The Navajo Way
Men's Journal, November 1998
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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. 

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