The Navajo Way, Page 2
Men's Journal, November 1998
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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."

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