Professor: Dr. Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri
We have combined personal interest in this topic of “In The Beginning: The Navajo Genesis” because it deals with Native American Indians right here in the Southwest region of the United States, not too far from where we live in El Paso, TX. The author of the book, Jerrold E. Levy, sets the scene with background on the Navajo creation myths and then goes into details of Coyote-Begochidi – the Trickster and creator god(s) – and the primary Blessingway tradition, as well as other traditional ceremonies and sings of the Navajo. Levy then compares these stories with Biblical (Christianity and Judaism) creation stories as well as astronomy (the cosmos, Big Bang) in modern science. His goal was to exemplify the Navajo religion as being as sophisticated as western religions.
As students of anthropology and education, as well as growing up under the Christian umbrella, we felt that this study was both of personal as well as professional interest. World religions, and especially different beliefs within the U.S. (home) are important to know and understand if we are to learn more about where we stand in our own beliefs, and in educating others. Education is expansive and encompassing, rather than exclusive to one particular world or religious view. What Levy presents here is a general study of Navajo myths and history, their movement from western Canada to the south, and finally to the Southwest in 1500 A.D. where Pueblo contact further influenced and altered their creation myths.
In the introduction of the ethnography Levy makes many statements regarding the Navajo, and quotes authors, professionals, and those (past and present) in academia quite often regarding details related to the main thesis. The thesis itself is slightly elusive in the beginning, however, as a variety of background information is given on views of anthropologists, sociologists, and different methodologies before it becomes clear. Levy does make a declaration about the comparisons between more recently recorded Navajo creation myths and Biblical texts in an historical context. He states,
“Rarely have anthropologists used biblical scholars’ methods of
analyzing the Bible, or, lacking written historical contexts, fitted a
myth or legend into a known period of history..… and without an
historical framework to provide contexts, it is virtually impossible
to identify persisting traditions that represent differing points of
view within the nonhomogeneous and changing preliterate society.
Yet this is precisely what I attempt in this book, because at no time
during its known history was Navajo society either homogeneous
or unchanging.” (Levy 1998: 13)
Detailed narrations of Navajo myths have been documented by known scholars as well as amateurs within the last century. Minute variations within the myths can be compared with each of the author’s style, skill, or knowledge level in any set of narrations, allowing distinctions and corresponding patterns within the myths themselves to be correlated to specific ceremonies.
Navajos originated in the northwestern area of North America (western Canada – previously crossing the Bering Strait into Alaska) and migrated south over a period of several hundred years. (Stein, 1998: 339) By 1500 A.D. they had moved to what is now the Southwest area of the United States where they came in contact with the Pueblos. Myths from the north and through to the south have shown tendencies and changes due to sharing between nations and peoples along the way. The Navajo went from a hunting and gathering society and later became agriculturalists, due to Pueblo influence. Then another transformation to pastoralism ensued in the late 1700’s into the late 1800’s (the latter known as the reservation period). By the 1900’s many Navajo were displaced into an economy of wage earners. Changes in religion and social organization inevitably followed, indicating changes in myths as well.
Figure 3: U.S. Native American Tribal Map
(Waldman, Carl, 1985)
The author draws a comparison between changes in preliterate and literate societies by using the example of the Biblical text, specifically the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Those of Christian and Jewish faith present the author of these books as Moses alone; however, scholars who have studied the texts have identified four distinct writing styles from different regions and historical periods, which are correlated to specific religious and political viewpoints. The oldest two, called J and E are the ones
“reflecting the traditions of the southern kingdom of Judah, the
other those of the northern kingdom if Israel. There is also a later
‘priestly’ document, P, that builds upon J and E, as well as an
almost complete retelling of the story of Moses contained in the
book of Deuteronomy, called D.” (Levy 1998: 14)
Cosmologically compared, the P version (Gen. 1:1-2:3) shows a succession of earth’s creation, then life on it, and lastly humankind - male and female being created at the same time. This is a representation of order being formed from chaos. The older version of J (Gen. 2:4-25) has the male human being created first, followed by animals and plants in a Garden of Eden, and finally the male’s companion and subordinate, female (who causes the “original sin”). This is indicative of chaos coming from what was once ordered, a reversal of the later P document. P also has God, in the flood myth, depicted as a higher abstract and universal creator, whereas J “humanizes” God into lower anthropomorphic form so that he “grieved” in his heart, and “smells” the sacrifice Noah submitted, as well as “walking” and “talking” to Adam in the Garden of Eden. (Morris, 1989)
The E version (northern Kingdom) is favorable to Moses and against his priestly brother Aaron, indicative of political and religious changes to the status of Levitical priests after the expelled refugees from the northern Kingdom moved south. P comes in later and has to reconcile this issue since J and E are already considered sacred texts. P rewrites the Torah into a second version, which reconciles Moses and Aaron, since their cousin Korah and the Levites attack them giving Aaron sole rights to the priesthood status. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake, instead of Moses’ indicating favorability toward Aaron instead of Moses (reversal from E version).
Levy is comparing differences in Biblical texts to historical accounts in Israel, and then paralleling this method to preliterate - but later recorded creation myths, in different regions – societies also shows how political and social factions, and migration of groups or societies into new areas (and their subsequent sharing with neighbors) can form alterations in the original stories of Navajo sings to fit with the new changes that were accepted or formed due to those migrations.
The Navajo myth is patterned after that of the Pueblos, that being an agricultural society and deals with themes of emergence of the people from the underworlds (four of them) into the present surface world. Emergence is connected to agriculture and rebirth, just as a seed sprouts and emerges from the darkness of the soil/earth, lives and grows, and eventually dies and goes back to the earth, only to repeat the process (indicative of the progression of seasons). This is a change from the original position of when the Navajo society were hunters and gatherers, however, and more closely related to the Athabaskan in the north.
The Athabaskan of Alaska and western Canada had an almost-human-like trickster-creator deity. As groups moved south into the Basin, Plateau, and the Plains then this deity turned into Coyote, who retained the trickster personality. Shamanic possession was commonly found in these areas as well. Apaches have Coyote as a hero, but the western Apaches, the Jicarilla, and the Navajo were mostly influenced by the Puebloan agricultural methods and emergence myths. It was here that Coyote was replaced by one of the Hero Twins (duality), and basically defamed from his original position as a deity. The Begochidi deity concept influenced the Keresan and Zuni Pueblos so that they “clothed” the trickster-creator to look more Pueblo, also. Different myths co-exist in a multiplicity of forms, depending on which ceremony is used. The table below shows the main two traditions in Navajo myths, and their differences.
Table 1: The Two Traditions of Begochidi-Coyote
BEGOCHIDI – more prominent deity than Coyote, from Athabaskans in Alaska, Canada.
COYOTE – the primary trickster deity of the Great Basin, the Plains, and Plateau.
Monistic: Waterway, Hailway, Frenzy Witchcraftway, and Mothway traditions keep Coyote-Begochidi’s creativity and power to heal as inseparable from the trickster qualities.
Witchcraftway and Mothway are hard to classify, and especially Coyoteway. Unpredictability is connected to creativity.
Dualistic: Due to Pueblo contact and influence, the Blessingway and Nightway traditions are “holy”, in a separate ceremonial sphere than the Evilway, which depicts Coyote as the “trickster” deity and is demonized. Coyote’s place is polarized into opposing good (order), and evil (chaos) and Coyote is replaced by one of the Hero Twins.
Hiding and Releasing of Game: This tradition is reflected in and represents hunting and gathering societies. Chaos and order are combined features, and both necessary for survival.
Emergence: Four underworlds exist before the emergence into the present surface world. The underworlds are dark and chaotic, whereas the present world is light and orderly. Emergence represents agriculture, death and birth.
The work that Levy did in this ethnography of the Navajo creation myths is an interesting work because it not only establishes the patterning of religious/spiritual beliefs in a preliterate society based on migration routes and story changes, but it also compares this technique with an established paradigm in Biblical Christianity/Torah of Judaism in their text-based creation myths and similar migration routes due to factions and split-off groups moving from one area to another. The changes and patterns of both societies in these two separate places, at two separate times in history, follow the same trends of change. Both of their earlier and later stories are altered based on the political, religious, regional, and societal differences between groups. Changes we see today and in history are reflected in the localized differences between the different areas and support this view. It is a good reminder of just how dynamic societies are in their societal, religious, and political organization, rather than being static and unchanging.
Levy comes to the conclusion that the Navajo creation myth follows closer to the secular/scientific community in cosmological knowledge of the world, and humanity’s place in it. This being where chaos (the mixing of good and evil) is established into order (the separation of good and evil). Emergence themes, and ties to agriculture, and the polarization of the deities (and their respective personality traits) all play a part in the stories of the many Navajo sings. This concept is contrasted by Levy with Christianity and Judaism where both views are presented Biblically through the four separate documents as part of the Pentateuch. The paradox that we found (in this research) is that it is dependent on which creation account Christians/Jews focus on (order to chaos, or chaos to order), and although Levy mentions that people in these faiths tend to ignore (or are ignorant of?) these inconsistencies between the different creation accounts of Genesis, it is not brought up as to what particular historical events may have influenced the original stories themselves… only that they were changed by later migration and political and religious factors. His methodologies, however, did not require the unveiling of the still-unanswered origin of the creation myths that show up in most of the world’s cultures (Moskowitz-Strain, 2006), so he only drew the parallel between how stories change over time and space. These differences between the two Genesis creation myth accounts become clear as we look at the table below.
“P” Version: GENESIS 1:1-2:3
“J” Version: GENESIS 2:4-25
Older version from north Kingdom of Israel
Anthropomorphic God who walks and talks in the Garden of Eden, creates man first and makes him “boss” over everything, then forms female from him, as his subordinate.
Cosmological, comparison from the empty space, or “void” of chaos to the successive and accumulative account of evolution and order on the earth.
Reversal from the “P” version where order is present in the Garden of Eden, until the “original sin” occurs, causing death and chaos.
Levy chose to use the comparative method, despite the avoidance of such methodologies by anthropologists such as Franz Boas. The conclusions that Levy arrived at using the comparisons between documented creation myths and historical analyses was convincing overall. Both the history of Israel and the earlier and later writing styles and content were a genuinely intriguing and unique way to draw a parallel between changes in a literate society and similar changes in a previously nonliterate society.
The Navajo are of Athapaskan descent; today they are located in the Dinetah, the traditional Navajo homeland. (Pritzker, 2000) About 3,000 years ago, the Athapaskans migrated from the Bering Strait region, The southern Athapaskans arrived in the Southwest around 1400 A.D., around the Pueblo valleys. (Underhill, 1973) They began to raid Pueblo Indians for food, slaves, property, and women. The Navajo and the Pueblo soon began to trade between each other. The Navajo adopted some of the Pueblo habits, as well as customs and arts. Most importantly, they learned to farm from the Pueblo and began to settle down to a more sedentary lifestyle. After that they became pastoralists as well. They acquired herds of sheep, horses, and goats. What we see today as traditional Navajo culture stems from the contact and the cultural mix with the Pueblos. (Towner, 2003)
Located on the lower Colorado Plateau, between the San Juan and the little Colorado Rivers, about 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the Navajo Nation occupies almost 29,000 square miles reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico and parts of southern Utah . Navajo is a Tewa word meaning “planted fields.” They call themselves Dine’ “the people” and are the largest Indian tribe in the U.S. (Pritzker, 2000) We found it interesting that the word “Navajo” itself refers to the planted fields concept, which connects the agricultural theme of emergence within the Navajo creation myths.
As the Navajo began to spread west and south, the early 19th century brought raids between the Mexicans and Spaniards. Mexico had better fire power and took many of the Navajo children in as slaves. They did not have tribes at this time and traveled with their livestock in clans to summer and winter hogans (what they called their homes). (Wilson, 1998)
The Navajo fought hard against the U.S. hold on the their sacred land, the Canyon de Chelly. The U.S. considered itself the owner of all the Navajo territory and forcibly relocated thousands of Navajos that did not die from disease or were not killed in the fighting. Some were not captured and hid out in the Navajo country. In 1868 they returned to U.S. granted land of 3.5 million acres for a reservation. Soon after the Navajo culture changed quickly, Trading posts opened and tourists came to watch blanket weaving, children began school, and some Navajos began to work for the railroad. (Pritzker, 2000) Social, political, and religious changes were not just inherent, but they were inevitable.
By the late 1800’s the reservations had grown, although the railroad took up much of the new land. The Navajo’s became prosperous because of sheep and goat herds. Soon economic and natural disasters reduced the herds so the Navajo had to switch from subsidence herding to raising stock for market. When WW II began many Navajos went to war for the U.S. The Navajo were very useful to the military because their language was used for coding in transmission between the troops. Many came back with much honor and good paychecks. Like the rest of the country post-war brought on unemployment and hunger. (Pritzker, 2000) This information is generally referenced to, and supported by Levy as he describes how the Navajo were economically displaced as wage earners.
Major alterations within the Navajo culture ensued, especially in areas of daily life. Ceremonies and traditions were still held sacred, however, even though alterations within the sings continued. “Sa’ah Naaghei Bik’en Hozho” means being grounded to earth in whole and in harmony with life. This characterizes the Navajo way. Everything to the Navajo is sacred and interrelated, e.g. “RELIGION = IDENTITY = CLAN = PLACE.” (Pritzker, 2000) The most important role of the ceremonies is to maintain and restore the above harmony. Most ceremonies are for curing illness, because they may be off balance with non-natives, witches, ghosts, or the dead. (Pritzker, 2000) Spiritual or religious beliefs and practices as nativistic movements, therefore, help bring both cognitive and emotional function to the Navajo, and it enhances group solidarity. (Ferraro, 2006)
In myth the Navajos came to this world through a progression of underworlds. They were then assisted by mysterious and powerful spiritual beings, such as the Coyote, Changing Woman, Spider Woman, Spider Man and the Hero Twins. These beings can be called on for help in curing. Ceremonies are held as needed. Many of the aspects of the Navajo ceremonies were borrowed by the Hopi and other Pueblo people. Important aspects of the ceremonies are masked dancers, feathered prayer sticks, dry sand painting, cornmeal, pollen, and alters. Navajo ceremonies are conducted by singers who have mastered up to 24 chant systems. Six main groups exist: Blessingway, War, Hunting, and the three curing ceremonies: Holyway, Evilway, and Lifeway. (Pitzker, 2000) According to Levy, it is the Blessingway tradition that is the backbone of the sings; it “is said to control all Navajo ceremonies.” (Levy, 1998: 117)
The Navajo government was traditionally organized in bands, each lead by a headman, and a clan leader, who was assisted by war leaders. They met every few years and decisions were made by the consensus. Clans were both matrilineal and matrilocal. Men were not aloud to talk to their mother-in-laws so they lived near the mother’s family, but in their own homes. The Navajo had a great fear of death and therefore after the dead were buried their belongings were destroyed. (Wilson, 1998) Home, crop, pottery, and the livestock were considered the woman’s job, and making jewelry and representing the family at ceremonies and in public was the man’s work. (Underhill, 1956) Hogans were what the Navajo lived in, the doorways always faced to the East. The U.S. government still officially controls the Navajo tribal government and elections are every 4 years. The “Navajo nation was adopted in 1969.” (Pritzker, 2000)
Figure 2: Navajo Flag
Now one-third of the tribal workforce is unemployed. Some still farm and many make
arts and crafts for
retail business. Many are employed by industries. Women, for the most part,
have continued their matriarchal roles. Alcoholism is high among the Navajo
reservations as well as high suicide rates. Today many live off the
reservation, but still believe in the Navajo culture and identity. (Pritzker,
2000) What is fascinating about the Navajo culture is how, despite all of the
vast changes within social, political, and economic factors, their
religious/spiritual beliefs, although changed also, have not been lost and are
still continued and practiced with as much drive and desire and enthusiasm as
ever. Historically, the Navajo myths and sings have been traced and documented,
although only in more recent times (since the 1800’s), but the changes within
these traditions are correlated with events, migrations, and contact (sharing)
with other tribal nations. The evidence stands within the sings themselves,
both separate and together, unique and intermeshed with the stories around the
Levy covered the many preliterate ceremonial traditions and sings of the Navajo creation myths, such as the Blessingway and the Evilway, Coyoteway, and Mothway, etc., and brought out the details of how Begochidi-Coyote’s creator-trickster traits changed/evolved over time and space by drawing a parallel to literate societies’ Biblical creation myths – and how those also changed over time and space – via historical literature comparisons. Cosmological comparisons were also made connecting the Navajo emergence (agricultural) myths of death and birth, evil and good, to chaos and order within the universe and the world.
What we know about the Navajo, their migration patterns, the stories they kept, shared, and altered, were indicative of the changes that are traceable historically. From hunter and gatherers, to agriculturalists, pastoralists, and finally wage earners, shows trends and the evolution of the sings.
Levy, using this comparative method, also established a foundation by which a nonliterate society’s beliefs could be considered just as viable and equally dynamic and complex as any literate society’s beliefs.
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creation myths, flood stories, and supplier of the Native American maps and their source
DiLucchio, Larry, 2002, Navaho Central, Dineh and American Indian Culture, Navajo Nation
Flag, Chinle, AZ, Calumet Consulting, http://www.navajocentral.org/amerind_culture.htm
(accessed April 21, 2006)
Pritzker, Barry M., 2000, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and the People,
Oxford University Press
Stein, Philip L., & Rowe, Bruce M., 1998, Physical Anthropology: The Core, United States,
McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2nd Edition
Towner, Ronald H., 2003, Defending the Dinetah: Pueblitos in the Ancestral Navajo Land, Salt
Lake City, The
University of Utah Press
Underhill, Ruth M., 1973, Here Come The Navajo
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