Words And Places native literature from the american southwest
 

By This Song I Walk: Navajo Songs
With Andrew Natonabah

Andrew Natonabah and Children
Andrew Natonabah and Children

For Comment and Discussion

Structure

 

Andrew Natonabah says that these traveling songs are songs from one of the chantways, the Nightway. They are very complex in form and association, and it would be arrogant for non-Navajos to expect to understand them fully. But by looking at them we can appreciate a few of the stylistic devices they employ to maintain an environment of order and harmony around the singer. Perhaps the most striking feature of the songs is their repetitiveness and symmetry. Looking just at the opening song we can see immediately that a four-fold repetition of the refrain "By this song I walk" opens and closes the song and divides it into two stanzas. We also notice that each of the two stanzas concludes with the well-known hozho sequence from the Blessingway in which the singer declares that hozho is before, behind, above, below, and all around him because of his song. The structure of the song is almost perfectly balanced and symmetrical.

Symbols

 

Perhaps one of Letherman's problems in appreciating Navajo song was his inability to recognize Navajo religion. Navajo religion pervades and is expressed in all of Navajo life. The two cannot be separated. Barre Toelken reports that his Navajo friends "say that there is probably nothing that can be called nonreligious." That is certainly true of Navajo song, and before we can say much about the songs sung by Natonabah on this videotape, we need to know something about Navajo religion.

Hozho

 

So too is its symbology. The verses of the song are a series of predications alternating with the refrain. In them Natonabah identifies himself with two of the Holy People and the powers associated with them. We notice that each thing mentioned in the first stanza is balanced by its opposite in the corresponding verse of the second stanza:

Talking God
Dawn
White Corn
Hard Goods
(Precious stones,
jewelry and so on)
Hard Rain
House God
Dusk
Yellow Corn
Soft Goods
(Blankets, rugs, and the like)
Soft Rain

Natonabah identifies House God as Female and Talking God as Male. The two have complex associations in Navajo tradition. They appear as a pair in the story of the origin of the Nightway Chant, and they appear as masked dancers when it is performed. Generally, Talking God is believed to have control of the dawn and the eastern sky and House God control of the sunset and the western sky. By way of allusions of this sort, the singer is able to draw together important parts of Navajo religious and literary tradition into an ordered song. The highly balanced and ordered song seems a perfect vehicle for what the singer is attempting to do: maintain hozho, and environment of order and harmony.

In white society, it is the exceptional and abnormal person that becomes the artist. The artist is usually associated with marginality and nonconformity with regard to the mainstream of society. From this marginal position the artist dedicates himself solely to his artistic creations. The no artist among the Navajo is a rarity. Moreover, Navajo artists integrate their artistic endeavors into their other activities. Living is not a way of art for them, but art a way of living.

Gary Witherspoon,
Language and Art in the Navajo Universe

The Singer

 

Andrew Natonabah is in this sense unexceptional. He was born on the Navajo reservation near Tuba City and continues to live there at Tsaile, where he presently heads the Division of Navajo Studies at Navajo Community College . He is a Navajo diagnostician, a stargazer, and though approaching sixty, an
apprentice medicine man, a singer learning the Nightway. Over the years he has had many jobs, among them soldier, teacher, and tribal policeman. By the time we first asked him to contribute to this series in the spring of 1975, he had also appeared in several movies, spoken at numerous conferences,
and been a guest on the television show "What's My Line?" He chooses, then, to step to the margins of his society on occasion to interpret it to others. We should be sure to notice that as a teacher and as a father, Natonabah takes special care to instruct his children through the songs, emphasizing for them
the values of Navajo tradition.

I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the sings, Beauty way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things, and I told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.

N. Scott Momaday,
House Made of Dawn

 

Song and Written Literature

Many of us who are interested in American Indian literature will know something of Navajo songs if only because they are so much alluded to in contemporary literature. Such widely taught novels as Oliver LaFarge's Laughing Boy and Momaday's House Made of Dawn are laced with translations of Navajo songs. Others, such as Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, allude to them and to their singers significantly. Virtually all
anthologies of American Indian literature presently available contain translations or "re-translations" of them, and more than a few contemporary poets have used Navajo song forms as models for their own poems. It is important for us to notice the influence Navajo song has had on contemporary writing.

All original recordings are archived in the Southwest Folklore Center, University of Arizona . Copies of this videotape without English subtitles are available to Navajo speakers through the Division of Media and Instructional
Services, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

By This Song I Walk: Navajo Songs | Seyewailo: The Flower World Yaqui Deer Songs | The Origin of the Crown Dance: An Apache Narrative and Ba'ts'oosee: An Apache Trickster Cycle | Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories & Hopi Songs | Natwaniwa: A Hopi Philosophical Statement | Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems | Songs of My Hunter Heart: Laguna Songs and Poems | A Conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr. | Home