'Black Sheep, White Crow'

Revealing beauty through children's stories from Navajo Country


Taos resident Jim Kristofic was six years old when his mother, a nurse, moved the family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the Navajo reservation in Ganado, Arizona. The next few years of his life were potent fuel for the stories he would collect and later publish. His subsequent life occupations have kept him close to his childhood memories. For the past decade, he has intermittently worked on the reservation as a river guide, park ranger, teacher and oral historian.

He will be reading from his recently published book, "Black Sheep, White Crow and Other Windmill Tales: Stories from Navajo Country," illustrated by Diné artist Nolan Karras James, at a storytelling and book signing event on Jan. 13, at 5 p.m. in the SOMOS Salon, 108-B Civic Plaza Drive in Taos. Kristofic is also the author of two previous books, "The Hero Twins," a Navajo-English bilingual children's book published in 2015, and "Navajos Wear Nikes," published in 2011.

Kristofic said his years on the reservation were "filled with moments of beauty and terror, most wonderful." He said that the first part of the book's title, "Black Sheep, White Crow," references the first story in the group of eight. It's about an unlikely pair of misfits: a crow who is born pure white and is kicked out of his "tribe" and a sheep who is born pure black and is kicked out of his "tribe." The two outsiders bond with each other and try to figure out the best ways to get along in life. Kristofic selected the stories for the book on simple criteria: "Basically, it came down to stories that honored traditional wisdom but also keep people entertained."

He explained, "The core of Navajo wisdom is essentially 'Sa'ahnaighai Bike'hozho,' which roughly translates to a 'long life of beautiful harmony.' There are many ways to express this phrase. One of the most beautiful is to think of the way that pollen bursts forth in the dawn from the tassel of a corn plant."

Nolan Karras James is Kristofic's stepfather and a well-known Navajo illustrator. He did the Diné artwork for a previous collaboration, "The Hero Twins."

"Diné art is usually characteristic of culture: a blend of Apache, Puebloan, and Spanish," Kristofic explained. "It honors the four sacred mountains; it honors the Animal People and the plants that sustain life in this glittering world." The book is predominantly in English, and it includes a guide to definitions and pronunciations of native words.

Kristofic said he wrote the book with middle school and high school readers in mind, inspired by his experiences teaching at Kaibeto Middle School in Arizona. He wrote the book longhand on a stenographer's pad, "the old-fashioned way," but the process of verifying the stories took him three years.

He said, "I use traditional Navajo ideas and concepts and translate them in a new way to preserve the anonymity of the characters and the traditions. He checked with people on the reservation, altering the traditional story in a way that preserved the essence of the story without compromising the sacredness.

His reason for the writing of his experiences is important because most Navajos are part of a quickly forming diaspora, led away by a difficult economy. "Sixty-five percent don't live on the reservation, and I want to participate in keeping people close to the source," he said. "I think this is where happiness is found."

His next project is a handbook about building sustainable housing in northern New Mexico. Kristofic moved to Taos to learn from the Earthship community and develop ideas for housing on the Navajo reservation.

He said he hopes people take away from reading his book "a deeper connection to the Animal People and a clearer understanding of the daily struggles of life on the Navajo Reservation. A good public reading involves a performance, but for me, it's all about improvising and being as articulate as possible when answering people's questions."