Navajo Religious Traditions

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NAVAJO RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . Because of it colonial origin, the designation Navajo is in the process of being replaced by the term Diné, a word derived from the phrase Diyin Dine'é (people with supernatural powers). For this reason, Diné will be used throughout this article. The Diné, whose population in the 2000s has been estimated at 180,462, now live primarily on the Diné Nation (a land reserve approximately 270,000 square miles in size) located within the four corners of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah, and southwestern Colorado. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that the Diné were latecomers to the American Southwest, arriving between 1000 and 1525 ce. Through contact with the Spanish and Pueblo peoples they acquired horses, sheep, goats, and agriculture. Anthropologists generally attribute similarities between Diné and Pueblo cosmologies and practices to the fact that many Pueblo refugees began to live among the Diné following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Many Diné elders describe this period as one of mutual exchange, rather than of unilateral influence.

Cosmology and Worldview

The path of walking in beauty and harmony, known as Hózhóójí, is the basic philosophy of the Diné Nation and is the foundation for their culture, beliefs, and traditions. The path of K'e is based on a reciprocal relationship of kinship with the surrounding environment and the universe. The Diné bá'ólta'í (teacher, messenger) Wilson Aronilth Jr. explains: "According to our great forefathers' teaching, our clan system is the foundation of how we learn about our self image and self identity. A wise Diné can look back into the values of his clan and see his true self" (Aronilth, 1991, p. 76). The Diné were instructed by the Diyin Dine'é to live within the boundaries of the four mountains located in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Instruction were given by the Diyin Dine'é to build a hooghan (round house). The primary function of the hooghan was as a place for ceremonies and prayers.

The Diné origin myth recounts the Diné hajíínáí (emergence) from a series of underworlds onto Nahasdzáán (the Earth's surface). Using a medicine bundle brought from the underworlds, in an all-night ceremony at the place of emergence, First Man, First Woman, and other Diyin Dine'é set in place the "inner forms" of natural phenomena (earth, sky, the sacred mountains, plants, and animals), creating the present world (the fourth world). The Diné creation story recounts that it is in the fourth world that 'Asdzáá Náleehé (Changing Woman) was born; she was impregnated by Jónaa'éí (Sun) and gave birth to twin sons, who killed various monsters that had been endangering the Diyin Dine'é. Using the medicine bundle First Man had given her, 'Asdzáá Náleehé created maize. She also created the Diné (Earth-Surface People), from epidermal waste rubbed from her skin.

The Diné creation myth indicates that there is no dichotomy between the natural and supernatural in Diné religion. Furthermore, humans (the Earth-Surface People) and the Diyin Dine'é are conceived of in terms of the same set of motivating forces: the notion of nílch'í (wind), the concept of bii'gistiin (inner form) or bii'sizíinii (in-lying one), and the opposing notions of hózhó (harmony, balance) and hóchó (disharmony, disorder).

Wind is a unitary phenomenon that is the source of all life, movement, and behavior. However, wind has various aspects that have different functions and, hence, different names. Before the Emergence, winds are said to have given the means of life (i.e., breath) to the inhabitants of the underworlds. After the Emergence, mists of lights were placed along each of the cardinal directions and four sacred mountains were created in each direction. Each direction is said to have an "inner form" (bii'gistiin) as well as a closely associated wind. From the four directions these winds give the means of life, movement, thought, and communication to the natural phenomena, the Diyin Dine'é, and the Diné. Wind's Child is sent to guide and advise the Earth-Surface People. Finally, each Diné also has a "wind within one" (nílch'í biisíinii) that enters at birth and guides the individual.

Thus both natural phenomena and humans have inner forms or "in-lying ones" animated by wind. As Gary Witherspoon has written, "In most cases the Holy People of the fifth world are those who are the inner forms of various natural phenomena and forces, including animals. These in-lying ones are the controlling and animating powers of nature. Diné ritual is designed to control the Holy People who are the inner forms and controlling agents of natural phenomena" (Witherspoon, 1983, p. 575).

The Diyin Dine'é are immune to danger, destruction, and death. They are not holy in the sense that they are virtuous, but rather in the sense that they are powerful. It is the responsibility of each Diné to maintain harmonious relations with the Diyin Dine'é, though the Diyin Dine'é may be persuaded to aid in the restoration of a person who has become ill through improper contact with them.

In Diné belief the term hózhó refers to a positive or ideal environment. As Witherspoon puts it, "The goal of Diné life in this world is to live to maturity in the condition described as hózhó, and to die of old age, the end result of which incorporates one into the universal beauty, harmony, and happiness described as 'Sa'áh naaghái, Bik'eh hózhó' " (Witherspoon, 1983, p. 573). The phrase "Sa'áh naaghái, bik'eh hózhó" (long life, filled with happiness and harmony) occurs in most ritual songs and prayers and clearly exemplifies the Diné ideal. The foundation of the philosophy is the reciprocal relationship between the Diné and all of the entities in the universe, including animals, plants, the cosmos, and the earth that sustains all living things.

Illness is thought to be a state of hóchó that has resulted from the patient's contact with something "dangerous." Leland C. Wyman and Clyde Kluckhohn (1938, pp. 1314) list four groups of "etiological factors" that can produce sickness:

  1. Natural phenomena such as lightning, wind, and thunder.
  2. Some kinds of animals, including bears, deer, coyotes, porcupines, snakes, eagles, and fish.
  3. Coming into contact with ceremonial paraphernalia at inappropriate times.
  4. Diné ghosts, aliens, witches, or werewolves.

Following such an encounter, a ceremony is required to restore the individual to the state of hózhóójí.

Chants and Ceremonies

Anthropologists have identified twenty-four chant complexes; only about eight were well known and frequently performed in the 1970s, while six were extinct and four were obsolete. There has been little agreement among either Diné consultants or anthropologists as to how these chants might be ordered into a system. (See Wyman and Kluckhohn, 1938; Haile, 1938; Reichard, 1950; Wyman, 1983; Witherspoon, 1983; and Werner et al., 1983, for various possibilities.)

Chants are associated with a number of rituals, the most important of which are the Hózhóójí and Enemyway ceremonies. The Hózhóójí (Blessingway) ceremony is of central importance for the Diné, and is intended to preserve a beautiful, peaceful, harmonious state of balance (hózhó). It is the foundation of the Kinaaldá ceremony, a puberty ritual for young girls. The Enemyway ceremony ('anna'jí), in contrast, is designed to counteract the evil effects of contact with non-Diné people killed in battle and is used to exorcise their spirits (ghosts). According to Wyman (1983, p. 541), it is one of a mostly obsolete group of ancient war ceremonials and is now classed together with other ceremonies collectively labeled Evilway (hóchó'ojí).

The Diné model of the cosmos is expressed in the setting of the ceremony itself. The chant takes place in the hooghan, which is circular like the horizon. Movement during a ritual is always clockwise or "in the direction of the sun." Men sit on the south side of the hooghan ; women on the north side. The singer sits on the southwest side and the patient, when resting, sits on the northwest side. The east (where the door is located) is associated with the Hayoołkááł Hastiin Diyin (Dawn Spirit Talking).


Although Diné elders do not make cross-cultural comparisons between Diné traditions and the traditions of other Native American Indians, some scholars, such as Louise Lamphere, note striking similarities between Diné ceremonialism and that of both the Apache and the Pueblo. Both the Diné and the Apache place great emphasis on the goal of achieving long life, and both center their ceremonies on the individualthat is, on changing his or her state through prestation, the removal of evil objects, and identification with supernatural power. Like Pueblo religion, Diné religion entails a view of a cosmos that is structured as a bounded universe in which the present world is at the top of several layered worlds through which the ancestors emerged. While Diné ritual replicates the cosmos differently than Apache ritual, its use of color, sex, and directional symbolism find many parallels in Pueblo ritual and in the Pueblo worldview (see Heib, 1979; Tedlock, 1979; and Ortiz, 1969).

The similarities between the ceremonies of the Diné, the Apache, and the Pueblo suggest that there are unifying features to ceremonialism in native Southwest cultures. Southwest religion, like that of other Native American cultures; is closely tied to the natural environment. Native cosmologies are rooted in conceptions of time and space that imbue the local terrain with supernatural meaning. Natural objects are made into ritual objects and are used to attract positive supernatural power, to remove dangerous power, and to represent sacred presence. A ceremonial specialist using these objects and ritual actions communicates with the supernatural in order to ensure that natural and cultivated plant and animal life will continue to be abundant and that individual and communal health and prosperity are maintained.

Although many books are available with specific descriptions of ceremonies, rituals, chants, and prayers, the Diné emphasis on orality and holistic understanding suggests that long-term fieldwork and language acquisition are the most reliable and responsible methods of research.

See Also

Athapaskan Religious Traditions.


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Aronilth, Wilson, Jr. Foundation of Navajo Culture. Navajoland, U.S.A., 1991.

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Witherspoon, Gary. Navajo Kinship and Marriage. Chicago, 1975.

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Wyman, Leland C. Blessingway: With Three Versions of the Myth Recorded and Translated from the Navajo by Father Berard Haile. Tucson, Ariz., 1970.

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Louise Lamphere (1987)

Marilyn Notah Verney (2005)