Cultural Values through Tradition

Ya’at’eeh everyone!! As we begin the month of October here in the four corners region, I am reminded that my time here is limited…I only have a few days left! In an effort to share more of my adventures with you all, I will posting more blogs after I return home, so stay tuned.

Arnold Clifford, Navajo Botanist/Geologist talking about Navajo Culture with members of the Northern Dine’ Youth Committee.

I have been very fortunate in my time here to have visited many places sacred to the Navajo People. I was able to visit Dzil Na’oodilii, central sacred mountain, not once, but twice! The first time was with members of the Northern Dine’ Youth Committee, and the second time was with the Shiprock Historical Society. Each time I went I learned something new.

With members of the Shiprock Historical Society at the central sacred mountain.

In the Navajo Creation story, the holy people placed the Dine’ people on the land between the four sacred mountains, represented by the 4 cardinal directions. These mountains mark the boundaries of the Navajo’s ancestral land. There is also a set of inner mountains within the borders of this land that are considered sacred, including Dzil Na’oodilii, the central sacred mountain.

View from the Central Sacred Mountain

Dzil Na’oodilii, or Huerfano Mesa (the spanish name) is important to the Dine’ because it was where Changing Woman, a central character/deity in the Dine’ creation story, was found as a baby by Talking God. Talking God didn’t know what to do with her at first, so the twin Nadleeh (hermaphrodites) helped in the raising of Changing Woman and feed her corn pollen and she matured in 3 days. On the fourth day she had her puberty rights ceremony, her Kinaaldá . After Changing Woman’s initiation into womanhood was complete, the Kinaaldá ceremony was established  for all future Navajo women for all of time. Soon after she became impregnated by the Sun and gave birth to the Hero Twins. Dzil Na’oodilii is where Changing Woman raised the Hero Twins, and lived in the first Hogan. Many consider the mountain to be the “lungs” of Navajo country.

An old Juniper tree, on the cliffs of Dzil Na’oodilii, with the view of Navajo country in the background.

I was also here in time for the Northern Navajo Fair/Shiprock fair. The Northern Navajo Fair is a tradition where many Navajo People, far and wide, come to participate and connect with the culture and people. The Shiprock fair is truly a site to behold, where up to 100,000 people come to partake in the festivities.

Tom Chee’s float at the 103rd Shiprock Fair
The menu at the Dibe biccino tent at the Northern Navajo Fair. Dibe Biccino is a Native-owned and operated traveling coffee shop coming out of Flagstaff, Ariz.

Along with a Midway, parade, rodeo and food stands, like Dibe’ biccino,There is also an arts and crafts exhibit, where students from schools on the reservation can enter their art. I was fortunate enough to work with the kids from Dream Dine Charter School, a Dine’ immersion school, to help the students create their own herbarium specimensThe students went out and collected their own plants, and then put both the scientific name, and the name in Dine’. Many of them even won ribbons for their art pieces.

Dream Dine’s exhibit at the Northern Navajo Fair. Dream Diné is a school where Diné (Navajo) culture, philosophy, language and history are the heart of a community-based, experiential curriculum.

This is also the time of year when the Yei Bi chei ceremony takes place, and I was honored to be able to participate. The Yei Bi Chei ceremony, also known as the “nightway chant” is a 9 day and night healing ceremony. During these ceremonies, the dancers take on the role of intermediaries between the gods and the human race. The Yei (dancers) dance and chant songs that are believed to bring healing to the patient. A sand painting is also constructed in the Hogan where the ceremony is taking place, under the direction of the practitioner (Medicine Man) and their assistants. The sand paintings can be as large as 8×8 ft or larger. The sand paintings are made of different color, finely ground sand that is pinched between the fingers and sprinkled in specific designs. Each color and shape has significance in the healing of the patient. The Ye’i Bi Chei, also called Winter Gods and Grandfather Spirits, are the main focus of healing in these ceremonies, and they also begin the “ceremony season” in the fall and early winter.

Artwork used in the 100th Annual Shiprock fair, depicting part of the Yei bi Chei. Artwork by James King.

I am truly grateful for my time out here on the Navajo Reservation, and for all that I have learned. I hope to take this knowledge back with me to help inform and broaden my perspective, so that I can encourage more Indigenous people to pursue careers in science. Ahéhee’ (thank you in Dine’)

Picture of the Author (Jessica Orozco) and Former Miss Navajo Radmilla Cody at the 103rd Shiprock Fair