Words And Places native literature from the american southwest

By This Song I Walk: Navajo Songs
With Andrew Natonabah


Related Readings


There is probably more written about Navajo people than about any other Indian group. A good bibliographic guide to this extensive literature is Peter Iverson's The Navajos: A Critical Bibliography (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1976), which is part of the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian Bibliographical Series. Two good overviews
of Navajo culture are Ruth Underhill 's The Navajos (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), and The Navajo (1946; rev. ed. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1974) by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorthea Leighton. The section on Navajos in Robert Spencer and Jess Jennings' text The Native Americans Prehistory and Ethnology of the North American Indians (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) is also concise and helpful. See pp. 318-336.

Campbell Grant's Canyon de Chelly: Its People and Rock Art (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978) is authoritative and readable.

The most useful book we have seen on Navajo oral literature, as well as the other Navajo arts, is Gary Witherspoon's Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977). Gladys Reichard's
encyclopedic Navajo Religion (1950; rpt. Princeton University Press, 1974) is also helpful. Songs are, of course, but one genre of Navajo oral literature. As Natonabah puts it: "The stories, the prayers, the songs, all come together in a literature."

The most important Navajo narrative is the story of their emergence through four underworlds into the present fifth world, and some familiarity with it is of great help in understanding the symbology of these songs. A good version,
originally collected by Aileen O'Bryan, is available in The South Corner of Time (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980), pp. 53-62. Another, prepared and published by Navajos themselves is Navajo History (Chinle, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1971). Edited by Ethelou Yazzie, it contains some exciting drawings and photographs which complement the
narrative. Other Navajo myths branch off this emergence narrative much like limbs off the trunk of a tree. Katherine Spencer's Mythology and Values: An Analysis of Nayaho Chantway Myths (Philadelphia; American Folklore Society, 1957) provides a good summary of these, though readers will have to go elsewhere to enjoy full versions of the stories. One good example is Leland C. Wyman's Blessingway (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1970).

Of the several cycles of Navajo tales, the most famous describes the Navajo trickster Coyote. A collection, designed for use in elementary schools, but of interest to us all, is Robert Roessel and Dillon Platero's Coyote Stories (Rough Rock, Arizona: Navajo Curriculum Center, 1968). Two very helpful interpretive essays on Navajo Coyote tales have been written by Barre Toelken: "The Pretty Language(s) of Navajo Song/12 Yellowman: Genre, Mode, and Texture in Navajo Coyote Narratives," Genre, 2 (1969), pp 211-235, and "Ma'i Joldloshi: Legendary Styles and Navajo Myth," which appears in Wayland Hand, ed., American Folk Legend (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1971), pp. 203-211.

A good example of the Navajo ceremonial songs in print is Washington Matthews' The Night Chant: A Navajo Ceremony which has recently been reprinted in John Bierhorst, ed. Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974). Two good commentaries on Navajo song as literature are Eda Lou Walton and T. T. Waterman's "American Indian Poetry," American Anthropologist, 27 (1925), pp. 25-52, and David McAllester's "A Different Drum: A Consideration of Music in Native American Humanities," in The Religious Character of Native American Humanities (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1977), pp. 155-83. The theme of motion in Navajo culture and literature is well discussed in Margot Astov's "The Concept of Motion as the Psychological Leitmotif of Navaho Life and Literature," Journal of American Folklore, 63 (1950), pp. 45-56.

David McAllester and Charlotte Frisbe have edited the life story of a Navajo singer. See Navajo Blessingway Singer: The Autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881-1967 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978). A superb collection of the life stories of thirteen Navajo men and women, some of them singers, has also been published by Navajo Community College Press as Stories of Traditional Navajo Life and Culture (Tsaile: Navajo Community College Press, 1977).

In addition to the novels of LaFarge, Momaday, and Silko mentioned, the influence of Navajo song on contemporary writing is well displayed in N. Scott Momaday's poem "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee," most available in Carriers of the Dream Wheel (New York; Harper and Row, 1975), a collection of contemporary native American poetry edited by Duane Niatum, The most radical "re-translation" of Navajo song is Jerome Rothenberg's "Navajo Horse Songs" series, two of which are published in Rothenberg's anthology of American Indian poetry Shaking the Pumpkin (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 350-53. Rothenberg's "re-translations" and those of others like him are very well criticized by William Bevis in his fine article "American Indian Verse Translations," College English, 35 (1974), pp. 693-703.

A full selection of Navajo oral and written literature is given in Larry Evers, ed., The South Corner of Time: Hopi, Navajo, Papago, Yaqui Tribal Literature (Tucson; University of Arizona Press, 1980).

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