Chapter 2

Indian Country

Some years ago, a friend and I were going to visit the Havasupai Indian Reservation in northern Arizona. The Native American village is unique because there are no roads there; you have to leave your car at the top of a steep canyon wall and travel eight miles of rugged trail on foot. The only other way to get to the picturesque village of Supai is on horseback or by the occasional helicopter.
I had heard about the village and its renowned waterfalls, and have always enjoyed going where roads don’t, so my friend and I planned a weekend trip. When we arrived at the parking lot at the top of the canyon, we parked the truck and slipped our backpacks on. Just as I turned to head for the hiking trail, I found myself staring directly into the gaze of the most remarkable dog I had ever seen.
She was just lying there, serene. Her face was an ivory mask with doe-brown eyes accented by thick black eyeliner, and her coat was a myriad of rich subtle hues. She looked as if she had been waiting for me.
Then she stood up and stretched, her body language telling me to follow her. I felt overcome with a strange urge to do just that, so I was glad she started heading in the direction I wanted to go, straight to the Indian village. She led the way with confidence, down the rocky canyon trail, one she seemed to have traveled many times before. I admired her great beauty from a distance, since she always stayed about ten feet away and would come no closer. If we stopped, she stopped…ten feet away, waiting quietly for us to resume our walk, a gracious guide. When we arrived at the village, she vanished, her job apparently completed.
I was taken with the stunning beauty of the place, the way the red-walled canyon surrounds the village on all sides like a nest—a soft, stony fortress of protection. A clear turquoise stream meanders through the canyon, forming three magnificent, often-photographed waterfalls before completing its run into the Colorado River. The creek is how the village got its name, as the word Havasupai means “People of the Blue-Green Water” in native language. There are no roads, just footpaths, and the locals travel in and out on horseback. Most of the supplies for the village of about five hundred people are packed in on mules. The houses were spread out among the horse pastures, peach orchards, and fields. I felt like I had stepped back in time a hundred years.
We rested in the village square and watched the postmaster unload the parcels from the mules. In addition to the post office, there was a small store and a café that featured fry bread, homemade tortillas, and ice cream. There was also a rustic red building where tourists could make reservations for the campground and pay their permit fees to use the hiking trails. Both visitors and locals sat at the outdoor benches and picnic tables to read mail, chat, and enjoy the food from the café. There were plenty of dogs hanging around as well, because the servings from the café were generous, and the dogs would compete for the remaining scraps.
We could see a fairly new-looking school building across the square. It was made mostly of stone. Stray shouts echoed from the playground behind it, and we could see the edges of a basketball court. An acquaintance had told us to look for his friend who was teaching school on this reservation. “A little bitty sucker, with a big moustache,” he’d said.
We saw a white guy striding toward us, and after one look at the moustache, we knew it had to be the teacher.
We introduced ourselves and he offered us the spare room in his teacher’s apartment, sparing us the fees and discomforts of the tourist campground, and so our accommodation ended up being more luxurious than expected. We hiked to all of the waterfalls and swam in the clear travertine pools beneath them—the water thundering down from high above us, and the cold mist relieving us from the hot sun.
There were a lot of loose dogs running around, but I didn’t see the white-faced dog among them. The dogs would hang around the campground that was about two miles down the canyon from the Indian village and beg for food from the tourists. They’d swim in the travertine pools and spend the hot afternoons sleeping in the shade of the large cottonwood trees along the creek. It didn’t seem like a bad life; this was a true paradise, and the dogs seemed to know it.
Our new friend told us that they needed another teacher at the village school—classes had already started and there was no teacher for the fourth and fifth grade. The place was remote and it was difficult to find teachers willing to live in a canyon for a year. It sounded like a great adventure to me—the whole place had a Wild West feel to it, a time period that I was sorry to have missed.
At the time, I had been working seasonal jobs on fishing boats and in national forests. I had studied marine biology in college, and worked in Alaska in the winter, gathering data for the National Marine Fisheries Service on the catches brought in by fishing boats in the Bering Sea. In the summer, I worked in the forest, collecting data for the US Forest Service.
In addition to the peace and quiet of working at sea or in the forest, what appealed to me most about these jobs was that they were seasonal, so there was always an end in sight. Although I was supposed to go to New Mexico in a couple of weeks to work on a forestry contract, I felt compelled to apply for the teaching position, just to be able to stay in this magical place.
The only glitch was that I had never taught school before, a fact I brushed over in my interview with the school principal. He was desperate to find a teacher and wanted to hire me temporarily until he found someone more qualified. But I wouldn’t agree to that; it would have to be a yearlong contract or nothing because I would have to give up the work in New Mexico. It was a Bureau of Indian Affairs contract school, and because of the remote location, the principal was able to let some rules slide. I did have a college degree, and even though it was in marine biology instead of teaching, it fulfilled a secondary requirement for the teaching position.
“You’ll have to be approved by the school board,” the principal said.

The three people on the school board looked barely awake as the principal explained the situation and interviewed me again in their presence. I kept my answers brief, since no one appeared to be listening anyway. Then the principal asked me to leave the room while the board made their decision.
A few moments later, he called me back into the room and said the decision was unanimous—I was hired. So when the long weekend was up, my friend hiked out and I stayed in the canyon for the school year. It seemed a bit crazy to rearrange my whole life over the weekend, but this place had drawn me in, and somehow it just felt right.
Later, I had to hike out and arrange for some personal things to be sent down. Along with the meager pay, I was provided with teacher’s housing and paid shopping leave every six weeks. Although there was a small grocery store and a café in the village, it was hard to survive solely on the goods they carried; it was like living on the offerings of a 7-Eleven. So on a weekend trip to Flagstaff, I boxed my supplies, sent them parcel post, and the mules carried them down to the village.
Teaching was much harder than I expected. When I applied for the position, I anticipated the delights of living in such glorious surroundings, not the reality of fifteen pairs of bored eyeballs staring at me for seven hours each day. But I adjusted and survived; they tried to distract me with their hell-raising, and I tried to make sure they learned something.
In the meantime, I looked for the white-faced dog. One day I spotted her, hunkered down and traveling fast. I called to her, but she completely ignored me. I could see from her swollen underbelly that she’d had a litter, and I wondered if she would consider giving one of the puppies to me. I watched her duck under a fence, head down the canyon, and then disappear.
I asked around the village for any information on the white-faced dog. “Oh yeah,” said one of the teacher’s aids. “I know that dog, David’s dog. His place is to the west of yours, across two fields.” She told me the dog had the unlikely name “Toto.” And yes, she’d had a litter not long ago.
I found David and asked if I could have a puppy. “Sure,” he said without interest. “They’re out back in that shed. But be careful, Toto bit me when I tried to pick one of them up.”
The shed was three-sided with no door, and when Toto saw me, she curled her lip in a menacing growl. I spoke to her calmly as I approached. She looked just like a snarling angel, and I didn’t believe she would really bite me. I walked in and began to rub her ears. It turned out she loved to be petted, just as I suspected. She made a sweet purring noise and rubbed her ears hard into my hands.
After that, I could pick up any of the seven puppies—but first I always made sure to give Toto a good ear massage. She became my fairytale dog…Snow White and her Seven Puppies…and visiting them after school was the highlight of each day.
The puppies grew fast and I faced a difficult decision—which puppy should I choose? I knew I could give only one of them a home. I wanted a perfect replica of Toto, but there were none. Each puppy was its own perfect snowflake. I decided I wanted a girl, but that still left four puppies to choose from. I waffled between the brown one, the black one, the tan one, and the white one.
Since I went over to David’s every day to visit the dogs, I got to know his wife, Melissa. “Look,” Melissa said to me one day. “We need to find homes for these puppies. Take that brown one. When her markings come in, she’ll look like a coyote. Toto had a puppy that looked like that in her last litter.”
I had seen the young dog, named Cinnamon, running around in the village.
“That one,” Melissa repeated as she pointed at the brown puppy, “is yours.”
Not long after that, Melissa told me it was time to come and get my puppy because they were giving them all away. They wanted to get rid of them was how she put it. I showed up at their house after school was out and announced, “I have come to get my daughter.”
Melissa gave me a withering look. “You haigus (Supai word for white people) are crazy.”
I named her Jessy and spent that first evening reassuring her that everything would be OK, because she was only five weeks old and seemed scared. She clung to me but I knew it was by default—I’d taken her from her family. I promised her a great life, and she just eyed me suspiciously. Never had I felt so responsible.
Later that night, I was in the back of my house tending some laundry and I heard an eerie howling sound. I rushed into the living room and there sat Jessy, howling by the door. I looked out the window and saw Toto, howling in harmony on the other side. I opened the door and Toto came in halfway. She nursed Jessy and looked around warily, but wouldn’t come all the way inside the house.
The next day, Toto came back. This time she came inside the house, but when I closed the door, she panicked. So I left the door open all day, and she came and went a couple of times. Then she came over the next day and stayed longer. The following day, I heard her now-familiar scratch at the door. When I opened it, I was shocked, because along with Toto were her other six puppies. She’d gone around the village, gathered them up, and brought them to my place, carrying each of them down the stairway to my front door.
I felt honored because it seemed like she wanted me to have all the puppies, but I knew I was in no position to accept such a gift. What would I do with seven puppies a year later when it was time to leave the reservation? They would be full-grown dogs by then, and I wouldn’t even be able to fit all of them in my small truck. I couldn’t blame Toto for wanting to keep her family together, but I couldn’t take on seven puppies.
With a heavy heart, I found Melissa, and she helped me take the six puppies back to their respective homes. Toto never tried to organize another family reunion. She seemed to be at peace, knowing she had done all she could for her puppies and that they were now out of her hands. That night, she slept on my couch. She seemed to understand that even though I couldn’t give all of her puppies a home, I would give her one—and whatever else she wanted.

Meanwhile, a strange, strong bond developed between me and Jessy, my floppy-eared coyote pup. She slept in bed with me every night, and she never had an accident because she could wake me up just by looking at me. When I woke up, I’d put her outside, and then she would take care of her business. At the time, this seemed odd to me because I had always been a very sound sleeper. I could snooze through just about everything, including violent thunderstorms. In college, I was a dorm supervisor, and during fire drills, I was supposed to make sure everyone

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