Read an Excerpt
The Mystery Illness of
Evil Over the Land: A deadly illness plagues the Navajo Nation.
14 June 1993
In the Navajo way, danger of this magnitude is not supposed to affect us because the Holy People protect us. What have we done wrong to deserve this?
In the spring of 1993, a mysterious illness characterized by flu-like symptoms and leading to fluid buildup in the lungs swept through the American Southwest, killing healthy people in a matter of hours. The now famous "mystery illness" claimed its first Navajo victim on 14 May 1993. Media attention was swift and relentless. Popular magazines, national television news broadcasts, syndicated shows, and newspapers lured their audiences with inflamed captions and headlines: "Four Corners Disease: Another Deadly Virus Comes of Age"; "The Death Bug"; "On the Trail of a Killer Virus." The media attention had wide-ranging ramifications for Native people of the Four Corners area, including discrimination, the cancellation of numerous conferences and events, and a major decline in tourism.
The twenty-seven victims whosuccumbed to the illness during the spring and summer of 1993 were both male and female, from all walks of life and all ethnic groups, with an average age of thirty-four. Because of the ethnicity of the first reported victim, the media quickly dubbed this a Navajo illness. A frontpage headline in USA Today labeled it the "Navajo flu," and CBS Evening News referred to it as the "Navajo disease." This labeling stuck despite the actual demographics and resulted in widespread discrimination against American Indians. In June, twenty-seven healthy third-graders from Chinle, Arizona, were barred from visiting their pen pals at a private school in Los Angeles. Throughout the summer months, Navajo and other American Indians were refused service by restaurants and merchants in the towns bordering the reservation. The discrimination was due to fears that these individuals might be carrying the disease. By late July the death toll had reached twenty-six, and the tourist industry in the entire Four Corners area recorded severe declines in business. Discrimination and loss of revenue compounded the effects of the mystery illness, reaching beyond the lives of families of victims to affect the entire Navajo Nation and all people living in the Four Corners region.
Faced with the devastating effects of an illness that killed people of all ages, including seemingly healthy young people, in less than forty-eight hours, national health regulating agencies and the families of Navajo victims responded very differently. Officials of the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta turned to the modern scientific methods of biomedicine for answers, putting hundreds of scientists in laboratories and research facilities across the country on the case. Members of the Navajo Nation turned inward and looked to their own history for answers, because like many American Indians, they have an active relationship with their history. For contemporary Navajo individuals, the stories making up their history constitute a philosophic system that serves as a charter and a guide to life. In this case, it offered a means for coping with a devastating illness. The parallel but unrelated strands of cultural thoughtwestern biomedical and Navajo philosophicaloverlapped and converged when biomedical experts and Navajo experts collaborated at critical points in the investigation.
Both biomedical theory and practice and Navajo theory and practice eventually concluded that deer mice were the bearers of the illness. Biomedical and Navajo experts did not agree, however, on the ultimate cause of the mystery illness. The former blamed hantavirus carried by deer mice; the latter believed the disease represented monsters created by disharmony.
In the Navajo origin story, the separation of the sexes, the birth of monsters, the finding of Changing Woman, the birth of her hero sons, and the slaying of the monsters can be analyzed to account for the origins of disease and difficulty and to explain how well-being is to be restored. At different levels of abstraction, the monsters symbolize disease, immorality, or misconduct in Navajo history. Navajo people used the explanatory and predictive power of the philosophical system based on their oral history to cope with the mystery illness, one of the most traumatic experiences in recent Navajo history.
FAIRY TALES OR METAPHOR? THE
TWELVE LEVELS OF KNOWLEDGE
HW: Ok, that is level one, right there. Level one.
MS: Level one? Ok.
HW: Yeah, level one, but there are twelve levels. When you get to it, it is very complicated, even for me, I know. I think I will just stay at the two levels.
How can stories such as those comprising Navajo oral tradition help contemporary people cope with an illness as devastating and unpredictable as the mystery illness of 1993? Although Navajo origin accounts generally are spoken of as if they hold ontological status, the interview excerpts in this chapter and book show that the relationships between origin stories and current practices are not self-evident. The stories compress historical knowledge and human experience into vivid narratives that can illuminate and educate. As teaching tools, or parables, they are open to different levels of analysis. In the Navajo world, the stories are useful because they contain numerous messages at each of the various levels of interpretation, depending on the degree of analytic abstraction applied by the Navajo listener. As Harry Walters explains, all components of Navajo culture are based on four main levels of knowledge, each of which can be subdivided into three additional levels:
OK. I won't go into the twelve, because, uh, that is very complicated, and then, you have to know ceremonies to get into that.... All components of culture are based on that. If you were to categorize them [the components of Navajo culture] into philosophy, art, music, or history, things like that, it will not work. But if you put it in the four levels, it will work. And so the four main ones are hózhóójí hane', and then diné k'ehjí hane', and the third one is hatáál k'ehjí hane', and the fourth one is naayéé'jí hane'.
Hózhóójí hane' is the elementary level of knowledge, or philosophy, used to teach young children. Diyin k'ehjí hane' expands on the first level by incorporating information about the twelve Diyin Dine'é, mentioned in all ceremonies and stories, who represent different principles in nature. The third main level, hatáál k'ehjí hane', includes songs and prayers associated with each episode in the origin stories. Naayéé'jí hane', the fourth level, is specifically concerned with the stories associated with Naayéé'jí, or Protection Way, ceremonies and is limited to people who have specialized ceremonial knowledge. Altogether, twelve distinct levels of knowledge are encoded into each episode of the origin stories. Navajo educators draw upon these levels of abstraction to illuminate ancestral teachings.
As an experienced educator, Walters knows that a learner must be able to put new information into a familiar context to grasp the lesson at hand. He turned to the Changing Woman portion of the origin narrative to illustrate for me the different levels of knowledge that can be drawn out of a single account: "Remember I told you that on level one, level one is basic elementary, you know, Changing Woman was found on the mountain, she became an adolescent after twelve days." Walters was alluding to a familiar episode in the Changing Woman story where she is found and raised in a "miracle way." The following excerpt is a typical rendition of this episode, as told to me by Wilson Aronilth of Tsaile, Arizona:
A miracle thing happened, a child came into the world to save our people, and this child came into this world in the form of a little baby girl.... Myself, a lot of these English translations throws off a lot of our stories, but that's the way that I think they call it, Talking God, but in Navajo we say "Bit haayoolkáál Haashch'éélti'í." When you sayif you understand the language, it's self explanatoryit's the Holy Spirit that found the child and then brought it to First Man and First Woman's home and raised it in a miracle way. She was fed with air, light, water, moisture mist, plant pollen. Moisture and mist and pollen are some of the most natural ingredients and she grew up miracally in twelve days, and on the twelfth day she reached her pubertyhood, she became a woman.
Walters explained that on level two the story of how Changing Woman was found and raised is interpreted in a slightly different manner:
HW: Level two is diné k'ehjí hane'. It says, Changing Woman was found and she was dressed in white shell. She was not found as a baby, she was found as an embryo, an undeveloped egg. First Man brought her home and he said, "This is all there was. The baby that was crying. Nothing else." So when First Woman took it, it became a baby. Then she said, "this is ..."
MS: Did she put it in her womb and carry it, or did she just
HW: She just took it.
MS: She just took it and then it immediately became a baby?
HW: And she was dressed in white shell. That is why she was called White Shell Woman.
The key difference between level one and level two is that on level two Changing Woman is not found as a fully formed baby. Talking God went to investigate the dark clouds seen over Gobernador Knob. At the base of the mountain, he heard a cry. He climbed to the peak and found the source of the crying. But instead of a baby girl, Talking God found an embryo, which he gave to First Man, who took it home to First Woman saying, "This is all there was. The baby that was crying. Nothing else." The embryo immediately transformed into a fully formed baby when First Man put it into First Woman's arms. Important information about the role of Navajo women and about Changing Woman's position in the Navajo cosmos is encoded in this version.
Because the embryo developed only after being placed in First Woman's arms, precedent was established for the role of women in Navajo society and human development. The primary culturally sanctioned role for women is that of nurturer. That is, Navajo women are to be mothers, whose most important responsibilities are to foster and sustain the development of children. Children will develop from embryo to fetus to infant, and on through all stages of life, only with the nurturance and guidance given by mothers. The primary relationship between mother and child is one of sustenance. On the basis of this link, the concept of mother extends to all factors in the world that contribute to the sustenance and development of human life. Therefore, as Gary Witherspoon has pointed out, the term for mother, amá, has a wide range of referents in the Navajo world, including "one's mother by birth, the earth, the sheep herd, the corn field and the mountain soil bundle." Virtually anything that contributes to sustenance and development is a mother in the Navajo world.
Harry Walters summarized the fourth-level version of the Changing Woman story to demonstrate how subtle changes are made in story content in order to teach effectively at increasingly abstract levels of knowledge.
The fourth level, naayéé'jí hane', deals with the same [episode in the origin] story but [considers] stories that are associated with the Naayéé'jí ceremonies. Ceremonies like the Evil Way. The Crystal Gazing, Protection Way, uh, Hand Trembling, or Enemy Way. Red Ant Way, the Big Star Way, uh, or the Upward Moving Way. These are the Naayéé'jí ceremonies and then so they deal in a different [body of knowledge]. So the story would go like this, First Man heard a baby crying on the mountain, and he went up there and instead of finding a baby, he found a corn growing. It was a young corn, it must have been maybe about five or six inches high. And then underneath it was a corn beetle. And then, uh, he was surprised. And he reached down to pick up that corn beetle, and it turned into an embryo, an undeveloped embryo. And then, he took that and he brought that home to his wife, and he says, "This is all it was." And when she took that, it became a baby. And then so, she dressed her in White Shell, and she became known as White Shell Woman.
At this level, the episode encodes information regarding the interconnection among all Navajo persons. In this account, it was First Man who investigated the strange phenomena seen on Gobernador Knob. As he climbed to the summit, he heard a different sound at each of the four directions: an undifferentiated cry in the east, a bird cry in the south, the cries of other birds in the west, and the sound of a corn beetle in the north. Upon reaching the top, he saw a dark cloud with a rainbow and falling rain. He looked again and saw a young corn plant; again, and saw a corn beetle, which turned into an undeveloped embryo as he picked it up. When he took the embryo home to First Woman, it developed into a baby in her arms. In this version, corn plants, corn beetles, and embryos are interchangeable. On the most abstract level of knowledge, all persons who live now or who have ever lived in the Navajo world are constructed of the same fundamental elements and structured on paradigms of directionality (sunwise movement and the trajectory of growth) and complementarity.
In both advanced versions of this episode, First Woman became the child's mother when she provided the sustenance for the embryo to develop into a baby. Once the baby was fully formed, First Woman dressed her in white shell. Thereafter, she was referred to as White Shell Girl until her puberty when she was given the name White Shell Woman or Changing Woman. White shell is the ntl'iz associated with the cast, the direction also associated with dawn, spring, and, by extension, birth. Dressing the baby in this sacred material directly associates Changing Woman with the beginning of the day, the beginning of the annual cycle, and the beginning of life.
To make sure that I fully grasped the lesson, Walters moved on to the next episode in the Changing Woman story, the birth of the Twins and their slaying of the monsters. The level one version of this episode is as follows:
In the third underworld some of the people engaged in abuses of their capacity to reproduce. These abuses included incest, adultery, masturbation and immodesty. The consequences of these abuses did not become apparent until the females started to give birth to various sorts of monsters that began to terrorize and devour the people. The capacity to properly reproduce was lost, and death and despair set in. To save the world and the people, First Man came up with a plan.... According to First Man's plan, Changing Woman would save the world by first restoring the power of reproduction, and secondly by giving birth to the Twins who would slay the monsters.
With this version of the story in mind, I reasoned that because the "capacity to properly reproduce was lost," women had only been able to give birth to monsters after the separation of the sexes in the third underworld. Therefore, Changing Woman must have been the first well-formed entity created after the separation. I decided to ask Walters if this was so:
MS: Was she [Changing Woman] the first person that was not a monster after the separation of the sexes?
HW: No. There were babies that were born. That is what the
MS: There were healthy babies that were born?
HW: That was what the monsters lived on.
MS: But, I thought that
HW: All during the time that they were there. But the monsters were born right after, right after the separation. Not all of them, there were only twelve.
MS: There were only twelve monsters?
HW: Yes, not all women gave birth to monsters.
MS: I thought that the women lost their capacity for reproduction due to the sexual abuses that they engaged in during the separation of the sexes. So they weren't able to give birth to babies again, until Changing Woman was born, and she is the one that brought the capacity for reproduction back to
HW: There were babies that were born during the time when the monsters were roaming. They would stop pregnant women, and they would ask them, "When are you due?" To make sure that they were there when they [delivered], because that is what they ate!
MS: Oh, so they were giving birth, but the monsters were eating them all, so that is why
MS: They had a capacity for reproduction but the children weren't surviving?
HW: Uh-huh. Now, see, what does that signify? See, that is the next level of teaching. Were there actually monsters?
What? There were no monsters? By way of illustration, Walters was walking me through the steps of reasoning he takes as a modern Navajo scholar. He and other contemporary Navajo philosophers know the monsters are metaphors for something else. They reduce this episode to the essential problem: for some reason the children were not surviving. So, they reason, something was causing high levels of infant mortality. What was it?
HW: Maybe they were, the women ... they were infected with something where infant mortality was a hundred percent. That is why the population began to dwindle. See, that is another way of looking at it. That is another level.... Maybe because they were committing incestuous acts and all kinds of, uh, uh....
Perhaps the women were infected with a disease that caused the infants to die. On this level, the monsters represent the diseases or whatever was causing the high rates of infant mortality. They are metaphors for diseases and health problems. Walters continued, "Instead of monsters. So what Changing Woman did, she set laws and said, `Now, this is the proper behavior, moral behavior. You follow these, you will have healthy babies.' See that is another level."
He had moved on to the next level of abstraction, from monsters to diseases to immoral behavior. The story of the separation and subsequent reunion of men and women in the last underworld encapsulates important information about the male-female relations of all entities. It documents that neither sex can function or properly reproduce without the other. If infant deaths were caused by the incestuous acts and other sexual aberrations committed by the people at the time of the separation, then on this level the monsters represent moral dilemmas.
The reunion demonstrates that, although they are different, men and women are complementarythat is, necessary parts of a whole, with equally important roles and responsibilities. Changing Woman did not simply bring back the capacity for reproduction; she established order by demonstrating the contrasting yet complementary male and female principles that would come to be known, respectively, as naayéé' k'ehjigo (often shortened to naayéé'jí), "on the side of protection," and hózhóójigo (often shortened to hózhóójí), "on the side of peace, harmony, and order." To maintain the "natural order of the world," Changing Woman gave the Nihookáá Dine'é laws to govern "proper behavior, moral behavior." The monsters were born because of moral aberrations before and during the separation of men and women. The knowledge given to the Nihookáá Dine'é by Changing Woman and the other Holy People when this world was turned over to them was meant to guide future actions as well, so members of the Navajo world can avoid such problems. This knowledge enabled Navajo ancestors to have healthy children who would survive. To make sure I understood the lesson, Harry Walters asked me to paraphrase my new understanding:
MS: So, it is not that she brought back the capacity for reproduction. She gave them something that was the ability to have healthy children that would survive?
HW: Yes, yes.
MS: And the monsters are metaphoric for something else?
HW: Yes. Uh-huh, yes that is another way to look at it. See that is what I mean by different levels.
MS: I know, I know, and most of the people that would talk to someone like me would give it to me at that level one.
HW: Yeah, the elementary level.
MS: But then,
HW: That is gonna just read like a fairy tale.
The gifts from the Holy People to the Nihookáá Dine'éthe songs, prayers, ceremonies, and storiescontinue to inform the contemporary world. Across the vast Navajo reservation, elders and teachers use the vivid narratives of Navajo oral history to teach Navajo people about their roles and responsibilities in the world. These compressed metaphoric accounts are powerful tools that can illuminate, educate, and offer solutions to the concerns of contemporary life. Because of the power these narratives hold, access to the different levels of knowledge, as well as to specific bodies of knowledge, is controlled by elders who limit individual exposure on the basis of various factors, such as age, gender, and occupation.
MONSTERS IN THE CONTEMPORARY
WORLD: THE MYSTERY ILLNESS
My great-grandmother used to say that every disease that we should ever encounter within this particular world was created at that time [during the separation of the sexes]. So, I think sometimes you know like when I talk to my mother, and father like about the AIDS epidemic, or of all these new diseases happening, they are just saying that the prophecies are coming true. Because you know, some of these particular things were subdued. They were laid to rest, and it was said that they would come again when the people would start doing the same kinds of practices. The same kind of things that they did at the time, that is when they will reappear again. And the people, if they are not keen enough to understand their significance, it will do them in.
At a press conference on 2 June 1993, Peterson Zah, then-President of the Navajo Nation, announced that in addition to the many "medical experts, physicians, investigators and officials" currently searching for answers regarding the mystery illness, the Navajo Nation was going to use the special services of its own health professionalsNavajo medicine men.
You know, Western medicine can only do so much. Western medicine has its limitations. And, we're going to call on some Navajo medicine people to help us analyze this situation, to see if there are other avenues that are available to us, as a nation, so that we define what it is that's causing these deaths. And so we're not going to just heavily rely on all the statistics and data that are being gathered. Yes, we need those. But in certain situations, we have to rely on what we have lived with, traditionally, for all these years.
Excerpted from Navajo Lifeways by Maureen Trudelle Schwarz. Copyright © 2001 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.