GALLUP, N.M. – Traditions and culture run deep through the veins of the Navajo tribe.
The Navajo tribe can be traced back through thousands of years, with traditions and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. Although the Navajo tribe has been through hard times, they still keep their culture alive.
The Navajo reservation is almost the size of West Virginia and located in four states, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Larry and Anita Benally have been living on the Navajo reservation for many years, and they’ve been keeping the Navajo culture and traditions alive in their families.
“It’s best to spend two weeks to a month to travel all of the reservation and see all the sights,” says Larry Benally. “It’s an open reservation. The only time the natives are strict is when there are certain ceremonies going on. You can observe, but you can’t record or take photos.”
The Navajos have certain chants, songs, and prayers. They do these things because they believe in being one with harmony and balance with nature.
“If you fall sick to a certain disease,” says Larry Benally, “you are not balanced with nature and harmony. You do the chants, songs and prayers to get back with harmony and nature. That’s our traditional ceremonies.”
With the Navajos’ homes, their doors always face toward the east, because they believe it brings good fortune. The houses never face west.
“The east is considered a blessing, because each day the sun rises and it gives you a new day to look forward to a new journey,” says Larry Benally. “The north is considered no good, because all the bad things and evil things are casted that way. West is considered bad also because the people who passed on, their head faces west. South is kind of neutral.”
Although the Navajo is one tribe, there are many clans within the reservation.
“We go by clans,” explains Anita Benally, who is the chapter president of her community. “And if our clans are the same, or within the same category, we can’t marry, or be together. So, whenever you meet someone for the first time, you ask what their clan is. You can’t be from the same clan, because if you’re related, whenever you get married and have babies, there will be birth defects.”
Benally explains that the Navajo tribe migrated from Mongolia and eventually made their way to the south of the United States.
“They say that us Navajos come from four worlds,” explains Benally. “The fourth world, which we live at right now, it’s called glitter world. This is supposedly the last world. If you travel at night away from the city, you see all the lights and it’s kind of like glitter. The Navajos have already foreseen this.”
There are many stories told within the Navajo tribe, but they are only allowed to be told during the particular seasons. There are summertime stories and wintertime stories.
“There is another story that has to deal with the daytime and nighttime,” explains Benally. “The night creatures and day creatures argued if it should be night or day all the time. They came up with a game called Navajo shoe game, which would determine if it should be light or dark all the time. Nobody won, which is why it’s equal night and day.”
The Navajo government conducts business and political issues in Window Rock, Arizona, similar to the United States’ government process.
“The Navajo Nation capital is where our government is situated,” explains Larry Benally. “Back in the 1860s, a lot of these Navajos would gather at Fort Defiance, and they were forced to march to Fort Wingate. Then, they were forced to march to Bosque Redondo. They were prisoners of war for four years. The U.S government wanted to send them to Oklahoma or Florida, but our leaders pleaded to the U.S government. Eventually, they were told to go back to the reservation. Ever since then, government provided infrastructure to our native people.”
The Navajos are known for their language, since during World War II, they helped the United States Marine defeat the Japanese army. They were known as the Navajo Code Talkers.
“The Marines used our people to communicate in our own language so the Japanese army couldn’t break the language,” explains Larry Benally. “At the time, nobody understood our language, because it was hard to decipher.”
During the 1500s and the 1600s, the Mexicans and the Navajos used to live in harmony, according to Larry Benally. The Navajos have words that are similar to Spanish words, but there are some words in English that can’t be described in Navajo.
“Like helicopter,” says Larry Benally. “We say, ‘flying metal with a propeller on top.’ So, we have to describe what the objects is if we don’t have a Navajo word for it. The only specific words we have in Navajo are for nature and the animals.”
Although the Navajos have their own language, each clan has their own way of saying the same words differently.
“Words are also different in each clan,” adds Anita Benally. “So, some words aren’t the same within each clan. That’s why whenever you speak to someone from a different clan, they correct you because they say the word differently.”
According to Larry Benally, those who live in isolated areas speak more Navajo than those who live around the city.
“It’s sad to say, but we are losing our native tongue,” says Larry Benally, “because after the people were released we were required to attend boarding schools, we were forbidden to speak our own language.”
This happened during the 1930s, lasting until the 1980s. If the Navajos were caught speaking their own language, they were punished by scrubbing floors. Their hands and backs would be hit by a wooden board.
“We were hit with what we called the ‘board of education,’” explains Larry Benally. “It was a two by four… shaped like an oar for rowing. They punished us for having our own religion. We were put into a school where we had to choose a religion. It was either Protestant, Saints, Christian, or Catholic. We had to attend religious education every Thursday and Sunday. If you did not do these things, you were also punished.”
Anita Benally says she thinks the reason why they are losing their native tongue is because they were forced to speak English.
“They even forbid us from wearing our native clothes,” says Anita Benally. “They took all that away. We really suffered a lot in school. They abused us, humiliated us. It was kind of like a military-style school. They were very strict with us.”
The Navajos believe all your thinking goes into your hair. So, if you cut off your hair, you cut off your thinking. This is why the native people have long hair, and it is forbidden to wear hair loose.
“We are in two worlds,” explains Anita Benally. “We have our native side and Anglo side. It’s hard. It’s still hard. They even told us we had to cut our hair because nobody could braid our hair for us. I remember someone came down with lice, and when I went to school we were forced to cut our hair, and I remember crying.”
There are different varieties of Navajo food that can be found on the reservation. The most common is corn stew, which is similar to pozole, a Mexican dish, but without the chili.
“We have a bread that we call ‘fried bread,’” says Larry Benally. “It’s the same as sopapillas, and it’s a common Navajo meal. They also butcher a sheep or goat and they get the meat and cook in different ways like lamb stew. They cut the throat, save the blood and they make what they call blood sausage, and it’s almost like bratwurst. They add ingredients to the blood and boil it. They cook the insides, and it’s kind of like chitlins. We make tortillas too, but ours are a little thicker.”
Larry and Anita Benally have seen their Navajo traditions slowly dying away from their tribe. It saddens them to see that many natives aren’t practicing, or teaching the future generations about their heritage and where they come from.
“We don’t want them to lose our language and say they don’t know who we are,” explains Anita Benally. “With us being there for them and saying, ‘Hey, this is your clan. This is who you are and where you belong.’ That’s our job. So later on, they’re going to know where they come from, and I’m going to make sure they know where they come from.”