Navajo and Native American Identity

Below are excerpts from an article from the Native American scholarly journal Wicazo Sa Review.

Lee, Lloyd. "Navajo Cultural Identity: What Can the Navajo Nation Bring to the American Indian Identity Discussion Table?" Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 79-103.

American Indian identity in the twenty - first century has become an engaging topic. Recently, discussions on Ward Churchill’s racial background became a “hotbed” issue on the national scene. A few Native nations, such as the Pechanga and Isleta Pueblo, have disenrolled members. Scholars such as Circe Strum, in Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Eva Marie Garroutte, in Real Indians: Identity and Survival of Native America, have examined American Indian identity. More attention is being devoted to understanding the implications of racial identity in Native nations.
The history of the Navajo Nation documents the continuing growth and change of the people. Navajo people have adapted to their physical and social environment since creation, and the enormous amount of American infl uence and intrusion on the Navajo way of life is a study that cannot be ignored. As a citizen of the Navajo Nation, I
contribute this article to the continuing discussion on Indian identity. I review a selection of literature on Navajo society, the historical understandings of what it meant to be Navajo and how that has changed, and call to the Navajo Nation to rethink and restructure current enrollment standards. I use textual analysis and ethnographic interviews for my approach to analyzing Navajo identity. Although this overview does not provide all the angles of Navajo identity, it will be a first step to understanding how selected citizens of the Navajo Nation view identity and how those individuals acknowledge historical cultural identity markers in their definitions of twenty - first century Navajo identity.
The following short excerpts are about Navajo identity viewed through the eyes of Navajo and non-Navajo identity:

It is important to note that most scholarship on Navajo culture is written by non - Navajos, but outside scholarship can observe only so much of the anthropological aspects of Navajo society. Non - Navajo scholars observed and recorded Navajo cultural practices with the belief that the Navajo would disappear and that they were salvaging what was left of a dying culture. This paternalistic relationship is problematic for several reasons, including a continued colonialist attitude by non - Navajo scholars toward Navajo culture and society, subjective judgment of Navajo cultural practices, and the many texts that provide only a superficial representation of Navajo culture and society...

For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen to discuss texts that focus on worldview. The Navajo worldview is based on the philosophical principles of Hozho and Sa’ah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozhoon (hereafter, SNBH [my bold]), which outline epistemological concepts that are the essence of the Navajo way of life. Generally speaking, Navajo people are supposed to live a life based on the concept of Hozho and SNBH...

The Navajo worldview originates from the creation stories told to the people. These origin stories are the foundational base of the Navajo society and way of life and are passed down so that the Navajo can have a connection to the Diyin Dine’é (Holy People). The Navajo worldview translates to Navajo cultural identity. Generally speaking, the stories, values, and beliefs Navajo people are taught at a young age formulate a Navajo person’s approach to life...

Navajo scholar Miranda Haskie wrote her dissertation, Preserving a Culture: Practicing the Navajo Principles of Hozho doo K’é
, on her grandfather, Albert “Chic” Sandoval Sr., and his accomplishments in life. Haskie developed a grounded theory describing ways people from
culturally diverse backgrounds can preserve their culture despite their integration into a dominant society...She states, "In order to survive the integration with a dominant culture, the secondary culture must meet certain conditions. When these conditions are met, people successfully preserve their culture. These conditions include practicing Hozho doo K’é, becoming educated, utilizing tools (products of preservation, such as customs that have been recorded on tape and in books), practicing leadership, changing, and adapting.
Maureen Trudelle Schwarz, a non - Navajo scholar, examines how present - day Navajos cope with life’s challenges. Her book, Navajo Lifeways: Contemporary Issues, Ancient Knowledge, provides another perspective on practicing Navajo cultural identity for the present. In Navajo
Lifeways, Schwarz examines six recent events and issues and how Navajos cope using their historical beliefs and values. The six events and issues are the hantavirus outbreak in 1993, the Navajo relocation from Black Mesa from 1974 to 1999, the Holy Visit from Navajo deities in 1996, the discovery of snakes in the ladies’ room in the Navajo Nation tribal government’s offi ces in the mid - 1990s, Navajo women’s use of emotional expressions as protest action, and the problem of alcoholism on the reservation. Schwarz examines each, particularly focusing on how Navajo people confronted them based on the oral stories and the values and beliefs they were taught.
By relying on the stories told to the people for generations, the Navajo people were able
to adapt and confront the six challenges discussed in Schwarz’s book. But what about Navajo people who do not hold those values and beliefs or those who were never taught them? How would they cope? Signifi cantly, Schwarz does not discuss this. Her omission connotes that “authentic” Navajos are connected to these stories. The strength of Navajo society lies in the diversity of individual Navajos. The “nonauthentic” voice must be included.
Clyde Kluckhohn, a non - Navajo, who extensively studied Navajo people and culture, and wrote several articles and texts on Navajo life, philosophy, and culture. The root of Kluckhohn’s work is a discussion and analysis of Navajo ideas about life and how to live it, and how those ideas have been affected by Euro - American society. His article “The Philosophy of the Navaho Indians,” published in 1959, contributes to the non - Navajo understanding of Hozho and SNBH and attempts to produce an understanding of Navajo philosophy.
In it Kluckhohn describes the worldview espoused by Navajo intellectuals, medicine men or healers, which is followed by common Navajo people.
The latter segment of Kluckhohn’s essay focuses on the impact of Euro - American culture on these Navajo premises, ethical codes, and values. This section provides an adequate analysis on how Euro-American values and beliefs infl uenced Navajo people and how they were drifting away from the philosophical standards described earlier in the essay. For instance, Kluckhohn writes, “The introduction of the white idea of individualism without the checks and balances that accompany it leads to the failure of collective or cooperative action of every sort.”10 While this segment of the essay is short, his interpretations of how Euro - American society was changing Navajo values and beliefs foretell developments in Navajo cultural identity in the twenty-first century.
Wilson Aronilth Jr.’s Foundation of Culture stands in stark contrast to Kluckhohn’s and Farella’s works. Aronilth, a Diné and an instructor at Diné College, wrote this book in the 1980s as a teaching guide for his Diné philosophy courses. The text emphasizes the basic tribal values in Navajo society, today and in the past, including the value of clans as a social system, the philosophy of duality, Navajo origin, and ceremonial participation. The Foundation of Navajo Culture has information on the creation of the Navajo calendar, the origin and story of the Navajo language, the Navajo way of learning, the foundation and story of the Navajo clan system, and how the Navajo clans are related.
Navajo scholar Evangeline Parsons - Yazzie examines this in her essay “Perceptions of Selected Navajo Elders Regarding Navajo Language Attrition.” Parsons - Yazzie’s article probes issues related to the decline of the Navajo language. She examines monolingual Diné-speaking elders’ isolation and loneliness, the loss of social control in mixed families of speakers and nonspeakers of Diné, and the loss of the language that leads to the loss of the culture. Parsons - Yazzie interviewed Navajo elders concerned about the loss of the Diné language. Elders view the Diné language as a language of compassion, unifi cation, and love, and feel that the younger Navajo generations are turning their backs on their language and culture. One elder states that belief with the following translation, "In order to know Navajo values, one has to know the
Navajo language. It is the parents’ responsibility to teach the young and it is the grandparents’ role to reinforce Navajo language learning in their grandchildren. How will our Navajo youth know what is good, what is right, and what is accepted, if they do not know their language well
enough to accept the teachings of their elders?"
Is it the younger generation’s fault that they don’t know the language,or is it the entire Navajo society? Or a third party? Does it matter who is at fault? Or should revitalizing the language be the utmost concern? The elders stress how Navajo children are not learning the Diné language and values. According to Parsons - Yazzie, the children see the Navajo way of life led by an elder as boring, unhappy, and miserable. Navajo children, according to the elders, are too confused and have too many thoughts. This is in reference to some Navajo children who choose to integrate other cultures’ products into their own personal identity (i.e. listening to rap or hip hop music)...

The Diné language is alive today, but there are fewer Navajo speakers than thirty or fi fty years ago. The loss of the language is part of Navajo cultural identity in the twenty - fi rst century. That language loss does not mean non–Navajo speakers are not Navajos; rather it will
be up to the Navajo people to decide whether they want their language to continue, or pass on like other historical Navajo cultural products.
The author than goes into historical Diné identity:
Current Navajo enrollment standards do not include historical Navajo cultural identity markers. The Navajo Nation defi nes their citizenry through blood quantum and lineal descent. The enrollment criteria consist of the following: (1) person’s name appears on the offi cial roll of the Navajo tribe maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; (2) person with at least one - fourth degree Navajo blood, but who has not previously enrolled as a member of the tribe, is eligible for tribal membership and enrollment; (3) children born to any enrolled member of
the Navajo tribe shall automatically become members of the Navajo tribe and shall be enrolled, provided they are at least one - fourth degree Navajo blood. If the enrollment criteria does not include historical Navajo cultural identity markers, can the enrollment standards be changed to include historical cultural identity markers in the future?...

Historical Navajo cultural identity derives from the creation stories of the Navajo people. From these stories, Navajos know how they came to be and where they have been. Land is central to the stories...
Diné teacher Wilson Aronilth Jr. describes a person’s role in life, “Our role in life is to have love, faith, hope, preparation and plans. Why? Because this way our tasks are fi nished in beauty.”21 Historical Navajo people did not distinguish non - Navajo people based on race but rather on what experience the Navajo people had with them. For example, Naakaii refers to the Mexican people and the English translation is “those who roam around.” In other words, the Navajo people described the behaviors of the people, not their blood or race. So, has Navajo cultural identity changed since European contact? It has changed to include new cultural productions such as speaking new words to describe new tangible products like televisions and telephones. Although a few Navajo people still practice historical Navajo cultural identity, many do not and so enrollment requirements do not contain these historical
identity markers. However, the younger Navajo generation is learning to recognize the historical cultural identity markers of worldview, land, language, and kinship...
The author than goes over historical Navajo cultural identity markers in the 21st century:
In my research, I studied the connections between Navajo people, the choices each individual makes whether to epitomize their cultural identity or not, the infl uence their college education has in their identity formation, and what defi nes Navajo cultural identity. I interviewed five men and seven women between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-seven. Some live or had lived on the reservation, while others live in, or grew up in, an urban setting. All participants were college graduates or college students. All spoke English, and three also spoke fluent Diné.

He never questioned his Navajo identity until he started taking college courses. He had lived in a small reservation town where no one questioned Navajo identity. He thought he was similar to all Navajos in that he was making a living and being with his family. In college, he took
Native American studies classes and began to ask critical and thought-provoking questions on the history of colonialism in the United States and the use of blood quantum as an identity marker. College changed Dee’s mindset to such an extent that he began to examine situations
on the reservations for the fi rst time. Why did Native people live in poverty? Why did Native people not have basic living services such as running water and electricity? He had not questioned his standard of living when he was younger. He began to read and learn about Hozho and SNBH. When I asked about his thoughts on the Navajo worldview, he focused on the importance of praying. He said, “Way of thinking, ways of getting up in the morning, getting up before the sun comes up, praying.”...

Language has become pivotal to the people because everything about Navajo society, such as the prayers, songs, ceremonies, and rituals, is based on how the people interact, analyze, and synthesize the way of life through language. Studies by Deborah House, in Language Shift among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity, Evangeline Parsons - Yazzie, and others document the Navajo language shift. Even though there is a language shift occurring at this moment, all of my research participants agree, even those who do not speak Diné, that
language is still a critical cultural identity marker for the people.
Steve noted that early in his life he was ashamed of who he was and of his family. He says, “At one point, I remember I didn’t want to be Navajo and that was because I was embarrassed of the kind of lifestyle and the kind of dysfunctional family that I was raised in comparison to other [non - Indian] families that I had met while growing up.” This is not unusual: some Navajos are ashamed of their cultural identity. They try to conceal it because they do not have certain material goods such as a luxury car, a computer, a cell phone, or other items that distinguish socioeconomic status; or because they do have the socio economic ills such as no viable job, no college education, or are or have family members who are alcoholics. Steve and the other participants realize the importance of the Diné language to Navajo cultural identity today and the need to learn it.
Conluding the paper:
The Navajo Nation brings to the American Indian identity discussion table its own distinct view of identity based on cultural features such as worldview, language, kinship, land, pride, and respect. None of these historical and current cultural identity markers are written in the enrollment criteria; Navajo enrollment continues to use race and blood. As its population increases and its society changes, can the Navajo Nation continue to be distinctly Navajo with its current enrollment criteria?
Each individual wants to speak the Diné language. Each thinks it important to know who your relatives are and how each human being is connected with all relations on earth and in the universe. They take pride in being Navajo and respect their ancestors’ tenacity to survive.
Perhaps Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso expresses the understanding of Navajo identity best. In Saanii Dahaatal: The Women Are Singing, "who I am is my mother, her mother, and my great - grandmother, Kinlichiinii Bitsi."

Tapahonso realized her connection to all Navajo women in her family. That connection defi nes Navajo identity for her. In the future, Navajo enrollment criteria must be changed to incorporate Tapahonso’s perspective and Garroutte’s radical indigenism. Only the Navajo people will be able to change the enrollment standards and refl ect historical Navajo identity in the twenty - fi rst century and beyond. If we choose to ignore how Navajo enrollment is established, we will begin the process of conforming to American ideas of belonging and their defi nition of our identity. Does the Navajo Nation want this for future generations? I hope not.
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The Native Blog


Jay River said...

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