Pride and Melancholy

This small, powerful book illustrates the inherent conflicts in the lives of Navajo women

The Navajo Nation is a landscape caught between modernity and some other state of being, one in which the erosion of the red rock by wind, water and time is the model for living in the Fifth World, the culmination of a people's journeys through four lesser worlds to arrive here, on a windswept high desert, rust-colored and strewn with dinosaur bones.

This Fifth World "sparkles with everything magical," writes Navajo journalist Betty Reid, and indeed, there does seem to be something magical on Navajoland, but it is a hard-won magic that is difficult to live up to.

Of the approximately 298,000 Navajo--the largest Native American nation--180,462 live on the reservation (51 percent of which are women), where hogans, many of them newly built with store-bought lumber, sit next to small, often severely dilapidated Anglo-style houses or a scattering of mobile homes, all beneath towering red sandstone cliffs. Dirt floors, haul-in water and spotty (if any) electricity are the norms outside the towns--and there aren't that many towns.

A traditional hogan is laid out according to the four cardinal directions, each representing a stage of Navajo life. The east represents birth and thinking; the south, adolescence; the west, adulthood and a time to apply knowledge learned; and the north, old age, wisdom and strength.

Reid has arranged her slim volume of portraits of Navajo women, Navajo Women: Saanii, out now from Rio Nuevo, according to this Navajo lifecycle, moving from birth to old age with short stories based on interviews with women who live on the reservation. The interviews are peppered with her own memories and concerns about being a woman in a fading matriarchal culture.

There is an anxiety in Reid's work. She is ambivalent about reservation life; she deeply appreciates her culture and history, but is unwilling to give up the conveniences her extra-reservation success has brought her. More and more Navajo are moving off the reservation all the time, escaping nearly 50 percent unemployment and endemic poverty. While this exodus is linked somewhat with a leap forward for the Diné--especially its women, who are leaving the reservation and attending college, becoming business owners, teachers, writers and, especially, nurses, doctors and health-care workers--knowledge of traditional Navajo lifeways, long the province of women and their memories, is disappearing, along with the intricate Navajo language.

"I am the child of Changing Woman. That's what I was told by my elders," 82-year-old Jeanette Reed, a retired sheepherder who lives in Tuba City, tells Reid.

Changing Woman is a principle deity in the Diné pantheon, the mother of the twin boys Child Born of Water and Monster Slayer, who killed the monsters who had terrorized the Diné in the lower world. She lives on the western edge of the nation, and is called upon often by the medicine men and women who still play a role in Navajo life. Changing Woman's story provides the model for the Kinaalda, the ritual practiced after a Diné girl's first and second menses.

Reid chronicles her own Kinaalda. "I did not feel one bit like Changing Woman that hot August day," she writes. The women in her family forbade her from giggling, smiling and eating sweets. While Changing Woman had run east and west for days and then ground corn on the occasion of her Kinaalda, Reid's re-enactment consisted of jogging a half-mile up to the top of a butte near the Little Colorado River Gorge wearing traditional Diné garb: A three-tiered silk skirt, a long-sleeve velveteen shirt, several heavy strands of turquoise and silver jewelry, and thin-soled moccasins. It must have felt like a four-day run, the August heat intense and the ground hot as pavement. And all this just a week after she'd been blithely playing with rock-fashioned dolls in the sagebrush. "You are an adult now," her mother had told her, taking away her childish things for good.

While Reid's portraits of Navajo women going through each stage of the lifecycle are interesting and illuminating, she really finds her voice when she's writing about her own life. The mixture of her own memories of growing up on the reservation and her interviews with teenagers, middle-aged working women and elderly retired sheepherders makes for a fascinating, almost elegiac essay on a culture in flux.

But the book would not be near what it is--and it is an excellent, essential portrait of contemporary Diné life--without the beautiful photographs by Kenji Kawano, who first traveled to the reservation from Japan in 1973 and, in 1978, married a Navajo woman. This union has obviously been a powerful and loving one, for Kawano has developed a distinctive eye for the delicate beauty and unyielding strength that seem to co-exist in reservation women, who are by turns proud, expectant and just a bit melancholy.

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