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Dineji Na'nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History

Dineji Na'nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History

by Robert S. McPherson

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Traditional teachings derived from stories and practices passed through generations lie at the core of a well-balanced Navajo life. These teachings are based on a very different perspective of the physical and spiritual world than that found in general American culture. Dinéjí Nanitin is an introduction to traditional Navajo teachings and


Traditional teachings derived from stories and practices passed through generations lie at the core of a well-balanced Navajo life. These teachings are based on a very different perspective of the physical and spiritual world than that found in general American culture. Dinéjí Nanitin is an introduction to traditional Navajo teachings and history for a non-Navajo audience, providing a glimpse into this unfamiliar domain and illuminating the power and experience of the Navajo worldview.

Historian Robert McPherson discusses basic Navajo concepts such as divination, good and evil, prophecy, and metaphorical thought, as well as these topics' relevance in daily life, making these far-ranging ideas accessible to the contemporary reader. He also considers the toll of cultural loss on modern Navajo culture as many traditional values and institutions are confronted by those of dominant society. Using both historical and modern examples, he shows how cultural change has shifted established views and practices and illustrates the challenge younger generations face in maintaining the beliefs and customs their parents and grandparents have shared over generations.

This intimate look at Navajo values and customs will appeal not only to students and scholars of Native American studies, ethnic studies, and anthropology but to any reader interested in Navajo culture or changing traditional lifeways.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It is rare that an Anglo scholar could understand the in-depth meaning of the Navajo worldview and its implications. It is even rarer for him to interpret it in Western [narrative] form without losing meaning and integrity. . . Robert S. McPherson has done just that."
—Harry Walters, Former Director, Hatathli Museum at Diné College

"This book is highly recommended for readers interested in a knowledgeable and sensitive description of some of the basic aspects of traditional Navajo teachings, thought, and language and how the infringements of the dominant American culture in the past decades has undermined the application of those teachings in the lives of the contemporary Navajo people."
—Bruce Gjeltema, Utah Historical Quarterly

"...another sensitive and acute study of the Navajo people by historian Robert McPherson...a book that can easily be picked up by the general reader, who yet needs a gracious, obliging guide to an unfamiliar cultural landscape."
—Joseph C. Jastrzembski, Journal of Folklore Research

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University Press of Colorado
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Dinéjí Na'nitin

Navajo Traditional Teachings and History

By Robert S. McPherson

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-216-0


Wind, Hand, and Stars

Reading the Past, Finding the Future through Divination

In 1940 French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published in the United States his flying adventures and philosophical meanderings in Wind, Sand, and Stars. His spirit soared as high as the aircraft he flew, his stories as much for the heart as the mind. At one point he wrote, "To grasp the meaning of the world today we use language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language." While his writing and thoughts heralded a new age of technological innovation in the flight industry, his statement could be no more true for the Navajos living in the Four Corners area of the United States, practicing traditions handed down from generation to generation.

One of those traditions — that of divination — depended on the workings of the wind, hand, and stars as explained through the myths and teachings that unlocked the power to understand the past, present, and future. Rather than through technological innovation, these powers could only be unleashed through the spirit and discipline of those who sought answers otherwise unavailable. Basic to the religious system that permeated Navajo culture, divination provided an entryway to traditional thought and underlying principles of how the world operated. In this chapter, the reader begins a journey with elders who explain exactly how this world of power can assist the five-fingered earth surface beings.

Americans, as with many other cultures, have always had a penchant for figuring out the past and prying into the future. Where facts are lacking, assumptions abound. Even in the most technologically advanced, scientifically based communities where sequential logic reigns supreme, the human element still forecasts, predicts, and investigates to make the future understandable. Take the poor weatherman, who stands in front of his viewing audience and explains that in five days there are going to be thundershowers, yet none appear. Or the business executive who puts data into a computer and then allows the machine to guide his decision-making. Or the detective who has to compile enough convincing evidence to sway a jury's belief that his reconstruction of an event is true, even though a lot of necessary information may never be available. Dozens of other examples exist of "educated guesses" — polls, forecasts, projections, explanations, re-creations — that are accepted each day as a way of reconstructing the past, understanding the present, and preparing for the future; in reality, they may be tentative at best.

Traditional Navajos also have means for arriving at answers to important questions. Unlike the computer-dependent, Madison Avenue business executive, they receive their responses through less tangible, more supernatural means. Called divination by anthropologists, the techniques used by the Diné evoke core beliefs of their religious worldview. There are three major types of divination —

listening (íists' [??]'); star (sQ'nil']??]), with its subsidiaries of sun and moon gazing

and their affiliate, crystal gazing (dést' [??]', literally, to see, understand); and hand trembling or motion-in-the hand (ndishiih) — all of which are related in that they are spiritually based and serve similar functions. The origin myth of hand trembling is different from star gazing and listening, while generally, women may render the former but not the latter. They are used to explore the unknown, to find lost people or objects, to identify a thief or witch, to locate water or other desirable resources, to prevent danger or evil, and — most important — to diagnose the cause of an illness so one can provide a remedy.

Unlike medicine men who heal through chant way ceremonies that last from one to nine days or nights and who have spent hundreds of hours learning the accompanying prayers, songs, and rituals, the diagnostician may spend only a few hours learning the rite, compose some of his own songs and prayers, and require little ceremonial equipment. Chant ways are normally performed by men who have a sacred body of lore based on complex mythology, whereas diviners may be either male or female (often after menopause) who received this gift at birth and had its potential later revealed to them.

Supernatural power plays an important part in identifying future practitioners. For instance, a holder of this power may realize its potential during a ceremony when its latent force is activated. Apprenticeship follows to develop the skill. A person may have a dream to help point the way, or strange supernatural occurrences may hint at the gift's presence. Examples will be given later, but it is important to understand that once the power is used, there are also consequences that come with abuse. Navajos believe tuberculosis, nervousness, paralysis, and mental illness occur when hand trembling rites are misemployed, while problems with sight are associated with star gazing. Every privilege carries both a responsibility and a consequence for its user.

Another characteristic common to all three forms of divination is a general explanation of why it works. The Navajo believe the world is filled with invisible holy people (Diné Diyin) who know what takes place among humans. The gods understand what has happened and what is going to happen, since for them there is no past or future, just one eternal present. Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, points out that religious man escapes the limitations of the mundane world and moves through sacred time with no sense of linear progression. Just as a fish makes its way in any direction in the water, so also can the gods move from the past to the present and into the future.

Holy people read thoughts, anticipate needs, provide help, or punish those who transgress their laws. Frank Mitchell, a medicine man, compared their presence to a radio, by which "something may be going on out of your sight, but still you hear it, you hear what is happening ... you must be very careful ... They are aware of our actions, whatever we are doing."


Carrying the radio analogy further, one learns that the medium of transmission is nítch'i, interpreted variously as Holy Wind, wind, air, breeze, or spirit. Níyol, another name for wind, does not carry the same spiritual connotation as nílch'i, which approaches in function the Christian concept of the Holy Ghost as a messenger or comforter of God. Many Navajo myths tell of Holy Wind whispering in the ear of a protagonist in need of assistance, warning of future problems, or helping with protection. Indeed, without this Holy Wind, there would be no life. Myths describe how, at the time of creation, the first people had no wind in them, and so they were weak. Then different-colored winds — black, blue, yellow, and white — came from the four directions and entered the bodies of humans and animals, "giving strength to men ever since for this was nature's first food and it put motion and change into everything, even into the mountains and water." Hair on the head, hair in the skin, swirling patterns of fingerprints and footprints, and the breath of life are proof of this wind's existence. During the fourth month after conception, this Holy Wind enters the body, giving animation to the fetus.

The Holy Wind also brings death. Some of the winds argue over which one will enter the child and be able to claim it as its grandchild. Once the wind enters, it carries with it an expiration date, after which the person will no longer be able to live. Some people say a medicine man can ceremonially replace the old air with new in a patient who has had a heart attack, giving a renewed lease on life.

The nítch'i inside a person communicates with the air outside the body. The winds from the four directions have prayers, songs, precious materials, and qualities associated with their personification. A complex knowledge exists about how they function and interact with humans, but only an overview is provided here to outline their qualities. There are four different-colored Big Winds, similar to tornados, each associated with its own cardinal direction. They warn of bad events that will take place in the future; when one blows through a camp and tosses about possessions, it is a portent of bad luck. As the world becomes increasingly profane and wicked, these Big Winds wait poised, ready to take lives, just as they did with the Anaasází in the past. As long as the Navajos continue to perform the Blessing Way, asking in humility that they not be destroyed, the Big Winds will constrain their power.

Small whirlwinds gather bad gossip and conversation and report it to the holy people. If they spiral in a clockwise direction, they have a good spirit in them; counterclockwise, an evil one. Ghosts travel in the winds and can affect breathing, requiring a ceremonial cure. If a whirlwind takes a person's possession, he should let the object go, offer corn pollen to the wind, and tell it that the item no longer has any value and that if the wind placed a curse on that person, it is no longer in effect. This counters the belief that the wind, by taking sweat and dirt from a victim's body, stole his thinking so he would not know what he was doing.

Myths personify and teach of the wind's character. One of the stories associated with the Wind Chant tells of a whirlwind that approached a man, Older Brother, who unsuccessfully tried to dodge it. He became angry, shot the counterclockwise-moving twister, and watched the dead body of a person materialize. Then he realized he had killed the son of Big Wind and that soon the father would come to reap vengeance. Older Brother built a hogan; covered it with cactus, yucca, and other plants that have sharp protrusions; drew zigzag marks in the path of the approaching cyclone; burned a crescent-shaped design on his breast; then waited. Big Wind approached in the form of a man, but he could not cross the line. He promised to help rather than harm Older Brother if he restored his son. Older Brother ceremonially revived Whirlwind, and, as agreed, Big Wind taught him three sacred songs of protection.

As with people, winds have homes of various sizes and shapes. The rounded basins or pot-like holes found in sandstone are said to be their lodgings. Near Navajo Mountain was a place barren of vegetation and topsoil that made a "thunderous noise" just before violent weather arrived. This used to be one of the wind's homes, but now it is covered with vegetation and thus apparently vacated. Another place is found on the south side of Navajo Mountain in a large hole that goes far down into a rock. One day Joe Manygoats and a friend tossed a stone into the cavern and waited for some time before they heard it hit the bottom. A powerful gust of air arose from the depths, reminding the men that they had failed to calm the wind by calling its sacred name, thus incurring its anger. The men fled.

Holy people should not be taken lightly. They provide warnings and help a person learn. Claus Chee Sonny believes the gods want humans to know the songs and prayers, but this can only be achieved if the "wind people want to communicate them to you." He explains that this is the reason some people fail to learn them even though they try very hard to do so. The gods simply do not want some individuals to have this power.

When treated respectfully, however, winds accurately communicate future events. Talking God, Growling God, and Sun Bearer placed throughout the land many of the holy people "who were to be prophets and teachers of men in the future. The wind acted as messenger between these spirits and the people." Divination, or the receipt of this communication, is based on consulting the wind or animals with acute hearing such as wolves, coyotes, badgers, and members of the cat family. Known as "listening" by the Diné, this form of predicting is the least common of the three types. It is a learned skill that for the talented can be procured in one night. The diagnostician places the dried, powdered eardrum of a badger in his ears, goes outside, and listens for noises that provide a sign of what is being communicated. The listener then interprets what is heard as the cause of the illness or the answer to his question.

W. W. Hill, in Navaho Warfare, provides the best description of the use of this technique in the past. Considered the most reliable form of divination by the members of a war party, listening foretold of the group's success or failure. The leader selected two trustworthy men who knew the prayers and understood the symbols to interpret what they heard. He rubbed ear wax from a coyote and a badger on the men's ears so their senses would be heightened, then took them a hundred yards away from camp in the direction of the enemy. There they listened for favorable sounds such as "horses or sheep, the trotting of animals, or visions of horses and sheep, [as] a good omen. Contrarily, if they heard the cry of a crow, screech owl, hoot owl, wolf, coyote, or any other 'man eating' bird or animal; heard footsteps or conversation of the enemy, or heard someone shout as if hurt ... these were considered bad omens and the party would turn back."


Navajos also look beyond the winds to the heavens for divine signs of things about to happen. Like the winds, the sun, moon, and stars are alive and have an ability to interact with man. The sun and moon are the two most prominent celestial orbs. The sun, a fiery disk made of turquoise and other elements, should not be confused with Sun Bearer, the deity who carries the object across the sky on thirty-two trails lying between the solstices. Sun Bearer is a handsome deity, noted for his strength and amorous ability, who figures frequently in the mythology.

Sun Bearer was said to have a turquoise mask and was the giver of life and heat, while Moon Bearer had a white shell mask and controlled female rain, mist, fog, and dew. During late May, Navajos held ceremonies to bless the tender shoots of corn and other plants. This was the only time when the sun and moon communicated with or "saw" each other (one rising, the other setting) to discuss the seed-blessing ceremonies and night prayers offered previously by the Diné. With a good report, the two deities continued to favor man.

The concept of celestial blessings also occurred on an individual, daily basis for the Navajo. If the sun rose in the sky at dawn to find a person still sleeping, it said, "This is not my child." The sleeper was obviously lazy and not fit to receive blessings and riches from the holy people. Metaphorically, sleep is said to be dressed in "torn clothing," and so will be the people who lie in bed with it. The moon also blesses or curses an individual. For example, if a person prays to the moon while holding a fire poker and invokes its warmth for a newborn child, the baby will not get cold easily.

These heavenly bodies may assume a vengeful attitude. Sun Bearer, when speaking of his daily travels across the sky, said, "Every time I make the journey east and west, one of the Earth People shall die. That is my pay." Moon Carrier agreed to the same price. Now, the sun or moon will stop at its zenith if it has not received its compensation, but, fortunately, someone has died every day and so this has not happened. Interestingly, the sun demands the life of a Navajo, while the moon accepts a death from a foreign race. Because the moon is "the sign of the Anglo," there are no formal prayers to it as there are to the sun, the sign for the Navajo.

The most dangerous and prophetic time is during a solar or lunar eclipse. Although Navajos refer to the sun or moon as "dying," they still believe Sun Bearer and Moon Bearer are immortal and that only the "fire" is going out. When the moon is eclipsed, everyone is awakened until it recovers; if it is the sun, then all work or travel ceases, people sit quietly, and only the singers of the Blessing Way are heard chanting. If a pregnant mother looks upon an eclipse, the unborn child will "take on its image." Other ills inflicted during an eclipse occur: if people are eating, they will have stomach troubles; if sleeping, their eyes will not open; and if they look at it, they will become blind.

The solar eclipse that occurred on June 8, 1918, is a good example of the seriousness of what was foretold. Joe Manygoats was herding sheep that day when it happened. His father sent him home, told him to sit quietly, to watch the event indirectly by seeing its reflection in a bowl of water, and to wait until his father returned. The parent sang songs to help the sun come alive, which it did, but from that time on there were intense, red clouds in the morning and evening sky, warning of future troubles.

The holy beings instituted this portent in the beginning of time, when First Man created the symbol of a red-streaked sky. He said, "Whatever I think or say shall be done from these [streaks]. The lower red and gray represents smallpox, whooping cough, and all other diseases. The yellow line above them signifies the passing of these diseases whenever that line appears above the other two." In November 1918 the reservation was convulsed in the throes of an influenza epidemic that did not end until March 1919, after the deaths of thousands of Navajos. The sun had forewarned the people of this catastrophe.


Excerpted from Dinéjí Na'nitin by Robert S. McPherson. Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert S. McPherson is a professor of history at Utah State University, Blanding Campus and has published widely on Navajo and Ute history and culture.

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