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Years spent on the reservation inspire a book of updated traditional Navajo stories

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Through the written word, Jim Kristofic proves he’s a darned good storyteller. His new book is “Black Sheep, White Crow and Other Windmill Tales: Stories from Navajo Country.”

The book will appeal to most literate age groups. But Kristofic said he wrote the book with young readers in mind, specifically those in middle school and high school. The book is an outgrowth of his experiences teaching at Kaibeto Middle School on the rez in Arizona.

“It only took me three months to write it, he said in a phone interview. “But it took me three years to get all the stories verified by people from Ganado. My neighbors read it. I use traditional (Navajo) concepts and ideas but put them in a new way in some of the stories. I did do it respectfully, correctly.”

Kristofic had ideas for original stories based in Navajo tales, including a modern coyote story. He checked with people on the rez to see if it was OK to recast a traditional coyote story. The traditional tale became “The Boy Who Became Coyote.” The “boy” is named Delbert. As with many of the other stories in the collection, there’s a brief introductory tale with the repeating character of grandfather or, in Navajo, Chéí,who informs the reader about the moral.

In the run-up to “The Boy Who Became Coyote,” Chéí is telling Kameron Nez, also a recurring teenage character, that his classmate Rynell is truly a trickster. These two stories are related by theme but not by content.

The book is predominantly in English. There are enough Navajo words in it that the volume includes a guide to definitions and pronunciation of those words.

Kristofic’s short stories also teach readers about Navajo life as Tony Hillerman’s mysteries did, without being didactic.

The book features sketches by Nolan Karras James, a well-known Navajo illustrator, musician and songwriter who happens to be Kristofic’s stepfather. The sketches are charming complements to the tales.

James also illustrated Kristofic’s 2015 book “The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers.” Kristofic’s first book was the memoir “Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life.”

At age 6, Kristofic moved with his mother to Ganado, Ariz., from Pittsburgh. He’s absorbed many Navajo stories over the years. He has worked on and off the rez for more than 10 years as a river guide, park ranger, ranch hand, journalist and oral historian.

Now 35, Kristofic lives in Taos.

“The primary reason I moved here was a project to develop ideas for sustainable housing on the Navajo Reservation. Taos is where a lot of ideas are – for example, earthships,” he said.

Kristofic is also writing a book about sustainable building in northern New Mexico that will help those on the reservation. He’s thinking about building a demonstration home in Taos, then returning to live and work on the rez where, he said, “a lot of people have these (building) ideas also,” he said.

“I really like writing about real things that affect peoples’ lives. For humans in the 21st century, the challenge is really ourselves: How we can make ourselves a people who won’t threaten the planet on which we live, and in a modern lifestyle? Is that even possible?”