Philosophy and World View
Trudy Griffin-Pierce provides an excellent summary of how the Navajo
view their surroundings:
The Navajo perceive the universe as an all-inclusive
whole in which everything has its own place and unique and beneficial
relationship to all other living things. Humans, animals, plants, and
mountains are harmonic components of the whole. It is the responsibility
of humans to honor and maintain this balance (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:29).
The all-inclusive nature of the universe means that
all forces are integrated good and evil, natural and supernatural,
male and female into a state of balance and harmony expressed
by the word h0zh=. People
who become involved in an act that disrupts this balance may be made
ill by the forces thereby unleashed (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:35).
Navajo interactions with this powerful environment
are characterized by astrong sense of connectedness to and respect for
all living things, including the earth, which is personified as the
beloved deity, Changing Woman. An important aspect of maintaining harmonious
relations with the universe is the recognition of humankinds place
in the web of life and the acceptance that nature is more powerful than
humans (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:26).
The Navajos do not have a central place of worship, and there is no word
or phrase in their language which could possibly be translated as religion.
According to Raymond Locke:
Religion is not a separate entity to be believed in
or subscribed to, it is ever present. It could no more be separated
from the traditional Navajos daily life than eating, breathing,
sleeping, or the ground he walks on which gives him substance, the sun
which gives him warmth or the summer lightning which gives him fear.
Religious rites and practices are an essential element in nearly every
aspect of traditional Navajo culture, pervading it to such an extent
that, paradoxical as it may seem, it was several decades before white
Americans living among the Navajo realized they possess any form of
worship at all (Locke 1992:45).
To the Navajo, everything is sacred:
The rigid distinction that exists in most Western minds
between the daily round of work and play, on the one hand, and religion,
on the other is nonexistent for the Navajos. On a daily basis, the order
and continual regeneration inherent in the cosmos the changing
seasons, night and day, life and earth serves as a constant reminder
of how to live ones life in balance, in a state of h0zh=.
The traditional Navajo awakens with the dawn and scatters pollen to
the east outside the hogan. At night, the constellations, through the
moral stories they index as well as through their repetitive cyclical
movements serve as a constant reminder of the right way to live ones
life (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:198).
Griffin-Pierce feels we have much to learn from the Navajo:
The prevailing values of non-Native American culture
have led to a country whose oceans and streams are polluted, and where
the air is often too choked to breathe. The modern Euro-American lifestyle
is too often emotionally overtaxing, highly pressured, materially oriented,
and spiritually depleted. We have come to expect immediate gratification
and to be entertained through the media rather than learning to draw
on our own powers of imagination and insight. It is not surprising that
many young Americans turn to drugs as they seek escape, communion, and
solace from the fastpaced, media-blitzed world (Griffin-Pierce
Walk in beauty is a phrase often quoted as representing the
essence of Navajo philosophy. It is a crude translation of a native phrase
that expresses the Navajo view of how to live a proper life: s2'ah
naagh1i bik'eh h0zh=.
A firm understanding of this phrase is essential for fully appreciating
the symbolism of the string game Pinching
Stars. H0zh= (Beauty)
is a central idea in Navajo thinking, but it means far more than outward
appearance: it means order, harmony, blessedness, pleasantness, everything
that is good, not evil, everything that is favorable to mankind, this
being the overall goal to which everyone and everything should strive.
The first part of the phrase s2'ah naagh1i
suggests how this ideal should be achieved: through death at a ripe old
age, i.e., normal completion of the life cycle. The rest of the phrase
means, according to the dictates of (the requirements of,
the desired goal of) h0zh=
(Page and Page 1995:35). So a full translation might read
reach an old age by living in harmony with the universe. Others
have translated the phrase as according to the ideal may restoration
be achieved (Griffin- Pierce 1992b:119) or the
one who is long life directs pleasant conditions (Haile 1947:24).
According to Father Berard Haile: Death of old age was desirable,
because it brought contentment with it in this life and no fear in the
next. There is no taboo on burying persons who have died of old age
(Haile 1947:21). Pinxten and van Dooren state: A full
life, carried through to its optimal end, lasts 102 years. When a person
dies of old age the transition between life and death is believed
to be safe; that is to say, the corpse is not dangerous for those living
on. In a sense, an old person has lived up his/her life force
(Pinxten and van Dooren 1992:104).
Two other concepts essential to the Navajo view
of an ordered, structured universe are those of n7[ch'7,
or the Holy Wind, and the inner forms. A firm understanding of these concepts
is essential for appreciating the symbolism of the string game Chest.
After their emergence onto the earths surface,
wind and inner forms were placed within all living things as a source
of life, movement, speech, and behavior. Rather than being an independent
spiritual agency that resides within the individual, like the Western
notion of the soul, Holy Wind is a single entity that exists everywhere
and in which all living beings participate... This means that all living
beings are related and that nothing exists in isolation. Furthermore,
breath and speech are intimately related to the concept of Holy Wind.
N7[ch'7 also refers to air
and thus involves the act of breathing. The act of breathing is a sacred
act through which the individual participates in an ongoing relationship
with all other living beings (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:72)
On breathing, the powerful ones (Holy People) enter ones lungs
and are both a part of the breather as well as his being a part of and
linked to all other beings. Thus by breathing, one has direct access
to the thought and speech of the Holy People (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:193).
Fingerprints and toeprints are expressions of the Holy Wind. A Navajo
told James McNeley (1981:35): The whorls at the tips
of our toes hold us to the Earth. Those at our fingertips hold us to the
Sky. Because of these, we do not fall when we move about.
Jack and Suzanne Page tell us that the concept of s2'ah
naagh1i and bik'eh
h0zh= is intimately
associated with the concept of the Holy Wind:
When the wind ceases to blow inside us, we become speechless.
Then we die. In the skin at the tips of our fingers we can see the trail
of that lifegiving wind (Page and Page 1995:28). Each person
has a wind that exists within, which provides the means for breathing,
moving, thinking, and talking. This wind arrives upon conception, sent
by the Holy People from the four directions, and it is at the same time
both part of the universal Wind and also made up of elements of that
Wind. Accounts vary as to how many elements are involved, but two key
ones are sometimes called s2'ah naagh1i
and bik'eh h0zh=.
One is thus born in the ideal Navajo state (Page and Page 1995:36).
From the medicine bundle of First Man arose S2'ah
naagh1i (Long Life), who would be the primary thought, the
thinking, of all the Holy People, and Bik'eh
who would be their speech. In this way, thought is seen as the power
of creation, and speech is the means to its active realization (Page
and Page 1995:36).
Mike Mitchell tells us that the string game Ayid (Chest)
represents protection of that which is vital to the body.
Furthermore, he states that all things have this. Surely,
he must be referring to n7[ch'7,
or the Holy Wind.
Back to top