Tales of Tradition

While scholarly in intent, Robert S. McPherson's book on the Navajo remains reader-friendly

In early May 1996, newspapers in Utah and New Mexico reported that two Navajo women, Sarah Begay and her 96 year-old mother, Irene Yazzie, were in their house in Rocky Ridge, Ariz. when they heard what sounded like an explosion overhead followed by a strange whistle. Then they heard voices and footsteps out in the yard.

In one version of the story, Sarah went outside to investigate, encountering two silver-haired Diné (Navajo) elders. Frightened, she turned to go back inside, but the men stopped her, telling her to not be afraid. They said that they had been sent by the gods to help the Navajo people, explaining that the persistent problem of drought on the reservation was caused by the tribe's disregard of traditional religious practices. Declaring that failure to resume the tribe's ancient customs would lead to even more misfortune, they vanished, leaving behind nothing but moccasined footprints encircled with corn pollen.

This singular event created quite a stir among the Navajo. By the end of May, more than 6,000 people had visited the house, hand tremblers divined that the visitation was indeed a spiritual phenomenon and the Navajo Nation President suggested that the site be made a permanent shrine. June 20 was designated a day of prayer and unity throughout the reservation, and, the very next day, the nearly year-long drought was broken by a torrential downpour.

While the metaphysical implications of this visitation are anybody's guess, it does offer an illuminative glimpse into the culture which produced it. In his scholarly collection of essays, Dinéjí Na'Nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History, Utah State Unversity professor of history, Robert S. McPherson, uses this and other compelling stories to take readers inside the world of the Navajo, a "unique and vibrant" culture which is struggling, like indigenous societies worldwide, to preserve traditional ways in a world increasingly dominated by modern Western values.

McPherson, who has lived and worked among the Diné for more than 30 years, writes that the traditional Navajo view of reality is difficult for most Westerners to grasp because it frames the world primarily in nonmaterial terms. However, he maintains that the Navajo worldview is no less viable than its Western, scientifically grounded counterpart.

"Their teachings," he says, "are perceptive, opening up the world to a very different set of understandings and assumptions not found in the dominant society. They are all connected and framed in a rational network of ideas that, when taken in their entirety not only make sense but serve as a guide for daily life from ..."

Traditional Navajo culture is, indeed, an exceedingly complex tapestry of customs and beliefs. However, McPherson's comprehensive exploration of Diné traditions is quite accessible. He expounds on the "holy people," cosmic prime movers who, it is believed, are actively involved in human affairs; Navajo divination techniques such as wind listening and star gazing; the integral role played by metaphor and other figurative language in the transmission of cultural wisdom; the Great Gambler, an epic mythological figure whose questionable exploits symbolize mankind gone awry; and the deeply mystical notion that good and evil are manifestations of the same spiritual power.

It is the stories which provide the clearest glimpse into this fascinating culture. One story delineates the violent, early 20th century showdown between a strong-willed government agent bent on modernizing reservation life and an intractable Navajo medicine man. In striking contrast is the truly inspiring story of H. Baxter Liebler, an Episcopalian missionary who, embracing Diné traditions, developed a lyrical blend of Christian and Navajo teachings.

Seeing the younger generation of Navajos as being "buried in a contemporary blizzard of activities ... that (makes) the old ways seem arcane, outdated, and impractical," many Diné elders view the fading away of traditional culture as the central problem facing the tribe. Following the mysterious visitation at Rocky Ridge, Navajo Nation speaker, Kelsey Begaye voiced the sense of urgency it elicited.

"The majority of our children," he says, "are not speaking their Navajo language; they are not being taught their cultural and traditional values; the foundation of family values are not being emphasized to them; and we are straying from our spiritual strength and values. We must begin our journey back to being a strong Nation, we must start now."