Great-grandfathers still explain the beginning of time through folk tales and how the First People were led out of the pitch in the center of the earth and emerged into Navajoland. On its red earth they lived close to nature and they survive to this day in their hogans, looms nearby, and flocks of sheep spread out, grazing on the sparse life-nurturing plants. Mothers still caution children not to kill spiders because they are friends. It was Mrs. Spider, they say, who taught Navajo women how to spin fine threads from leaf fibers, cotton, and wool into useful articles.
Navajo religion teaches that they traveled through three or four worlds beneath this one and emerged into this sphere in the La Plata mountains of southwestern Colorado or the Navajo Dam area of northwestern New Mexico. The gods or first man and woman created the four sacred mountains – Blanca Peak and Hesperus Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona; preparing them as supernatural boundaries within which all was safe and protected. In addition, the gods also established four rivers, one of which was the San Juan, to serve as defensive guardians. This river played an important role in some of the Navajo chantway myths and functioned as a clear line of demarcation between Navajo and Ute territories.
Part of the larger Navajo origin story includes the importance of the four sacred mountains. When First Man , Áltsé Hastiin, and First Woman, Áltsé Asdzáá, emerged into the Fourth World they created these four sacred mountains. After the first four Navajo clans emerged from a subsequent global flood, they moved into the area bounded by these four mountains. This was the original Dinétah, Navajo country. Those mountains are recognized today as San Francisco Peak, Mount Hesperus, Mount Taylor, and Mount Blanca. The importance of place and the relationship of place to spirituality is evidenced in the four sacred mountains. The full account of the origin story reveals dozens of place-specific episodes that can be recognized in modern geography. It is not hard to discern the Navajo desire for order and their devotion to clan-based politics from their story of the world’s beginning.
The first people were born in the Black world, home to spirits and holy men. Áltsé Hastiin, First Man, was born in the east out of a union between the white cloud and the black cloud. Born with him was Doo Honoot’ínii, the first seed corn. In the west, yellow cloud and blue cloud met and made Áltsé Asdzáá, First Woman. She arrived with yellow corn, white shell, and turquoise. Cooperation was a virtue in the Black World, demonstrated by Insect Beings. Other beings also lived in the Black World, including Wasp People, Bat People, Ant People, and Spider Woman. But infighting and bickering led all these beings to move up to the Blue World. They carried with them all the evils of the Black World.
In the Blue World, beings from the Black World found new beings, including large insects, feathered beings, wolves, and mountain lions. After much quarreling, Áltsé Hastiin conducted ritual prayers and feasts so all the beings could proceed to the Yellow World. In the Yellow World, there were six mountains and no sun. The original travelers also discovered snakes, squirrels, and deer. Unfortunately, Coyote came to this world with Áltsé Hastiin and Áltsé Asdzáá. In the Yellow World, Coyote caused problems. The inhabitants of this world watched as the clouds began to gather, first in the east, then the south, west, and north. The clouds came together and rain began to fall. The water rose all around them. They knew they must escape to the Fourth World to avoid drowning. They planted many different tree species, hoping one would grow tall enough for them to climb up and escape the flood. After each tree proved too short, they planted a giant reed, which grew into the heavens. Locust volunteered to lead the group to safety. They moved up the hollow core of the reed to safety.
Unfortunately, Coyote decided to cause mischief during the escape. As Coyote watched the rising water, he noticed the child of Tééhooltsódii, Water Monster. Coyote decided he wanted to keep the child and raise it as his own. He took the child and hid him from Tééhooltsódii. In response, Tééhooltsódii made the waters rise up the reed behind the group, which threatened to drown everyone. The group pleaded with Coyote to give the child back to Tééhooltsódii. After pleading with Coyote four times, Coyote released the child. To appease Water Baby’s parents, the group made offerings to Tééhooltsódii and the water receded enough for the group to escape. At this time, the Glittering World was inhabited by gods and spirits. There were no humans. Locust surveyed the land after emergence and found it covered with water. Big Horn Sheep dug canyons with his horns so the water could escape to the ocean. This is how canyons were formed. Locust then decided that fires should be lit so the gods would know of the group’s presence. It was in this world that the first sweat bath was taken and the first hogan was built. The stars were placed in the great sky. In the Glittering World developed the seasons and the harvest. When the first emergents spied Navajo Mountain in the distance, they regarded it as the Head of the Earth.
The Emergence People in the fifth world were terrorized by the Binaayee’, or monsters, and so only First Man, First Woman, and old man and wife, and their two young children survived. This is significant because without Changing Woman the human race would have ended here, as the adults were past child bearing age and the children related by blood. For four days, the mountain Ch’ool’i’i was covered with a dark cloud that slowly descended down its base. One day, First Man decided to investigate and set out chanting a optimistic song. He ascended the mountain and at the tip, right when lightning flashed and a rainbow showered him with vibrant colors, did he find Changing Woman. He looked down at his feet where he heard a baby crying. But he beheld only a turquoise figure. In it, however, he recognized the likeness of a female. It was no larger than a newborn child, but its body was fully proportioned like a woman’s body. First Man brought the figurine back to First Woman, unsure of what to do with it. Changing Woman only remained with them for fourteen days, after which they took her to a ceremony on Ch’ool’i’i, where Nilchi the Wind transformed her into a living deity, along with her sister, White Shell Woman, and corn. Changing Woman is the child of First Boy, Sa’ah Naaghaii, and First Girl, Bik’eh H-zh-. The earth and its life-giving, life sustaining, and life-producing qualities are associated with and derived from Changing Woman. The next significant event in Changing Woman’s narrative is the story of her sexual union with the Sun.
It was at this point that two of the most important figures in Navajo religion appeared: the Hero Twins. After the first fires were lit, Áltsé Hastiin and Áltsé Asdzáá noticed tracks that led to the west. Part of the group decided to follow the tracks. The tracks were left by the children of White Shell Woman, also known as Changing Woman; born to her after the Sun committed adultery with her before the emergence. These children are known to the Navajo as the Hero Twins: Naye’nez ghani, Monster Slayer, and and Tqo bagish chi’ni, Born For Water. To travel to the western oceans and visit White Shell Woman, the group used rainbows to cover great distances. As the group proceeded west, they encountered the many monsters and evil spirits that were byproducts of the Sun’s adultery. After visiting White Shell Woman in the west, the group returned with the Hero Twins, hoping they would grow up to battle the monsters and evil spirits.
Once they had returned to the Navajo Mountain area, holy men from the group placed the magic rainbow in the safest place they could: Bridge Canyon, below Navajo Mountain. The rainbow then turned to stone. Monster Slayer and Born For Water were raised in the cradle of Bridge Creek and the stone rainbow formed the protective handle of their cradle board. After they reached maturity, and discovered the Sun was their father, they traveled to visit him. They used the rock rainbow to ease their journey. The Sun tested his sons thoroughly during their trip and rewarded each of them with a weapon so they could battle the monsters. To Monster Slayer the Sun gave Lightning That Strikes Crooked. Born For Water received Lightning That Flashes Straight. The twins returned home and defeated most of the monsters. The monsters that were allowed to survive personified old age, lice, hunger, and death.
Monster Slayer and Born For Water went again to visit with the Sun. This time, the Sun gave them gifts from the four directions. In exchange for giving them these gifts, the Sun received the ability to destroy all beings that lived in houses. This was very important, as many of the surviving monsters were children of the Sun. The Sun precipitated an immense flood, which covered the earth and destroyed most living things. The Holy People saved one man and one woman and pairs of all the
In the wake of the flood, Asdzáá Nádleehé, Changing Woman, established the first clans. Changing Woman went to the West, and found four mountains that were identical to the four mountains in Hajiinei, the Emergence place. After dancing on the tops of these mountains, she sits down and rubs an “outer layer of skin from under her left arm with her right hand, and this skin developed into two adult males and two females, from whom descended the clan Honágháahnii, One Who walks Around You. Then she rubbed the outer layer of skin from under her right arm with her left hand, and this developed into two adult males and females, who eventually became the clan Kiiyaa’áanii, Towering House. After this, she rubbed an outer layer of her skin from her left breast with her right hand, which changed into two adult males and two females, who eventually became Tó Dích’íi’nii, Bitter Water clan. She again rubbed skin from her breast, this time the right one, with her left hand, and four adults, two men and two women, were formed, who became Bit’ahnii, or Within His Cover People. She did this two more times, one rubbing skin from between her breasts, thereby forming what would become known as Hashtl’ishnii, or the Mud Clan. The last time she rubbed skin from between her shoulder blades, forming the Close to Her Body Clan. After she created all of these people, she took them with her to live in the West, inside the area bounded by the four scared mountains.
As the seasons advance, Changing Woman becomes old, it is true, but she has the power to reverse the process, becoming young again. Changing Woman is identified with both creation and protection. She is described in terms of fertility and reproduction; by creating mankind from her own epidermis, and subsequently sustaining them through Earth’s bounty, she is the First, and model Mother. Moreover, she bestowed several things upon mankind, such as certain ceremonies, that would protect humanity from evil forces. Changing Woman, from the moment of her birth to her retirement to the Sun’s house in the West, is equated with a benevolent fertility integral to the continuation of Dine culture. She is the deity most likely to help individuals in need; moreover, she is credited with bestowing the Blessingway ceremony, sheep, and corn upon humanity, thereby protecting not only Dine spiritual health, but basic subsistence as well.
Spider Woman came from a place in the underworld where two rivers crossed. It was called ni tqin’kae tsosi, fine fiber cotton, Indian hemp. There were two persons who brought the seed of that plant, they were spiders. They said the people were to use the plant instead of skins for their clothing. So this seed was planted in the earth. When the seeds were planted, the plant ripe, and the cotton gathered, the people shaped a little wheel, 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and they put a slender stick through it. This was used in the spinning of cotton. When they began spinning they pushed away from the body toward the knee. Then the chief medicine woman said: “You must spin towards your person, as you wish to have the beautiful goods come to you; do not spin away from you.” For it was in their minds to make cloth which they could trade for shell and turquoise beads and she knew their thoughts. She said: “You must spin towards you, or the beautiful goods will depart from you.” There were two names given to the spindle, yudi yilt ya’hote, meaning, turning or shooting around with the beautiful goods. This the Spider Man suggested; but his wife said: “It shall be called by another name, ntl is yilt ya’hote, turning with the mixed chips.”
After they had spun the thread they rolled it into good-sized balls. They brought straight poles and laid them down; one down, one opposite. They tied two other poles at the ends, making a rectangular frame. They rolled or wound the thread on two of the poles as the sun travels, east to west, over and under the poles. The Spider Man said that the ball of thread should be called, yudi yilt nasmas agha, rolling with the beautiful goods. His wife said: “No, it shall be called ntsli yilt nasmas agha, rolling with the mixed chips.” After the loom was finished the cross poles were erected and other poles placed on the ground to hold the loom frame solidly, and the loom was stretched and lifted into place. Then the Spider Man said: “It shall be called yata ilth na dai’di, raising with the beautiful goods.” His wife said: “It shall be called nil tliz na dai’di, raising with the mixed chips.”
There is a notched stick running across, with a notch holding every other thread. The Spider Man said: “It will be called yote biltz nes thon, looping with the beautiful goods.” His wife said: “From henceforth it shall be called nil tliz biltz nes thon, looping with mixed chips.” Then they used a narrow stick about two and a half feet long, and they wound the yarn or thread over it, and where there is no design they ran it along. That was given the same name as the ball of thread. The Spider Man held that it should have the same name as the ball; but his wife said: “No, it shall be called nil tliz nasmas agha.” Then they used the wide flat stick for tapping down the thread. The Spider Man said: “It shall be called nil tliz na’ygolte”; but his wife said: “It shall be called nil tliz na’ygolte, twining with the mixed chips”. When they got this far with the weaving, the threads of the warp mixed together and were too near or too far apart. So another kind of stick was used. It had long, narrow teeth. It was also used for the purpose of tapping down the thread. The Spider Man said: “It shall be called yote yo’golte, hoeing with the beautiful goods.” His wife said: “It shall be called nil iltz yo’golte.”
The Spider Man said: “Now you know all that I have named for you. It is yours to work with and to use following your own wishes. But from now on when a baby girl is born to your tribe you shall go and find a spider web which is woven at the mouth of some hole; you must take it and rub it on the baby’s hand and arm. Thus, when she grows up she will weave, and her fingers and arms will not tire from the weaving.” To this day that is done to all baby girls.
Weaving progressed, and Navajo made all kinds of articles. They used cotton and yucca fiber and Indian hemp. These were the thread. They raised turkeys, and they used the feathers for feather blankets. They ate the turkey flesh for their meat. They killed rabbits and cut the fur into strips, and they made fur blankets. They wove different kinds of grass into mats for their floors, and also, to hang in front of the openings of their houses. There were many kinds of weaving. The people lived peacefully and were happy in working out designs in the new art. They raised great quantities of corn. All this made them grow in number; they became a very strong people and their past troubles were forgotten.
In this red earth Navajo country of monoliths, buttes, and bridges of rock made by erosion of time, the Dine’ had no concept of real ownership of land but instead one of communal property. Use-rights were established by anyone who used and needed the land. The Dine’ philosophy embodied Father Sky and Mother Earth as the parents of all and gave no individual absolute title to a piece of the sky or the earth. Also, they asked, who in his right mind would hold absolute ownership when his existence on this earth is but brief?
Father Sky is sacred as are his offerings: air, wind, thunder, lightning, and rain. Mother Earth is also sacred and all that she offers the Navajos is therefore sacred: mountains, vegetation, animals, and water. Many prayers for blessings are addressed to Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Four Winds, and White Dawn, to name a few.
Food and shelter are more than utilitarian objects for the Navajos who are always conscious that they are Mother Earth’s gifts. Their food is simple and easily prepared. Mutton is commonly eaten; other meats are small game like rabbits and prairie dogs and large game such as deer and antelope. Infrequently a horse is butchered and the entire animal is used: the meat and entrails are eaten fresh or dried for later needs and the hide is made into footwear, belts, and articles of clothing. Corn is used not only for food but also for offerings to the gods and for the mundane yet useful repair of leaky baskets. A large portion of Navajo myth is centered on corn, telling how Changing Woman (Nature), who created the ancestors of the Dine’, gave instructions on how it should be raised. The dependability of corn for food is emphasized; cornmeal mush, cakes, and bread are some of the corn foods.
Dine Livestock is one of the most important things in their lives. The animals were given to them by the Creator for ceremonies, food, to be used to teach the children the stories and lessons that they must know to carry on the Dine way of life. When a woman learns to weave Navajo rugs, she is taught the stories about the animals and about the loom and other instruments used to turn raw wool into a beautiful rug. It helps her strengthen her mind, develop exact thoughts, and to weave a story, using symbols, into the Navajo rugs.
The hogan, like corn, has deep religious importance. The gods, the Navajos believe, used a similar structure, when they first laid down the
ceremonies for the people. Every ceremony ends with a sacred hogan chant and everyone inside the hogan must be awake when it is sung.
There are two types of hogan, both built according to religious dictates that require four main support posts: one each in the east, west, south, and north for the different gods in these directions. The hogan always faces east and the space inside is organized around the centrally placed fireplace.
Navajo religion conveys that everything consists of powerful forces, which are capable of good or evil. The balance between them is quite fine; if upset, even accidentally, some misfortune or even disaster will occur. Nature is balanced, in harmony, and only man can upset the balance. Of the many Navajo deities, only one, Changing Woman is constantly striving to enhance the good forces for the people. It was she who gave birth to the twins, Monster Slayer and Born of Water. These two heroes or war gods left evidence of their exploits that exist even today. The great lava flow near Grants, New Mexico, is the dried blood of a slain monster. Smilarly, the formation southwest of Shiprock is the remains of a giant man-eating eagle. They and their mother succeeded in ridding Dinetah, the Navajo world, of all evil except old age, poverty, sickness, and death.
There is no supreme being in the Navajo religion. Among the most powerful is Changing Woman; the Twin War Gods, heroes; Sun, the husband of Changing Woman; Holy Man; Holy Woman; Holy Boy; and Holy Girl. Also powerful, are the Earth, Moon, Thunder, Wind, and others. Yeis, generally lesser deities, both male and female respectively, along with animals, plants, and various forces in nature, are very important in the Navajo religion.
All of these deities are constantly in flux, causing good and evil. The goal is for these forces to be in balance, or hozho, a perfect state. This term can represent blessed, holy, beautiful, balanced, without pain, or a blend of theses concepts.
Hozho is the desired balance but it is difficult to maintain because every person, plant, animal, stone, star, cloud, or strike of lightning has its Holy People. Anyone who angers any of these forces, an easy thing to do, creates disharmony and risks any one of several physical or mortal ills. In addition, many witches seek to harm individuals through their own ceremonies.
The everyday existence of the Navajo is filled with pitfalls that could easily anger a Holy Person and result in a loss of hozho.