Our Pashtun interpreter asked me to repeat the question. When he translated it for the village elders, they asked him to repeat it as well.
The guys in my unit watched me, to see if I was joshing the locals.
“Chief,” the lieutenant said—if you’re a Navajo Indian everyone calls you Chief—“why did you ask them if they apologized to the goat?”
The guys laughed, but the lieutenant looked serious.
“In my people’s tradition, when the Creator gives us an animal to feed and clothe us, it is proper to apologize to the animal before we slaughter him. Also, not to insult him by wasting his meat.”
The lieutenant scratched his jaw. “Huh.”
The interpreter cleared his throat. “The elders want to know why, if it is Allah’s will that the goat should die, you must apologize to the goat. The goat is doing the will of Allah, not succumbing to your will. Neither you nor the goat has any say in the matter.”
I pointed to the forest around us, the snowy peaks. “Everything has a spirit. Trees and plants have spirits. Mountains and rocks and soil. A river has a spirit, a river is a living thing.”
The elders stroked their beards. Maybe they couldn’t figure out if I was blaspheming.
“It would be wrong not to acknowledge an animal giving up its life for us.”
The elders were silent.
“Besides,” I said, “it makes the goat taste better.” The interpreter interpreted, and everybody laughed. Then we ate a whole lot of barbequed goat, and then we all lay down and moaned, our stomachs were that full.
Our interpreter, a kid from the Afghan National Army who had somehow acquired three semesters of community college in Kansas, came up to me while I was sleeping with my brain bucket over my eyes. “Chief,” he whispered, “if your people keep goats and try to live like Allah’s children—or the Creator, as you call Him—why are you in the Americans’ army?”
“When I get home the Army will give me money to go to goat college.”
The kid was quiet for a minute. He was probably trying to figure out if I was being funny. “You should come live here. I don’t know if you would still be a chief. You wouldn’t have to be an American, though.”
Everybody but me got sick as we were humping back to our combat post. Some guys could barely get their pants down in time. If the Taliban had found us, they would have laughed really hard before they cut our heads off. And those guys never laugh.
We had a couple of real-life L.A. gang-bangers in the platoon. They decided the villagers had poisoned us. I laughed and told them Americans just weren’t used to eating goat. That night the bangers went back to the village and shot up all the goats. When the lieutenant reamed them out, they shrugged and said they didn’t gank any of the goat-fuckers, just the goats. Back home, they said, they would have ganked the goat-fuckers, too.
Tribal cop was supposed to be a good job. They practically threw it at me. I guess it’s cool to have a real combat vet on your force. I was a red-white-and-blue hero and a proud Navajo. I took it because it seemed like an OK gig, almost a white man’s thing: disability insurance, 401(k). They made me keep my hair short, but the Army had made me do that, too. It was no big deal. The weapons were decent. The Bureau of Indian Abuse always finds the budget for good cop equipment. They want to be sure when a Tribal cop shoots a Drunken Indian the government doesn’t have to pay for an ambulance ride, surgery, hospital stay, maybe a wheelchair.
There’s a giant coal mine on Navajo land. It’s another white man thing. They scrape the soil away and rip out the coal. This makes the elders, and a lot of younger people, too, extremely angry and sick. The old people say that coal is the Mother Earth’s liver, that by ripping the coal out of the Earth you are ripping your mother’s liver out.
The coal company says there is a lot more coal under Black Mesa, and that the people who live on top of the coal will have to “relocate” to the cities. The people want to live like always, taking care of their sheep and goats, which The Creator gave us. The elders don’t want to move into a white person house and pay the water bill and taxes and other foolish things.
The Tribe sent some “relocation counselors,” Navajo young people, to ask the elders to leave. They spoke politely in Navajo and called the elders, Grandma and Grand-dad. They told the elders how great things would be, living in town.
When that didn’t work, the BIA started taking people’s livestock, saying people didn’t need their animals because they would be relocating to Flagstaff or Phoenix, where there were supermarkets. The BIA was sly about it. They would wait for a family to go into town then bring in some trucks and drive away with the whole herd. It was pretty ballsy. Even the Taliban don’t mess with people’s animals. No way.
One day I got a call that Collette Yahzee had caught the BIA coming for her animals and was taking potshots at them. I thought I would take it a little slow and give the BIA some time to run away. But then I thought maybe I better get over there before somebody got hurt. When I drove up to Collette’s place, I could see the old lady lying on the ground with a Garand M1 carbine, like they used in World War Two. It was an old gun, but I guess it worked good enough to keep coyotes out of the corral. It was doing a good job with the BIA.
The BIA guys were hunkered down behind their big new Silverado. Its windows were all shot out. The BIA guys pointed at Collette and waved at me to get down.
“Grandma Yahzee,” I shouted, “I’m gonna come talk to you. Quit shooting for a minute.” She watched me take off my gun and lock it in the Blazer. I walked toward her with my hands open and spoke to her respectfully in Navajo. “Grandma, you can’t be shooting at people.” She pointed her chin at the BIA guys. “Don’t worry about them. They can’t do any sneaky coyote tricks with me here. I won’t let them take your animals, Grandma, I promise.”
I told her I needed to hold onto the Garand for a few minutes. I held out my Oakleys for collateral. She looked surprised. Generally, you don’t give up your shades in the desert. And cops never give up their shades, ever. She waved the glasses away and handed me the weapon.
I told the BIA guys to go home or I would bust them for trespassing. They mounted up. The driver leaned out the window. “Why don’t you go back to Afghanistan? They’d probably make you a big chief.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I actually have a good offer.”
The guy gave me the finger and drove away.
“Grandma Yahzee, let’s go in the house. It’s hot out here.” She asked me if I wanted some fry bread and coffee.
“Sure,” I said. “Hey Grandma, you know where they have a lot of goats? Afghanistan.” She asked me where that was and I told her the other side of the world, where the mountains were twice as high as Abalone Shell Mountain. She asked me what the people were like.
“They’re mostly pretty good,” I said, “but there are some real bad guys, too.” She looked startled. I shrugged. “I’ll say one thing about the Afghanis, though. Nobody messes with anyone else’s animals. They’re good about that.”