THE BLUENESS OF THE sky is matched by the grandeur of the brown and green landscape capped with red sandstone cliffs and rock formations making up the scene’s background. This is the eastern home of the Diné. The blueness of the sky is difficult describe other than to say that there are few places where the sky is as blue as it when standing on the high bluffs overlooking the Iyanbito Chapter House in the Eastern Navajo Agency; New Mexico’s portion of the Navajo Nation. From the vantage point of the high bluffs a person’s view is all the way to the sacred mountain the bellaggonas call Mount Taylor after President Zachary Taylor. The Diné call it Tsoodził.
Across Interstate 40 and about five miles from the Iyanbito Chapter House is Shushbyto. This is a more famous location for bellaggonas than Iyanbito because it is the location of an army post with a history to which the bellaggonas can relate.
Before this story can continue definitions are needed: First, the word Iyanbito is Navajo for Buffalo or Bison Springs. Secondly, Diné is what the Navajo people call themselves; the literal translation is The People. Next, Shushbyto is Navajo for Bear Springs. Finally, bellaggona is a derisive word referring to a white person. From here on these words will not be treated as foreign words but integral to the story and will not be italicized; some purist may not like that, but let it go and “get a life,” as they say.
At Shushbyto the Bureau of Indian Affairs established a boarding school from an old army post called Fort Wingate. ArthurMcArthur, the father of General Douglas McArthur, commanded a troop of cavalry there and so did John J. “Blackjack” Pershing; at different times, of course. Another interesting fact about Fort Wingate is that in 1914 two thousand Mexican soldiers were given refuge at the post to escape the revolution in their country. Several of them are buried at Fort Wingate; all victims of small pox.
The soldiers at Fort Wingate, back in Arthur McArthur’s time, were there to control the Navajo people and later the Apaches. When the Navajo were sent off to the Pecos Valley in the 1860s soldiers from Fort Wingate participated in marching the people off on the Navajo Trail of Tears. Later the soldiers kept them within the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation and when the Navajo were settled soldiers from Fort Wingate chased down Geronimo, the Apache war chief. So, the old army post is more interesting to the bellaggona than to the Diné.
Also at Fort Wingate is a boarding school for elementary age children. Nearby, just a few hundred yards is a high school. The word “fort” is removed from the name of the high school so it is known as Wingate High. It is the Bureau of Indian Affairs Eastern Navajo Agency’s attempt to provide a middle class high school experience for the Navajo people within the agency borders. This modern facility has in and around it the amenities a high school needs; modern classrooms and science labs, gymnasium, football field, auditorium with everything needed for a stage production, and a high quality library. Most of the faculty is non-Indian, but all are certified and most dedicated and very good teachers.
Now that the place and culture is established there are two people in this story who are essential to it. They are Betsy Begay, a seventeen year old girl who is a senior at Wingate High and a Diné. The other is Carlton Clarkson one of the English teachers at Wingate High and he is twenty-three years old. He is a bellaggona.
“We, as a senior class, have an opportunity to nominate one of our girls as Miss Navajo Princess,” Carlton Clarkson announced early in the spring semester of school. “I want you to think about who we can nominate,” he continued. Carlton Clarkson knows who will be nominated. In charge of such things he controls the mostly passive classes he teaches. His nominee is Betsy Begay.
Carlton Clarkson thinks of himself more as one of the students than a teacher. He asks the students to call him “Carl” but most continue to call him Mr. Clarkson. Carlton Clarkson has been admonished by the principal on a few occasions to avoid being so openly friendly with the students. He has been observed tussling with the boys, hugging the girls too often, and maintaining too loose a discipline in his classes. Nevertheless, Carlton Clarkson continues to carry on as he has always done since arriving at Wingate High.
Students likeMr.Clarksonand enjoy the freedom of his classroom.BetsyBegayespecially enjoys the attentionMr.Clarksongives her and often hangs about his classroom to help whenever or wherever she can. Clarkson enjoys Betsy’s company and often fantasizes about her. Why not, she is an extremely attractive young woman. Clarkson goes even further in his description of her; she is exquisitely beautiful.
To Betsy Carlton Clarkson is her ideal of a man. He is tall, almost six feet; he has light brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. In addition to being tall Carlton Clarkson is slender in build, but not skinny. He has the muscular build of a man who exercises regularly and likes outdoor sports—skiing, rock climbing, and hiking. Further, there is always a smile on his ruggedly handsome face. It is narrow but square-jawed. His ears cling close to his head, but they are not always visible. He likes his hair to fold over his ears. Clarkson exudes joy, friendliness, and rugged masculinity. He comes to school every day in tight fitting Levis and chest hugging polo shirts. During the winter he wears a sleeveless fleece jacket and all year-long he has an “Indiana Jones” fedora on his head and well-worn boots on his feet. In Betsy’s eyes Mr.Carlton is beyond the normal man she has experienced in her life; most have been short, squat, stoic, and dark.
Betsy is what people at the school call “perky.” She is not certain this is a compliment, but all her classmates like her and she generally likes all of them. She is a small young woman weighing about ninety pounds and only five feet tall. Nevertheless, she is fully mature with a full figure of nicely formed breasts and hips. Like most of the students at Wingate she has ebony black hair, dark brown eyes, and a glowing bronze complexion. Her eyes widen and her face gleams when she smiles; white and very straight teeth and full red lips complete her appearance. Everyone who meets her is mesmerized by her beauty and personal charm. Most every day she wears tight Levis and a form-fitting polo shirt or sweater. Even on the coldest days she chooses to wear clothes that show off her figure.Betsyknows she is beautiful and takes every advantage of that attribute.
The students in Clarkson’s senior English class agreed Betsy should be nominated for Miss Navajo Princess. Betsy accepted the accolade with appropriate humility and thanked her classmates and especially Mr.Clarkson for selecting her for the honor.
The pageant planned to be held at Wingate, attracted young women, all of whom claimed to be unmarried, from as far away as Albuquerque, which is not that far away in the greater scheme of things, but is distant from Wingate. Mainly the young women came from Chinle, Ship Rock, Crown Point, Tuba City, Window Rock, Fort Defiance, and Farmington; all beautiful. However, none of those young women are as beautiful as Betsy Begay in the eyes of Carlton Clarkson.
The pageant, as in most such events, is divided into displaying an ability to be charming and beautiful in various forms of dress. The young women modeled in evening gowns, school clothes, business dress, casual wear, and in traditional Navajo costume. All the contestants are required to demonstrate a talent and answer questions on current teenage topics.BetsyBegay’s talent is to sing country and western songs while she accompanies herself on the guitar. She is cheered and applauded when she completes her performance and again she humbly accepts the accolades. Betsy wins the talent competition and not unexpectedly is crowned Miss Navajo Princess. All her classmates proudly cheer when the judges announce they selected her for the prize. She is awarded a sash, a tiara, and a check for five hundred dollars. Photographers ask her to pose and her picture is in papers all over Arizona and New Mexico.Betsy hopes she will be discovered for the movies or something like that as part of winning this pageant. She certainly will be entered in the Miss Arizona or the Miss New Mexico pageants and will ride in the Gallup Indian Pow Wow parade and other big events all over New Mexico and Arizona. This moment of recognizing her special qualities will be in her memories for ever.
Betsy lives in the Honor Dormitory. It is a living arrangement for students who earn top grades and are committed to living in a clean and orderly environment. The Honor Dormitory has two wings, just as the others do, that segregate the sexes. While this is the intent, most of the time the boys and girls find ways to be in each other’s wings after lights out—except in the Honor Dormitory. It is like living in either monastery or convent. Dorm mothers keep a “tight ship.”
One evening, about a week after the pageant, Carlton Clarkson unexpectedly visits the Honor Dormitory and asks for Betsy. She is surprised to see him. Also, she is excited that he has come to visit.Betsy, secretly infatuated by Carlton Clarkson, thought every minute she could spend in his presence was a bonus for her.Carlton, also in the throes of infatuation, wants nothing more than to become Betsy’s lover and life-long companion. The chemistry for explosive passion begins to be mixed on this evening. A catalyst, a means for bringing these two together without destroying the social fabric of Wingate High, is now possibly available.All depends on the willingness of the dorm mother to let Betsy meet with her teacher, Carlton Clarkson.
A teacher and a student meeting to go over a class project appears innocent enough to the dormitory mother; so innocent in fact, suggests that, without thinking of the consequences, Mr.Clarksonneeds a private place to discuss with Betsy her class work. She agrees it is all right for Betsy to step out of the dorm for the meeting. After all, it is a pleasant evening to talk with her teacher outside. However,Betsy has to be back in the safety of the dormitory within an hour.
The two go out and Betsy nervously asks what it is Mr. Clarksonwants to talk about. He says they would be more comfortable in his car. The two go to the car and sit looking out at the clear night sky. The moon’s phase is full but waning; the stars fill the sky and are not diminished by the small glow produced by the campus lights. The two sit in the front seat not speaking and then Betsy turns to Carlton and declares that she loves him and wants him to kiss her that instant. He does. The hidden passion explodes, the car seems to glow white-hot, and the two, only aware of love and lust, by the time of the curfew hour.
When Betsy returns to the dormitory the secret of her passion cannot be hidden. The girls in the dormitory know what has gone on with Mr. Clarkson. Betsy Begay and Carlton Clarkson are the talk of the campus in the morning.
Whenever possible the two find secret moments and corners to be together, to kiss passionately, and to express love by words and gestures. While they believe they are keeping their trysts secret, the school is aware of the love affair. Betsy’s schoolmates think it is good that they are lovers. To them love is a “good” that is to be captured and enjoyed whenever and wherever possible.
School officials take a different point of view. Mr. Carlton Clarkson is called into the principal’s office where he is confronted about a rumor of teacher-student fraternization.Betsy is called into the girls’ counselor for a discussion of the rules governing teacher and student conduct. Clarkson attempts to skirt around the issue by telling the principal that he has in fact visited with Betsy Begay early one evening at the honors dormitory but it was a student-teacher conference. Betsy admits that she is in love with Mr.Clarksonand is truly happy that he came to talk to her about a class project at the dormitory and she tries to be with him as much as possible.
There is a standoff between the school authorities and the pair. Rumors persist throughout the weeks of the semester. Clarkson does not go to the teachers’ lounge for lunch. Clarkson stays in his classroom contemplating his feelings for Betsy. He concludes that he loves her and he will marry her.Betsystays away from the school’s cafeteria.Betsywanders about the campus wondering what all the hub-bub is about. She concludes that she loves Carlton and will marry him as soon as school is out and she graduates.
Just about ten in the morning on a mid-April morning a Mrs. Yahzi walks into the hallway adjacent to the administrative offices of Wingate High. She clearly has something requiring immediate attention. She walks back and forth outside the office waiting to be recognized. A staff member leaving the office sees her in the hallway and invites into the office.
The wrinkled face of Mrs.Yahzi is further skewed by the angry eyes and scowl she has. Mrs. Yahzi says, “I want that girl who calls herself Betsy Begay; now!”
The Principal steps out of his office and wants to know what the problem is and learns that Mrs. Yahzi is demanding that Betsy Begay be brought to her. The principal determines the woman is Betsy’s aunt from Iyanbito so he tells an assistant to fetch Betsy to the office.
Betsy is puzzled by being summoned to the principal’s office. She believes she has settled the matter with the school authorities of Carlton’s and her relationship. On entering the principal’s private office she is startled to see her Aunt, Mrs. Yahzi.
“Hello, Auntie,” she says with hesitation.
Mrs. Yahzi takes Betsy by the right arm and jerks her out of the office saying, “This girl must come now to care for the sheep. She will not be a fake bellaggona by wearing fancy bellaggona dresses and carousing with white teachers. She needs to care for the sheep!”
With that Mrs. Yahzi drags Betsy to the truck parked outside. Everyone stands watching the event and no one says anything.Betsy is never seen again at Wingate High.
Every day after the school year ends in early May Carlton Clarkson drives out to the semi arid countryside of the Iyanbito Chapter in a hope of finding Betsy. Every day Betsy Begay looks south as she tends the sheep in a hope that Carlton will find her and take her away from this fate.
When June comes Carlton decides he can find Betsy only if he lives out in the chapter area. He finds a good location and then goes up into the Zuni Mountains south of Wingate and begins to chop down trees. He has to be stealthy; cutting trees in a national forest without permit is unlawful. Nevertheless, he carefully gathers enough trees to make logs to build a hooghan. Boys from the school, who had consulted when building his hooghan, come to be withMr.Clarksonduring the summer and fall months. They teach him about living in a hooghan in the high desert and he adapts very well.
The door of the hooghan faces east and he sits at the door every morning in hope that Betsy and her flock will pass by. When the sun is fully over the horizon Carlton Clarkson begins his trek in the semi arid plain and hillsides looking for Betsy. His vigil includes searching the chapter area by foot and by car, but the vigil and searches are fruitless.
Betsy roams the hillsides and plains of the Iyanbito Chapter area with her sheep. She keeps looking south in a vain hope that Carlton is out there looking for her. This is a vast lonely area where there is no sound other than the bleat of ewes and the lambs. In the open space occasionally the dust of a truck on a rutted road can be seen and she thinks it might be her lover, but it never is.
The wind and sun blister Betsy’s fair appearance. Her soft hands are hardened by the weather. Rain, the few times it has come, has soaked her thoroughly. She finds shelter in a lodge built of logs and pinion boughs during the heat of the day. Her task is to find water for the flock and to give direction to the dog accompanying her.
Sometimes she sings to herself and regrets there is no one to hear her song. Her family would not let her bring the guitar she owns for fear she would not pay attention to the sheep. She is to be a girl of the Diné and singing bellaggona songs does not fit that demand.
Winter comes and Carlton Clarkson remains in his hooghan hoping that someday Betsy Begay will find him or he will find her. Betsy Begay returns to her family in Chinle and pines for Carlton, but soon he becomes a misty memory as does the joy of high school and being the Miss Navajo Princess; she feels hopeless. Carlton Clarkson comes close to forgetting why he was out in the Iyanbito Chapter living in hooghan; the struggle of living in the wilderness takes so much energy.
The first snow comes early in December and the cold becomes more and more bitter. Then one day in January the weather turns even worse. The temperature drops to thirty below zero. Clarkson huddles under several blankets and tries to keep a fire in the hooghan, but the cold finally wins, the fire dies, and Carlton Clarkson falls into a deep sleep.
One of the school boys who knows about Mr.Clarkson’s hooghan out in the Iyanbito Chapter area and visits him often thought it good to be certain the former teacher got through the freezing night. The school boy lives at Church Rock, not so far away. He got his uncle to drive his pickup and take him out to the hooghan.
Enroute a person (they did not recognize the person but it turns the person is a woman) stands on the road side wearing a heavy blanket over a hooded coat. The person waves at the boy and his uncle. They stop the pickup truck to give the person a ride. The school boy does not recognize they have a woman passenger at first.
In normal Navajo politeness neither the boy nor the uncle ask questions. However the person begins to talk. Now they know they have a woman passenger. Her speech is unclear at first and she is not clear about where she is going but then asks to be taken to Wingate High School.
The school boy says, “We’re going out to see Mr. Clarkson the teacher at Wingate.”
The woman says, “Mr. Clarkson; you know where he is?”
“Yes,” the school boy replies, “he’s been living in a hooghan out on the Iyanbito Chapter area since June; he’s been looking for Betsy Begay.”
The woman says, “I’m Betsy Begay.”
The school boy takes a closer look at the woman and recognizes the Navajo Princess every boy fantasized about in school. He says, “Where’ve you been?”
She says, “Herding sheep, and locked up at my family house out near Chinle.” She pauses and then adds, “I got away last night. Everyone got drunk and I just left. It was so cold I thought I would freeze to death, but some guy picked me and then dumped me off in Gallup. I have been walking in a daze ever since.”
The school boy just looks straight ahead preparing to give his uncle directions toMr.Clarkson’s hooghan. He says, “You’re lucky you didn’t die, I guess. The teacher thought you had been taken out to the Iyanbito area and you were in Chinle?”
“Yes,” she said, and then nobody spoke. They bump along the trail leading to the hooghan and then plow through deep snow, the truck nearly is stuck several times. Finally they reach the place. They notice no smoke coming from the hooghan. Betsy jumps from the truck’s cab, racing into the hooghan where she sees in the gloom a figure wrapped in blankets. She kneels to the figures side, pulls the blankets away and recognizes the bearded man with the long hair as her beloved Carlton. She shakes him and he opens his eyes.
He is dazed and exhausted from the cold. Betsy unrolls the blankets, lies beside him and says, “You will be good now; I am here.”
She turns to see the two men in the doorway of the hooghan and tells them to leave. They do.
Betsy and Carlton remain in their embrace until he becomes fully conscious.
Carlton says, “Hello Navajo Princess, where have you been?”
She tells him to be still and remain close and warm.
They remain in their embrace and love overcomes the loneliness of the high desert and the frozen air of January.
Note: The locations in the story are real but the people and events are totally fictitious.