The Navajos Traditions and Their Beliefs

*Traditions Within the Navajo Culture

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To this day, the Navajo do, in fact, refer themselves as the Dine. The Navajo have a long tradition in weaving, but what is perhaps most fascinating and abhoring fact is the horror which has accompanied this tradition. The Navajo began weaving with the wool of Churro sheep, introduced by the Spaniards in the 1700s. This became part of their lives, being passed down from generation to generation and becoming a focal point in each household. With this new means of survival, the Dine found the need to move seasonally so that their livestock would have food. This pastoral life-style required the Navajo people to build hogans rather than permanent adobe structures. As well, the Navajo families were scattered throughout the Southwest.
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Caring for sheep and preparing the wool for use in weaving is a family chore. Sheep must be fed, medically attended to, and sheared in the spring. The wool must then be cleaned, carded through towcards to remove debris (sheep do not live indoors and are rather dirty animals), spun, washed once more, and dyed before it is ready for the loom.
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The women weave and, in doing so, pass their beliefs and customs down to their daughters. One of the favorite stories of weaving is the story of Spider Woman, the first weaver. Spider Woman taught all of the Navajo women to weave. No one could weave quite as well as Spider Woman, and no one ever tried. The story of Spider Woman is told to all Navajo children to teach Navajo people that weaving is not a competition, but a skill that can be utilized to assist them in making their lives more fulfilling. Weaving is a tradition that continues today, though other people besides the Navajo have become interested in the skill, and not all Navajo women know how to weave. Like many cultures, this decline in the carrying on of traditions has been realized, and women are presently encouraged to learn the art of weaving so that this tradition does not die. This is also why some families still raise at least a few sheep. Many Navajo families still raise sheep, though not as much so as they did previously.
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With the Long Walk which began in 1864 (which can be compared to a walk from Tucson to Disneyland only to find the park closed) the America government took total control over the Navajo. The American government was attempting to change the Navajo into sedentary farmers, living in twelve "villages," each under control of a military official. Forced to live on camps much like concentration camps found in Germany, the Navajo way of life was completely altered. When the Navajo were finally permitted to return to their land in 1868, it's size had been drastically reduced, and this was, in fact, the reason that the Navajo are currently having a difficult time finding enough vegetation to feed their livestock. In addition, the Navajo's sheep supply was limited by the government and the stock which remained and was not returned was slaughtered. Still, the sheep remained a large part of the Navajo recovery.
To the Navajo, the killing of to these animals was much like killing a member of their family. Sheep were often raised from the time of their birth until adulthood. Sheep provided the Navajo with wool to weave blankets and rugs in addition to meats when necessary. The entire family took part in raising the sheep, though women had the most responsibility. Women cared for the sheep, feeding them and utilizing their wool. Both men and women sheered the sheep; and young and old assisted in the everyday care.
Weaving was a trait passed from mother to daughter. Women wove beautiful blankets and rugs. Though these are usually made for commercial reasons today, the Navajo blanket is still distinctive. You can still find that the designs on true Navajo rugs will always have a flaw in the pattern. This flaw is intentional, and the Navajo believe that this flaw allows the spirit of the blanket to have the freedom to roam, and for the blanket to never truly end. However, even with this tradition alive, Navajo blankets and rugs of present have adapted to the consumer. The colors of the wool has been made in an array so as to provide the customer with a selection so that the piece "matches their couch perfectly," or, rather, so that the creation is purchased. In addition, oriental designs have been adopted to please the eye of the purchaser.
The Navajo have moved away from the traditional lifestyle of their ancestors, as most peoples and cultures do. The Navajo still weave and still raise sheep, but their means of survival are no longer based on trade. More and more, many Navajo people are moving into larger towns and cities and getting wage-based jobs. Though most Navajo people consider their heritage to be very important, they are not going to stay stationary in the past, but move forward into the future, taking their traditions and values with them.

* Navajo Religious Beliefsexternal image NavajoYeibichai_AzHwysAug1968.jpg

For the more traditional Navajo religion is very important in their day-to-day lives. Navajo try to be at peace and harmony with the world (Mother Earth) around them at all times. This is called "walking in beauty". Navajo are taught to respect the holy ones (their gods) and everything they have created. There is great respect for nature: the land, and the plants and animals that one finds there.

Sand paintings are very common among the Navajo and have a religious purpose. Many tourists buy them for their beauty, but they are used by the Navajo themselves in healing ceremonies. In these ceremonies the Healer uses the sand painting to tell the story of the holy ones. The number "4" is traditionally a sacred number among the Navajo. For instance, there are four sacred mountains, four parts of a person, four events in a woman's life, etc.

Nowadays, many Navajo have become Christian. The most active religions on the reservation are now the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, the Adventists and the Native American Church.

Navajo Music
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Indian music is a living expression of a vital people, not a relic of the past of a dying race. The impact of the mechanized civilization of the white man has effected culture changes which are mirrored in Indian music. When old beliefs and ceremonies cease to function in the life of a society, the songs associated with them tend to pass into oblivion. But they are replaced by new songs which give truer representation to current beliefs and practices. The Shaker songs of the Northwest, the Peyote songs, so widely diffused the Plains, and the contemporary love songs used for social dances are examples of the new music. These changes are lamented by purists, predisposed to regard Indian culture in static terms and to believe the old songs more beautiful than the new ones. Acculturation, that process of change resulting from the contact of one culture with another, is age old. It was operative among Indian groups in pre-Columbian times, and the old music, like the culture of which it was a part, gives evidence of such contacts. Today the process has been greatly accelerated by modern transportation and communication. Rodeos, fairs, expositions, government boarding schools, and two world wars have brought into close contact for varying periods of time Indians of diverse cultural backgrounds, geographically remote from one another. In an attempt to give as true and complete an account of Indian music as time and space will allow, examples of both the old and the new music have been included in this series of records.

The Native American or Indian peoples of North America do not share a single, unified body of mythology. The many different tribal groups each developed their own stories about the creation of the world, the appearance of the first people, the place of humans in the universe, and the lives and deeds of deities and heroes. Yet despite the immense variety of Native American mythologies, certain mythic themes, characters, and stories can be found in many of the cultures. Underlying all the myths is the idea that spiritual forces can be sensed through the natural world—including clouds, winds, plants, and animals—that they shape and sustain. Many stories explain how the actions of gods, heroes, and ancestors gave the earth its present form.

Background and Sources

According to the mythologies of most Native American cultures, their people originated in the places where their ancestors traditionally lived. Some tales speak of ancient migrations. However, Native Americans are descended from hunting and gathering peoples of northeastern Asia who traveled across the Bering Sea into North America during the most recent Ice Age. During that Ice Age, which ended around 8000 B . C ., the level of the oceans was much lower, and a bridge of land linked Siberia and Alaska. Some groups may also have reached Alaska from Siberia by boat or by walking on ice. Over thousands of years, the population of North America grew and diversified into the peoples and cultures that Europeans encountered when they began to colonize the continent in the A . D . 1500s.

The Oral Tradition. Before the arrival of Europeans and the spread of European influence, Native Americans did not use written languages. As a result, their myths and legends were passed from generation to generation in oral form, usually by special storytellers who sometimes used objects such as stone carvings, shells, rugs, or pottery to illustrate the tales. Mythology, religion, history, and ritual were not separate things for Native American peoples. They were strands woven together in the various tales and stories that defined peoples' identity and gave order and meaning to their lives. The most serious of these were myths about how the gods created and ordered the universe and about the origins of important things such as humans, landforms, food, and death.

  • trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
  • clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
  • culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
  • ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

Certain myths could not be told lightly. They formed the basis of sacred rituals, including ceremonies in which participants acted out traditional sacred stories. Many Native Americans believed that some myths could be told only at certain times, often during winter nights. A dire fate—such as an attack by snakes—awaited those who told the stories at the wrong time. Other myths resembled folktales. They could be told for fun or to teach a lesson about proper behavior, and those who told them were free to change or add elements to the basic story. Many such tales involved tricksters.

Major Deities and Figures

Native American mythology contains a great many gods, tricksters, heroes, and other mythical beings. The creator gods and heroes usually establish or restore order. Characters such as tricksters and animals can have either positive or negative qualities. Sometimes they are helpful and entertaining; at other times, they are unpredictable, deceptive, or violent. Mythic figures do not always fall into the same category. A trickster may act as a culture hero, a culture hero may be an animal, an animal may be a creator figure, and a creator may have a capacity for destruction

Creators, Gods, and Spirits. Many Native American mythologies have a high deity—sometimes referred to as the Great Spirit—who is responsible for bringing the universe or the world into existence. Often, however, the Great Spirit merely begins the process of creation and then disappears or removes itself to heaven, leaving other gods to complete the detailed work of creation and to oversee the day-to-day running of the world.In many Native American mythologies, Father Sky and Mother Earth or Mother Corn are important creative forces. The high god of the Pawnee people, Tirawa, gave duties and powers to the Sun and Moon, the Morning Star and Evening Star, the Star of Death, and the four stars that support the sky. The Lakota people believe that the sun, sky, earth, wind, and many other elements of the natural, human, and spiritual worlds are all aspects of one supreme being, Wakan Tanka. The secondary gods are often personifications of natural forces, such as the wind. In the mythology of the Iroquois people, for example, the thunder god Hunin is a mighty warrior who shoots arrows of fire and is married to the rainbow goddess.

Major Themes and Myths

Despite the great number and variety of Native American myths and legends, certain themes and subjects occur again and again. One of the key concepts of Native American mythology is creation, the steps by which the world and everything in it took on their present forms.

Creation Myths. Native American creation stories fall into several broad categories. In one of the oldest and most widespread myths, found everywhere but in the Southwest and on the Arctic coast, the earth is covered by a primeval sea. A water creature—such as a duck, muskrat, or turtle—plunges to the depths of the sea and returns with a lump of mud that becomes the earth, which is often supported on the back of a turtle. This Earth Diver myth also exists in northern Europe and Asia, which suggests that the Native American versions may be survivals of ancient myths shared with distant Asian ancestors.
The creation myth of the Iroquois peoples combines elements of the Earth Diver story with the image of a creator who descends from the heavens. Creation begins when a sky goddess named Atahensic plummets through a hole in the floor of heaven. This Woman Who Fell from the Sky lands in the primeval sea. To support her and give her room to move about, the animals dive deep into the sea for bits of earth. The goddess spreads this earth on Great Turtle's back to create the land, and the daughter she bears there becomes known as Earth Woman.
The Navajo and Pueblo peoples, as well as some Plains groups, have a different image of creation, one in which life emerges from the earth like a sprouting plant rising from the soil. The Navajo emergence myth tells how insects climbed up from their First or Red World to the Second or Blue World, the realm of birds. When the Second World became too crowded, the insects and birds flew up to the Third or Yellow World, where they found animals and people. All lived together until food became scarce. Then the people, animals, birds, and insects flew up again into the Fourth or Black and White World of day and night. They found people created by the gods already living there, and these people taught the newcomers how to farm and live in their new world.
The Hopi emergence myth centers on Spider Woman, a powerful earth goddess and creator who is the mother of life. Together with Tawa, the sun god, Spider Woman sang the First Magic Song. This song brought the earth, light, and life into being. She then shaped and wove Tawa's thoughts into solid form, creating birds, fish, and other creatures. After people were created, Tawa rose into the sky. However, Spider Woman moved among humans, dividing them into groups, leading them to their homelands, and teaching them how to live and worship the gods. Spider Woman then disappeared from the people's sight, drawn back down into the earth in a whirlpool of sand.

primeval from the earliest times

Pairs and Opposites. A number of Native American mythologies feature paired or opposing characters or qualities. Twins or sets of brothers appear in many myths and legends. For example, in Iroquois mythology, Earth Woman gives birth to the twin brothers Good Twin and Evil Twin. Good Twin creates light, forests,
Native American Mythology
Native American Mythology

Native American Mythology
Other entries relating to Native American mythology include
Changing Woman
Masewi and Oyoyewi
Old Man
Wakan Tanka
First Man and First Woman
White Shell Woman
Spider Woman
Woman Who Fell From the Sky
and food plants, while Evil Twin creates impassable mountains, mosquitoes, and a toad that drinks all the water. After a long struggle, Good Twin finally kills Evil Twin. However, Evil Twin's soul and his creations survive to make life difficult for the people that Good Twin brings into being.
The principal heroes of Navajo myth are the warrior twins Monster Slayer and Child of Water. Monster Slayer is associated with bright light and Child of Water with rain clouds. While traveling to see Sun, the warrior twins notice smoke rising from a hole in the ground. Climbing down, they find themselves in the home of Spider Woman. She warns them of dangers they will face on their travels and gives them magic feathers for protection. After many adventures, the brothers reach the house of Sun, who tests them by trying to spear them, boil them, and poison them. With the help of their magic feathers and a friendly caterpillar that provides magic stones to protect them from the poison, the twins survive these ordeals. Sun finally recognizes them as his sons and gives them weapons to use to protect the Navajo people.