When Cultures Clash

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Young Navajo friends of ours have been living in an RV in town this school year so they can attend the local community college. Even RV living differs greatly from their homes on the “rez.” In town, Calvin* and his buddy enjoy electricity, running water, and electric heat (rather than wood-stove heating). They are within walking distance of the bus which whisks them to and from campus. Included in the monthly lot rental is cable TV and internet. (And the internet is not pay as you go, running out before the end of each month!)

Both fellows have appreciated the benefits of town living. However, over time, we have realized they lack fundamental knowledge about how things work in town..

RV living in winter

RV living in winter

Recently, Calvin moved out of the RV with little notice, frustrated at how cold the RV was and at having no running water for more than a week (with frozen pipes.) When my husband arrived a few days later, he soon had the RV toasty warm and had the pipes thawed within a few hours.

What was the difference?

Having grown up with wood heat and a lack of indoor plumbing does not prepare someone for town-living. Throughout the fall, we urged Calvin to put up insulation around the bottom of the RV. We explained a number of times how this “skirting” helps the heater work more effectively and keeps the water pipes from freezing when the weather gets cold.

In back-country Navajo culture, there is no reason to do extra work that is perceived to be unnecessary. Daily living takes enough energy and work. Unfortunately, even though we provided the needed materials, Calvin followed his life-knowledge and never got around to installing the extra insulation. In his world, one just throws more wood in the stove when the weather gets cold. With no skirting around the bottom of the RV, as the temperature plummeted this winter, it became more and more difficult to keep the place heated. Eventually, as we expected, the pipes froze.

Calvin’s perception was that the flaw was in expecting to live in an RV during the winter. He found little connection between the lack of preparations and the eventual consequences. The proposed work was viewed as unneeded—which it certainly would have been in his childhood home. Even similar suggestions, by neighbors who lived year round in their RV, fell on deaf ears.

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

Another clash of cultures occurred in the matter of paying rent. Calvin’s buddy was inconsistent, often choosing to spend extra days at home rather than staying in the RV. He then saw little need to pay for days he didn’t use the RV. He fundamentally did not understand that rent is owed each month for the entire month, regardless of days spent in the property.

Having to consistently pay monthly rent by a certain time was also challenging for the fellows. Few Navajo in outlying areas have any concept of credit, which translates to a lackadaisical attitude about bill-paying. After all, with no concern about a personal credit rating, what is the downside of being late with payments? In addition, having to pay a deposit to move in was a new idea. Putting money ahead of needed use is rarely done in a culture where family “need” trumps personal savings.

We are happy that Calvin is continuing to pursue education at the local community college. We are sorry it didn’t work out for him to continue living in the (low-cost) RV at this point. Sometimes cultural expectations outweigh other considerations…

*name changed to protect privacy

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Notes from Nettie — Guest Post

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Our middle daughter, Janetta Emmelhainz, is currently in China, helping to teach English to 4-6th grade students. She made the following observations in a recent email:

I had an interesting conversation with one of the internationals that’s been here for more than a decade about Native American connections to China.  Apparently there is a specific cultural group of Tibetans (I don’t know which one) that have some very close cultural similarities to the Hopi in the US.  So close that there is actually a matching set of prophecies between the two groups.  In general there are a lot of similarities between Native Americans and native people here, possibly just due to the fact that indigenous people often have similarities in outlook, etc.  There are also theories that the connections come from the migration of native people from Asia to the Americas over the Bering Land Bridge however many centuries ago.  I was amused at how comfortable it was to have so many native looking people around me as I walked down the street.  The Tibetans, especially the more elderly ones, look very similar to the Navajo and other groups that I saw a lot around New Mexico and Arizona in the last few years.  I haven’t spent nearly as much time with the Navajo as my parents have but I have still apparently grown used to being surrounded by more than just white people!

"Cousin-Brothers" -- Kevin (on the left) is fully part of the Salazar Family, but not by birth

“Cousin-Brothers” — Kevin (on the left) is fully part of the Salazar Family, but not by birth

The other random thing that connected the Navajo to the Chinese was the idea of Cousin-brothers!  For the Navajo cousin-brothers comes mostly out of the matrilineal structure to their families–cousins on the mother’s side are connected because of the matriarch and matter more because of it.  Often cousins are even raised together.  The Navajo don’t differentiate between first and second cousins, or even cousins and brothers, because the distance really doesn’t matter as long as you are still considered in the same family group.  The reasoning is different in China, but here cousins are called brothers as well.  Because of the one-child rule there have been very few siblings in Han Chinese families in the last 50 years.  Therefore cousins were often as close as siblings.  So, they’re cousin-brothers.

Another School Shooting?

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This is something that has infuriated me over the years. When something tragic happens in a suburban school, people from around the country rally in support of the community. At the time of the Columbine shooting, young Cambodian friends of ours had not-too-long-earlier had to deal with shootings in their neighborhood which killed friends and family with no acknowledgement or support from the outside world.

Working with families and students in the Lybrook area of Navajoland was devastating at times. Far too often we saw first-hand the results of beatings, of abandonment, of neglect, of abuse. I’ve written occasionally on this blog about some of the bigger tragedies in the community. But where is the outpouring of support? Where is the free counseling? Where is the money and the prayers and the encouraging notes…for the adults choosing to work with these families and for the children themselves?

There was another school shooting this week. But it hardly merited comment. Perhaps that was because it might have been gang related. Perhaps it is because it happened in a school that has metal detectors at the doors. Perhaps it is because we can’t acknowledge the violence faced by thousands upon thousands of children every day in this country. Perhaps that is just too hard to think about when it makes us feel too helpless.

Discussing and debating laws and regulations won’t change lives.

Our family is no longer living and working in Navajoland. But a piece of our hearts is still there, suffering and celebrating with our friends. Concerned for the children we know who are trying to raise themselves and their siblings with no stable adults around them.

I wish I knew what WE could do about such callousness in our country. And I wish there was some way to set hearts on fire so that each and every one of us would rise up in outrage at these tragedies, insisting that things MUST change for the “least of these,” for children who are precious in the sight of our Saviour…

I read a few blogs written by families who are doing what they can to stand in the gap for needy children. One of these summarized that life well today:

And the truth of the matter is that the cracks aren’t very comfortable. They’re dark, and kind of squishy, and supremely lonely. We’ve been having trouble recruiting mentors, which has given me a bad attitude and made me feel a little despondent and frustrated. Like why in the world are we the only ones here? Where are all the other people who love Jesus?

But when I get in that place, when I get overwhelmed by the darkness, by the storm that so often surrounds us here, it usually means I have taken my eyes off of Jesus. Because here’s the thing about cracks: they let the light shine through. So even when they feel broken, and dark, and even a little scary, I am learning that standing in the gap for “the least of these” means we bear the great privilege and responsibility of being a fissure for Christ’s love to seep through.

I challenge each one of us to step outside our comfort zone. To reach out and help someone who is in a difficult situation. To speak up for the children. Discussing and debating laws and regulations won’t change lives. Making time to spend regularly with one or two of these children could make a huge difference. Jumping into the “trenches” with a family who is working with little ones in tragic situations, trying hard to understand what that life is really like, and encouraging those workers can make a difference.

The real question is: are we willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable? Are we willing to be stretched outside our “normal”? When will we react with as much shock and horror to the devastating lives of the poor as we do to tragedies among the well-to-do?

(If you are interested, you can read more from the above blogger HERE)

Some Navajo Cultural Elements (Guest Post #21)

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This is the final guest post written by a visiting anthropology student. You can read more about the author and his goals HERE. As a side-note from Jill–the topics in this post are definitely still part of the heritage of the Navajo people. A few families in the Lybrook area still follow traditional ways, including using the Navajo language in the home and teaching these traditional values to their children. However, the great majority of students at Lybrook School (approx. 100 students) no longer hold these values and learn about these topics through Bilingual class at the public school rather than from their parents.

Mountains. One of the attractions in Northwest New Mexico is big mountains and mesas. Mountains, because of their higher elevation, are greener than the surrounding areas. As I have more knowledge of Navajo people, I find that mountains are an important element in Navajo culture. Four sacred mountains in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona are the boundaries of Navajoland: Blanca Peak (east), Mount Taylor (south), San Francisco Peaks (west) and Hesperus Mountain (north). According to Kahn-John (2010), “Din’e  relationship with geography is vital because this relationship provides a sense of stability, safety, confidence, and connection to Mother Earth and the sacred lands of the Din’e” (see note).

(map from the Navajo Nation)

(map from the Navajo Nation)

Clan. A Navajo man told me that the clan was important in Navajo society, and that people tended to identify themselves based on their clan wherever they went. His words reminded me of the Eurasian nomads, among which the clan is also a basic concept organizing social relations. The difference is that Navajo clan is matrilineal. Individually, Navajo people identify themselves based on the four clans they belong to, in the order of mother’s, father’s, maternal grandfather’s and paternal grandfather’s clan. There were four original clans, and then some disappeared and some others were created (Csordas 1999). The new ones show the fact that non-Navajo peoples became a member of Navajo society (Csordas 1999).

Harmony. Harmony is an important concept for Navajo people. According to Haskan (2007), “They have a strong belief in harmony and balance mentally, physically, socially, spiritually.” In introducing traditional Navajo culture, Quintero (1997) states that “Traditional values center around living a balanced, harmonious life in a world that is at once natural, social, and supernatural.” The concept of harmony corresponds to scholars’ view that Native people tend toward understanding the world from a holistic perspective (White 1998).

Note: Din’e means “people” in Navajo language, and is what Navajo people call themselves.

 

References:

Csordas, Thomas. 1999. Ritual Healing and the Politics of Identity in Contemporary Navajo Society. American Ethnologist 26 (1): 3-23

Haskan, Melanie Lee. 2007. How the No Child Left Behind Act Impacted Bilingual Education in a Rural School with Navajo Students. Ph.D Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.

Kahn-John, Michelle. 2010. Concept Analysis of Din´e H´ozh´o: A Din´e Wellness Philosophy. Advances in Nursing Science 33 (2): 113–125

Quintero, Gilbert. 1997. The Discourse on Drinking in Navajo Society. Ph.D Dissertation, University of Arizona.

White, Kalvin G. 1998. Navajo Adolescent Cultural Identity and Depression. Ph.D Dissertation, The University of Utah.

Drinking Among Navajo People (Guest Post #20)

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This is post number 20 in a series of guest posts written by a visiting anthropology student. You can read more about the author and these posts HERE.

Drinking is one of the first things I got to know about Navajo people right after I came to Navajo land. Randy and Jill have talked a lot about the consequences of drinking, generally car accidents. We touched upon the topics such as the genetic influence, cultural traditions and Navajo people’s world views. Much of what we have discussed is sporadic and lacks depth. I felt so especially after I read a scholarly research on Navajo drinking.

Quintero’s study (1997), conducted in the mid-1990s, provides a comprehensive analysis on Navajo drinking from local people’s perspective. By focusing on the narratives of Navajo people about their experience with or without drinking, this study investigates issues such as how and when Navajo people began drinking, how drinking behavior changed during one’s lifetime, what Navajo people’s attitudes to drinking are, and what the alcohol abuse treatment’s effects are, etc.

The author reveals that most people started drinking as an adolescent, as a result of socialization and growing up. Family is an important factor for the start of drinking behavior. The author emphasizes that drinking behavior changes during one’s lifetime due to various reasons such as consideration for children and family, health, religion. This study illustrates that there was a trend that problems associated with drinking happen at an earlier age among younger generations. According to the author, Navajo people consider drinking to have contributed to the decline of ethics. This study also investigates the cultural factors that affected the abandonment of alcohol use when people were older.

As to treatment programs, the author argues that the effects are not clear since people tend to change their drinking behavior while they are getting old, and that the label of sickness associated with drinking suggested in the treatment programs may negatively affect people’s psychology. In critiquing the theories that consider Navajo drinking as problematic for social change, this study emphasizes the social and cultural mechanisms that help control drinking.

Reference:

Quintero, Gilbert. 1997. The Discourse on Drinking in Navajo Society. Ph.D Dissertation, University of Arizona.

(Note from Jill–although I haven’t read the referenced dissertation, I disagree with his conclusions as portrayed in this post in two respects. From what we have heard from “elderlies” in the community, there USED to be more effective social and cultural mechanisms that helped to control drinking. Today most family members throw their hands up helplessly and bemoan the deaths and violence caused by alcohol but state very clearly that nothing can be done about it. Second, we experienced first hand that often the older people who talked with pride about “being on the sobriety road” were actually drunk on numerous days per week. Navajo are very good at giving the expected answer in conversation. I know that we heard occasional joking among Navajo friends who had given nonsense information to outsiders who then believed that erroneous information. The Navajo saw this as a joke, not as something to be concerned about or something to be corrected. It seems to me that this might well have happened to the researcher who wrote the dissertation.)

(I have written a number of posts about our observations of drinking among local Navajo. You can see two of these posts HERE and HERE.)

Navajo Families

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On Monday we had a guest post which talked about population statistics and about traditional values regarding families in Navajoland.

Like most places in the United States, what was traditional 50 or 100 years ago has seen significant changes with the advent of television, computer, and exposure to the wider culture. Dependence on aid from outsiders and from the government has also tended to weaken traditional family values.

The following comments are based on our personal experience of living and working in Navajoland, not on any formal or academic studies. We had exposure to a variety of families through our work in the public school. We also developed friendships with a number of Navajo individuals and families.

One piece of traditional Navajo culture is still strong: self-identity is based on the maternal line. The mother’s clan is the most important and the first one listed when talking about one’s clans. The mother’s sisters are called the “little mother” and are considered as close as one’s own mother. The mother’s brothers are still often more important that the child’s actual father.

3 Generations of Navajo Women

3 Generations of Navajo Women

Unfortunately with the high prevalence of both alcohol and teen pregnancy, nowadays children are most often raised by single mothers. Sometimes there is a “revolving door” of men who come and go from the family home, giving short-term companionship to the mother and holding temporary step-father status. Most often, with a single mom, the children are partially (or entirely) raised by the mother’s parents. It seems that by the time they become grandparents (often in their 30s) friends we know finally stopped partying and took child-raising (for their grandchildren) seriously.

Some of the families we know have only 1 or at most 2 children. But other families have 4-6 children. In many cases, the larger families have parents that are still together.

Another difference between Navajo culture and mainstream American culture is the different focus on “family.” In the Lybrook area, most people we know live in a “camp” with extended family members. Some might see it as a contradiction that there is a single-minded focus on “my family” to the exclusion of anyone else outside of that family. At the same time, “my family” includes a much wider range of relatives than in Anglo culture. It might well number in the hundreds! This can, at times, become a drain on resources when someone is pressured to help their “family” regardless of the cost to themselves or their immediate family.

The Groom's Immediate Family at a Wedding (Summer 2012)

The Groom’s Immediate Family at a Wedding (Summer 2012)

In a future post I will talk about the changing roles of women in the culture. With their focus on the women being the ones to hold the society together, these changing roles have wide-spread impact on Navajo society today.

Demographics of Navajo People (Guest Post #19)

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This is number 19 in a series of Guest Posts by a visiting anthropology student. You can read more about these posts HERE. This post is a little more scholarly than most of these posts have been. On Friday, I will put up my very non-scholarly musings on what we observed of Navajo families. You can see that post HERE.

From my communication with Navajo people here, I conclude that currently, in this area, a typical household has more than two children, and probably much more than that. I want to know how Navajo population has been changing in relation to the overall population of the United States. The assumption is that if the Navajo population has been increasing at a faster pace than that of the United States, its influence on American society should be increasing.

My method is to compare the Navajo population to the US population at three time points: 1990, 2000 and 2010, in order to know the relative change in Navajo population versus the US. My data is both from secondary sources of scholarly study and US Census Bureau. The data are slightly different from each other. It should be noted that there are two sets of statistical data. One is about the total Navajo population in the US, and the other the population of Navajo Nation which geographically includes part of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The following data is from scholarly studies. According to US Census 1990 (Quintero 1997), the Navajo population was above 225,000. White’s study (1998) shows that the population of Navajo Nation in 1990 was 151,105 according to the US Census. National Center for Educational Statistics 2000 data show that the Navajo Nation population was 181,270 (Haskan 2007). Washington and Hover’s study (2011) shows that the Navajo population in the whole country was 298,215 based on the 2000 Census. According to the Navajo tribe’s census office, the population of Navajo Nation was 300,048 in 2010 (Donovan 2011).

My own search of US Census Bureau website yield slightly different data. The total Navajo population is 225,298 in 1990, 298,197 in 2000 and 332,129 in 2010. The total US population is 248,709,873 in 1990, 281,421,906 in 2000 and 308,745,538 in 2010. Even though there is difference between the above figures, it does not affect the ratio of Navajo population to the US population substantially. We get the ratio of Navajo population to the total US population. It is 0.091% in 1990, 0.11% in 2000 and 0.11% in 2010. For the ratio of Navajo Nation population to the US population, it is 0.061% in 1990, 0.064% in 2000 and 0.097% in 2010.

The trend is that both the Navajo population and Navajo Nation population have been increasing relative to the US population from 1990 to 2010. In recent years, however, the increase rate of Navajo population to the US population seems to have slowed down. For Navajo Nation, the increase rate has been accelerated. Further research is needed to understand the causes of total Navajo population and Navajo Nation population changes, so is the complications of the changes for Navajo and the US society.

References:

Donovan, Bill. 2011. Census: Navajo Enrollment Tops 300,000. Navajo Times. http://navajotimes.com/news/2011/0711/070711census.php

Haskan, Melanie Lee. 2007. How the No Child Left Behind Act Impacted Bilingual Education in a Rural School with Navajo Students. Ph.D Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.

Quintero, Gilbert. 1997. The Discourse on Drinking in Navajo Society. Ph.D Dissertation, University of Arizona.

US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/

Washington, Elizabeth and Stephanie Hover. 2011. Diné Bikéya: Teaching about Navajo Citizenship and Sovereignty. The Social Studies 102(2): 80-87.

White, Kalvin G. 1998. Navajo Adolescent Cultural Identity and Depression. Ph.D Dissertation, The University of Utah.

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