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He Has an Arresting Sense of Humor : Culture: Vincent Craig is serious about his job as the Navajo Nation's chief probation officer. But he's just as serious about singing satirical songs and drawing his hit cartoon.

November 29, 1994|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Vincent Craig takes a battered old Alvarez acoustic guitar from its case and proudly points out where various country musicians have signed their autographs on its spruce top.

"This is my baby," Craig says lovingly. Then, with a sly look he announces: "I do a takeoff on Navajo opera."

Closing his eyes, he strums an A-minor chord and sings a quavering aria entirely in Navajo, replete with Pavarotti-like flourishes.

It's called, "Grandpa, the Sheep Have Gone."

Says Craig: "I envision a day when you drive up to Window Rock and follow the spotlights to the Window Rock Metropolitan Opera House."

Vincent Craig has never been one to let reality hinder his antic imagination.

Craig writes and records popular Navajo cowboy ballads, protest songs, and social and political satire.

The 44-year-old balances the sublimely silly with the serious: He is the Navajo Nation's chief probation officer, a job that gives him responsibility for about 2,700 people who have run afoul of the tribal justice system.

But he's never happier than when he's asking an audience to ponder the imponderable, like what if Columbus had been met by Navajos? Or what do sheep dogs say to each other?

"Things that are most simple, that are taken for granted--those kinds of observations seem to appeal to Navajos," says Craig, who has a playful, teasing rapport with his audiences. "I don't know if anybody else could say that to them."

A fixture at schools and public gatherings around the vast Navajo Nation, Craig has also performed in such far-flung places as California, Alaska and Washington, D.C. He has been invited to attend the 11th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in January.

Craig can pen a lonesome lament with the best of them, but satire is his strong suit. He tells of the Navajo who visits Italy and sees the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

"He looks at it for a while and says, 'Golly, it's crooked,' " Craig says. "He looks at it again and says, 'The BIA must have built it.' "

He also reaches a wide audience with "Muttonman," the weekly super-hero cartoon he draws for the Navajo Times, a tribally owned newspaper.

Muttonman--"More powerful than the (Bureau of Indian Affairs)! Able to leap Shiprock in a single bound! Faster than (a BIA) area director can pass the buck!"--is a goofy masked crusader with an overbite who wears an old Jim Thorpe-style football helmet, a silver concho belt and a Navajo rug for a cape. He's gained his super powers by eating mutton from sheep that have watered at the Rio Puerco, a New Mexico river contaminated by a uranium tailings spill in the 1970s.

The strip was a hit as soon as it premiered in 1979; Craig launched his hero with a three-month story line incorporating aliens and mutant frybread. It ran in the Navajo Times for several years before Craig suspended it. It reappeared in 1990 in Navajo Nation Today, then returned to the Navajo Times when Today folded.

Says Navajo Times Editor Tom Arviso: "He's always been real popular with our readership. They understand his humor. They can relate to it."

Craig's cartoons are widely admired throughout Indian Country. When Arviso attended the Unity conference of minority journalists in Atlanta last summer, editors from other Native American newspapers told him: "We're glad to see Muttonman is back."

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Craig's droopy Fu Manchu mustache and bushy eyebrows give him a habitually severe expression that softens as soon as he starts cracking jokes--which is often. Married for 19 years, he and wife Mariddie have three sons, ranging in age from 9 to 18.

For the past four years he's run the probation office from a crowded modular building at the foot of the giant sandstone arch that gives the Navajo capital of Window Rock its name.

Craig oversees 27 probation officers who serve 160,000 people on a reservation the size of West Virginia. The officers carry a heavy caseload because of limited jail space, he says. Most of the probationers have been sentenced for alcohol-related misdemeanors.

"We try to instill some sense of self-initiative," he says. "Our probation philosophy is based on the Navajo concept of hozhoo ," or self-harmony.

"When we do our treatment plans, we try to keep that concept in mind," he says. "We ask what's good for you."

Craig has an informal style, wearing his black hair short in front and long in back and showing up for work in a gray sweat shirt, jeans and a straw cowboy hat. He was raised around Church Rock, N.M., a few miles east of Gallup. His father had been a Navajo Code Talker in World War II, part of a corps of Marine radio operators who baffled the Japanese by communicating in their own language. His mother was a cook at the BIA boarding school at nearby Ft. Wingate.

He and his older brother, Harrison, briefly attended boarding school, an experience Craig describes as "the most interesting thing that ever happened to me."

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