October 15, 2020 | Narrative
shiprock fair memories
stories from the fairground
Everyone looked forward to the first weekend of October. Shiprock, New Mexico hosts the Northern Navajo Nation Fair in celebration of the Navajo New Year—Ghaají—and the fall harvest. The fair consists of multiple Navajo food stands, livestock shows, an open rodeo, fair rides, an “Indian Market,” where Native/Indigenous artists sell their crafts and artwork, a Miss Northern Navajo and Miss Northern Teen Traditional competition, and multiple traditional dances, followed by winter ceremonies. Being from Shiprock, I always saw people setting up the rides days before. While shopping at City Market, directly across from the fairgrounds, my brother and I sensed everyone’s building excitement. We all waited eagerly each year for the event, endearingly nicknamed the Shiprock Fair, to be announced.
The Notorious Zipper
A Shiprock fair favorite. Prime middle school bet material—I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “I’ll give you a dollar if you ride the Zipper.” Thirteen-year-old Danielle wasn’t much of a risk-taker; she liked having solid ground underneath her worn, high-top sneakers. So, being the notorious chicken I was, a dollar was nowhere near enough for me to even consider stepping in line. But other thirteen-year-olds? Oh, they were ready to throw their hands up, practically begging to have the earth pulled out from underneath them. And that’s exactly what the Zipper did. It yanked, swayed, and stuttered. Rusted metal screeched, while visible gears ground under peeling paint. Riders, aged eleven to thirty-five, spun while climbing heights that peaked near thirty feet. Their thrilled screams sent chills down awaiting riders’ backs. Early 2000s pop music blaring from rectangular speakers completed the ride’s appeal. Lights flickered and danced, brightening the padded interior of the caged passenger compartments.
To this day, I have yet to ride The Zipper. For the past four years, I’ve always been away from home during the first weekend of October. I haven’t been to the fair since my junior year of high school. I’m not sure if I’m braver now; I’ve had no way to test it. So my memories of this ride only consist of waiting and watching. Waiting for and watching my cousins, sipping hot chocolate from the ground, shuffling in place as the wind bites at my nose. Waiting for and watching my friends, holding up their phones to record a video for their social media. Waiting for and watching my younger siblings, nervously folding my arms and crossing a shaking pair of fingers. A sharp ache in my neck, wide eyes, a tiny smile slipping from the corner of my mouth, and the steady intake-outtake of breath, interrupted by a quick gasp every now and then. It’s not the Shiprock Fair if I’m not watching others spin recklessly through the air. I tend to choose mild rides like Zero Gravity, a spinning spaceship that sticks its riders to the walls, or the Ferris wheel. At its peak, you can see over the stands and into the rodeo corral—my mother was obsessed with taking photos together on it. And who knows, maybe next year––or the year after, if COVID doesn’t let up––I’ll finally be the one trading the ground beneath my feet for open sky, bright lights, and “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz blasting through the speakers.
The Same Parade Each Year
During the fair weekends, my younger brother and I got up early on Saturday morning to place folding chairs along the edge of the highway, a short walk from our house in Shiprock. It was usually still dark. Everyone knew that if you wanted good seats, you had to set up your chairs while the sun still slept. The air, a sharp cold knife, cut at our exposed noses and cheeks. The thick socks on our hands barely kept our fingers from freezing. Street lights flickered as we lugged blankets and chairs, stopping every now and then to adjust the straps so they fit comfortably on our shoulders. As we reached our destination, others were also setting up: some in trucks, laying blankets across an open tailgate; a few stretching out outdoor canopies, preparing for the midday sun. Doing our best to secure a spot directly across from our housing complex, we started unfolding chairs, stacking blankets, and laying our enormous black umbrella at the foot of our grandmother’s seat. Once everything was set up, my brother and I played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would stay in the cold and watch our stuff, or return to the warm house to help with other chores. We’d remove our sock-gloves and play for best-of-three. I don’t remember our most recent game, but I do remember winning a majority of them, both on parade day and throughout our daily lives. At eleven, my brother was fairly easy to read.
It’s a faint memory, but I remember walking my grandmother from our house to the parade road. She and my aunt used to sleep at our place the night before. During those early years, while I was still in middle school, she refused to use a wheelchair. So we would walk together. By this point in the day, the sun was rising, slowly climbing. The rays provided a soft heat, poking back the crisp breeze. My grandmother talked about my grandfather on those walks. A veteran, he walked in the parade holding the New Mexico flag on his shoulder next to two other veterans, one carrying the American flag and the other with the Navajo Nation flag. He walked in the parade almost every year while my grandmother watched. When we reached our spot, my grandmother always smiled at my brother, then wrapped herself in one of the blankets.
My father liked to joke that the parade was the same every year. And he was right. The same people talked, the Navajo Nation President and his administration, the same organizations walked, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), and the same floats were decorated in familiar store-bought balloons and party streamers. But did we care? No. I waited patiently and expectantly for the Navajo Nation Band. Their confident sound captivated everyone. I watched from my seat along the street curb, admiring the wind instruments, while two women twirled a pair of batons. My brother looked forward to the local bands: they played a random assortment of songs, some original and some covers. Even though their floats didn’t usually give out candy, my brother was never disappointed. The parade usually lasted till noon, a couple of police cars and horses trailing the final float, at which point we’d stand, stretch, and pack it all back up. We’d return home, carrying back bags of candy and prizes, in addition to the folding chairs and blankets. By then, my mother and aunt usually had lunch prepared—steamed corn stew and fry bread.
Though there is no Shiprock Fair this year due to COVID-19, many are still using this time to connect with close family members—socially distanced, of course. We spent one evening collecting dried corn stalks from the field and dead branches from an old tree to put together a homemade scarecrow. Granted, later that same day, my cousin’s dog got loose and tore him apart. The scarecrow’s limbs are still scattered across our front yard, a grim reminder to make a new one. Another weekend was spent cooking homemade chicken noodle soup. Close family cut vegetables, prepared broth, and sliced bread. The warmth spread to our stomachs and strengthened our shared laughter around my aunt’s kitchen. I’m currently staying with my older cousins, helping care for chickens, dogs, and nine cats—animals with an assortment of vivid personalities. Though we won’t gather on fairgrounds this year, I’m still grateful to be home—whether we’re making homemade scarecrows or soup. The familiar cold breeze zips through the morning air, and the sun still climbs the sky at a gentle pace. Even now, as I sit outside my shimasaní’s farmland, I’m reminded of those days spent on the fairgrounds, and the nights huddled together in blankets with hot tea during the winter ceremonies.