If you are Navajo, if you live in your homeland, that vast reservation bounded by the sacred mountains, if your life is well-ordered according to the basic precepts of Navajo medicine, if you live in balance and harmony with the land and the environment, if you hold your place in your clan and participate in the ceremonials and cultural traditions of the Dine’, you are said to be ‘Walking in Beauty’. It’s an ideal state of being that many Navajo still attain, in spite of the pressures of modern life, the distractions of mainstream society, and the cultural assimilation that inevitably has descended on the Navajo tribe.
The challenge for most Navajo in our time is to remain true to the nature of their tribe and culture while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of modern America, or, to put it another way, to live with one foot in the Navajo world, and the other in contemporary society. Some Navajo have accomplished this, but I think they are a minority; for many Navajo, life is out of balance. Many Navajo exist in a psychic state of cultural confusion, resentment, a sense of dislocation, and thus, engage in many self-destructive behaviors.
In 1982, when I first arrived in Navajoland, my initial impressions of the Dine’ were skewed. I saw much poverty, much social difficulty, and I brought my own cultural attitudes, so that when I held Navajo life up against the norms I’d been raised in, I judged the lives of the Navajo to be deficient, to be unrealized. For many Navajo, this was undoubtedly true. But in much of my early thinking, I was wrong.
Although a Navajo person may have little of the material assets that we take for granted, and though many Navajo cannot easily bridge the cultural divide they face, they have a great source of strength in their own culture, and pride in their identity as members of the Navajo Nation. A Navajo living in the tribal homeland, living a clan-centric life, has a source of support, a sense of belonging, and a wellspring of strength that outweighs any deficits that we, the descendants of the European diaspora, may perceive.
Most Navajo I met, while lacking money, or property, or possessions, didn’t consider themselves poor; that’s a judgment we non-Indians are quick to make. Many Navajo see themselves as blessed; worldly success is measured in other terms, apparent to the Navajo, but harder for mainstream Americans to perceive. Likewise, a person’s stature in the community isn’t solely based on their financial resources; other considerations hold great weight, such as participation in clan matters, observance of traditional medicine, and adherence to an honorable path through life. Of course, this is true of American society as well, but our culture values, above all, money and the accumulation of wealth. Success, in Navajo terms, is defined on other terms.
Navajos adhere to traditional social organization, the matriarchal clan system; the clans are headed by the most senior women, who, as a class, are very conservative. In their dealings with money and resources, they hold possession of land to be the most important goal, rather than accumulation of assets. This is certainly the outcome of the simple dislocation of the Navajo people by the arrival of the Europeans. The genocide and homelessness wrought by the arrival of the Europeans, which is conveniently forgotten by us in the mainstream, remains a vivid memory for native peoples all over North America.
This sense of great loss, and the perception of themselves as a conquered people, is the primary reason that Navajos are fiercely possessive of their homeland, and resistant to those who might offer mere compensation for real estate. The Navajo attachment to land isn’t merely based on spiritual concerns, but is a direct consequence of having been uprooted and dispossessed within recent cultural memory. It should come as no surprise that many Navajo, having encountered hostility, racism, and marginalization off the reservation, have no interest whatsoever in moving to other places; Navajoland is the center of their universe.
On a regular basis, right-leaning politicians advocate for the abolishment of reservations, insisting that the reservation system perpetuates dependence on government. This rationale is predicated on the idea that assimilation is a good thing, and presupposes that native peoples will all gladly transform themselves into happy, productive, capitalist citizens. I see this as a dangerous delusion. Certainly many Navajos could make such a transition; but many have nothing like the business acumen or social skills to blend into mainstream society. In short order, many native people would be dispossessed of their small spot on the earth, and will become a class of homeless itinerants. This outcome seems to me so inevitable, and so disastrous, that the majority of Americans will reject it outright, if the consequences are clearly understood.
In the time I lived in Navajo society, I found most Navajos to be friendly, if a little wary; it takes time for Navajos to accept whites in their midst. Obviously, it all comes down to how you handle yourself. Many whites arrive in Navajoland with the attitude that they are ‘in charge’; Navajos don’t see it this way at all. When I arrived, I was guilty of this conceit; I wish I had done some things differently, and if I could have some moments back to do all over again, I’d change my style considerably. Then again, I was hired to be ‘the boss’ of a failing program, and to make big changes. Idealism and naivety often walk hand in hand. I’m more self-aware now, and see things more from the Navajo world outlook. In any event, at this far remove, I forgive myself for my own mistakes. In my time on the reservation, in my own stumbling way, I walked in beauty too.