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The Navajo Way

Men’s Journal, Novermber 1998

One of the most remarkable things about this republic is that there exists within its borders a parallel universe known as Dinetah, a nation of more than 155,000 souls who subscribe to a mind-set completely different from the modern American belief that everything in nature is there for the taking.  Dinetal is the ancestral homeland of the Diné, more commonly called the Navajo, a misnomer perpetrated by the Spaniards, as are many of the names for the native tribes of the Southwest.  An area larger than West Virginia that sprawls out of Arizona into New Mexico and Utah, Dinetal is bounded by four sacred mountains – North Mountain (Debénitsaa), in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado, Sounth Mountain (Tso Dzil), of Mount Taylor, near Grants, New Mexico; East Mountain (Sis Naajin’i), or Sierra Blanca, in Colorado; and West Mountain (Dook Oslid), in the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Arizona -and four sacred rivers (the Colorado, the Little Colorado, the San Juan, and the Rio Grande). It is some of the starkest, most magically open-to-the-sky country anywhere -a sagebrush steppe spotted with juniper and ancient, gnarled pinon trees, occasionally gashed by a yawning canyon or thrust up into a craggy, pine-clad mountain range, a magenta mesa, a blood-red cliff, a tiara of lucent, stress-fractured tan sandstone.”The land is our Bible,” a Navajo woman named Sally once explained to me. Every feature has a name and a story and is sacred, just as every animal and plant has a “way,” its own particular means of contributing, its right to be there, which must be respected. Much of a traditional Navajo’s energies are devoted to keeping on good terms with the elements and one’s fellow creatures, to “being in harmony with everything -yourself, mainly, all the living things, the air, Father Sky, the moon, and on and on,” Sally continued. This state of hozho -or walking in beauty, as it is often translated -is the goal of the Navajo religion.
“You can be in harmony and sailing along just fine when suddenly you run into something disharmonious, and there’s always a reason for it,” she went on. “Like my brother Roy, who drowned. He got on bad terms with the Water People. Or my sister Lavine, who got bitten by a rattler when she was little. Her arm got big and bloated, and after that, every time I saw a snake I would kill it. Snakes see everything purple, and one day at noon when I was out with the sheep, everything suddenly turned purple. A snake slithered up and asked ‘Why are you killing all our brothers?’ I explained, because my sister got bitten. So the snake said, ‘Let’s make a deal. Don’t kill us, and we won’t bother you.’ ”
A few years ago, Sally’s husband, Kee Richard, started having nosebleeds. It turned out there was a tumor in his nose. The doctor in Flagstaff said it was cancer and zapped it with radiation, but Sally’s aunt, who was a medicine woman, took one look at Kee Richard and asked him “Did you ever kill a porcupine?” “Well, yes,” Kee Richard said. “When I was 10, I clubbed a porcupine with a stick from the fire. It went off to die with blood pouring out of its nose.” Sally’s aunt told him he had to offer turquoise and abalone to the porcupine and make a confession to ask forgiveness.
According to archeological evidence, the Navajo were part of,a migration from Siberia somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000 years ago. The Navajo themselves, however, say the People emerged from Navajo Lake, in northeastern Arizona. “Don’t tell me you’re falling for that Bering Strait stuff,” Sally’s cousin Tom, a traditionalist, chided me. Glottochronological evidence suggests that the Navajo split off from the Athabascans of the Pacific Northwest within the past 1,000 years and began to drift south in loose, highly mobile bands. Their religion was an animism that evolved from their exceptional ability, as hunters, to “get inside the skulls of the animals,” as one elder put it, a detailed understanding of the way of each species. Between 900 and 1,500 years ago, they arrived in the Southwest, where the Anasazi -ancestors of the Hopi had lived for centuries in cliff dwellings and communal mud pueblos The Anasazi had learned to grow maize from their Mexican cousins, a
practice the Navajo adopted, along with the Anasazi’s elaborate mysticism surrounding the plant. The Hopi, whose name for the Navajo means “Skull-Bashers” (while the Navajo call the Hopi “Cliff-Shitters” and “Hopeless”), still live on their four Tibetan mesas in the middle of Dinetah.

While the Hopi were their favorite prey, the Navajo also incorporated a lot of core Hopi beliefs: that the clouds are ancestors who have to be : prayed to and harangued to let down their liquid essence in the form of rain, that this is the fourth world (the Navajo call it Glitter World, the previous ones -Black, Blue, and Yellow -having been destroyed because of the wickedness of their inhabitants). When they weren’t raiding the Anasazi, the Navajo would appear at the pueblos with game to trade for  produce. The Anasazi were in decline, weakened by years of drought. By 1519, when Cortes arrived in Mexico and with astonishing ease conquered the Aztec empire of Moctezuma II, the Anasazi disappeared. The Navajo moved into the vacant niches and thrived, developing a complicated, Iyrical, and witty religion based on 58 ceremonials, or “sings,” chanted by hataali, medicine men who specialize in one or two of them.
Nightway, for instance, which initiates boys and girls aged 7 to 13 into the ceremoniallife of adults, takes 9 days to sing and consists of 576 subsongs that must be intoned perfectly, word for word, before the first frost and the first thunderstorm, while the snakes are hibernating. The slightest mistake can result in self-hexing. crippling, paralysis, loss of sight Enemyway, a healing ceremony, was sung for Navajo soldiers returning from the killing in Vietnam, to purge their souls. A couple of years ago, I attended a four-day-!ong Beautyway for Sally’s son, who had just served a nine-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth. “Maybe if I had Beautyway done for him before he went to boot camp, he wouldn’t have gotten into trouble,” she told me. Waterway, nearly extinct, is for people who survive drowning or flash-flooding, or who dream of drowning; for sickness from, among other things, rain and thunder, or from eating the meat of lightning-struck sheep or horses
There is a high degree of paranoia in Dinetah because the Navajo live with many realities, not just the material plane. Evil is not just something down in the underWorld, it’s out there all the time; it’s in your face. If you see an owl, it means somebody’s going to die. If you see a coyote headed north, you have to make a prayer. Coyote sickness -brought upon by transgressing, even inadvertently, the way of a coyote -is something you would wish only on your worst enemy. One side of your mouth droops permanently, you become unable to remember anything, or you take to the bottle and, if you’re a woman, you give yourself to all comers.
One morning as Tom and I sat outside his hogan, way out in the Arizona desert, we noticed a skinny black dog with a white beard slinking behind a rise, 200 yards off. I asked if it was a stray. Tom said it was a skinwalker. “He’s been here a couple of days.” Skinwalkers are witches -chindi -who can take the form of animals, particularly wolves or coyotes, and can inflict illness or death on those they have it in for. They are believed to be people who want to become rich and have gone through an elaborate ceremony that includes the sacrifice -by untraceable magic means -of a relative When a skinwalker is identified, he is often beaten to death and mutilated beyond recognition, so he won’t come back Every so often, a forensic pathologist in Albuquerque told me, the Navajo Police bring in the pulverized cadaver of a suspected skinwalker from the rez, as everybody calls the part of Dinetah that the Great White Father designated as a reservation for the Navajo.
Maybe the Navajo are more aware of death and evil than your average suburban Anglo-American because they live in the desert, which, as Georgia O’Keeffe put it, “knows no kindness in all its beauty.” In any case, their paranoia is tempered by a rollicking sense of humor, an irrepressible love of puns and wordplay. Their nickname for Hitler, for instance, is (He Who) Smells His Mustache. The way to break the ice with a Navajo is to make him laugh. In my first trip through Dinetah with my family, in 1985, we pulled over to check out some rugs a group of men had strung up under a brush ramada While I was having a rather forced conversation with one of the men -the rugs worked out to about $1,000 a square yard -there was a sudden explosion of laughter behind the ramada. My two boys, aged 5 and 6, had gathered the other men around them and were putting on a little show with their Gobots, with a few twists transforming them from trucks into robots, which for some reason was killingly funny.
A lot of Navajo humor is derived from their language, which is tonal and full of prefixes that subtly shade the meanings of words and is virtually impenetrable to a non-Navajo There are, for instance, 30 ways to say “wind” The Japanese were never able to decipher the messages of the famous Navajo code-talkers in the Pacific Theater, who were actually just speaking Navajo. The humor spills over into the whole Navajo psyche All you have to do is graze a NavaJo’s funny bone -tell him a good joke -and he will practically die laughing.
The way to turn off a Navajo is to ask a lot of questions One time, after I had been bombarding Tom with questions, he finally snapped “If you quit acting like Harry Reasoner, maybe you might learn something.” Another time I was talking with a group of Navajo about how tourists should behave “Don’t ask questions,” one woman told me ” ‘What is that for!’ ‘Why do you wear that!’ ‘What does that mean!’ Just step back and bite the Albuquerque bullet Don’t try to understand us in one day You Americans are always looking for instant religious satisfaction, like instant mashed potatoes. But it’s a lifetime thing. We live it every day.”

Do you have any special word for “tourist’,? I asked. There I was, doing just what the woman had said not to do “I call them ‘moon children,'” she said “They must have come from the moon ‘cuz they have no respect for the earth, and they’re so pale.”
Roxana Robinson, an O’Keeffe biographer, told me about a woman tourist who’d walked into a trading post on the rez and tried to start a conversation with a black-haired Navajo woman holding a redheaded baby. Was the father red-haired? the tourist asked “I don’t know,” the mother retorted “He never took off his hat.”
“For us, every day is a thanksgiving day, a prayer in the cycle of life,” Tom observed one time “But for you whites, every day is a slogan ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ ‘The Unco!a’ ‘I’ve just begun to fight.’ ”
Tom had built his hogan with the help of his cousin brothers It was the six-sided “male” hogan with adobe-chinked log walls, a dome-shaped roof of cribbed, mud-smothered logs, and a hole in the center for smoke to exit The door must face east, so you can greet the rising Father Sun.  The woman is the keeper of the hogan She tends a fire for her family If a person dies in the hogan, or if the hogan is struck by lightning, it is abandoned Navajo traditionally live in extended-family compounds known as outfits These days the hogans are mixed with trailers, shacks, and prefab ranch houses. The sheep corrals -of which there are many -are circles of entwined pinons that look like giant crowns of thorn
The converging Canyons de Chelly and Del Muerto are the spiritual heart of Dinetah. According to Navajo legend, they were made by hippopotamus-like creatures wallowing in the mud of what was then a vast quagmire. After the creatures had gouged out the canyons, they sent Hummingbird, who was monument-sized, to see if the walls were dry, which explains why some of them are scored with stuttering parenthetical gashes that look like the imprint of huge wings. The canyons have been inhabited for more than 2,000 years The ruins of long-departed Anasazi are still preserved in scalloped alcoves under the 600-foot-high walls, which are decorated with hundreds of pictographs On one sand stone panel is the masterpiece of some unknown Navajo Michelangelo, a mural portraying a cavalcade of Spanish soldiers in cloaks and flatbrimmed hats, with muskets held aloft -the Narbona expedition of 1805, sent to take care of “the Navajo problem “Ninety Navajo men and 25 women were gunned down by these “caballeros” as they huddled in a cave on the rim of what would become known as the “canyon of death”
The canyons were a focus of resistance in 1863, when General James H Carleton launched a campaign to round up the Navajo Most of the men were killed outright; the women were marched 300 miles to an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, in southeastern New Mexico. Many died on the Long Walk, and many more during the four years they spent in the Place of Confinement Carleton’s idea was that if you took the Navajo “away from their haunts and hills and hiding places” to a reorientation center and “teach their children how to read and write; teach them the arts of peace; teach them the truths of Christianity,” they would become model citizens “Fair Carletonia,” as the camp was called, fell tragically short of its utopian mandate In fact, it became a model for Hitler’s concentration camps.  The leader of the 1863 Navajo campaign was 53-year-old Kit Carson, the renowned Indian fighter This was his last hurrah The Navajos called him “Rope Thrower” because he lassoed them and marched them into captivity By the winter of ’63, Rope Thrower’s tactics had left the People starving. Entering Canyon de Chelly with a detachment of bluecoats, he met fierce resistance from a cult founded by Hashkenneniinii, the Angry One, who thought he could enlist the super
natural being Monster Slayer The Navajo taunted Carson Occasionally they would attack and then scamper up the cliffs using secret handholds Peach orchards were torched; a wrinkled grandmother was shot in the head as she chanted a witchcraft song Finally, the People realized they had to submit The few thousand survivors were released from the Place of Confinement in 1867, including Tom and Sally’s then-12-year-old great-grandfather, Old Gold Tooth From them the People rebounded Now they’re the largest Native American nation in the country.
A lot of the reason for the Navajo’s extraordinary regeneration has to do with their capacity for adaptation, with their cultural fluidity “The Navajo are the beggarly nomads, the sponges of American Indian culture,” a University of Arizona anthropologist told me. “If they saw something good in another culture, they took it They took sheep from the Spaniards and became the greatest sheepherders in the world They took silversmithing and carried it to new artistic levels They took horses and became the preeminent cowboys of the Southwest.”
They also took the rifle and the pickup, the junk food, the TV, and the booze of Anglo culture While juggling these cosmologies, they continued to adhere to the Navajo Way, but many of them stumbled, and stumble. At this point it is no longer accurate to say there is one Navajo culture. There are born-again Navajo, peyote “roadmen,” dope-smoking hippies, gung-ho vets who listen religiously to Rush Limbaugh, heavymetal freaks, even Satanists. Teenage drinking, fetal alcohol syndrome, domestic violence, and infant-mortality rates are all elevated on the rez Five hundred Indians freeze to death or are hit by cars in New Mexico every year. Most of them are drunk, and most of them are Navajo. Somehave been seduced by Anglo values, by what Tom calls “the almighty dollar and the ownership thing.”
Two years ago, I played golf with Albert Hale, then the chairman of the Navajo Nation, who was in Dutch for allegedly taking his secretary to Paris on the tribe’s tab and for playing in a pro-am in Albuquerque He showed up with a large entourage at Pinon Hills, a municipal course in Farmington, Just off the rez Hale was a progressive who had as much in common with Tom as Donald T rump has with the Dalai Lama “The council accused me of wasting Navajo money,” he complained “Our people are very traditional They don’t understand that golf courses are where a lot of business is done and that I was schmoozing corporate types.” He was hoping to get Chi Chi Rodriguez to help build a course at Window Rock, the tribal headquarters. “We need to get everybody to see we are introducing a new game,” he argued “All they know is basketball and rodeo; they see golf as not useful
But golf teaches honesty, discipline, and good ethics It teaches a code”
I observed that the state of mind you need to be in to play optimal golf, the state of harmony with yourself and your surroundings, is not unlike hozho, walking in beauty. Hale told me the Navajo used to playa game where they slapped around a feather-stuffed rawhide ball with a crooked stick Hale had good hand-eye coordination He played golf with zest, spitting on his palms and letting her rip A few days later, I played with Notah Begay, the top Native American golfer, whose father is Navajo. Notah was Tiger Woods’s teammate at Stanford This past summer he shot an almost-inconceivable 59 on the Nike tour He told me that his religion is an important part of his game
On the back nine we were alone in the vastness of the desert steppe
Only the occasional jack rabbit would hop out of the brush and sit motionless along the fairway, frozen with nervous attentiveness From the thirteenth tee, Notah smacked a drive that went forever. The wind took it 380 yards, and as we were walking to it he remarked, “It’s so silent out here it hurts your ears.”