“Chee’s Daughter” was published initially in Common Ground (Winter, 1948). The subject of “Chee’s Daughter,” a modern American short story by Juanita Platero and Siyowin Miller, is the love of a young Navaho farmer for his three-year-old daughter, whom he calls the Little One. When Chee’s wife dies of tuberculosis, he finds himself in a desperate struggle with her parents to keep his child. The subtext of the story examines the value of Chee’s heritage and the conflict between traditional Navaho customs and modern life. Although the setting is not specifically stated, details suggest that the events occur in New Mexico, in the 1930s or 1940s. Characters include Chee, Chee’s mother, father (Old Man Fat), sister, and two cousins, Little One, and Chee’s wife’s parents.
The story begins on a sunny winter day as Chee rides alone through Little Canyon toward his family’s compound. Chee and his family dwell deep in the canyon, in a place of “rich, red earth” and streams, where peach trees grow and Chee’s crops flourish. Chee’s people have lived in Little Canyon for many generations. Despite the beautiful day, Chee’s demeanor shows he is deeply troubled. Only thoughts of the Little One comfort him. Arriving home, he ties his horse at the corral, noticing that the compound is deserted. Chee thinks, “Someone has told them . . . and they are inside weeping.” Inside the family’s hogan, he finds his mother and sister crying. His father is silent. They already know that Chee’s wife has died at the sanitarium where he had gone that day, hoping to bring her home.
Chee comforts his family; they still have the Little One, he reminds them. After his sister runs sobbing from the room, Chee learns his wife’s parents have taken the child, in accordance with Navaho custom. Chee plans to go to the trading post at Red Sands, where Old Man Fat and his wife live, to get her back. Chee is hopeful because Old Man Fat really cares nothing about Navaho customs, but he is troubled because an old conflict exists between them.
The next day Chee rides fifteen miles into Red Sands to the trading post situated on a busy highway. Old Man Fat works there for the owner. Gaudy Navaho rugs hang on a line to attract tourists. Old Man Fat’s wife works at her loom next to a sign, “Navaho Weaver at Work.” A sign on their hogan invites tourists to “See Inside a Real Navaho Home,” for a quarter. The Little One runs to Chee when she sees him. Chee notices, with strong disapproval, a customer admiring her, as if she were another tourist attraction.
When Chee and his wife were first married, they had lived here with her parents, according to Navaho custom. Eventually, they returned to Little Canyon, to live with his parents on the beautiful land of their ancestors where Chee could farm. This was the source of the conflict between Chee and Old Man Fat. The old man, in his arrogance, dismissed Chee as a long-haired farmer who toils for food, while he enjoys a life of ease, eating food from cans and buying what others work to grow. He is proud to take money from tourists and happy to do no work at all.
When Chee speaks with Old Man Fat about sharing the care of the Little One, the old conflict flares. Old Man Fat takes offense at the suggestion he needs help supporting the child. He tells Chee to leave and stay away. Although his impulse is to take his daughter and ride away, Chee knows he cannot keep her. The Headman of Little Canyon would enforce the Navaho custom, and Chee would stand no chance of success with “a strange white man in town.” Little One cries as Chee rides away.
In the following days, Chee begins to doubt his heritage and its values. Chee has chosen to live a traditional Navaho life. Take care of the land, he has believed, and it will take care of you. Now he wonders about the wisdom of his choice. “True, the land had always given him food,” he thinks, “but now food was not enough.” Chee herds his sheep that winter and walks his land, but he cannot escape his loneliness for the Little One. He decides he must leave Little Canyon and start another way of life. He plans to speak to his cousins about a job at the road camp.
When spring comes, Chee’s cousins tell him a job is available working on the roads. However, he would soon have to move away from Little Canyon: “The work near here will last only until the new cut-off beyond Red Sands is finished.” When he hears about the new highway cut-off, Chee formulates a bold new plan, but he tells no one. He plants a new field, an especially large one, with corn, squash, and pumpkins. A second small field he plants with carrots, onions, and chili peppers. Finally, he tells his family what he plans to do. Chee works tirelessly throughout the spring and summer, and his land does not betray him. It produces a bountiful harvest. At summer’s end, Chee and his mother load “bulging packs” of food onto his horse, and he rides to Red Sands.
At the trading post, Chee finds what he had expected to find. The highway is deserted, since everyone is using the new cut-off. The trading post is closed. Walking out of a crude summer shelter, Old Man Fat greets Chee in an “almost friendly” way. Looking at the loaded packs, he asks Chee if he is going on a journey. Chee says he had planned to sell or barter his food with the trader. Old Man Fat tells him the trader is going to build a new trading post on the new highway the next spring. Chee acts as if he were leaving; then he asks the old man casually if he needs any of the food. Old Man Fat says he will ask his wife. He explains how poor they have become, trying to gain Chee’s sympathy to get something for nothing. Chee is not fooled and does not reply. In the shelter, Chee opens one of his bags and spills the harvest before Old Man Fat’s wife. They have no money to buy it, she says sadly, even though they have sold almost all of their belongings.
At that moment, the Little One appears, rubbing sleep from her eyes. The child is dirty and barefoot; her hair is uncombed, and all the silver buttons have been cut from her blouse, no doubt sold. She runs to her father, arms outstretched. Unable to contain his joy, Chee sweeps her into his arms. Impulsively, he tells Old Man Fat, “The money doesn’t matter. You still have something . . . .” The old man takes offense immediately and shoves the food away: “And you rode all the way over here thinking that for a little food we would give up our daughter’s daughter?”
Knowing he has failed, Chee leaves the Little One in her grandmother’s lap and climbs into the saddle, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he dismounts. He carries both packs into the little shelter and empties all their contents before Old Man Fat and his wife—vegetables, fruit, coffee, and jerked meat. Chee says he will leave all the food for them anyway, as “I would not want my daughter nor even you old people to go hungry.”
The old man’s hand trembles as he opens a bag of peaches. The Little One scrambles down from her grandmother’s lap, drops to her knees, and reaches hungrily for the meat. Old Man Fat’s wife tells him the food will last almost all winter. Chee says he had brought enough to last the two of them all winter, thinking his daughter would be coming home with him. As he speaks, the Little One sucks on the jerky, her mouth and both fists full of meat. She is obviously very hungry. “I am sorry that you feel you cannot bear to part with her,” Chee says, carefully. Old Man Fat and his wife both look at the child, and “in that moment the Little One ceased to be their daughter’s daughter and became just another mouth to feed.” With their consent, Chee rides back to Little Canyon with his barefoot daughter before him in the saddle, singing a Navaho song, celebrating his land.
The central theme in “Chee’s Daughter” is one of personal identity and integrity. By remaining true to himself and his Navaho heritage, Chee brings his daughter home and preserves his family’s way of life in Little Canyon. Chee takes care of his land, and his land does take care of him. In contrast, Old Man Fat leaves the land, choosing to live a lazy life. He not only abandons his heritage, he shamelessly sells it to tourists every day at the Red Sands Trading Post. When business disappears, he is left with nothing. Besides being poverty stricken, Old Man Fat has traded away his pride, his dignity, and his Navaho identity.
“Chee’s Daughter” features strong contrasts that support the story’s thematic development. The contrasts between Chee and Old Man Fat are numerous and distinct; their values, lifestyles, personalities, and appearances differ so sharply that the two men can be considered antithetical characters. Some contrasts between them are obvious, while others are more subtle. Old Man Fat lacks understanding and foresight, while Chee demonstrates both foresight and an innate understanding of human behavior. As a result, he can formulate the plan that ultimately wins his daughter back. Another significant contrast exists between Little Canyon and the Red Sands Trading Post. The natural beauty, rich earth, and flowing streams of the canyon emphasize the crude ugliness and sterility of the trading post.
The Navaho culture provides the story’s context, but “Chee’s Daughter” examines truths not confined to an individual culture. The love between a parent and child, the nature of personal integrity, and the relationship between one’s heritage and identity are universal in their significance. In “Chee’s Daughter,” Juanita Platero and Siyowin Miller affirm their importance.