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Front Page » March 25, 2014 » Scene » Historical Society learns of Navajo traditions
Published 179 days ago

Historical Society learns of Navajo traditions


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By Phil Fauver
staff writer

The Customs and Culture of the Navajo People was presented at the Emery County Historical Society meeting by the Emery County Archive Director Shirley Begay. Susanne Anderson welcomed the large audience and announced some of the planned up coming events. Anderson asked the former Emery County Archive Director Dottie Grimes to introduce Shirley Begay and her husband Joe Begay.

Grimes started out by saying the Begay family is probably one of the most beloved families in our county. They live in Castle Dale, have five adult children, three girls and two boys. Joe Begay works as a Control Operator at the Hunter Power Plant. Shirley was previously the Director of the Castle Dale Senior Citizens Program before becoming the Director of the Emery County Archives.

Both Joe and Shirley Begay are members of the Navajo Nation. Joe is from Arizona and Shirley is from New Mexico. They were both part of the Indian placement program sponsored by the LDS Church. When they had children at home Shirley and Joe would always have a Navajo Taco booth at the Emery County Fair.

Shirley and Joe Begay arrived for their presentation wearing Native Navajo costumes.

Shirley's daughter Joleen Romo explained the traditional way Navajo's introduce themselves by telling who you are, who your mother is and who is your mothers Clan. Then tell of your father and your fathers clan.

Romo's daughters, introduced themselves and sang a song about a little puppy in their Navajo language.

Shirley began the presentation by explaining some of the Navajo language customs, such as the greeting Yaahteeh, meaning Hello, Welcome it is good. Shirley went on to explain some of the language in the following example.

Shik' ie Doo Shidine' e' (My family, my people, my friends.) Shirley Begay Yinishye' (My name is Shirley Begay.) Tsi' naajinnii nishli' (I am of the Black Streaked Wood People Clan.) Dibelizhini ei' Bashizchiin (Born for the Black Sheep Clan.) You would also include your mother's father's clan and your father's father's clan. Akot' eego Dine' asdzsaan nishli (In this way I am a Navajo woman.) Ahe hee' Thank you! I am grateful!

When a Navajo person makes an introduction, the mother's clan will be mentioned first and then the father's clan. The child will be of the mother's clan and born for the father's clan. The maternal and the paternal grandfather's clan impact upon the child's identity. The clanship system also impacts on different ceremonial doings and through this identity, the community is able to provide assistance to their clan relatives. The clan system is structured, resulting in the mother's clan being carried forward always, whereas the father's clan cycles out after two generations. Navajo is a matrilineal society. Property descends through the female line. Navajo women stand at the center of the great circle of life. Their capacity to bring forth new life is essential, giving them a position of equality and respect. Gender roles for Navajo women are different than the common main stream American women. Navajo women consider themselves "part of " rather than "dependent upon".

There are four original clans: Kinyaa' aanii (Towering house clan,) To ahani (Near the water clan,) Todich' iinii (Bitter water clan,) and Hashtl ishnii (Mud clan.)

Our clan system controls our life. It plays a critical role in our behavior, personality, belief, and values. It controls a persons mate selection. This clanship is the core of our self-identity. The Navajo kinship system is the strength of the people. It keeps the people together.

The Dine' (the people) relate to the land as their mother. We believe that we are an extension of mother earth, and we are also a part of her beauty. Because of this belief the Dine treat the land with the utmost respect. Dine' perceive the universe as an all inclusive whole in which everything has its own place, a unique and beneficial relationship to all other living things. Humans, animals, plants and mountains are made to be in harmony with the universe.

As a Dine people we are taught to "Walk in Beauty" or Hozho. It is the essence of Navajo philosophy. It is how you live a proper life: it means order, harmony, blessedness, pleasantness, everything that is good, everything that is favorable to mankind, this being the overall goal to which everyone and everything should strive.

The Navajo Nation extends into the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, covering over 27,000 square miles. The Navajo Reservation is home to more than a dozen national monuments, Navajo Tribal Parks and historical sites. The Navajo Nation is always working to secure the future of its cultural heritage. The Navajo language is now taught in schools and is still spoken exclusively in prayers, songs, religious ceremonies and government meetings.

Dine' Bikeyah or Navajoland is larger than 10 of the 50 states in America. This land is unique because the people have achieved something quite rare: the indigenous people blend both traditional and modern ways of life.

Each morning we pray to the East, the South, the West and to the North. The four sacred mountains that hold our land, the land that sustains us. The Navajos believe that their creator placed them between four mountains. These mountains represent the major parts of the traditional Navajo religious belief, helping us to live in harmony with nature and our creator. The four sacred mountains are: Tsisnaasjini' Dawn or White Shell, Sacred Mtn of the East, Mt. Blanca (Near Alamosa in San Luis Valley, Colorado,) Tsoodzil, Blue Bead or Turquoise, Sacred Mtn of the South. Mt Taylor (North of Laguna, New Mexico,) Doko' oosliid, Abalone Shell, Sacred Mtn of the West. San Francisco Peaks (near Flagstaff Arizona.)

Dibe Nitsaa, Obsidian, Sacred Mtn of the North, La Plata Mtn Colorado.

Today the Navajo Nation Government is striving to sustain a viable economy for an ever increasing population that now surpasses 250,000. The discovery of oil on Navajoland in the early 1920's promoted the need for a more systematic form of government. In 1923 a tribal government was established to help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration. The Navajo Government has evolved the largest and most sophisticated form of American Indian Government. The current President of the Navajo Nation is Ben Shelly and the Vice President is Rex Lee Jim.

The Navajo Nation Tribal headquarters is at Window Rock Arizona. The Navajo Nation has a Great Seal and a Navajo Nation Flag. The Navajo Hogan is built in harmony with the universe and all living creatures on earth. The roof is in likeness of the sky. The walls are in the likeness of the Navajo's surroundings: the upward position of the mountains, hills and trees. And the floor is ever in touch with "earth mother". (Joe Begay said it is a dirt floor and never has to be vacuumed. He also explained in hot weather water can be sprinkled on the floor to cool the Hogan.) The sun is in the center as the fire. Consistent with this harmony are prayers, songs, ideas and plans, a desire for all good things. Fire, water, air and soil are required for the existence of every living thing, plants as well as animals; they all become a part of home and its harmony with the universe.

When the Hogan is finished a medicine man blesses the home in beauty, with happiness in all directions, from the earth and sky, with protection from illnesses and all things evil, with the promise of shelter to the family and anyone in need. The Hogan is a sacred dwelling. It is the shelter of the people of the earth, a protection and a refuge. Because of the harmony in which the Hogan is built, the family can be together to endure hardships and grow as a part of the harmony between the sacred mountains, under the care of "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky."

Shirley showed the group photos of the inside of a Hogan. She also showed modern Hogans all of which were made round similar to the original. There was a photo of the Cha' a ooh which was an outdoor bower type structure or shelter for summer cooking.

Ts'aa, the Wedding basket visually reinforces the Navajo concept of the world as a place of beauty and harmony. The design and sequence of the spiraling outward from the center place, recounts the stories of creation and emergence into this fourth world. The Ts'aa is made of woven of strips of dried and died yucca and devil's claw carefully wrapped around bundled grass of yucca strips. Producing a single Ts'aa can take months of difficult labor. The balance of the components and how they line up when finished is essential. The weaving must be uniformly tight and carefully planned. Because of this it takes many years of practice to master. This is one of the most endangered of the indigenous arts of the Navajo. In addition, the natural plants used are becoming rare in certain areas, making gathering a difficult chore. These days it is not uncommon to see imported copies passed off as authentic baskets.

Traditionally our ancestors practiced arranged marriages. The parents of a young woman and a young man would make the decision about who they should marry. This is where the clan system becomes important information (to avoid marrying a close relative.) The parents on both sides would get together and determine a "bride price" to be paid, such as a certain number of horses or other livestock. In return the bride's family would cook and put on a feast for the family of the groom at the wedding.

Shirley described a Navajo Wedding held in a Hogan. The bride and groom face East with the wedding vase and the wedding basket in front of them. The family of the groom is allowed to enter first. When they are all seated, the brides family enters and is seated. The ceremony is conducted by a medicine man. The bride and groom wash their hands with water from the wedding vase. This signals a purification for the beginning of a new life together. With songs, prayers and a blessing from the medicine man, he (the medicine man) uses pollen and makes lines from the East to the center, from the West to the center, from the South to the center and from the North to the center of the basket. These four movements represent thinking, planning, your livelihood and reverence. They meet in the center of the basket where a pinch of pollen is placed for Hozhoon, beauty.

Then he goes around the basket with pollen to protect the new couple.

The couple then feeds each other corn mush from the wedding basket, female corn (yellow corn) and male corn (white corn.) The corn representing "iina" life.

With more prayers and songs the couple is united in marriage.

The groom's mother is next to eat corn from the basket. The basket of corn is then passed around until the last bit of corn is eaten. Whoever eats the last of the corn mush gets to keep the basket. Next those seated in the Hogan introduce themselves and offer teachings on marriage and family. The bride's family then feed's the groom's family in the Hogan. They are honored guests.

The wool is cleaned and carded into soft piles by hand. The wool is then spun into yarn with a spindle. Shirley showed photos of her mother and Joe's mother weaving rugs. She also showed photos of modern weavers and master weavers along with some rug designs.

Kinaalda, maturity ceremony for Navajo girls. When a girl reaches puberty, she undergoes a four day ceremony. Kinaalda, which signifies her transformation from childhood to womanhood. The ceremony is centered around the Navajo myth of Changing Woman, the first woman on earth who was able to bear children. The myth says that Changing Woman performed the first Kinaalda and that ceremony gave her the ability to have children. Because of this all Navajo girls must undergo the ceremony so they will grow into strong women who can also have children. From there babies and children are brought to her. Placing her hand under each ear, she lifts gently to make them grow strong.

The Navajo girl grinds corn and makes a Kinaalda corn cake to be baked in a pit surrounded by corn husks.

When dusk has settled, the medicine man begins the ceremony of songs and prayers for the girl. This will continue toward sunrise, when the mother brings in a bowl of yucca suds and washes the girl's hair. Her head and hair are dried with corn meal, after which the girl runs toward the East, this time followed by many young children, symbolically attesting that she will be a kind mother, whom her children will always follow. During her absence the medicine man will sing eight songs. On her return the great corn cake, which has been cooking all night in the ground, will be brought in, cut, and divided among everyone there. The girl will share the cake with everyone who has come to welcome her into womanhood.

The Navajo people do not have a central place of worship and there is no word or phrase in our language which could be translated as "religion". Religion is ever present. It is not separated from daily life. The first white settlers thought they (the Navajo's) did not have any religion because it was integrated into their way of life.

Joe Begay explained about the Blessing Way Ceremony and that his father was a medicine man who knew where to find the variety of colored sand needed for Sand Painting and the Night Way Ceremony. He also mentioned the Yei bi chee dance and the Mask's worn by the Yei's.

During World War II the Navajo language was used to create a secret code to battle the Japanese. It has been said, "Were it not for the Navajo's the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." In May 1942, the first Navajo recruits attended boot camp. During the first two days, six Navajo code talkers worked around the clock. Those six sent and received 800 messages, all without error. They developed a dictionary and numerous terms for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized. They could encode, transmit and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Today, these men are recognized as the famous Navajo Code Talkers, who exemplify the unequaled bravery and patriotism of the Navajo people.

Shirley and Joe Begay ended the meeting by saying: Time has neither beginning nor end for most Native American's. Time is all the yesterday's, all the today's, all the tomorrows that flow like a great river. There is no stopping the river. It flows on and on. All the hopes, joys, tears and heartaches that are the fabric of living is woven into your life. Like the river, life flows on and on. All life is beautiful. We live in harmony with all things. We are taught to "Walk In Beauty."



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