« Return to this article

Know the West

Are you an Indian?


Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life
Jim Kristofic
256 pages, hardcover: $26.95.

University of New Mexico Press, 2011. Despite his light-brown curls and pale face, Jim Kristofic gets asked this question all the time, even though he no longer lives on the Navajo Reservation. Now 29 and back in his native Pennsylvania, he teaches and tells stories about reservation life. In the summer before Kristofic started second grade, his Indian-obsessed mother moved across the country to work as a nurse at the tribal hospital in Ganado, Ariz.

Navajos Wear Nikes, Kristofic's memoir, explores his answer to the question: Who is an Indian? The 7-year-old Caucasian boy and his younger brother don't look Indian. Yet they live a Navajo (Diné) life in a reservation town. Other whites are scarce, though the hospital staff is mixed, and Kristofic's school is almost entirely Navajo.

A white girl starting school under the same circumstances would no doubt face hazing, initiation and other challenges, but nothing to compare with what Kristofic endures in this specifically male coming-of-age tale. To fit in, Kristofic must beat up other kids and be beaten up by them, demonstrating his toughness. When a boy tears his drawing, Jim responds: "I kicked him quick in the stomach. When he hunched over his knees, bowing for breath, I kicked him in the face and then in the butt as he ran" to the teacher.

In third grade, Jim adopts the first of many "rez-dogs." The small black Lab-mix bears dreadful scars, the marks of sustained torture. When he asks who would do such a thing, his mother tells him, "Open your eyes and take a look at the world, Jimmy. Could have been anybody that did this."

The adult Kristofic, a journalist, cites statistics: "In the year I graduated high school, 83 percent of crimes on Indian reservations investigated by the FBI were either violent crimes or involved child, physical, or sexual abuse."  Kristofic depicts the violence of rez life matter-of-factly, without judgment, even when it overwhelms everything else. Is it really more violent than life in the non-Indian world? he asks. "I had only to look at the hump at the bridge of Mom's angular nose that was an in-house souvenir from a late-night fight with my (white) dad that she'd never reported to police."

This boy's life on the rez shares characteristics with other contemporary American boys' lives elsewhere. However, the smell of sheep roasting at a festival, the generous helping of Diné language spread throughout the text, and the constant acknowledgment of Navajo pride set Kristofic's story apart. When asked if they are Indian, his friends on the rez say "No, we're Diné." Similarly, Kristofic can claim this particular heritage as his own.