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Diné Tah and Joe Hill: Books on the Navajo and labor leader win awards

September 23rd, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

By Natasha Bodily

LOGAN—A first-time memoir author and a biographer are winners of this year’s Evans Biography and Handcart Awards, coordinated by Utah State University’s Mountain West Center for Regional Studies.

Alwin Girdner, author of Diné Tah: My Reservation Days 1923-1939, said his book grew out of bedtime stories he told his children about the years he lived on a Navajo reservation in Arizona near the Four Corners. “Dinétah” means “among the Navajo people,” and refers to the Navajo homeland region.

Girdner’s book, Diné Tah: My Reservation Days 1923-1939, is 2012 winner of the Evans book award.

“I went to the reservation when I was 8 months old and stayed pretty much there until I went to high school,” Girdner said. “I had tutors, but a lot of my education came from reading the Compton Encyclopedias.”

His parents were Plymouth Brethren missionaries. The Plymouth Brethren were like the Quakers, Girdner said, but had far fewer members.

“He grew up learning both English and Navajo at the same time,” Girdner’s daughter, Mary Joe, said. “I loved it when he would read from the Bible in Navajo.”

Mary Joe, who found the publisher for her father’s book, said she remembered many of the stories her father told her as a young girl.

“I remember him sitting in the dark at the end of the bed telling stories,” she said. She remembers one story in particular. “A Navajo man had died, and they don’t touch the dead after they’ve died. So he [Girdner] and his dad were called in to bury them.”

“It was a routine job,” Girdner noted.

“He told us about going out and the mother was there. He was just a kid,” Mary Joe said. “You have to run through the woods to get the spirits off of you. So she [the mother] took off her shirt and ran through the woods to get the spirits off.”

This is Girdner’s first book, but he has written articles and completed a master’s thesis on the Navajos.

“It’s full of facts and dates—dry stuff,” he said of his thesis. Girdner joked that interested readers could delve into his thesis for more information about the Navajo people and their culture and history.

The Evans Awards were started by the family of David Woolley Evans, a writer and founder of an advertising and public relations agency, along with Beatrice Cannon Evans, a historian and family genealogist.

See Dan Smith’s story on the Evans Biography Award to William Adler’s book on Joe Hill.

William Adler’s biographer of labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill is the 2012 Evans Award winner.

Anthropology Professor Patricia Lambert, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Services and director of the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies (MWCRS), helped coordinate the event with Barbara Warnes, MWCRS program assistant. Lambert said the event is held annually.

“During the economic downturn, they skipped a year,” she said. “But it was decided that there needed to be continuity.” The Evans family and those involved in the awards program came up with another $100,000 in funding to bring the Evans endowment to $500,000.

The Evans Biography and Handcart Awards started in 1983 at BYU and moved to USU in 1987, thanks to the work of history Professor Ross Peterson, who Lambert says “was very involved with the family in building the program here at the university.”

Earlier in the day, biography winner William Adler presented his book on legendary songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill in the Merrill-Cazier library.

“It’s always fun to be reminded of those who have walked through the pages of Utah history and have been forgotten about,” Peterson said after the lecture. “But some of them are never forgotten. And Joe Hill, because of his songs, has never been forgotten.”

According to the MWCRS website, the Evans awards are given to outstanding book-length biographies written about people who lived in or significantly influenced the history of the Interior west. An award of $10,000 is awarded to the best biography of the year and $2,500 is awarded for a biography that is family or local history and is written by a first-time author.


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