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.



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.

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.

Mobility of Navajo People (Guest Post #15)

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This is #15 in a series of guest posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read an introduction to these posts and to the author HERE.

By mobility, I mean in either a geographic or social sense, as in many circumstances they were interrelated. From what I have communicated with Navajo people, I believe many of them have the chance to move beyond the place in which they are raised. I once asked a naive question about where Navajo people lived in the country. The answer was that Navajo people were everywhere.

At one party in a Navajo house, I met a guy who had the experience of living in New York state. His experience was quite interesting and unique. The reason why he went to New York was that he ran away from home when he was a teenager. I regret not to have asked why he ran away. He ended up going to high school there. He told me that he once drove from New York to the south with his friends. I do not know what kind of work he does now. His case, however, shows that there can be different reasons to leave their familiar places and people.

Another person used to have a job in Albuquerque. He had the training and the certificate for the job. He received high school education, but probably did not go to college. He had held that job for a long time. Only this year did he lose his job, probably because of the general economic downturn. I did not have a chance to ask how important that job was to him. Anyway, there are more opportunities in Albuquerque than in the Lybrook area.

I talked with a woman who was a teacher in a nearby town. She received both undergraduate and graduate education. Her case is not common in that most people do not have higher education. The school where she works is not far from her home. From what we communicated, I suppose she did not want to be away from her home. I have no idea how strong Navajo people attach to their home place in the wider culture. The people I have talked to, however, seem to show strong connection with their homes.

Another kind of mobility is related to marriage. According to Jill and from my communication with Navajo people, Navajo marriage is exogamous, by which I mean they accept a person from a different ethnic and cultural background. So when this happens, relocation might follow. However, this might lead to the change or loss of traditional culture.  [Note from Jill: in our experience, marriage by Navajo with “outsiders” almost always means the couple remains near family in Navajoland rather than the couple moving elsewhere.]

It is interesting to know people have some opportunities of moving in this relatively isolated land. I would like to raise this general question: what factors affect people’s decision-making when facing a choice of moving? Economic issues must be a factor, but I would like to stress the  social and cultural ones; although to have a more in-depth understanding would need further exploration.

Culture Day

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This past Friday most of the students and staff from Lybrook School traveled up to Gallina for the Jemez Mountain School District’s CULTURE DAY. Much of the district is Chicano (some of whose families came to New Mexico 300-400 years ago!) so the date is always the closest Friday to Cinco de Mayo. Students come from other ethnic groups as well, so this day is meant to celebrate the heritage of the various groups of students in the 3 schools in the district.

After the program, there were a variety of food booths, and info booths outside. Students had fun milling around, trying a variety of activities (such as a fun maze, and hula-hooping) and eating lots and lots of JUNK food 🙂

Here are photos of some of the most interesting dances from the program:

eagle dancers

Eagle Dancers — traditional Pueblo Indian dance

eagle dance drummers

Drummers for the Eagle Dancers — the older man started this internationally recognized group many years ago to keep teens from drinking.

Eagle Chick

Isn’t this Eagle Chick adorable?!

los viejos

Kindergartners dancing as “Los Viejos” (the old ones) were quite entertaining!

latino dances

I always love the energy of Latino Dancing…no matter where I see it.

walk in beauty

Lybrook 1st Graders signed the words to “Walk in Beauty”

ribbon dance 1

Lybrook 2nd Graders perform the Ribbon Dance

ribbon dance 2

Another view of the Ribbon Dance

basket dance

Lybrook 3rd Graders perform the Basket Dance


Our oh-so-Anglo, oh-so-white daughter joined her 4th grade class in singing “The Four Sacred Mountains”

A Rolling Party…

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We recently learned more about why so many of our Navajo friends have repeat DUIs. It has somewhat baffled us as to why Navajo who live way back on dirt roads where police never drive would choose to get in a vehicle and go for a drive rather than just staying at home to drink in relative “safety.”

party locationOne of my woman friends told me the story of her now-sober husband’s wild partying days. He had a favorite sports car that was his pride and joy. Whenever he got his hands on money, he would jump in his car, head to the nearest carryout to get some beer, and get the party rolling.

Turns out the drinking is often a moving party—someone drives to a buddy’s home and pounds on the door until the buddy comes out and gets in the car. They wander merrily along, drinking and getting silly, as they drive from home to home, packing the car full of friends who are happy to add to the stash of beer and join in the partying.

Ahhh…no wonder there are so many DUIs…the drinking more often occurs in the setting of a vehicle than it does in an anglo-style-party-at-home. This pattern also makes it much more difficult for Navajo who wish to quit drinking. They can’t merely choose to stay away from the party when the party will eventually end up at their door with friends pounding insistently and demanding that all the usual participants need to come along for the ride.

As I have said before, officers from the various police departments are reluctant to get off the main highway and drive on the dirt roads. It might seem logical that the rolling drinking parties would just drive around on the network of back roads. However, to stock up on more alcohol, they usually need to get on the highway to get to a carryout that sells more beer. That, of course, involves drunk driving on the very roads patrolled by the police.

In addition, in the midst of drunken “good ideas,” someone often decides they should drive all the way to town to recruit some buddy who is visiting friends there. With no sober mind to raise objections, the moving party is soon headed at high speed down the highway toward town. And this is when the party often turns tragic—either ending in jail time, felony DUI, or even death.

One more piece in a perplexing puzzle…

Casinos and Religion Don’t Mix

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There are a number of casinos within a few hours of here. These provide jobs to some people we know. Unfortunately, as often happens, these casinos seem to hinder more than help the people around us who are jobless and live in poverty. Far too often, we hear about money set aside for clothes or special food for the children being squandered in the casinos.

Our pastor at church occasionally reminds the congregation that we need to be trusting GOD to provide for us, not wasting money on lottery tickets or at the casino, hoping for a windfall that will provide for needs and wants.

We heard a funny story showing why religion and casinos don’t mix: there is a Navajo fellow whose job it is to repair the slot machines whenever they break down. A few of the machines weren’t working right. He ended up taking them apart to figure out the problem. Once the machines were opened up, he discovered a strange sludge gumming up the moving parts. As he started cleaning out the machine, he realized the sludge was a mixture of oil and corn pollen.

Apparently, Christians who had been playing the slots had been anointing the machine with holy oil, asking God’s favor. And, Navajo following their traditional beliefs had been anointing the same machines with corn pollen, asking their gods to give them favor at the machines.

Perhaps the Casinos should put up a big sign at the entrance: religious people go home and trust your own God(s) to provide for you!! In this case it would save both the casinos and the gamblers money!

There’s Something “Wrong” With Him…

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group playWhen I chaperoned science fair winners from our local K-8th Public School to the district competition last month, we had a long waiting period. Most of our Navajo students stuck close together—piling together onto a bench to talk, or huddled together to play board games. My daughter went to the side of the room, choosing alone time to deal with her nervousness. None of the Navajo students commented on that. However, one of the young Navajo students also chose solitude. He played a board game…by himself. He looked through a book…by himself. Others tried to join him which he just ignored. They tried to include him in their conversation—ignored again.

Over the hours we were waiting, each of the other Navajo students came to me to express their concern about Noah. “There’s something WRONG with him…” “Why is he so unhappy?” (while he was laughing to himself as he played both sides of the solitary board game.) “You need to help Noah…”

As we get more and more involved at the local K-8th Public School, we see a problem looming large for our Navajo students. This particular piece of Navajo culture causes difficulties for anyone negotiating the Anglo world. As students progress to higher levels, this preference for being surrounded by a group will cause major problems in the educational arena.

Introvert—Extrovert; Navajo—Anglo … On the one hand, cultures hold different values and that’s okay. On the other hand, when people from one culture need to interact with those from another culture, especially when the positions of power and the rule-makers are from the second culture, problems often loom large. When values clash, all too often those in the minority culture feel that they are disrespected and that they are victims.

We struggle to understand the Navajo preference for doing everything in a group. They may be silent in that group, but we rarely see Navajo alone. When Granny needs to go to the clinic for a cough, the adults in the family call in sick to work, children get pulled out of school, and everyone piles into the car to accompany Granny. When someone takes a coffee break, others need to join them. The same holds true for walking to the bathroom—it can only be done with a group.

Students in our tutoring groups do an excellent job of finishing assignments when they work in a group (with one student doing most of the work, then giving the answers to the others). When asked to work individually, most of them fail miserably. We have tried challenging the copy-ers to step up to responsibilities and do their own work. We have tried challenging the answer-givers to keep their papers protected from prying eyes. Nothing seems to change the dynamic.

When we ask more questions, the students are baffled by our concern. They are adamant that it is the social responsibility of the stronger ones to help the weak ones. They generally dislike competition—working together is a highly held value. They get worried and stressed when they are expected to do things or go places alone.

Our concern is that when they finish middle school here in Navajoland where group-behavior is accepted, they will head to high school in the Anglo dominated world. Although group work is sometimes assigned in the Anglo world, most homework and tests are expected to be completed individually. Plagiarism is often punished with suspension. How can we effectively communicate this to children who are surrounded with the highly-held value of “group-think” and group behavior?

solitary noahWe are wrestling with how to respond to this clash of cultures. We are struggling to know how to best help the students we are working with.

I keep hearing an echo in my head…”There’s something wrong with him…you have to help him.”

And who defines how we should “help”??

Full of Wisdom

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In Navajo tradition, long hair is a symbol of wisdom. It was believed that if you left your hair loose and flowing, your wisdom would flow away from you. It was also believed that if you ever cut your hair, you were cutting off your wisdom.

This may sound silly to many of us today. But these old, traditional beliefs still affect many of my Navajo friends. Even those who are strong, committed Christians and have turned away from traditional beliefs and rituals still hear echoes of these ideas.

Treasure your "wisdom" -- don't cut it off!

Many of the “grandmas” in the church (and in the community) keep their hair twisted up. Even if they no longer use the traditional string to tie a specific style of bun, they often keep their hair in a clip. I have asked a few grandmas why they wear their hair the way they do. Usually they reply that it is just the way they have always worn it. Or they answer that they feel more comfortable that way. It no longer seems to be tied to traditions…but it is still part of their identity.

My friend “Raeanne” has been fighting breast cancer for the past few years. She has a pretty, round face and curvy figure. Her chin-length bob hair style is adorable…and to my eye, fits her personality perfectly. However, I’ve learned that Raeanne can no longer bear to look in the mirror. Since her hair fell out from chemo and she bought this wig, she feels guilty. Whenever she sees how short her natural hair it, she hears her grandmother admonishing her as a child to never cut her hair. To glory in long hair that shows her wisdom. To value the wisdom she has gathered through years of living by valuing the long hair that symbolizes that wisdom. Today, when Raeanne looks in the mirror, she mourns not just the cancer that continues to ravage her body, but she mourns her loss of wisdom.

There are many in the community today who have chosen the freedom of short hair. But there are many more who still value traditions. Their long hair is a beautiful symbol of the life they have lived and the wisdom they have gained.

Death and Dying…Dilemmas

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Traditionally Navajo wanted nothing to do with death. They would abandon the house where a person had died. They preferred to avoid dead bodies including after the person was buried. Over the years, it became a significant ministry for “belaganas” (outsiders) to provide burial services and cemeteries

Once a loved one was buried in the cemetery, most Navajo had nothing further to do with that location. Often, they refused to even go to the cemetery for the burial.

Over time, this has changed. As I’ve written in other posts, the family often participates in throwing dirt onto the coffin; the pall-bearers finish shoveling the dirt into the grave; and the family carefully arranges flowers on top of the mound of dirt. Some family members take time each Memorial Day to clean up the gravesites.

Here in New Mexico, we also see many road-side “shrines” – memorials to family members who have died in car accidents. This is a frequent cause of death around here…and there are many such memorials beside all the roads we travel. I’m certain there are no burials at these “shrines,” but they are lovingly tended. Some families even change the decorations with the seasons. Perhaps this is a way to remember beloved family members who have died, without the extra stress of traditional taboos about being near burial sites.

Although many Navajo have become comfortable with Anglo-style funerals and burials, at each funeral we have attended, there are still Navajo who are traditional enough that they will not go near the grave/cemetery. We recently heard a story from Christian friends about how this tradition is ripping apart their family:

When Ronnie’s mother was dying, family members urged him to take her back to her house to die. Even his mother wanted him to listen to the others. However, Ronnie and Ethel felt strongly that they wanted his mother to be loved and supported by them all the way until the end. They chose to keep his mother in their home until she died.

This caused no dilemmas for them. They felt this was a way to honor Ronnie’s mother. As Christians, they no longer feared death nor feared the dead one would return as an evil spirit to haunt them.

However, more traditional family members were horrified. To placate them, Ronnie and Ethel said prayers over their home and had it purified. Still other family members were unhappy. To this day, those traditional relatives will not set foot on Ronnie’s property. They are even unhappy to spend time around Ronnie and Ethel, no matter where the meeting is held.

Ronnie and Ethel are not sure how they should react to this. Which value system should “win”? Should they put family first (as valued by Navajo culture) and try to find a way to move to a new home? Would this be giving in to traditional culture in a way that is counter to Christianity?

Hard questions to which we have no answers…

So…we listen.

We don’t have to face such culture-clashes in our own, more sheltered lives…