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Navajo Women: Doorway Between Traditional & Modern Life.

Essay by Betty Reid
Photographs by Kenji Kawano

Sheila Goldtooth and Rebecca M. Benally are examples of Navajo women who blend the American and Navajo philosophies to carry out their work. Their careers and professions influence Navajo life and represent the merging of traditional and contemporary practices occurring through the doorway of the Nation. Navajo medicine people are keepers of the wisdom, traditional faith, and philosophy of iiná—life—on the Nation. Educators inspire children to pursue modern knowledge.

When Sheila Goldtooth had her kinaalda, a Navajo girl’s rite of passage, her uncle performed the Hózhóójí, or Blessing Way, a ritual performed to ensure a blessed life of good health, emotional strength, prosperity, and a positive outlook. Goldtooth’s uncle announced, “Díí beebi’dool zíí,” meaning: “This one has a gift.”

Novajo women in ceremonial dress.Dawn peeked over the Chuska Mountains, near Tsénikani, or Round Rock, as Goldtooth’s kinaalda was near completion. The tiny community is located a stone’s throw from Monument Valley, an area famous for its red buttes and rock spires that sit on the desert floor and reach toward blue skies.

Díí Hózhóójí doo náałhaashda (This one will be a Blessing Way singer),” the uncle said. “Dii bidine’éyíká adoolwol (This one will help her people).”

Those words sealed Goldtooth’s fate to pursue a profession rare among Navajo women. She has become a medicine woman. They call her Hataałi Bitsií lichíí’, the Medicine Woman with the Red Hair. She belongs to the Ma’ii deeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass People) and is born for Kin lichíi’nii (Red House People). The educator at Diné Community College in Tsaile-Wheatfields has trailed her uncle since age five. Today, Navajos seek out the thirty-year-old to bless their lives between Yádiłhił Shitaá (Father Sky) and Shimá Nahasdzáán (Mother Earth).

When they journey outside the four sacred mountains—relocation to the city, college, or a job site—Navajos come to Goldtooth to bless their forays. They also seek a blessing before surgery, before they move into a new home, or when a girl becomes a kinaalda.

The kinaalda, a four-day ceremony, reflects Changing Woman’s first ritual when the Navajo Holy People gathered on Huerfano Mountain in New Mexico. Oral history says the Navajo deities treat this moment in the young girl’s life as pure, powerful, and sacred. It is said Changing Woman jogged east and west to gain physical strength and endurance. Medicine people say the Holy People performed the first Hózhóójí. Changing Woman ground corn kernels on a metate stone, a round corn cake was baked in the earth, and a female holy person physically shaped and molded Changing Woman’s body by pressing her head, shoulders, arms, back, legs, and feet.

The kinaalda creates a reenactment of how the Navajo Holy People held the rite of passage for Changing Woman. She was dressed and painted in white shell and received a second name, Yoołgai Azdáá (White Shell Woman). The old belief says that this is when adulthood and procreation begins for Navajo women. Today, most Navajo women are aware of the American stages of life, beginning as a baby, progressing to adolescence, adulthood, and old age. The contemporary kinaalda ritual varies and depends on the energy of relatives, cost, and time. Navajo families on an American work schedule may condense the event into a single night on a weekend. They skip certain rituals such as the four-day run, or they opt to have the Blessing Way only, without the elaborate ritual. Other mothers replace the physically laborious creation of the ground corn cake with a slab of chocolate cake from a supermarket.

Monumnet Valley and necklaces.Navajos say their deities gave them other curing rituals such as the Lifeway (Iináájí k’ehgo) and Female Shooting Way (Na’at’ooyee’Bi’áádjí), and seasonal ceremonies such as the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), before they faded into the mountains, rocks, water, and vegetation. Navajo medicine people call on the Holy People, who are believed to attend the Blessing Way, seasonal ceremonies, and curing rituals. The Blessing Way is said to be associated with Navajo women.

Medicine people like Goldtooth, called hataałii, which translates to “singers” in English, are trained by elders to perfect them in the skills of their profession. So when Goldtooth received her jish, or medicine bundle, which holds a powerful collection of tools, her connection to Navajo Country also deepened.

“I feel that in order to serve people, I need to be here,” Goldtooth remarks. “I grew up here. I have a flock of sheep. It’s that serenity of life here that suits me and what I do for my people. I lived in Flagstaff. It’s too noisy, polluted. The ceremonies are connected to the land here.”

Goldtooth attended Northern Arizona University, where she received Western knowledge culminating in a bachelor degree in Native American studies and sociology. A Western education could have guided her away from the four sacred mountains and into a border town or city where jobs are available. Instead, she returned to Round Rock to continue her role as a Blessing Way hataalii and also to perform protection prayers.

Not all Navajos embrace traditional worship. Other faiths are available, ranging from Christian to the Native American Church, a worship that blends traditional Navajo religion and Christianity beliefs with the use of peyote. Some Navajos hopscotch between faiths. Detractors from the traditional Navajo faith cite cost and a lack of access to medicine people. Others blame the American life that forces them to move into the city for jobs. Subsequently, they lose ties with extended family relatives whose energy and resources are needed to pull off a successful ceremony. Many Navajo youth are born into other faiths, which their parents embrace and encourage.

Navajo blanket.Traditional Navajo faith also rides on the oral language. When medicine people such as Goldtooth call on the Holy People to bless an individual during a prayer, each deity carries a name. To receive a blessing or help, the correct enunciation is required. Goldtooth notices more Navajo children speak only English, which forces medicine people like herself to modify their work. Sometimes mothers recite the prayers in Navajo for their daughters. Goldtooth places the responsibility on the girls.

“I explain [in English] that the Holy People only understand Navajo, and therefore everything must be done in that language. I make them do their own reciting in prayers rather than having a parent do the reciting. I explain how the prayer is for them and their future, and therefore they must do them themselves.” And it works. By the time the ceremony ends, most of the daughters are able to repeat the prayer in Navajo.

The medicine woman also notices that change occurs when Navajo youth move into urban Navajo communities or off the Nation. As a result, Goldtooth believes that urban life erodes Navajo language and philosophy, especially the influence it has on a child’s behavior. This includes respect for parents, elders, and other people. Navajo children are taught in the Navajo language to never speak harsh words, because they can inflict pain. But Western instruction encourages youth to speak up and have an opinion—to be argumentative and to solve problems through an analytical process is prized in the American society. The traditional ability to solve issues with k’é, in the spirit of good and harmony, is gone.

“I find that with my students at the community college,” Goldtooth says. “Their attitude is, that is in the past.We don’t need it anymore. They also say, if it [Diné teachings] is true, then there has to be proof.”

The survival of Navajo religion and philosophy depends on parents’ teaching the language, stories, rituals, and philosophy. Still, that may not be enough.“If the Navajo Nation leaders become actively involved in preserving and passing laws regarding preservation of our traditional healing methods and ceremonies, they can be preserved,”Goldtooth states. “There are numerous young traditional practitioners throughout the Navajo Nation, and [yet] many are unknown to the public.”

Faces of Navajos.When Navajo educator Rebecca M. Benally took the helm of the Montezuma Creek Elementary School in the northern portion of the Navajo Nation in Utah, the new staff disapproved of her promotion to principal. They did not object to her wealth of experience in the education field, but to her gender. What shocked Benally even more was the attitude that masked the resistance by Navajo educators—especially female educators.

Montezuma Creek is an isolated Navajo community, surrounded by red buttes, in which a trip to a “local” grocery store means a 110-mile drive (one way) to Farmington, New Mexico. Christian missionaries in the 1920s attempted to tame the
wild surroundings, but even today the local Aneth Chapter House, one of 110 communities on the Navajo Nation, is wedged in an arroyo. The influence of missionaries spurred an exodus of children to off-reservation schools and introduced the concept of a male-dominated society, in which men were “head of household” and made all the important decisions.

So when Benally arrived, she was soon approached by a Navajo colleague who confided that her Mormon faith made it uncomfortable to work in a setting where a woman was in charge. A clash of cultures seemed certain, because the Navajo culture is both matrilineal and matriarchal, while the Mormon-dominated community of Montezuma Creek promotes a patrilineal society. Benally, who belongs to the Kin yaa’áanii (Towering House People) and is born for Tó ’aheedlíinii (Two Rivers Coming Together Clan), found herself in a difficult spot.

The elementary school staff expected the Navajo educator to throw up her arms in defeat and walk away from criticism, as was traditional when change was suggested in the school community. The workers did not realize that this Navajo educator knew more about them than they did about her, and she refused to wilt under pressure. She was on a mission to raise student test scores in order to pass the federal report card and to move Navajo kids out of special education.

Teepee and mountain.Benally refused to give in. She had come too far to make accommodations. For two summers, she had driven 608 miles (round trip) three times a week from Montezuma Creek to Provo, Utah, while working on a master’s degree in educational leadership. She took a hard line and told those who opposed her leadership because of her gender they could leave, if they wished.

The stance resulted in an exodus of those resistant to female leadership. Then, something almost miraculous happened. When she first arrived on campus, half of the 210 students were in special education classes. The teachers who remained under her leadership focused on 105 children, moving 21 of them into regular classrooms, where they thrived, within the first year. Today, fewer than twenty students are in special education at Montezuma Creek.

Local leaders told Benally that “Navajos can be like crabs in a bucket.” When one tries to get out, they pull each other back. “I always stood for the betterment of Navajo children,” she says. Having to face a battle over gender in educational leadership was a distraction.

“The two reasons students were automatically placed in the special education program was simply for language development acquisition and a lack of knowledge to work with children with learning disabilities,” Benally notes. “My drive to overcome obstacles and challenges is always for the betterment and best interest for all children. I believe we should all be advocates for children.”

Benally is among those Navajos who delicately integrate both traditional Navajo cultural values and teachings and Western philosophy. As a Navajo woman, she maintains a Beauty Way of life. Both her father and grandfather had encouraged Benally to remember that her role as a woman meant that she was responsible for the passing down of cultural knowledge from mother to daughter, and for setting a good example that provides an important balance to the words and actions of men, resulting in Navajo harmony between traditional and contemporary life. To be a Navajo woman means connecting the spiritual, intellectual, social, and the physical. At school, this meant accepting both the role of being a woman and being a leader in education—reconciling the two, never subjugating herself in the process.

School bus on Navajo lands.Encouraging her to excel in school, her father instructed Benally at an early age that she would have to overcome the male domination of the larger world. “You are a Navajo woman in a white man’s world,” he told her. “Never forget who you are and where you come from.”

Going against the grain would be difficult, and Benally would need to summon the strength of her cultural upbringing to succeed. In the field of Western education, questioning authority is encouraged, however, and harmony often is more difficult to achieve. This was the case when she began her new role as a school principal, again remembering her father’s words: “Be competitive with elegance.” Benally says she succeeds by taking the best of both worlds and applying them in her job.

“A medicine man told me, ‘For every bad thing that happens, there is a way to fix it. It is fixed with corn pollen and positive thoughts.’” She says she prays to the Holy People.

Culture and academic learning become one, and Aneth’s students—most of whom are Navajo—learn how to apply what they have learned at school to their lives on the reservation and globally. Benally wanted to influence the Navajo Nation’s curriculum further and campaigned for a seat on the first Navajo Nation Board of Education. She won.

Sheep.Yuhzhee is my Navajo name. It translates as “short” or“petite” in English. At age seven, I spoke only Navajo. My family, simple shepherds and part-time migrant workers, raised and moved their flock of sheep at a place called Bidáá, on the northeastern edge of the Grand Canyon. Bidáá means, simply, “The Edge.”

While the rest of America paid attention to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, my extended family focused its attention on existence. Rain, snow, sunshine, or wind, they took the sheep out to pasture.

Our religion—Hózhóó, or Beauty—demands balance, which holds my extended family like a tight weave in a Navajo rug. This faith, embedded like stone into our young Navajo hearts, minds, and souls, protects us. Iiná, life, we were told by our elders, is full of bad and evil. And to fend off the bad, Hózhóó helped us to think positive.

As a Navajo child, I believed my life was rich, because I had plenty of relatives, sheep, and religion. The women and my father who raised me never learned to recite the ABCs or read classic literature, like Shakespeare. From their flock of sheep, they
wove pretty rugs. They sold sheep to buy potatoes, lard, baking powder, salt, and coffee. Or they made payments on a communal pickup truck. They turned to migrant work in the summer, pulling sugar beets in Utah. Out of their work, Navajos coined the phrase Áshii łikantah, or “Among Sugar Land.” Sometimes I joined in picking the potatoes in Elsinore, Utah.

Sunset.The price of wool and mohair took a nosedive in the 1980s. Our family reduced the herd from 500 to 21. Today, my mother and her sister-in-law Jeanette are retired shepherds who live in Tuba City, closer to clinics and hospitals. Others, like my grandmother Edith, my aunt Lutie, and my father, Willie, returned to the earth.
My brother William, a biology teacher at Tuba City High School and my mother’s caregiver, continues to care for the tiny flock of sheep that belongs to my family near Bidáá, west of Tuba City. My mother likes this arrangement, because she believes the sheep give her life, which is how they are described in Navajo prayers. The sheep ground her to the traditional elements of the Navajo Nation.

This is my family’s glorious past as Navajo shepherds.


Betty Reid is the author of two earlier books—Navajo: Portrait of a Nation and Keeping Promises, which she wrote with her husband, Ben Winton. She lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona.

Kenji Kawano lives with his family in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation. His photography also appeared in Warrior: Navajo Code Talkers and In the Fifth World: Portrait of the Navajo Nation.

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This essay is a chapter excerpt from Betty Reid's book, Navajo Women: Sáanii (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2007). It is reprinted with permission.

Navajo Women: Sáanii, by Betty Reid.



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