WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Red is not only beautiful for Roberta John, Navajo author of "Red is Beautiful Chiih Nizhoni," but it is the color of the earth, holder of the mysteries.
John said the original inspiration for her book came from Grandma Marjorie Thomas, a Navajo elder who walks with a cane 80 miles each year from Chinle to Window Rock to raise funds for a Navajo youth center.
After Thomas wrote two children's books, John said she realized it is possible to write books reminding Navajos of who they are, while encouraging respect for elders.
"I figured if she can write two children's books, I could try also. But I couldn't think of what I should write about. Then, I remembered by grandmother using a natural cream chiih - red earth mixed with mutton fat."
The cream was used for protection from the sun, healing children's rashes and for ceremonial and healing purposes.
"It has been around for centuries," she said.
Then she remembered chiizhii, a Navajo word used as slang that has two meanings. It is used to describe rough, chapped skin and as a criticism. "It is used as a put-down."
With these ideas, John said she wanted to weave a story that would show respect for elders and spark interest in Navajo entrepreneurship. "I wanted to play up the importance of grandparents."
"Red is Beautiful Chiih Nizhoni," illustrated by Jason David, is the story of Nashasha, called Chiizhii, who dreads going to school where she is teased. However, Nashasha has a grandmother who shares things with her that cannot be learned in school, including the uses of chiih. Chiih becomes the foundation for a business when Nashasha grows up.
John grew up in Montezuma Creek, Utah, on the Navajo Nation, and remembered herding sheep with her grandparents. One of her grandparents would put chiih on her face. Then, John would ride behind her on horseback, holding on tight, for the slow journey up the hill herding sheep.
"It took a long time, you just go by the sun. There was no such thing as hurry up."
Time with grandparents on Navajoland was in its own tempo, its own realm.
John said her story shows it is possible to be a successful entrepreneur and maintain traditional values. She said it would be easy for a Navajo to develop this cream, under a Navajo name.
There is another teaching within the story, the importance of Native language.
"The language is a key to healing. You have to be able to sing and pray from your own language."
Native language empowers one to become self-sufficient, to become a whole person. It can empower people to become the leader of their own people, she said.
John received her bachelors and masters degrees in Communication and Journalism. She is now a senior project specialist at the Navajo Department of Economic Development.
She works as a writer and has now found the magic in creative writing.
"You can make your people proud of their own history and tradition. A lot of our young people today don't know the beauty behind it."
The Din? language text in "Red is Beautiful Chiih Nizhoni" is provided by Peter A. Thomas. John said the text can help others learn to read and write Din?, which she said is definitely a skill which has to be learned.
"The traditional language and teachings are how we can propel ourselves in the future."
The book, she said, offers lessons for everyone. "You don't have to be Navajo to be able to understand it."
It shares a universal theme: "No matter what we look like, no matter what people think, we can still change how we look and how we feel about ourselves. "We can turn it into a positive."
John said she hopes the book will inspire Navajos to use their traditional knowledge of herbs to find cures for diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
The diseases are here on Navajoland and so are the cures.
"The key is right here in our backyard."
John said too often Native people run to the pharmacy for pills. Depression is one illness where Native people should be looking elsewhere for remedies.
"The answer is in the wisdom of the elders, we need to capture their wisdom while they are still here. That is universal.
"Red is Beautiful Chiih Nizhoni" is available form Salina Bookshelf, Inc., Flagstaff, AZ 86001 or www.salinabookshelf.com.