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Navajo People

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Navajo Nation

The Navajo Indian culture is one of great pride filled with sacred traditions, beliefs and ceremonies that have been handed down from generation to generation. Their cultural background and beliefs have been infused throughout their people and they take pride in making sure that their story and experiences are known throughout all of their cultural members, young and old. The background of the Navajo people, including their primary mode of subsistence, their beliefs and values (including the use of medicines and ceremonies for rituals), gender relations as well as economic and social organizations will all be discussed throughout this paper.

The Navajo culture is now considered to be a pastoralist society. Pastoralism is a subsistence strategy that involves herding and caring for animals. These types of societies depend on the animals for their survival and the majority of their focus is placed on maintaining their herds and producing what is necessary for the herd to remain healthy and plentiful (Nowak & Laird, 2010). Archeologist theorize that the Navajo initially moved south from the Canadian region into the American Southwest sometime between 1300 and 1500 AD (Weisiger, 2004). At this time, the Navajo were hunters and gatherers. The Navajo culture came into contact with the Pueblo Indian culture and adopted their farming techniques for growing mostly beans, squash, corn and similar crops. At this point, they were not considered to be pastoralist since they mostly concentrated on hunting, gathering, and farming as opposed to caring for and herding animals. The Navajos homeland, known as Dinè'tah, had a bountiful supply of elk, mountain sheep, deer, and of course smaller game such as squirrels, rabbits, etc. (Gabriel, 1992).

After coming into contact with the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Navajo learned the practice of herding and caring for sheep and goats which resulted in pastoralism to arise within the culture in the arid canyons of the Dine homeland (Weisiger, 2004). The Navajo tribes then began dealing primarily with sheep and used them for all sources of life sustaining materials. Navajo used the wool for clothing and blankets, the meat for food, and even the size of the herds were considered to be their label for social status. Sheep also became their means of currency (Bailey, 1980). With the implementation of herding becoming their primary means of life, their settlement patterns changed and as opposed to living in more permanent settlements near their crops, the Navajo began using separate territories for seasons. These areas were based upon the needs of their herds during the seasons in order to maintain the size and health of their herds (McPherson, 1988).

The Navajo culture is full of beliefs and contains a rich cultural background. According to the Official Navajo Nation Visitor Guide (2012), the Diné, or Navajo people, believe that they have passed through three different worlds before becoming a part of this world, known as the "Glittering World." The Diné believe there are two different classes of beings: the Earth People and the Holy People. The Holy People essentially are believed to watch over the Earth People and have the power to help or harm them. The Earth people must do everything that they can to maintain harmony and balance on earth in order live prosperously. The Diné believe that the Holy People taught them to live the correct way and how to properly conduct life in order to maintain harmony with Mother Earth, Father Sky and all of the elements of the planet, such as mankind, animals, insects, plants, and the other elements.

The Official Navajo Nation Visitor Guide (2012) also states that other than believing that there are four worlds, the number four also infiltrates through other customary Navajo philosophy. The Holy People were believed to have placed four sacred mountains in four different directions. Mount Blanca is to the east and is represented by the white shell. Mount Taylor is to the south and is represented by turquoise. San Francisco Peak is to the west and is represented by yellow abalone. Lastly Mount Hesperus is to the north and is represented by jet black. The Navajo culture also follows the philosophy of having four directions, four seasons, and the first four original clans. In most rituals, there are four songs or multiples of four contained within them. There are more than sixty different types of ceremonies that can be used in the Navajo culture, all of which are performed at various times for specific customary reasons. These ceremonies can be as brief as a few hours, while others may last over a week.

These ceremonies also play a vital role in the Navajo's belief system when it comes to illnesses or other disorders with in the tribes. Medicine men are used when it comes to illness within the Navajo tribe. This traditional role that deems certain men as a qualified medicine man is a role that is believed to bestow an individual with supernatural powers to diagnose a person's illness or problem and to help treat, heal or cure their illness. This restores harmony to the individual and thus to the tribe as a whole. The Navajo people place extreme faith in the healing ceremonies that are conducted. An example, given by Jack Coulehan (2009), would be the case of Sarah Mailcarrier, who was an elderly Navajo woman who lived at Cornfields on the Navajo Reservation. She was visited by Jack Coulehan, who upon examination was sure that she was terminally ill. She was taken to a local hospital and it was determined that she was suffering from cancer of the cervix which had spread throughout her pelvis and abdomen. The patient declined any medical interventions and instead placed their faith in a medicine man. The medicine man, or ha'atali, conducted a Blessingway which is a nine day healing ceremony that involves ritualistic chants, dances, sand paintings, feastings and socializing (Coulehan, 2009). The ceremony was a success and Mailcarrier's pain disappeared, her energy increased and she was able to continue her role as the family's matriarch for several months before drifting into a coma and passing away. As is tradition, Mailcarrier's family paid for this ceremony with sheep and as it was quite an expensive ceremony to perform several sheep had to be slaughtered to pay for the ceremony to be performed. While the medicine man may not have cured her cancer, he did return harmony and restore the positive balance in her life. This is all a key belief within the Navajo culture.

As with any culture, gender roles play a key role in any society. Within the traditional Navajo culture, there are five genders that are recognized. Jacobs, Thomas & Lang (1997) describe the five genders as woman, man, nadleeh, masculine

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