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  Navajo Taboos

Seasonal taboos prohibiting string games in the summer are rooted in the concept of the Holy People. Griffin-Pierce provides an explanation:

The universe contains two groups of beings: the Earth Surface People, who are ordinary human beings, and the diyin dine'4, who possess supernatural powers. 'Diyin dine'4 is usually translated as “Holy People”, although a more appropriate translation would be “Supermen” or “Superbeings” because they possess special powers (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:30). The Holy People are never described as being perfect because we aren’t perfect either. They teach us to strive for perfection but to be compassionate and patient with ourselves if we fall short (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:31). Illness of the body and mind or other misfortune is the result of deliberately or unwittingly breaking the prescriptions of the Holy People. When such a transgression occurs, harmony and well-being can only be restored by... a ceremonial designed to deal with the particular forces that caused the illness (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:36).

The Holy People are everywhere, as Mike Mitchell explains:

Every creature, every aspect of nature has its holy people...even the stinkbug. Sometimes you can see them, if only for an instant. They are represented, some of them, by colors: the blue sky, the evening dusk, the night — these are holy people and one prays to them. There are iron people, crystal people... dawn people, twilight people, air, thunder, and cloud people. One does not talk about such things in nature when they and their holy people are present. (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:31).

Mitchell’s last statement is a reference to seasonal taboos. Jack Page provides key details:

Winter is a time of year when many things can be openly discussed, such things as bears and badgers, lightning, and old stories of origins, without fear that these features of nature, in the form of their Holy People, will turn on you. It was a time when spiders as well are not present so people can play string games (Page and Page 1995:111). A Navajo taboo says that you don’t play string games in the summer because it will cause bad weather, bad luck, and furthermore, Spider Woman will tie your eyes shut (Page and Page 1995:111).

Further details are supplied by Mike Mitchell in his recent booklet on string games:

The String Games are only played in the winter because the spiders hibernate during that time. It cannot be played in front of the summer and spring Holy Beings. When spring comes, you cannot leave the string lying around. Because the String Game is sacred, the string is to be untied,washed, and given back to the Holy People by placing the string under a plant and giving it Corn Pollen (Mitchell 1999:3).

Clearly, seasonal taboos prohibiting string games are widespread and well established among the Navajo. But practically speaking, what gave rise to this taboo? One can only speculate. Traditionally, spring, summer, and fall were the seasons in which all members of a tribe or extended family, even children, needed to focus on the production and storage of food for the coming winter. Their survival depended on it. Individuals who devoted too much time to leisure activities jeopardized the welfare of the entire tribe by not contributing fully to the labor pool. For an adult this concept is easy to grasp, but since children usually do not respond to reasoning, perhaps parents developed scare tactics to discourage the unwanted behavior. These threats were later immortalized as taboos.

Sustenance-based arguments may well explain seasonal taboos of the past, but how about today, when canned goods and supplies are readily available on the reservation? Why are string games still played only in winter? One of Page’s informants summed it up nicely: “If it wasn’t for these string games, we Navajos would go crazy in the wintertime. There’s practically nothing to do this time of year with all this snow (Page and Page 1995:112).” Thus, by voluntarily restricting string games to the winter season, the society maintains their magic, luster, and entertainment value year after year. Anglos do the same when they pack up their Christmas ornaments in January (why not celebrate Christmas year round?).

But some taboos defy explanation. For example, mother-in-laws are not supposed to look at their son-in-laws. This taboo is immortalized in the string game Two Hogans Facing in Opposite Directions (Opposite Hogans). Navajo children will still warn their visiting grandmother that their father is approaching, at which point she will leave. It would be rude for her to remain, just as it would be rude for her son-in-law to visit her hogan unannounced. The only explanation ever given for this custom is that “it avoids a lot of trouble in the family.” (Locke 1992:22).


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