by Roman Bitsuie
NATURAL LAW and NAVAJO RELIGION/WAY OF LIFE
April 21, 1995
For the past two decades a group of Navajo families have been resisting an act of Congress to relocate them from their homes in the center of the Navajo reservation pursuant to the Navajo/Hopi Land Settlement Act. (P.L. 93-531). They have always maintained that moving away from their land would prevent them from practicing their traditional religion and eventually lead to the dissolution of their culture. In 1988, the families who are resisting relocation initiated legal action through Manybeads, et al v. the United States of America, arguing that forced relocation violates their right to the free practice of religion. Because of the inextricable ties that link traditional Navajo religion to the land, it can be argued that forcibly moving these families is outright religious persecution. The challenge that Congress and other officials have faced when dealing with the "land dispute" between the Hopi and Navajo people is the problematic role of religion. In order to understand why so many people do and will continue to resist relocation after more than twenty years of constant pressure, we must come to an understanding of what their religion is.
There is no word in the Navajo language for what we refer to as "religion," defined by Webster's Dictionary as "man's expression of his acknowledgment of the divine." The reason why this word does not exist in their language is simple. their way of expressing acknowledgment of the divine is a way of living. Traditional Navajo religion is not something that can be abstracted from or examined apart from traditional life in general. When traditional life is dissected by Western methods of categorization usually only the rituals and ceremonies are labeled 'religion.' These moments of sacred time, however, are but portion of the all-encompassing world view and philosophy of life that constitute the Navajo idea of 'religion.' The rituals and ceremonies carried out by traditional people are such an integral part of their daily routine that they themselves describe their religion as life itself. Even today, in these modern times, there are many Navajo people who still live in accordance with the traditional religious teachings. This is particularly true for those people living on the "disputed lands" of Black Mesa. These people, who live without many of the conveniences we take for granted (i.e. running water, electricity, paved roads) continue to survive in the harsh desert climate by following the teachings their ancestors have passed down from time immemorial. These teachings, the world view that emerges from them, the ceremonials, and living according to teachings are all what they consider to be 'religion."
While all of the particulars about traditional Navajo religion are so complex that many different anthropologists have written immense volumes on the subject there are a few basic ideas that may seem foreign to our Western, Judeo-Christian way of thinking, yet only require a willingness to understand to recognize their validity. It is natural for us, based on Western rules categorization, to think of religion as something that we can reserve for particular days or places. We tend to divide time and place into spaces that are either sacred or secular. The other division is western religion is based on a system of thought where divine actions take place not according to rules but according to the desire of a Supreme Being. This Supreme Being is essentially unknowable by human beings, who cannot predict or influence what He does. This sets western religion apart from day-to-day life, science, and cause-and-effect reasoning. The traditional Navajo viewpoint, in contrast, does not make such clear cut distinctions as it sees the earth and all that exists in the natural world as manifestations of the sacred.
The traditional teachings explain that the material world is replete with spiritual meaning and significance. This holistic approach to the world implies that all things in life are connected to one another and interact according to a natural order. Navajo religion dictates not only observing this order, but living in accordance with it based on a premise similar to the law we learn in high school physics which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is to say, that the people believe that any disruption they make in the natural order will eventually result in irreparable damage to their environment and themselves. Failing to observe and imitate this universal order is an infraction of natural law, resulting in mental and physical illness for the individual and their family and will ultimately lead to the world's demise. Maintaining this equilibrium is a religious obligation they must meet by living a life that is in balance and harmonious with creation. Thus, the people who live according to the teachings are not so much concerned with a hereafter, but with the here and now, and with keeping themselves and the world in balance for future generations. They truly believe that if they abandon the practice of their religion the Hopi, the Dine and all the world is in danger of destruction perhaps by fire.
In the traditional Navajo view, life is a constant cycle of growth, death and new life, that flows in a circular motion - all things must begin and end at the same point. For instance, a person's umbilical cord is buried at birth and when that person passes away he is return to the Earth the same way. The religious teachings offer a guide for daily living that flows with the cycles of the days and seasons. The teachings say that each quadrant of the day, as well as each season of the year, hold in them specific lessons for living a complete and whole life. Many of the elders continue to live with this ideal in mind. They rise at dawn and offer prayers and corn pollen to the spirits in return for clear thoughts and guidance in the days events. The rest of the day-light hours are intended to be time for building work ethics and responsibility so that one can both take care of their livestock, provide for the family and in turn build self- reliance. They reserve the evening hours for enjoying the fruits of the day's labor and for gathering the family together to strengthen familial bonds. The darkness of night is a time for rest and contemplation of the spiritual realm and the natural order of the universe which humans should strive to imitate. The seasons of the year continue this cycle on a larger scale, as do the phases of one's life.
In addition to the mandate of living in accordance with natural law, Navajo religion is "site-specific" - that is to say the people have particular places which serve as the foci of religious activity. There are sites, including the whole of Navajo territory, that are significant to the entire Nation, as well as to individual clans (extended families). These are places where: an event in sacred history (such as those mentioned in the creation story) took place; people can communicate with the supernatural to ask for protection or healing; medicinal plants or ceremonial materials can be gathered or places where something supernatural occurred. It is because of the ties to these religiously significant places that these families are unable to move to another location with the same kind of ease as nontraditional people.
The land in which the Navajo Nation lives is defined and bound by four sacred mountains and four rivers. Their land within these boundaries is the place they call "Din'e Be keyah," meaning "Navajo land." (the Navajos call themselves the Dine, "the people".) These boundary mountains and everything on the land between them are sacred. According to the traditional teachings, it is only on this land that the creator intended the Dine to live and all that they need to survive would be provided for within its borders. It is here that the people known to us as the Navajos developed the unique culture which defines who they are today. Here is where their history as the Dine began, long before they became the Navajos. Here is where all of the stories of their religious lore took place. This land within the four sacred mountains is their Jerusalem, Mecca or Bethlehem. Din'e Be keyah, like these great religious centers, is truly beloved by the people, yet it is not sufficient for the Navajos to make an occasional pilgrimage to it. Their teachings dictate that they must live on this land and care for it, as well as the plants and animals which were bestowed upon them as gifts from the creator and other the other holy beings.
The story of their genesis, passed down verbally from generation to generation, is at the heart of their religious teachings. The creation story tells of the people's spiritual journey through several 'lower worlds," to emerge onto the site where they now live. Along the way, the people were confronted with disasters resulting from their own wrongdoings such as adultery, corruption and fighting. The effects of these past mistakes were no small disasters. The end result each time was the total destruction of that world. The people had to learn from each mistake and develop methods of cooperation with each other and their neighbors (including members of other nations, such as the Hopi). They also had to learn to make contributions to the community in order to continue their survival as a group. They had to learn to achieve a level of balance within the human society between men and women, just as they perceive the natural order of the universe to be one of balance between the male and female forces of nature. They were offered guidance through this journey by spirit-beings called the Holy People. Those Holy People who aided the people in those early days continue to reside in specific locations around Din'e Be keyah, and are available to aid those who know how and where to communicate with them. These Holy People are not omnipotent deities to be feared or awed, but to be respected and honored because they embody the essence of the natural order, and can help the people to achieve this equilibrium within themselves.
In addition to describing how the Navajo's forebears came to be, the story also explains the methods by which individuals (and families) who have fallen out of balance can return to equilibrium through various ceremonials and rituals. More importantly, however, the teachings explain how not to fall out of balance by respecting all of creation and living with it, rather than in opposition to it or vying for dominion over it, and by respecting the four elements of life and destruction; earth, wind, fire and water. They people also learn that by making daily offerings of corn pollen and prayers to the Holy People at the places where they reside they can continue to maintain balance and harmony.
One of the greatest difficulties for those involved in making the legal decision on this "dispute" has been recognizing that, based on their religious teaching, the traditional Navajo have a very different view of the earth itself from the dominant culture. They believe that the earth, as the source from which all life comes, is the mother of all people and a living being herself. She, like any other person, has organs, which are various geological formations and veins and arteries, which are rivers and streams. If too much of her insides such as water, coal, and other mineral, are removed then she will eventually, yet assuredly, die as would any human whose had their vital organs removed. If, however, the land is cared for and respected properly, it will continue to provide for the people.
With the earth as a spiritual mother, the traditional people see their family as a complicated network that includes the Holy People, the livestock and certain other animals in addition to their human relatives. A Navajo child is incorporated into this network even before birth through a Blessing Way ceremony. After the child is born, the umbilical cord and afterbirth are returned to the earth in a special place around the home site to ensure that the child will nurtured by their spiritual mother for the rest of his or her life. That spot will always be sacred to that child. As that child matures, each phase of his or her growth - the first laugh, the first steps on the earth, puberty and marriage - will all be celebrated through ceremony. Each ceremony prepares them for their role in the community and renews their connections to the family and to the land.
Just as Din'e Be keyah is sacred to the whole of the Navajo Nation, each family's home site and certain areas around the home are sacred. These are places where events in that family's own beginning took place. These are places where the umbilical cords of every child in the family and the bones of every ancestor have been buried for generations. The elders know the places where they can acquire the necessary materials for healing ceremonies and make prayers and offerings to the Holy People. If the people are forced to move away from their land, and thereby denied daily access to the sacred places around their home sites they simply cannot practice their religion freely. If they cannot make the offerings to the holy people on a daily basis, or even in times of dire need, they will be denied the clarity and peace of mind necessary to live out the day. If they cannot ensure the protection of their ancestors bones and their own umbilical cords their connection to their history and familial ties will collapse.
Everything about the way the traditional people live strives to recognize and repeat the order they see in the universe. All of the people, for example once lived in the circular structures now generally reserved for ceremonies. Called a hogan (meaning house) these structures replicate Din'e Be keyah in it's entirety. Just as Dine'tah has four mountains, one in each of the cardinal directions, the hogan has four main post to correspond with each mountain. The door to the hogan faces east, where things begin, and has a fire place in the center, from which life emerges. Safely hidden in each hogan is a 'medicine bundle' containing soil and the sacred minerals from the four boundary mountains. All ceremonies require the use of this re-creation of the Navajo world. Because the families live in widely dispersed unites, ceremonies are crucial for maintaining family bounds. When people are relocated, usually there is no room for, or permits granted to build a hogan. When the ancestral lands are lost, so is the family 'church,' and with it is lost their sense of hope for their own future for that their descendants.
The sheep and livestock hold a central role in traditional Navajo life, and the religious teachings explain that they are gifts from the Holy People that need to be cared for in return for sustenance. The people include the livestock in their thoughts and prayers for their family. The people's relationship with the animals is one of reciprocation, where the animals will provide wealth and sustenance in return for care and protection. The loss of these animals, as with the loss of land, damages the people's sense of pride in themselves and their ability to provide for their families on their own.
In brief, the traditional religion of the Dine', the Navajo people, places everything in an orderly, but complex web of existence. Every aspect has purposes and meaning. Every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect. They see their world as bound by natural markers, and all that exists within these boundaries is intimately related to one another. All life and geological formations are animated and connected by means of life giving holy winds. The same winds that bring life to humans give life to the four sacred mountains and surround each home site. The holy wind like everything else in Din'e Be keyah obeys natural law. For instance when the BIA erected fences on Star Mountain, it resulted in a weakening of a holy wind which originates at that point. The fences cause certain adverse forces to enter the sacred mountain from the north, east and south, literally pinching the source of the holy wind. It was to prevent the disturbance of this holy wind at Star Mountain that a Din'e medicine man attempted to block the fencing with his body, and spent time in jail for his act. All of the animals have their place in the order of the world and have been placed there to serve a purpose explained in the sacred mythology. It is the people's role of to be the stewards of the land and to live in balance with the rest of the creation.
For those who are resisting relocation, leaving the place designated as their home by the creator would also mean that they could not fulfill their duties as caretakers of the land and of their mother earth. Care- taking of the earth is both an obligation to reciprocate the earth's nurturing of the people and a way to maintain the balance of the universal order and the forces that generate and re-generate life. This balance cannot be maintained if they allow the earth's natural state to be disrupted. Not only would they suffer but the continuation of the life process in general would be hindered.
The traditional Navajo religion, like all religions, provides meaning and ascribes value to the lives its adherents. It is their religious teachings that have enabled them to survive in the arid desert land and will, if allowed, will be their path into the future. Their religious obligations to the earth and to their family and community is their purpose of life. All of these things that are important to them spiral back to the land itself. The land is the center of their orientation in experience and the base of their sense of reality and identify. To separate them from it would cause them to lose contact with all that is sacred and holy to them. To force people to live such a life or meaninglessness is religious persecution and a condemnation to a slow death, for believing in and practicing their religion is living. When we recognize the religious persecution is, by definition, the infliction of pain and suffering on a group of people because of their religious beliefs, then there is no doubt that forced relocation is indeed this.
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