 2003 paperback edition, University of Nevada Press, MS 166, Reno, NV 89557-0076, 464p., 6 x 9, $21.95, soft 0-87417-519-4.

Western history would not be the same with Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Frontier, and neither would be the debate of issues surrounding the history of the region. While Webb’s conclusion are still debated, this book established the importance of the history and future of the West in the broader picture of democratic civilization. Webb “interprets the settlement of the American West in the global context of the expansion of European civilization between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries” thus establishing the hypothesis that this movement gave birth to individualism, capitalism, and political democracy. In a new foreword by Western historian William D. Rowley, the importance of the work is once again offered, demonstrating that, “without quest and discovery, the spark of New World democracy might be stifled by Old World bureaucracy and, far worse, by rise of totalitarianism, which was the challenge of Webb’s generation as well as those to come” (xiii).  Originally published by BSW April 2005, Issue 484

Landscape of the Spirits

Landscape of the Spirits: Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park by Todd W. Bostwick and Peter Krocek, 2002, The University of Arizona Press, 355 S. Euclid, Ste. 103, Tucson, AS 85719, 330p., 7 x 10, $27.95, Soft 0-8165-2184-0.

With many full-color photographs, this book both serves as a guide to exploring and also a history and study of rock art in the Hohokam territories above Phoenix in South Mountain Park. The book is full of illustrations and explanations covering the ancient images of animals, humans, geometric shapes, among other depictions. Interpretations are also offered and are based on Native American ethnographic accounts. Bostwick has conducted research on the Hohokam culture since 1979.  Originally published by BSW April 2005, Issue 484

Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West

Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West by Robert K. DeArment, 2003. University of Oklahoma Press, 4100 28th Avenue NW, Norman, OK 73069-8219,, 256p., $29.95, hard 0-8061-3559-X. Historian Robert DeArment set out to find the records of unknown outlaws and take that information to write biographical portraits of these unknown men. By doing so he brings more historical life to the forefront, giving a broader picture of the lawlessness that played its own role in forging the West. Twelve lively and untamable men are unearthed here: John Bull, Pat Desmond, Mart Duggan, Milt Yarberry, Dan Tucker, George Goodell, Bill Standifer, Charley Perry, Barney Riggs, Dan Bogan, Dave Kemp, and Jeff Kidder. Originally published by BSW August 2004, Issue 486