The Navajo People And Their Culture
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Published: Tue, 25 Apr 2017
How many of us growing up wanted a six shooter and a sheriffs badge for Christmas? When Santa put them in our stockings, the excitement then turned to who was going to be the Lone Ranger and who was going to be Tonto? At one time or another, we have all played Cowboys and Indians, correct? As kids growing up, we have all seen the black and white Western movies portraying life in the Wild, Wild West. We were all excited by what was being shown on the big screen. We all wanted to feel that wild excitement and adventure in our own lives. Were the lives of the Cowboys and Indians that we saw on the big screen correctly depicted? Were all Indians that lived in those days really blood thirsty savages? According to Hollywood they were. But the truth is some Indians were not. Some Indians were just trying to survive in a land that at sometimes is not survivable. Take for instance the Navajo. The land that they call home is some of the most arid land in this nation.
In this reading we will discuss what a Navajo person is. We will explore their history. Where they came from. The cultural changes that impacted the way they live. Their beliefs and values, the kinships that they have and how they heal themselves in times of sickness. Hopefully, after we have traveled down this path of knowledge, we will have a better understanding of a people that are in true harmony with all that surrounds them. For it is through this harmonious balance that the Navajo have endured here in the US for the past millenniums.
If one were to look at the history of the Navajo, they would find that these people have a willingness to adapt foreign ideas and lifestyles into their own. Anthropologists have found that the first Navajo people were nomadic in nature until they had other cultures influence their existence. If we look at the Navajo history here in the United States, we will find that their timeline is relatively short in comparison to the Pueblo or even the Hohokam Indians. The Navajo migrated from Canada sometime between 900 and 1200 AD and settled down in the Southwest part of this country. (Some archaeologists suggest that the time frame was no later than 1025 AD and not 775 years later that some might suggest.) It was during this migration that the Navajo came in contact with the Pueblo Indian. It was through this contact with the Pueblo Indians that had a profound impact upon the Navajo people. The cultural impact of the Pueblo Indians would lead the Navajo people from being nomadic in nature to a sedimentary lifestyle. We will discuss this a little later in this paper. Another culture that played an important part on the cultural change of the Navajo was the Spanish Colonist that lived here in the United States at that time. These Spaniards showed the Navajos how to tend flocks of sheep. This is said to be one of the most import changes in the Navajo people. “It is unclear whether the Navajo were solely foragers or mixed cultivators before the Spanish introduction of sheep in the early 18th century” (Weisiger, 2004). The Spanish were also the ones that showed the Navajo horses and how they can be used for transportation and for plowing fields. With the introduction of sheep to the Navajo people, they started slowly moving south and west in search of more and better pasture lands to herd sheep on. With this migration to the Southwest the Navajo faced other Indian groups that wanted what they had. Especially the Plains Indians, who took their sheep, women, and children. In response to these attacks, the Navajo began to build defensive settlements up high in the mesa plateaus. This is reminiscent of the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians who inhabited the Southwestern United States for over 2500 years and of the Pueblo Indians who were a major influence on the Navajo.
The modern day Navajo people are an agriculturalist people. In the earlier times of the Navajo, they were more like the contemporary Apache, being gathers and hunters. With this type of lifestyle, they were considered a nomadic people. They moved from place to place without really setting up a permanent dwelling. When the Navajo migrated from Canada a cultural change occurred that made the Navajo who they are today. It is important to point out that this migration from Canada to the Southwest United States is “not referred to in any Navajo oral traditions or ceremonial rights”. (J. Morris, personal communication, September 20, 2012) One of the most significant influences the Pueblo Indians had on the Navajo was farming. This was to be the Navajo’s primary mode of subsistence. With this cultural change, the Navajo were to become a more sedimentary people then their forefathers. It is also noted that through the Navajo’s adaptation of the Pueblo lifestyle, the Pueblo’s and Navajo have had a long and important relationship that can be seen today in the modern day lifestyle of the Navajo.
In the history of the Navajo, the Pueblo Indians taught them how to cultivate the land and grow beans, corn and squash. This led to the Navajo to a horticultural society. In modern times, farming has been supplemented by herding of sheep, goats, and cattle. In parts of the Southwest United States, farming has been literally superseded by herding as a means of substance for the Navajo. This has changed the Navajo from a horticultural society into an agriculturalist society. Wealth in the Navajo culture is held by the women and girls who own all the sheep. On the other hand, the men own the cattle and horses. With the Navajo society being matrilineal, all the inheritance is passed through the women. In doing so, women own their own herds of sheep and the products of their sheep produce. This ownership of the sheep is a key social status symbol in the Navajo society. This is because the Navajo believe that sheep were here even before they were. In our course reading there is a passage that states “Navajo sheep are owned by individuals, but the herds are kept communally within a matrilocal residential group. The products from the herd are shared: all owners contribute animals for meat, and wool is shorn and sold communally by the residential head for the benefit of the group”. (Nowak, B. & Laird, P. (2010) Cultural Anthropology, Sec 5.2, Pg. 9)
The Navajo beliefs are centered on Changing Woman. She is the creator of the first four clans of the Navajo. The names of the first four clans are the Edge Water Clan, The Bitter Water Clan, The Towering House Clan and the One-Walks-Around Clan. In more recent times, the Navajo “have added more clans to this list. There are roughly 17 other clans in the Navajo. This is due to the assimilation of other people, mainly the Mexicans and Spaniards, which have moved to the United States and have married into the Navajo clans”. (J. Morris, personal communication, September 20, 2012) It is said that Changing Women had to go through 3 different worlds before she could come here. In passing through the first 3 worlds, Changing Women brought with her sacred dirt from the First World. With this dirt, she created the four sacred mountains which are Mt. Blanca in the east, Mt. Taylor in the south. The San Francisco Peaks in the west, and Mt. Hesperus in the north. These four mountains create the boundaries of the Navajo land. Within these boundaries (roughly 28,000 square miles) live over 300,000 Navajo. This is the largest concentration of Native Americans in the US.
The story of Changing Women states that when she arrived at the fourth world, she rubbed the first four clans off her own skin thus creating the Navajo people. The Navajo say “We were created from Changing Woman.” Changing Woman is also known as “Earth Mother”, she epitomizes motherhood and all of its wonders. She also serves as the role model for all Navajo women to strive to emulate. (Griffin-Pierce, 2000)
In the Navajo household it is the Mother-Child bond that is the primary kinship. This kinship coexists with the Wife-Husband kinship. On the other hand, the secondary level of kinship in the household belongs to the Father-Child bond and the Sibling-Sibling bond. The connection between the father and his children is through the mother. As a Navajo, women and young girls are expected to emulate Changing Woman. They are to bring about new life. They are to nurturer the children that they will bear. They are to do all mothering tasks such as nursing, bathing, and feeding, weaning, clothing, comforting and teaching. By this, they are the bearers of life, much like Changing Women. For a Navajo male, their role is to be a preserver and a protector of life. “The role of a Navajo father in the household is to provide those things the mother and children cannot provide for themselves, which includes hunting for animals and performing other male-associated tasks”. (Witherspoon 1975) In modern times, these gender roles have changed. Men are now doing the major portion of the farming. They have also taken over the ranching. It is also important to point out that Navajo women are going to battle. This is “a problem for most Navajo men to come to terms with. For it is through the women that the Navajo will continue one”. (J. Morris, personal communication, September 20, 2012)
The Navajo creation story, Dine’ Bahane’ (Story of the People), plays a significant part as a model of the social organization of their society. This story helps shape the way the Navajo view the world around them. “The central symbol of Navajo social organization is motherhood. The symbolic meaning of motherhood is found in life, reproduction, and subsistence. It is expressed in affectionate care and in the giving or providing of food. The basic unit of the concrete social system of the Navajo, the subsistence residential unit, is organized, structured, and integrated by the symbols of motherhood” (Witherspoon 1970).
When it comes to sickness and illnesses, “the Navajo have traditional healing practices that have been used for generations and still have a dynamic existence relevant to everyday Navajo life; Christian healing traditions, ranging from Catholic Charismatic to Protestant Pentecostal; and practices of the Native American Church.” (Begay 2000) The prominent figure to all traditional healings is the Medicine Man. The Medicine Man or Healer is responsible for the healing ceremony of the sick individual. His main role is to restore harmony, balance, beauty or health to the afflicted individual. Before the medicine man can cure the patient, he must diagnose the ailments that his patient has. He does this by using special tools like rock crystals, chanting prayers or by hand-trembling. After he knows what the ailment is, he then chants a prayer over the patient to heal them. “Some prayers can last only a day while others can last much longer depending on the patient’s ailments”. (J. Morris, personal communication, September 20, 2012) Most Navajo will go to the Medicine Man first before they will seek Western medical attention in a hospital or clinic. A Medicine Man is taught by a master before he can become a Medicine Man on his own. He is taught around 50 to 60 sacred ceremonial rights. Some of these ceremonies can last more than 4 days or more in time to be effective in healing the sick. When it comes to practicing these rituals, the Navajo have a building that is constructed specifically for this purpose. This structure is called a ‘Hogan’. These structures were used as homes before but now they are used solely for religious and cultural purposes. Although, it is said that most elderly Navajo people still prefer to live in one instead of a western style home.
For a Navajo to be a well balanced individual, he or she must possess a harmonious level of the four values of life. Just like the four sacred mountains are central to their beliefs, the four values of life are just as sacred to them. These four values are: value of the human life, values of work, value of human relations and the value of respect. When an individual has been taught these four values they are harmonious with nature and all beings. They are also thought of a well educated being. The Navajo have a saying that states: “Just as corn needs four things: sunlight, water, air, and soil to grow; so a Navajo needs the four values: values of Life, values of Work, values of Social/Human Relations, and values of Respect/Reverence to grow”(Davis 2008). These values are some of the most important ones that need to be taught to all humanity living here on earth. If we all could live with these values prominent in our lives there would be no more corruption or war throughout this world.
As the Navajo people have grown and adjusted to their surroundings these past few millenniums, their life experiences, beliefs and values have helped shape them to what they are today. They have had a long history of expanding their ranges for their sheep and cattle and with this expansion they have adapted to the changes that they were presented. This has also had a refining effect of who they are and how they fit into this ever changing world that they are a part of. They have also shown that they can prove their significance to other groups of Native Americans and to the Europeans that have migrated into their little slice of this nation. Their cultural change has resulted from a combination of commerce and trade with the Pueblo, Apache, Ute, Comanche and Spanish peoples and from their running feuds with the Hopi. This has all been set in the ever changing and awe inspiring environment of the Southwest United States.
How many of now would want to be the Indian when we played Cowboys and Indians in our youth? Hopefully, we all would, with this new knowledge of knowing how the Navajo have adapted to changes that have made them the people that they are today. A people that are proud of their heritage and proud of their accomplishments that they have done for this great nation.
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