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

Introduction

Setting

 

Canyon de Chelly, the setting for this videotape, is very near the center of the Navajo reservation. At some points in the tape we can see the salmon cliffs of the Lukachuchai Mountains to the northeast and the long dark line of Black Mesa to the west. Beyond stand the sacred mountains of the four directions which enclose the Navajo world. Navajo people call the canyon "tesyi," rock canyon, a word Spaniards heard as "chelle" or "chegui," and Anglo-Americans through them as Canyon de Chelly, literally " Canyon Canyon ."

Whether they are descriptive or evaluative, discussions of this canyon and other parts of the sixteen million acre Navajo reservation tend to rely heavily upon the superlative. This is the largest Indian reservation in the country, and it is often described as the most desolate and the most magnificent, sometimes in the same breath. From a Navajo perspective, such judgments and comparisons are next to meaningless. What is important about Canyon de Chelly and virtually every other feature of the Navajo landscape, is its place in Navajo tradition. Canyon de Chelly was the last sanctuary violated by the United States Army in 1863-64 when, under Kit Carson, they tore Navajos from its walls and forced them into their hardest journey, the four hundred mile "Long Walk" to Fort Sumner , New Mexico . Stories of the Long Walk have become a very important part of Navajo oral tradition, but the importance of the Canyon in Navajo tradition goes far beyond them. As Andrew Natonabah tells us, Canyon de Chelly is a home of the Holy People, the creators of Navajo song. It is the source of the songs he sings. It is here that they were created and given to Navajo people, and it is from Canyon de Chelly that they extend out into the Navajo world.

Of their religion little or nothing is known, as, indeed, all inquiries tend to show that they have none. The lack of tradition is a source of surprise. . . . Their singing is but a succession of grunts and is anything but agreeable.

Jonathan Letherman,
Smithsonian Report for 1855

Religion

 

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

 

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.

Navajos view the universe as a dangerous place which contains good and evil elements. The goal of Navajo religion is to keep all these elements in balance, and, thereby, to keep the world going in an harmonious way. This balanced state of existence is described in the Navajo language as hozho, a concept we have translated in the songs as "Beauty." Navajo linguist Gary Witherspoon explains that hozho means far more
than just that:

We say that hozho refers to the positive or ideal environment. It is beauty, harmony, good happiness, and everything that is positive, and it refers to an environment which is all-inclusive.

Maintaining an environment of this sort involves both the Earth Surface People and the Holy People. The Holy People are supernatural beings who have great power to influence the lives of ordinary people, the Earth Surface People. Natonabah mentions several of them in his comments and in his songs: Talking God, House God, Big God. Navajo religion attempts to supplicate, even to compel, the Holy People so that harmony can be maintained or restored in the universe.

Navajo religion becomes most visible when hozho is disrupted by disease, by an offense to the Holy People, or by an intrusion of any sort in the lives of individual Navajos. When an individual has trouble physically or mentally, his life is out of balance and must be restored to hozho. Navajo religion has more than fifty rituals, usually called chantways or sings, designed to accomplish this restoration. A diagnostician employs one of several methods, such as star-gazing or hand-trembling to determine just what is wrong, and then may recommend the proper ritual which may help the individual to
bring his life back into balance. Nightway, one of the chantways mentioned on this tape, may be prescribed for such problems as blindness, paralysis, and insanity, while Enemyway, popularly known as "squaw dance," may be prescribed for those patients who have been in close contact with non-Navajos. It is one of the most commonly performed chantways presently.

Chantways contain the longest, the most potent, and the most profound Navajo songs. The Nightway, for example, fills nine nights with upwards of four hundred songs. The singer or medicineman in charge of a chantway must have a prodigious memory for in addition to remembering and performing the songs he must also direct all details of setting, ostume, and action at the ceremony. It is not uncommon for an individual to spend ten or more years, as Andrew Natonabah has, learning a single chantway.

Outside ceremonies, Navajo songs are aimed at maintaining an environment of order and beauty, hozho, in the daily life of Navajos. There are countless everyday songs of this sort. Witherspoon gives the following catalogue:

There are riding songs, walking songs, grinding songs, planting songs, growing songs, and harvesting songs. There are songs to greet the sun in the morning and songs to bid it farewell in the evening. There are songs for horses, for sheep, and for various other animal species. There are songs for blessing a hogan and songs for taking a sweat bath. In the past there were even songs for bidding visitors farewell. And, of course, there are songs of love and romance.

It is clear that there is no part of Navajo life that remains untouched by song.

A song moving out into space immediately surrounding an individual—for example, a horseman riding at night or anyone alone and fearful -- establishes a zone of protection that gives comfort, -- for within it is the person who dissipates the evils by the compulsion of sound and words at the same time that he buoys up his own spirit.

Gladys Reichard, Navajo Religion

Song and Travelling

 

The principal theme of these songs, motion, is a major theme in all of Navajo culture. It is estimated that there are over 350,000 distinct conjugations of the verb "to go" in Navajo. It is the most common verb in the language, somewhat equivalent to our verb "to be." The sacred narratives which tell of the origin of the Navajo chantways are more than anything accounts of mythic travelers, and the ceremonies these travelers institute are, for the most part, reenactments of their mythic journeys. In the chantways themselves the idea of restoration through ritual motion is central. As the hero of the Night Chant story approaches his goal, he is encouraged by his supernatural companion; "Fear not. Your body is holy. You are holy as you travel." The very act of traveling sanctifies.

We tend to think of songs in connection with traveling as a way of relieving the boredom of a journey, and surely there is some of that function in Navajo traveling songs. But Natonabah is careful to point out that these songs have more important functions. They are a way of communicating with the Holy People, and they provide him with a way of notifying them that he is keeping alive the songs they created. The need to communicate with the Holy People is made more immediate in this context by two considerations: first, Natonabah is traveling through Canyon de Chelly, near the home of the Holy People; and second, he is talking about them with his children and with
us on the videotape. Singing the songs, then, helps him to move within an environment of balance and harmony, of hozho.

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