Navaho Religion

Doctrines In the Navaho universe there exists several worlds. According to the fullest version of Navaho cosmogony (the explanation of the world's origin/s), there exists four underworlds, our present world, the Sky above, and one still higher world called the Land-Beyond-the-Sky; thus, our present world is the fifth world. These worlds are superimposed hemispheres each supported by pillars made of precious stones; the pillars, the number of which varies, are placed at each of the four directions ( north, east, south, and west).
These pillars are called Those-Who-Stand-Under-the-Sky, and are regarded as deities. The space between the hemispheres is filled with stars, whilst each successive hemisphere is a development of that preceding it, and so larger. (The Pueblo peoples, who are in fact neighbours of the Navaho, are said to have lived in the fourth world). These pillars are also connecting links between the different worlds, as is the reed of emergence, a major symbol in ritual; the point in the hemisphere through which the reed passed into the next world, called the Place-of-Emergence, became a local symbol of escape and was viewed as the centre of the Earth (the location of this point is various).
Of the many deities or supernatural powers of Navaho belief, it seems impossible to accord Supreme sovereignty to any particular figure. Whilst generation or creation is ultimately ascribed to Sun, several versions of the creation myth present First Man as the creator (not to be confused with human beings!). Nevertheless, it has been suggested that many, if not all, of the Navaho gods may be aspects of Sun. Changing Woman, for example, may be the female form of Sun; First Man and First Woman (not Human Beings) seem to be respectively forms of Sun and Changing Woman in the lower worlds. Again, in the lower worlds the First Pair stood for life, whilst in this present world life is represented by Sun and Changing Woman (Reichard:1983 pp.75-77).
Accounts of human origins are various and inconsistent. One explanation sees human beings transformed from corn: Sun was said to be corn's father, and lightning its mother. In one version the corn transformed into First Man and First Woman who were referred to as our ancestors; it is said that from the beginning the purpose of the First Pair was to prepare the Earth for the coming of the Navaho.
Secondly, human beings are also said to have been created by Changing Woman as she rubbed pieces of her skin from various parts of her body; as she held the skin in her hand it changed into six groups of people who subsequently founded some of the Navaho clans.
Thirdly, a division of Navaho that settled on the San Juan River, trace their ancestry to Whiteshell Woman and is believed to have been transformed from corn, whilst another group, from the west, originated from Changing Woman's skin. Thus, the Navaho do not boast of a common origin. Nevertheless, their kinship with the Earth has been conveyed as follows: '"These [the sacred] mountains are our father and our mother. We came from them; we depend upon them. Each mountain is a person. The water courses in their veins and arteries. The water in them is their life as blood is to our bodies"' (Ibid. p.19).
Among the innumerable beings that may assist man, are the animals and birds that often serve as messengers, reporting news of a ceremony or going on a reconnaissance trip as when the peoples moved from one world to the next. All wild animals may be included as helpers, not least the rare game animals that allow themselves to be caught for food. Among the insects Spider is notable as the originator of spinning and weaving, although sometimes she is dangerous. (Notably, domesticated animals are accorded little respect, being viewed as property rather than as sentient beings. Ibid. p.142).
The one who knows how to sustain or to restore order has the key to life's problems, and it is this ability, according to Reichard, which defines progress. For the Navaho the 'good' is control, whilst 'evil' is that which is not ritually under control. Whilst order, says Reichard, is the foundation of Navaho ritual (Ibid. p.183), Coyote is the very antithesis of order, embodying many aspects of evil, of chaos. Coyote's various epithets all refer to anger as an essential of war power; he is also described as cowardly, dishonest, licentious, unreliable, and amoral, and for these qualities, and others, he is despised (Ibid. pp.422-423). Coyote thus embodies all the qualities that a community could well do without.
The Navaho has little idea of personal immortality; rather, at death personhood is left behind with the body as the deceased becomes an "...indefinable part of the universal whole" (Ibid. p.42). Nevertheless, whilst an afterlife appears to have no place in Navaho belief, and the notion of personal immortality is almost universally repudiated, Adolph Britanny, in a letter to Reichard, outlined three senses in which some form of immortality is conceived by the Navaho:
  1. "biological continuation" - the perpetuation of the parent in his/her offspring;
  2. With physical death the body is reduced to its constituent elements which in turn harmonize with those of the Earth. This notion of 'immortality', however, says Britanny, "...played havoc with many a Navaho mind..." (Ibid. p.44) because of the suggestion that upon the death of the body a spirit emerges " become partially imbibed with other living entities" (e.g. Coyote, Bears, and Snakes).
  3. The "intangible" hereafter - this is the continuation of the deceased in the memories of the living. Reichard has noted that, despite their extreme fear of the dead, the Navaho delight in talking about the ", good deeds, and accomplishments of the deceased".

History The Navaho are Athapascan peoples, who, like the Apache, migrated to the Arizona/New Mexico region from Canada and Alaska sometime prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the southwest in the sixteenth century. One source dates the Navaho arrival to about 1300 (Parman:1976 p.3), whilst another suggests the fifteenth or sixteenth century (Josephy:1995 p.350).
The Navaho were formerly a nomadic people, hunters, but with the introduction of Sheep, Goats, and Horses by the Spanish, they developed a pastoral economy, also growing orchards and gardens; furthermore, captured Pueblo women introduced farming, weaving, and new religious ceremonies (Parman:1976 p.3). During the various Pueblo revolts against the Spanish, Pueblo refugees joined the Navaho so further strengthening the cultural bond between these peoples.
Navaho family organization was matrilocal and matrilineal, marriage requiring the husband to leave his own family and to reside with that of his wife's. The wife could terminate the marriage by simply sending her husband back to his people. It was common for a Husband to have more than one wife, the second usually being a sister of the first in the hope that this arrangement would avoid friction (Ibid. p.5). Since Navaho society is matrilineal, one would rely for help upon one's mother's brothers rather than upon one's father, or upon one's maternal grandparents rather than upon both sides of the family. Similarly, one takes one's mother's clan rather than one's father's, and within which are one's closest relatives; among these is also an economic responsibilty.
For example, ceremonies may be performed only if the pertinent assets are available, such as sheep, horses, cash, labour, and transport. The one desiring a ceremony may then call upon a relative on his mother's side to donate, for example, a sheep or to help with songs. By contrast, one has to one's father a "sentimental" rather than an economic duty, and would not call upon him or his clan relatives for such aid (Reichard:1983 pp.123-124).
Traditionally four clans are identified, but by the twentieth century seventy-five existed divided into nine major groups. Many clan names derive from the places where they originated; other names were borrowed from neighbouring tribes. Two people of the same or closely related clans, were forbidden to marry as this was considered to be incestuous. Clan members related closely, using the terms 'brother' or 'sister' when greeting each other. Failure to take care of one's relatives was a serious offence (Parman:1976 p.5). One might add, however, that despite the powerful sense of obligation in Navaho society - evidently interpreted as privilege rather than duty - there also exists a strong sense of individualism, of self-reliance. According to Reichard every Navaho spends a lot of time alone, often in a hostile terrain, where the inability to act independently could be fatal (Reichard:1983 p.xxxix). This experience may suggest why 'good' is defined in terms of order, of control, whilst 'evil' points to chaos, of being out of control (See Doctrines section).
In 1863 General James Carlton ordered the removal of the Navaho, under Kit Carson, to a reservation founded by him called Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. (Carson was Colonel of the New Mexico volunteers; the removal utilized a force of 600-700 men. Parman:1976 p.7). Carson's tactic for removing the Navaho from their land was to destroy their means of survival; sheep were killed, wells contaminated, crops destroyed, along with orchards, and anything else of use to the Navaho (Josephy:1995 pp.352-353). This meant of course that the Navaho possessed little or nothing when they arrived at the reservation; they were helpless and utterly dependent upon the U.S. Army for sustenance.
More than eight thousand Navaho were forced to walk three hundred miles to reach Bosque Redondo; those that could not keep up, "Some old handicapped people and children...were shot on the spot..." ( a survivor, Ibid. p.355). General Carlton wrote that Bosque Redondo was a "...grand experiment to make civilized human beings out of savages"; here Indian ways were to be abandoned preliminary to becoming like white men. To the Apache and Navaho the white man was deliberately attempting to destroy the Indian race (Ibid.). In May 1868 a Government delegation under Gen. William Sherman visited the reservation, and it was decided that Bosque Redondo should be abandoned and that the Navaho be allowed to return to their land; the Navaho were given food and sheep to take back with them. In 1868 a treaty was signed which outlined the new boundaries of the Navaho nation; the education of Navaho children in white schools was a condition of the treaty, as was a prohibition on the possession of arms (Ibid. pp.356-357).
The 1868 treaty provided a reservation of 3.5 million acres. After 1882, by executive orders, the Government expanded the Navaho reservation in order to provide more grazing land, and today it totals about seventeen million acres (Champagne:1994 p.134), most of which is used for grazing 500,000 sheep, 50,000 cattle, and 30,000 goats. Whilst traditionalists tend to favour an agricultural and pastoral economy, more 'progressive' Navahos favour the development of their land's natural resources such as oil, gas, coal, and uranium. Despite these rich natural resources, unemployment on the reservation hovers around fifty percent, most of the unemployed being unskilled and many speaking little English. About seventy-five percent of those with jobs work in the public sector, whilst those working on the reservation are employed in commercial agriculture, mining, forestry, wholesale and retail trade, and construction. To some extent the poverty on the reservation is softened by the traditional sharing and generosity within the Navaho family and the clans, wherein money and goods are redistributed to support the less fortunate. About twenty percent of the Navaho people live off-reservation, many of which live in California (Ibid. pp.136-139).

Symbols Of great importance in ceremony is the symbolism of colour. No colour or sequence of colours runs through a single chant consistently; none has the same meaning in every setting. Here I will consider, in the given order, the five colours white, blue, yellow, black, and red.
White apparently differentiates the naturally sacred from the profane - coloured, for example, black or red - which, through exorcism and ritual, must be transformed to acquire favourable power. White corn is associated with maleness, and from it Talking God is said to have been created by Changing Woman; however, from yellow corn, associated with femaleness, the male god of evening or sunset was created by Whiteshell Woman, Changing Woman's sister (Reichard:1983 pp.29, 503). White garments are also indicative of purification and the readiness to undertake contact with divinity. White is the colour of the east, and, frequently in the Shooting Chant, of dawn or daylight; it should be noted, however, that white may occupy several of the cardinal directions at some time or other (cardinal directions are north, east, south, and west).
Blue is the colour most often associated with the south. Blue may also designate the Earth and represent gender, male or female depending upon the context. When blue is applied to birds - whatever their actual colour - it stands for happiness (Ibid. pp.190-192).
Yellow symbolizes reproduction and fertility. In the Shooting Chant pictures of Buffalo show their lower bodies outlined in yellow to symbolize the power of reproduction and growth. Woman is said to have originated from a yellow corn ear and in myth the inexhaustible food bowl, symbolizing sustenance, is also yellow. In the west yellow denotes sunset or evening light (Ibid. p.193).
Black is a sinister colour, threatening, but since it confers invisibility it also protects. Black is sometimes at the north (where evil and danger dwell), and sometimes at the east. In the Blackening rite for frightening ghosts, the patient is disguised (the main purpose of the rite) to conceal him from lurking evils. When blackened the patient absorbs the invincibility of Monster Slayer who was painted black with a coal of dark sky. Black also denotes origin and summary. For example, Black Endless Snake symbolizes all snakes, their origin and the inevitable struggle against evil. Also, the Place-of-Emergence is painted black because it is the origin of all things (Ibid.pp.194-197).
Red is the colour of danger, of war, and of sorcery, as well as protection against them. Protection may be achieved by changing ordinary colours to red. Red Ocher is used in many ceremonies, and in especially large amounts in exorcisms. Red may denote flesh. Some skirt tassels of gods depicted in sandpaintings are black and white with a small red dot between them symbolzing flesh, especially of rare game - this is a symbol of plentiful meat. Red also symbolizes blood which denotes life (See quote in Beliefs section p.2). Red is the dominant colour of sorcery (Ibid. pp.197-200).
Incense. Incense symbolizes renewed strength; it purifies the patient, drives away disease, and immunizes or protects him from the dangers posed by the powers he has invoked. Incensing is a conclusive act. In the Flint Chant incensing concludes the rite to correct the evil that followed from sexual excess (Ibid. pp.565-566).
Fire is the symbol of annihilation, and is said to burn evil. Sweating removes evils - conceived as arrows and witch objects - from the body; the fire into which these evils fall, destroys them forever (Ibid. p.554).

Adherents According to the 1980 Census for American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages, the total Navaho population for that year was 158,633 (Snipp:1991 p.328), and some estimates project a figure of quarter of a million for the year 2000 (Champagne:1994 p.134). There appear to be no figures, however, for the number of Navaho practicing some form of traditional religion.

Main Centre
 The Navaho Reservation in Arizona/New Mexico.