The Rezhood Redemption
Unknown Forces Were Unleashed
How the Two-Tribe Solution Came to Be
(Author's note: If you're interested in more subjective observations from a small reservation on the Arizona-New Mexico border, please read "Sion & Straley," "Rez Dogs" and "Holmes Mitchell." Thanks for reading/KM)
The 5’6” muscular and brash “Hawaiian Lion” managed to pull off what no tribal leaders. no treaties, no amount of healing time had previously been able to accomplish: He got the Zuni and Navajo tribes together as one, allied and completely unified in a common cause. And that cause was the emasculation of the Hawaiian Lion in a wrestling ring.
Reciprocated loathing is the norm between the Zuni and the larger Navajo nation here in northwestern New Mexico. From my outsider’s perspective, the far smaller Zuni people seem to harbor a bit of an inferiority complex toward the Navajo. As a friend in Indianapolis put it when I was relaying this relationship, “I’ve heard of the Navajo but I’ve never heard of the Zuni.” Bingo. In sports, politics, receiving Bureau of Indian Affairs financial aid, you name it, the Navajo hold the advantage due to their superior numbers. The last census put the total number of Navajo - spreading across NM, Arizona and Utah - at around 250,000. Meanwhile, the population of the Zuni Reservation is about 7,000.
The rivalry/disdain between the two groups typically simmers just beneath the surface, unstated yet assumed, but occasionally it becomes overt. Even among the liberal, educated members of the Zuni tribe, the acrimony is evident. A gifted Zuni teacher told me, “All Navajos are thieves. The name ‘Navajo’ itself means thief.” From my short time here, I had picked up the fact that separate words exist in the Zuni language for “bitch” and “Navajo bitch.” Another native colleague warned me with some urgency never to buy Navajo banana bread. The reason? “They lace it with dog food.” I had no doubt that the messengers sincerely believed the messages they were passing on. The groups harbor no small amount of ill-will for one another. My few students who have any Navajo ancestry are basically shunned socially by their peers. They lay low and hope for the best. To sum up, the Zuni-Navajo chasm is wide and deep. Yet for one evening, all inter-tribal grievances were put aside as the Zuni became one with a low-grade professional wrestler called the Navajo Warrior.
The Navajo Warrior was shopworn, a bit long in the tooth. When he emerged from the dressing room – the boys PE locker room – to the opening strains of The Final Countdown, this lumbering 6’3” hulk of a figure recalled Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler more than a little. Here we were, on a Friday night, in a sparsely filled 2000-seat high school gym, on the Zuni tribal reservation
At this point, you should know that the wrestling event, billed as “Devastation on the Reservation,” had been hyped locally for weeks. Entertainment is extremely rare on this reservation, with no cinemas, bowling alleys, shops or bars. The promoters of this event must have envisioned a packed house. In fact they had sold out bigger venues during the preceding nights across Arizona and New Mexico. On this night, for the low, low price of eight dollars, a promised card of seven wrestlers was presented, which included the likes of Dash Ripper, Warlord, Steve “Gatorwolf” Crawford and Downtown Bugaloo Brown. None of those wrestlers materialized as it turned out except one, the Navajo Warrior. In place of the others was a motley crew including Kid Dino-mite, Danny G, the Hawaiian Lion and a Vin Diesel wannabe whose wrestling name now eludes me. Steve “Gatorwolf” was actually the promoter and emcee of the event, appearing to be about 70 years old. Apparently, the promotional poster photo showing him fit and vigorous had been snapped several decades ago. Total attendance came to maybe 400 people, thus the gym remained largely empty. The Gatorwolf’s disappointment at the sparse turnout was evident.
proceeded, low drama, fake falls and good fun. And late in the proceedings, as the featured
match, the Hawaiian Lion’s bravado and hubris reigned unchecked. The wrestler
taunted the Zuni crowd, rubbing their collective faces in his verbal excrement.
He extolled the virtues of Hawaiians, claiming they were “the best natives.” He
told the Zuni he was surprised they could count to ten. He barked at a chubby
Zuni teenager, “Shut up, fat boy.” The boos cascaded down throughout the
acoustically-challenged gym. The audience began hurling insults lustily back at the
Hawaiian Lion. When the pugnacious Polynesian informed the crowd that the
Navajo Warrior was a coward, that he had declined the offer to wrestle on this
night, you had a feeling all was not quite as it seemed. Indeed, just about
that time, the overblown intro to The
Final Countdown began wafting through the gym and it was game on. The
Navajo Warrior lurched onto the hardwood court, making his way toward the ring
to thunderous applause. The black-white-black vertical stripes painted on his
face made it look two feet long. His long black hair flowed, no pony tail
holding it back, as he slid belly first into the ring amid jubilation.
The match itself held the predictable ebb and flow vicissitudes of any good-guy-versus- hated-villain story. The Hawaiian Lion kept our hero in a slew of precarious situations but could not quite finish him off. He even tried using his metallic championship belt to smack the Warrior’s skull from behind, but the Warrior got wise. Then it happened. The 6’3” wrestler was able to pin the 5’6” one after a half hour of high mayhem and low theater. The crowd, whipped into a rabid frenzy by the posturing and arrogance of the Hawaiian Lion, had gone hoarse cheering for the Navajo Warrior. My friend said, “I can’t believe the Zuni are cheering for a Navajo.” I felt the same way. The referee raised the Navajo Warrior’s victorious hand as once again, The Final Countdown blared forth. The Zuni audience went agog. Stretching the scene to its climax, the Navajo Warrior grabbed the microphone. Choking back tears, he said he’d wrestled “all across the world – New Mexico, Arizona, and Japan” – since 1990, and this was the culmination of all the blood, sweat and tears he’d poured into his career. The crowd roared its approval. Navajo Warrior had won “the belt.” He was “World Champion.” And the highlight of his career had been consummated in a three-fourths empty high school gym. But for one night, he had eclipsed the Zuni-Navajo rivalry and forged some tribal unity. It was no small achievement. I wondered if the Hawaiian Lion could go to Palestine and play the heavy there too, possibly getting some Israeli- Palestine brotherhood engendered along the way. Could he say, “Shut up, fat boy” in Arabic and Hebrew? These thoughts were interrupted by an ecstatic Steve “Gatorwolf” Crawford, who grabbed the microphone and announced, despite the paltry gate for the event, that it was a “tremendous success.” He said that pro wrestling would return to the Zuni Reservation in the fall of 2010. He could barely contain his glee as he announced his coup de grace: “Next time we’ll have midgets wrestling too!”
I have a feeling the Zuni-Navajo détente will have long since passed by then, but for one night it was magical.