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Navajo Philosophy & World View
Organization of the Cosmos
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Navajo 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 humankind’s 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 Navajo’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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 1992a:8).

“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. Griffin-Pierce states:

After their emergence onto the earth’s 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 one’s 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 H0zh= (Happiness), 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.


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