|The Navajo woman told an interesting story. She was a teacher's aide
in a mostly Navajo public school. The Navajo Nation was holding a student
art contest, but because her school was in a border town, her students
The reverse discrimination angle hooked me. As a reporter for the border town's daily newspaper, I ran a bureau in Shiprock, New Mexico, the largest town on the Navajo Nation. Navajos often complained about racism and discrimination in the border town. Now, it seemed, the shoe was on the other foot.
As I finished taking notes, the woman got up to leave. "One last question," I asked her. "How do you spell your name?"
"My name?" She paused. "Why do you need to know that?"
"My editors don't run anonymous stories," I explained. "You're the one making accusations, not the paper. If I don't name you, we could get sued."
"Don't use my name," the woman said.
I had a sinking feeling. "Why not?" I asked.
"Somebody might witch me!" she said, and left.
Welcome to the Navajo Nation, I thought. Welcome to life in a living Pagan tradition.
With about 210,000 enrolled members, the Navajos are the largest American Indian nation. About three-quarters of them live on the largest reservation in North America. Roughly the size of West Virginia, its 26,000 square miles of desert and mountains sprawling over northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and a slice of southern Utah.
Navajos have the strictest enrollment requirements of any Indian nation: one of your parents has to be a Navajo. Even then, students who don't look Navajo -- bronze skin, straight black hair, dark eyes -- may have trouble getting a tribal scholarship. I've seen it happen.
Navajos are proud to be one of the few Indian nations still living on their ancestral homelands, between the Four Sacred Mountains: Sisnaajini (Blanco Peak, Colorado) in the east; Tsoodsil (Mt. Taylor, New Mexico) in the south; Dook'o'oosliid (San Francisco Peak, Arizona) to the west and Dibe Nt'saa (the La Plata Range, Colorado) to the north.
Me? I'm half-Celt, half-Jew, raised liberal/agnostic. I grew up on Philadelphia's Main Line and learned Wicca in Seattle. That I should come to be a Witch in Navajoland, struggling for truth and fairness, is one of the crowning ironies of my life. I can only attribute it to the will of the Dine Diyiin -- the Holy People, the Navajo gods.
In 1991, 1 was living in Oregon with a nurse who wanted to work for the Indian Health Service. Of the five IHS hospitals in Navajoland, she chose Shiprock because, she said, "It was the least dumpy of the lot." Farmington, the border town, was only 30 miles away.
We arrived at night and moved into a tiny staff apartment. When I stepped out the next morning, I thought I was hallucinating. In the distance rose a single, huge, craggy pinnacle of rock. From twenty miles away, it dominated the prairie. My soul flew towards it. The Navajos call it Tse'-bit-A'i (say-bid-ah-ih) -- Rock with Wings. For some inscrutable reason, bilagaanas (Anglos) call it Shiprock, which is also the name of the town.
Tse'-bit-A'i is a place of profound magic. Dine Bahaana, the Navajo creation epic, tells how the sun-child Monster Slayer fought the tse'nahale, a pair of monster eagles who lived there. Some say the rock is the corpse of a tse'nahale itself, crashed headfirst into the ground after Monster Slayer killed it with a lightning bolt.
No signs mark the road leading to Tse'-bit-A'i. If you have to ask, you don't need to know. The blacktop cuts through a visually staggering lava dike, over a hundred feet high in places, four feet wide, two miles long. The three dikes radiating from the rock form what the Navajos call its "wings." To my eyes, they looked like fortifications built by Titans, a Maginot Line for Gotterdammerung.
It turned out to be easier to find the road to Shiprock, the rock, than to find work in Shiprock, the town. Unemployment on the Nation hovers around 35%, so tribal preference laws favor Navajos.
Given my liberal arts background, the Farmington paper seemed like the only game in town. The managing editor told me my portfolio was strong, but the paper already had a Shiprock reporter.
I took my eight-year-old daughter back to her mother in California. The return trip was lonely. As I drove through some majestic wind-carved rocks, despair seized me; finding work seemed hopeless. Then I recalled that the Pacific Northwest Indians prayed by "talking to the world." Rolling down the car window, I addressed the landscape, using my Wiccan name, and asked the world for help with my job problem.
"I don't know who the gods of this country are, or what the natives call them," I said, "but if they will hear my prayer and help me find work, then I will honor them, do what I can to help their people, and protect Mother Earth."
Two days later, I was sweeping out the apartment. The nurse had rented a house. The only things left were me, the broom, the dustpan, and the phone.
"How soon can you get over here?" the managing editor asked. "Our Shiprock reporter just quit!"
With astonishment and deep sense of humility I realized my prayer had been answered! I'd better keep my word to the local gods! I've been trying to do so ever since.
That was my introduction to the power of the spoken word in Navajoland.
Out here, words, and particularly proper names, are still things to conjure with. Why? It has to do with the beautiful, evocative, and fiendishly difficult-to-learn Navajo language.
Dine bizaad, the "Navajo tongue," precisely and evocatively maps the landscape. Every natural feature bigger than a boulder has a name that recapitulates its history The history in turn evokes the mythology, which reveals the soul of the Navajo people. And the seat of that soul is the language.
It is a language of hunters. In Navajo, one doesn't "name" things, one "calls" them. Even highly educated Navajos respect this tradition by giving their newborns two names, one public, the other known only to family members.
Acknowledging the importance of what one is called, some Navajos object to being called Navajos. The origins of the word are obscure. In their own language, the self-descriptive term is Dine (din-eh), "the People," or Ashdlah Dine, "the five (-fingered) people," to distinguish them from their nonhuman relatives.
Changing the name from Navajo to Dine was voted down in a referendum several years ago. As one man joked, referring to a fast food popular on the Rez, "Are we going to start calling them 'Dine tacos'?"
Two weeks after I got the job, the nurse and I broke up. It happened, ironically enough, during a Ye'ii-bi-chei ceremony.
Anthropologists describe the Navajo religion as "mechanistic": a hataali ("chanter," "singer," or commonly "medicine man") performs the appropriate ceremony and the Holy People are compelled to act. The Navajos say this is a result of a compact they made with the Holy People when they, the Navajos, entered this world after being evicted from four lower worlds. This world, by the way, is called "The Glittering World" because of its glamour, and it is by far the most dangerous of all the worlds the Navajos have lived in.
Ye'ii-hi-chei means literally "grandfather of the gods." It's one of dozens of elaborately constructed, meticulously enacted rituals which serve, in one way or another, to restore an individual to hozho -- literally, "beauty," a state of harmony with the environment.
In Navajo belief, nature is orderly and harmonious. Navajo society puts a tremendous premium on maintaining hozho, or at least the appearance of hozho; for this reason, a reporter's job is difficult. Even if they're being screwed to the wall, Navajos often don't want to be seen as disrupting hozho by speaking out.
Hozho can become disturbed only by evil thought or action. If I am suffering from illness, it is either because I am acting out of evil motives or because someone else bears malice against me and intends me harm.
The ways in which this harm could be enacted are similar to those in European witch lore: by casting a spell, using a fingernail or a piece of hair, a bit of soil where I had urinated, or even dust from my footprint. One Navajo who saw me raking leaves in front of my trailer thought I was obliterating my footsteps to protect myself against sorcery. "That was pretty smart," he later told me, and was disappointed to find out my reasons were more prosaic: I just wanted to tidy up the place!
As the teacher's aide believed, even her name printed in a newspaper could be used to magically harm her. When a Navajo says he doesn't want to be recorded or photographed "for traditional reasons," this is what is meant -- he's trying to avoid the possibility of harm by sympathetic magic.
The Navajo word for this practice is adishgash, and for the one who practices it, adilgashii. The Anglo missionaries and anthropologists who followed the cavalry translated adishgash as "witchcraft." More often one hears the word "skinwalker," a rough translation of the Navajo phrase yee naaldlooshii.
While practically anyone with a grudge can work adishgash, a skinwalker is a studied and practiced malefactor who is able to shapeshift into a wolf, owl, or other noxious creature -- hence the sometimes-heard name "Navajo wolf." The initiation dues are reportedly steep -- you must kill a close relative by sorcery and eat their flesh. Eating a stranger doesn't cut it.
Navajos take these concepts very seriously. In 1860 the U.S. Cavalry rounded them up, slaughtered their livestock, burned their crops, and marched them 300 miles east to Bosque Redondo. Recalled as Hweeldii (literally, "hardship"), this event was their Holocaust. After their return in 1864 they conducted their own witch purge.
"The motives for the witchcraft were the time-honored ones for all evil deeds -- envy and jealousy," writes historian Martha Blue, The witchcraft was directed by a group of impoverished Navajos living near Chinle, Arizona, against their well-to-do neighbors. The victims became sick; their cattle died and their crops failed. The resulting purge claimed 40 lives before the bloodshed was put down by the U.S. Army. It seems that being too successful materially can disturb the collective sense of hozho.
At the most fundamental level, a “witch” in Navajo tradition is a person who acts out of selfish motives. The cultural imperative to share resources is so strong that a relative who asks to borrow your new truck cannot be turned down, even if you are pretty sure he's going to buy booze, drive drunk, and wreck it. Better to let him crash than disturb your family's hozho.
Once, while talking with a bilagaana who claimed to have been adopted by a Navajo family, I wondered aloud about the chain of circumstances that had brought me to Navajoland. He laughed. "When Navajos pray, they don't ask for the gods to send them the people they need, be- cause that would be witchcraft," he explained. "Instead, they ask for the people who need them! Given all the trouble you went through to get here, I'd say you needed them pretty badly. What have you come here to learn?"
That question would eventually be answered.
The forces of chaos and disharmony are held in check by the powers of organization and creation, represented by the Holy People and applied by the medicine men and women. Ye'ii-bi-cheiis are winter healing ceremonies which put to shame anything we Neopagans have yet been able to create. Over nine days, the singer gathers herbs and colored sand for the patient and constructs the appropriate sand painting while chanting the proper songs in the extremely precise Navajo language, where a slip of the tongue can get you a baby instead of a cup of coffee -- the two words are the same except for the tone.
The ceremony is mostly nocturnal, and observing it requires almost as much stamina as conducting it. Dark-to-dawn dances occupy the final two nights. The first night, the dancers dress in traditional finery: velvet shirts, buckskin dresses or leggings, and tons of silver jewelry.
The second night, they dance as gods.
The nurse and I were both eager to see the public Ye'ii-bi-chei performed annually at Shiprock's Northern Navajo Fair. After work, she came by my trailer to rest up. I wasn't home, but I'd left my journal lying by the bed. Things being shaky between us, the temptation to read it was too much. She didn't like what she read, and that, as they say, was all she wrote.
That night I observed the Ye'ii-bi-chei with a mixture of awe and sadness. Blazing fires wafted the smell of cedar and pinon wood on the air, where it mingled with the deep-fat odor of fry bread from the concessions. The cold bit through my jacket, but the dancers stood, arms akimbo, lightly clad. The men were naked except for loincloths, their bodies coated with white ash; the women wore thin dresses of black wool. Truly the Holy People warmed those unshivering bodies with their presence!
Then, on a sign from Grandfather God, the dancers shook their rattles. "Hoo-hoo-hoo HOO!" they called, four times around, casting their own circle. Their chants rang out, barely muffled by the leather masks covering their heads: "HEY-yah, HEY-yah, hey-YAH! HEY-yah, HEY-yah, hey-YAH!"
They seemed to be dancing out of time. In my imagination the spectators
lost their nylon parkas and acquired the buckskins and blankets of their
ancestors. I was in a privileged position: having been the object of divine
possession, I must be one of a very few Anglos to intuitively understand
what I was witnessing. Yet I couldn't share my Wiccan experiences with
the Navajos. That terrible "W" word stood in the way.
A few nights later, I awoke with a start and leaped out of bed. Two strange young men, clad as gangstas, had somehow broken into the trailer. They approached menacingly. I seized the only weapon at hand, a broom, and struck at them -- only to wake up in bed. I'd been dreaming.
Someone, I decided, probably some Navajo, had been testing me to see what I'd do. Every other Anglo they'd ever encountered would have been a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Mormon Well, this white boy knew some magic of his own! I set up a protective circle around the trailer.
There were no further nocturnal visits.
I also made for myself a Navajo-style medicine bag filled with corn pollen and other appropriate items. I carried it in my jacket pocket, where the pollen tended to bless my microcassette recorder.
At first my job as a reporter was wonderful. As long as I kept filing stories and didn't misspell too many names, there was little direction from my editors. The fact that the paper was owned by a self-described born-again Christian didn't matter; I figured if he didn't ask, I wouldn't tell.
What started as a Halloween gag turned to my advantage, in a strange, roundabout way.
After the vivid dream of the gangstas, I decided I'd better learn what I was up against. Navajos won't talk about witchcraft, because the power of the spoken word means talking about something will make it happen. Moreover admitting any knowledge of witchcraft is tantamount to admitting you practice it, because somebody who didn't know anything about it would he too frightened of it to talk about it.
This double bind can make trouble for Navajo medicine men. The only cure for witchcraft in Navajo culture is through the intercession of the Holy People, as directed by a medicine man. While a medicine man is supposed to operate from spiritual motives, it's not uncommon for the Ye'ii-hi-chei patient to pay over $1000 for the ceremony, in cash or trade. Extended families often foot the bill. But there is no alternative -- except to step outside the culture. This partially explains the inroads that Christianity and the Native American Church have made in Navajoland.
In order to effectively combat witchcraft, the medicine man must know something about the techniques of sorcery -- but that in itself makes him suspect. So does the tendency to amass wealth. The archetypal Navajo nightmare is of a corrupt medicine man working hand-in-paw with a skinwalker: you hex 'em, I'll fix 'em, and we'll split the profits! Medicine men often make a great show of humility and poverty; they drive the oldest trucks at the ceremonies.
The definitive book on adishgash is Clyde Kluckhohn's Navaho Witchcraft. Kluckhohn spoke fluent Navajo. He gathered his information in the 1940s by picking up Navajo hitchhikers and broaching the subject in an offhand, joking sort of way. I was reading his book when an idea for an opinion piece struck me.
Why not "interview" a skinwalker? It would make a great Halloween column, a ghost story for the dark half of the year! I wrote it using Kluckhohn's book as my guide and adding a twist ending.
None of the Anglos in the press room got it, of course.
But perhaps a week later, the first of several Navajos mentioned that column in a casual conversation. He was a sophisticated, well-educated man, then a state representative and now highly placed in Navajo government.
"You know that story you wrote in the paper a while ago?" he asked, unwilling to use the "S" word. He was staring away from me, as Navajos do when discussing something serious.
"You mean the one about the skinwalker?" Being an ignorant bilagaana, I could get away with such a cultural gaffe.
"Yeah, that one," he said. "That was pretty good!," There was a long pause. Suddenly he stared me in the eyes and asked, "Was that true?"
Even though I'd made it up out of whole cloth, my column was so convincing that many Navajos who read it believed I actually had interviewed a skinwalker, or that I was myself a skinwalker.
It took me several months to realize that, without meaning to, I had divulged the fact that I was a "witch" to my Navajo readership! I am lucky anybody spoke to me after that. Probably the only thing that saved me was cognitive dissonance: bilagaanas usually scoff at skinwalker stories, so it is hard for Navajos to conceive of a bilagaana skinwalker. That, and the fact that I kept on writing good articles about the Navajos.
I finally figured out how to discuss my beliefs with Navajos The opportunity came while I was traveling with one of Shiprock's four delegates to the Navajo Nation Council.
This man earned my gratitude as the first, and for a long while the only, local politician to befriend me. A Vietnam veteran, he is equally at home in the dominant culture and the traditional Navajo world. He is also a roadman in the Native American Church.
The NAC, or "Peyote Way," is one of the three major religious streams in Navajoland. The other two are the "Corn Pollen Way," the traditional teachings, and the "Jesus Way," Christianity in its manifold denominations. While no statistics are available, I am told that each faith claims the allegiance of about one-third of the Navajos.
Peyote has been found in 10,000-year-old Southwestern archaeological sites. While some Navajos claim its use is traditional, there's no archaeological evidence that the Navajos arrived in the Southwest before 1400 CE. That's like the claims of some Wiccan covens that they practice "Ye Olde Religion": good public relations but shaky history.
As you might expect, the NAC of Navajoland is the church's largest chapter; Navajos consume more peyote than anyone else, and maintaining an abundant, continuous supply of "medicine" is very important to them.
While their ceremony is often conducted in a tepee and follows the form of the Plains Indians' ritual, Peyote Way Navajos have their own chants. They revere peyote and pay lip service to Jesus, but they also retain much of their traditional lore and wisdom. They have often been more willing to share it with me than the Corn Pollen Way Navajos have been.
"The Peyote Way and the traditional ways are like this," NAC Navajos say, crossing their fingers. This invariably brings glares of contempt from Corn Pollen Way Navajos, who consider peyote almost as foreign and diabolical an intrusion as Christianity.
It had been a wet winter, and my friend wanted me to see firsthand the hardships faced by many Navajo ranchers. The dirt roads leading to their winter sheep camps were nearly impassable. Even our Navajo Police 4 x 4 got stuck in mud up to its hubcaps.
While we were driving, my friend began to talk about the Navajo beliefs, the deep connection between the People and nature. It was, he said, a very hard concept for most white people to understand.
That was true, I said. But, did he know that bilagaanas had not always been Christians? That piqued his interest. Among Navajos, as among many Anglos, it is assumed that Christianity has always been the "white man's religion."
Not so, I said. Long before the Europeans came to the New World, they had their own ways, which were similar to the Navajo traditions (so similar, in fact, that I wonder how much Gerald Gardner borrowed from American Indians when he recreated the Craft). They worshipped Mother Earth and Father Sky and honored the four directions. Like the Indians, they reaped and sowed by the stars. The plants and animals were their relations.
My friend listened with great interest. I pointed out that Christianity came from the Middle East, not from Europe. When the Christian churches moved into Europe, they had done the same thing to those followers of the Old Ways as they later did to the American Indians: convert them or kill them.
But some of us, I added, still followed the old European ways. That gave me a greater respect for American Indian ways, because they were so similar.
My friend seemed surprised, but retained his composure. It was
then, I think, that he began to realize I was not your average bilagaana.
Since then I have successfully used this explanation when ever Navajos have asked about my beliefs. It is nonthreatening and gives them something they can relate to. They find it surprising that Europeans once persecuted each other as savagely as they persecuted the American Indians -- until they think about it.
As I was slowly desensitizing the Navajos to my beliefs, I was learning more about theirs. What I learned profoundly changed me.
For years I’d suffered from a consuming rage against one of my parents, a domineering, manipulative person. My anger had led me to cut off almost all communications.
In Navajoland, I found myself for the first time in a truly spiritual culture. Although many people live in Third World poverty, their faith sustains them today as it has through the terrible hardships in their past. While fighting to preserve their language, culture, and religion, they also value modern education.
As a Neopagan struggling to recreate my lost European culture, I had to admire their struggle. They had been brutally oppressed by the bilagaanas, but they found it in their hearts to accept me, an outsider, into their lives. I knew I would never become a Navajo and had no desire to do so; the notion of "wannabe Indians" is repulsive. Our own shamanic traditions are as good as anyone's. There's no need to rip off the Indians.
But I could admire from a respectful distance the Navajos' culture, their fortitude, and their perseverance. As a reporter, it was my job to hold up a mirror in which the Navajos could see their own reflection The fact that I was a bilagaana meant that it would always be a funhouse mirror, replete with distortions; but they understood this, and so did I. As time went on, I saw deeper and deeper, and the distortions grew less and less.
The Navajos say that if you walk in beauty on the Corn Pollen Path, evil may find you, but it cannot harm you. If evil is done to you, they say, put it behind you and get on with your life. As I was accepted by the Navajos of Shiprock, I found, for the first time in my life, a place in a community. As I found myself it became harder and harder to maintain my rage against my abusive parent. I learned new ways to pray, and prayed to the gods -- the Holy People and my own -- for forgiveness. When it came, my parent and I were reconciled.
Although I felt accepted by the Navajos, my life as a Wiccan on the rez had its close calls. One occurred because people came to my bureau to buy the paper. The traffic got so heavy that I had the circulation department place a coin-operated paper box outside the bureau's front door.
It was almost 11 p.m. on a dark moon night, and I had my small altar set up on a wooden box in the middle of the trailer. The lights were out and the blinds were all pulled, as I was working skyclad.
I was just about to light my candles when there came a knock at the door, All sorts of possibilities flashed through my mind, none of them pleasant, but I had always maintained an open-door policy at the trailer. It was how I got some of my best stories.
I took off my pentagram, pulled on my pants, flipped on the porch light and opened the door. There stood two very middle-class Navajo women. The room was dark behind me, and with the porch light in their eyes there was no chance they could see the altar, even though it was in plain view. "Can I help you?" I said.
"We just wanted a paper," one of them said, obviously embarrassed.
"It's kind of late," I said.
"Really? Your sign says 'Open'," the second woman said. Sure enough,
I had forgotten to flip the sign in my window to "Closed." "And your coin
box is empty." I gladly gave them my copy, gratis, and sent them on their
way, only too happy to get back to my ritual.
Eventually my luck with the paper ran out. While investigating allegations of satanism in Farmington, a source (not, I add, a Navajo) turned against me, and I spent a month sleeping with a loaded rifle by my bed. In June 1994 I was fired on grounds of insubordination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found religious discrimination, and my case will probably be in court by the time this goes to press.
Remarkably, a love spell which I had started years before, and forgotten about, finally kicked in. In Farmington, of all places, I met Vera, a wonderful Wiccan woman. Eight months later we were handfasted by a high priestess from a coven in Los Alamos. The Gallup newspaper recognized my talents and hired me to continue my Navajo coverage, adding the very different texture of Zuni Pueblo to my beat.
Even though Vera grew up in Farmington, and her father had worked on Navajo Nation for years, she, like most other Farmington residents, knew little about her neighbors to the west. It's called the Turquoise Curtain, and it has as much to do with alcohol and law enforcement as with history (The Broken Circle by Rodney Barker relates some of Farmington's sorry history with its Navajo neighbors; recent relations are much improved.) We spent our first year together in Tohatchi, a Navajo chapter 30 miles north of Gallup, where Vera began to have her own experiences as a witch among the Navajos. And it is one of her stories I would like to leave you with.
Vera is a teacher and a breeder of Shih Tzus, those raggedy little Chinese dogs that look like animated dustmops.
In keeping with their animistic beliefs, Navajos regard dogs as members of the family The thought of buying or selling a dog is as alien to a Navajo as buying or selling a child would be to most of us.
It was in this spirit that the Navajo janitor at Vera's school approached her, shortly after she began advertising that we had purebred Shih Tzu pups for sale at $250 each. The janitor, who was an NAC roadman, kept asking Vera to give him one of the puppies.
Never mind the fact that as lapdogs, Shih Tzus are totally unsuited to the rough-and-tumble life of a "rez dog." We aren't victims of White Guilt, so we weren't about to give one of the puppies away to someone we barely knew when he could pay for it.
Yet day after day the janitor persisted: "When you gonna give me one of those puppies? I want one of those puppies!" He was, I'm afraid, one of those shady roadmen who are held in suspicion rather than respect by their peers.
Finally he grew menacing. Approaching Vera in the hall one day he again asked for a free puppy Again she refused.
"If you don't give me that puppy something bad will happen! Maybe it will get sick!" he said. "I know about these things I'm a little bit witchy-poo!"
Vera stared him square in the eye. "I'm not giving you one of the puppies," she growled, "and I’m a little bit witchy-poo too!"
"Just kidding!" the roadman said, backing away as fast as he could. He never did ask for a puppy after that in fact, he didn't speak to Vera again and kept a respectful distance for the rest of the year.
You see, if he really was "a little bit witchy-poo," then he knew Vera wouldn't admit to being witchy-poo unless she really was witchy-poo -- which meant he was in big trouble.
Sometimes being a witch among the Navajos has its advantages.
by Malcolm Brenner
Malcolm Brenner has worked as a reporter on the Navajo Nation since 1992, winning eight regional journalism awards in the process. A graduate of New College of Florida, Brenner has credits as a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker. He is an American Eclectic Wiccan.
Originally published in Gnosis #48 (Summer, 1998), pp. 36-43.
updated: September 6, 2000; © 1998, 2000, by Malcolm Brenner
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