Shi Naasha – I Am Walking

Your Weekly Listen for 11/13/16 is this traditional Navajo (Diné) song, performed by Daybreak Warrior. Now sung by Diné parents to their children as a lullaby, the song refers to the end of a terrible time in their ancestral history: the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

In the winter of 1863-64, Kit Carson, a lieutenant in the Union Army, was instructed by his superior, Major James Henry Carleton, to “solve the Navajo problem”. Carson led an army which ravaged the Diné countryside in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, killing men, women and children, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. Without food, and with nowhere left to hide, the starving Diné were gathered at Fort Defiance (near modern day Grants, NM) and were forced to march 400 miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, NM. Out of 11,500 Diné captured, around 8,500 reached Fort Sumner. Some escaped and fled west, some were taken by slave traders, and many died along the way.

The captives were fed meagre army rations, which made them sick. The alkaline water from the Pecos River caused intestinal problems, and many prisoners were killed by an epidemic of smallpox. Winters were bitterly cold, and there was inadequate firewood.

In June of 1865, a Joint Special Committee of Congress visited the reservation to investigate conditions. It was obvious that the Bosque Redondo reservation was a failure. However, it was not until the spring of 1868 that a treaty was signed which finally allowed the Diné to return to their homelands. They had to walk all the way home.

As they walked, they caught sight of Mount Taylor, known to them as Tsoodzil, which they consider to be a sacred mountain. Overcome with joy, they began to sing “Shi Naasha”, which means “I Am Walking”.

Those of you who learned this song from me in music class will notice some of Daybreak Warrior’s pronunciation is different. I learned the song from Julia Begaye’s recording, which you can find on iTunes. I don’t know which is the “correct” version, or if both are correct. I myself do not speak Diné, and I understand that the structure of the language is so different from English that a literal translation is not possible. However, I believe the most important thing to know is that the song is an expression of joy and gratitude.

“Take a Potato” – The Hanukkah Latke Song

I teach music at a Jewish day school, and I have been sharing this charming little children’s song with my younger students, which I learned from a Jewish music-teacher friend of mine. This song reminded me that my family shares some culture and language with Ashkenazi Jews, which is not too surprising considering that my maternal grandmother’s ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. In fact, another dear Jewish friend of mine helped me figure out that his great grandfather in Poland lived only about 50 miles from my great-grandmother Amelia in Lvov, Galicia (now Ukraine).

I myself grew up with several Yiddish words in my vocabulary, which I learned from my mother who learned them from my grandmother, Sophia. Sophia spoke Swabian (a German dialect, also called ‘Swabish’), and apparently, she could understand Yiddish as well. This is less surprising if you consider that Yiddish is also a dialect of German, although it is written in the Hebrew alphabet. And, like Amelia’s Jewish neighbors, potato pancakes (better known to some as ‘latkes’) are a tradition in our family.

It was pointed out to me recently that the lyrics of “Take a Potato” instruct you to roll the potato. I assume this is an example of artistic license, since everyone I know grates potatoes for their latkes. However, to quell the complaints of the literalists, here is my grandmother Sophia’s recipe for potato pancakes.

Potato Pancakes (Latkes)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

3 large potatoes, raw
1 medium onion
2 eggs
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
pepper to taste
oil for cooking

Finely grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl. Drain excess water.
Add pepper, salt and flour, and stir. The mixture is right when it is not too dry and not too watery. Stir the eggs in last.

Heat the oil in a frying pan. For each pancake, put a two-tablespoon-size scoop of the mixture into the hot oil. Keep the heat high but be careful not to burn the pancakes. Fry them until they are golden brown on both sides. They should be served hot from the frying pan, with sour cream or applesauce.

My mother’s Prairie Pantry cook-book suggests this variation for children, although I don’t know if anyone in my family has ever tried it:

For children, the onion can be replaced by a grated apple and the pancakes can be served with sugar.