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For the Navajo, religion was woven into the fabric of their lives

Hastobíga, Navajo Medicine man - Edward Curtis photo
public domain - Edward Curtis photograph

Earlier in the summer, news reports circulated regarding the death of the last of the original Navajo ‘Code Talkers,’ Chester Nez. He managed to survive to the age of 93, and passed away just before the anniversary of D-Day. Mr. Nez was one of the original 29 Navajo Indians known as ‘code talkers’ who developed the unbreakable code that the United States successfully used against the Japanese military during WWII. In light of the various media reports and news stories in recent times about the disdain of the American Indian toward the United States government, it is quite amazing that Chester Nez stands out against the recent negatively oriented political activism expressed by a younger generation of American Indians.
His story would seem to contain a deeper significance that those who simply seek to protest against the horrible deeds that a government committed long ago. Those days of mistreatment and violence had passed, and when the United States went to war with the Japanese Imperial government, hundreds of other Navajo men like Nez also joined the code talkers later in the war. Their story has been well documented, and the popular movie, Windtalkers released in 2002, dramatized the experiences of the peculiar dangers these men faced while in the midst of combat. These men put the past behind them and went off to a foreign land to help defend other’s freedom – freedom that the U.S. government had denied to their ancestors.
The lesson of forgiveness is almost lost in the irony. It is one of those paradoxical circumstances that are often difficult to fathom. But for many of these young Navajo, they moved beyond the notion that they were willing to go off to war and serve the nation which was once the former enemy of their people. In fact, to lose the essential nature of these people such as Chester Nez, is a genuine loss. In another day and age, these young men may have been fighting against other young men dressed in U.S. Army blue. The past was not as important as the present reality for them, and if one seriously thinks about it, one of the more impressive memories in the nation’s history would be of the Navajo who fought for this nation in both world wars.
The irony is that the Navajo were at one time mortal enemies of the United States as they were forcibly dislocated from their homelands through a combination of aggressive force from the U.S. Cavalry and neighboring enemy tribes. During the 1850s, the Navajo were threatened by dislocation from their sacred homelands, and they fought back like many other tribes before them. At that time, as in times before, resistance was met by military force. In this particular incident with the Navajo (there had been many since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors), the New Mexico volunteers shut down the Navajo by burning their crops and killing their livestock during the summer of 1863. As winter set in, thousands of Navajo people, cold and hungry, surrendered in early 1864 at their stronghold in Canyon de Chelly.
Then the New Mexico volunteers, led by Colonel Kit Carson, drove the Navajo onto the ‘Long Walk’ and into forced internment in an area called the Bosque Redondo (or Hweeldi by the Navajo) located in the Pecos River Valley. The Long Walk can be compared in U.S. history to the more well-known “Trail of Tears,” which primarily refers to the time of the forced relocation of the Cherokee and other American Indian peoples of the Southeast. In a similar way to some stubborn peoples of the Five Civilized Tribes, there were also some Navajo chiefs who refused to surrender and led their people to evade the U.S. Army. The renegade Navajo scattered to Navajo Mountain and the Grand Canyon lands. The most notable of these chiefs who resisted were Manuelito (known as Man of Sacred Plants and Holy Boy, among other names).
Like they had fought against the Spaniards when the Conquistadors came up from Mexico, they tried to fight and protect their homelands, but this time to no avail, and the Navajo people failed in these battles and were separated from their land. They were eventually allowed to return to their land, but the people were limited to the confines of a reservation within the Four Corners area. For the Navajo, their love for the land and the view that it is sacred is central to their continued existence. Today, the hard core Navajo would never again want to be separated from their beloved land, and it is their religious ways and customs that bind them to their sacred homeland where their ancestors may have lived for close to 5,000 or 6,000 years.
The name Navajo was actually not always the name they used to refer to themselves. This name was the name the Spaniards applied to the people they encountered in the southwest as they explored this area of North America in the 1500s. The Spaniards named these people the Navajo after the place where these peoples lived. The Spanish learned to avoid the territory to which the name referred. The Navajo originally called themselves “Dine’” or literally, “the People.” They now prefer Navajo as appropriate in their attempts to look to the future rather than to the past. After the Long Walk, and since the time of reservations, most of their major public ceremonies have focused on healing in a much broader sense with the concern to maintain harmony with the supernatural powers or the deities.
They inherited their spiritual traditions from their ancestors who were travelers and hunters, and their history may include the incredible journey of the predecessors of the Dine’ perhaps trekking across the Bering land bridge into North America. Some scholars estimate that such people arrived late (relatively speaking) to North America, perhaps as recently as 5,000 – 6,000 years ago. Eventually, after learning farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples and acquiring domesticated sheep from the Spaniards, the hardened hunter-gatherers turned to farming and herding and ultimately used the wool in their expert weaving of blankets and clothing. After settling down somewhat and making the desert their home, the Dine’, began absorbing various religious and mythological concepts from the neighboring peoples.
As it happened, the three neighboring tribes, the Hopi, the Pima, and the Zuni had previously assimilated the mythology and rituals of the forerunners or much earlier peoples like the Anasazi and Hohokam cultures. One common thread that links these tribes is that their religion is not separate from their daily lives. For those of the old religion, the deeper purpose of Navajo life is to maintain harmony between the Holy People (supernatural ones) and the Earth Surface People (human beings). The Navajo believe that the Holy People created the original human ancestors, and had provided the Earth Surface People with the necessary practical knowledge to survive and the ceremonial knowledge to continue to live on the land.
To these peoples, and as with many American Indian nations, religion was not simply limited to a belief system; it was a way of life. What is really interesting is that the Dine’ or Navajo, did not create a unique or distinct word for religion in their language – it was because their religion was woven into the fabric of life as they lived each day. For these people, it was not their faith or belief that was central to their religion, but how they actually lived their lives as an expression of their religion. Navajo religion can be understood as 'life itself, the land, and well-being.' All living things - people, plants, animals, mountains, and the Earth itself - are relatives. Each entity is infused with its own spirit, or 'inner form', enabling each part of creation with life and purpose in an orderly and interconnected universe.