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for people who care about the West

Run before dawn and other advice from a Native American elder


Born in 1896, Margaret King sits on her cot like a stained glass sculpture. If you parted the Bluebird Flour sack curtains from the window of her HUD house and held all 60 pounds of her up to the sun, purples, reds, blues, yellows and browns would stream through her parchment skin. Her ferocious eyes have retreated so deep into her skull you could balance pennies on her lower lids. Beautiful teeth, huge hairy ears. Soft laugh.


She worked for those exploring brothers, the Wetherills, early in the last century, and she remembers the influenza epidemic of 1917, because her father and so many other people died. Healing plants and ceremonies didn't help.


She lives in an isolated canyon in Utah with a spring that feeds a tidy arrangement of gardens, orchards and sheep. The traditional brace of abandoned cars, including a Studebaker, line up behind the outhouse, and beyond that stretch the canyons of the San Juan River. Navajo Mountain, once called Paiute Mountain, dominates the western horizon while August thunderstorms pummel it.


Margaret King is half Paiute, the rest Navajo, Ute and Zuni. Though steeped in Navajo, wearing the velveteen and these days speaking only Navajo, she says it is her Paiute ancestors, entombed in these canyon walls, that keep her here. This whole region, south of the San Juan and Colorado rivers, was a Southern Paiute settlement in 1907.


Pressure from oil companies, combined with ignorance by the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the Paiutes’ nomadic ways, led to the land reverting to the federal government. The oil companies drilled, found nothing and left. The Navajo, along with either sympathetic or ignorant BIA officials, lobbied to have the land returned to the "Indians who have always been here," and as the letters flew, the word "Indian" was slowly replaced by "Navajo."


Now, it's not only part of the Navajo Nation but many Navajo remain convinced that the land has always been theirs, though their forebears probably arrived here in the 1860s.Southern Paiute ancestral lands once ranged from California to the Hopi mesas, including these stunning lands of the Colorado plateau. The Paiutes lost everything because they simply refused to engage the Whites.


In1907,local BIA Superintendent Mathew Murphy wrote to BIA Inspector Frank Churchill: "I reached Kanab, Utah, a few hours after you had left; I could probably have given you some information in regard to the band which sometimes lives in Paiute Canyon. If this is the band you are looking for, they are hard to locate and they will very likely have nothing to say when you do. They ask for nothing but to be left alone."


Margaret King mastered both Paiute and Navajo cultures, whose languages are as different as English and Chinese. She has woven Navajo rugs and Paiute baskets. She has been both a midwife and a medicine woman, taught by her Paiute mother and grandmother.


She wishes this interview had happened years ago, but she's at peace with her vanishing memory, saying she's like a child now. She has not forgotten the powers of the land and moving water. When asked what it is about whites that saps these powers, she begins, "Yaaaaa! Hoodaaa!" and mentions asphalt, electricity and towers on mountains as all disturbing the medicine.


Of the river, she warns that, of course you make offerings before crossing, but don't wear turquoise or you'll become the offering. Mostly though, she marks her life in universal ways, happiest when just married and having her 11 children, saddest when food was scarce and she had to sell off rugs and baskets to survive.


After two hours of rummaging for memories and having her Navajo daughter-in-law Mary hollering in her ear, Margaret King sags and begins to lie down. Then I ask maybe the most important question to ask of someone who’s over a century old: What is the secret of long life?"


She jolts back upright and replies: "Run before dawn. Make yourself strong by running every morning. Don't just lie there. I don't see any kids running today. Eat more corn. Now, kids eat only junk food. When the first snow comes, you go out and take a bath in the first snow. You better get out there. Bless the food while you cook" -- she stirs the air with an imaginary spoon. "When you cook your meal, you talk to the gods, ask them for a long life. Now, those gods are probably gone because people die so young. I thank you for listening."


Logan Hebner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He lives in Rockville, Utah, and is working on an oral history and book with Southern Paiute elders.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].