Book Review: Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life by Jim Kristofic
Highly Recommended: A fantastic piece of writing, this historical, cultural, humorous coming of age story sheds light on an often-overlooked piece of America and expands our understanding of Navajo Reservation life.
The buildup before seven-year-old Jim moves from urban Pittsburgh to the very rural Northern Arizona Navajo reservation helps to lay the foundation for the book; Anglo Americans’ fundamental (mis)beliefs about Indians based on history, legends and contemporary views on alcohol consumption and casinos. The reader is then taken on a path of discovery along with Jim, as he learns how wrong these preconceived notions are. In fact, there isn’t even such a people as “Indians”.
When he first arrives, Jim makes friends in his new neighborhood and is lulled into a false sense that Rez kids are just like him, until his first day at school when he feels he’s been ambushed and describes his new classmates as Indians that stowed tomahawks in their backpacks among their three-ring binders.
The humor and realistic fears of this young boy endear the readers from the start, but a defining moment is his loyalty to his mom. Knowing all she had to go through back in Pittsburgh to maintain life for him and his brother, Jim assures his mom that his first day at primary school was okay even though it was full of teasing, playground fistfights and a ripped shirt.
As Jim comes to understand what it means to be a Navajo and the White Apple trying to fit in, he struggles with a strength of racism he never experienced in the urban jungle. But as he learns the natural beliefs and legends that define the Diné, he finally finds his place, being a Tough Noodle, roughhousing without crying, and teasing like the rest of the Navajo kids.
When many years later his mother takes a job off the reservation and he is forced to move to a border town, he realizes just how accustomed he has become to the Navajo ways. In a new school of 40% whites, Jim finds he is no longer in either camp (the new Navajos didn’t consider him one of them, even though he himself did, and he didn’t want to be associated with the whites) and experiences firsthand Anglo racism towards Navajo.
Throughout his life, his heart always lay with his friends on the Rez, and it draws him back again and again for visits, camping trips, journalism and teaching.
The author’s vivid retelling of events and characters and lyrical blending of English, Rez English and Navajo dialect transports the reader to the Four Corners under the turquoise skies among the sagebrush and coyotes. Kristofic’s depictions of the Navajo people, such as when he says they paint with all the colors of the wind, raises this tale from a simple autobiography to a work of art. You can see the author’s love of wildlife and nature in his descriptions. It leaves the reader both fully satisfied in their experience with the Navajo Reservation as well as wanting more once the book ends.