The Navajo Nation: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 4

Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé, Changing Woman, was the daughter of First Man and First Woman. She herself was the mother of the twin sons of Jóhonaaʼéí, the sun. When she encountered Jóhonaaʼéí again after her twin sons had defeated the monsters that beset the lands, he wanted her to join him permanently. She outlined the terms on which she would agree: “I am told you have a beautiful house in the east. I want such a house in the west. I want it built floating on the shimmering water, away from the shore, so that the Earth-Surface people will not bother me with their quarrels. I want white shell, and blue shell, and turquoise. I want haliotis. I want soapstone, agate, redstone, and jet. Because I will live there alone while you are gone each day, I want animals to keep me company. Give me buffalo, and deer, and mountain sheep, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, and muskrats. Provide me with those things and I shall go with you to the west.”

Jóhonaaʼéí agreed, and Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé made her preparations to leave with the Mirage and the Ground Mist people. They celebrated their betrothal on their journey west, and then arrived at the shore of the Pacific, travelling over the waters to her Floating White Bead House.

Today, the Diné (Navajo is a name given to them by their enemies) know the dwelling place of Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé to be Hawaii.

When we arrived at Flagstaff – and ever since then in Dilcon, Rock Point, Canyon de Chelly and finally Diné College – we felt at home. The myth of Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé was told to us on our last night amongst the Diné, completing the circle of what we had experienced on the Navajo reservation.

As tāngata whenua, the Navajo reservation is unimaginably large in terms of tribal lands. It is bound by four sacred mountains or buttes (ex-volcanic and heavily eroded): in the East, Sis Naajini; in the South, Tsoodzil; in the West, Dook’o’oosliid; and in the North, Dibé Nitsaa. Dilcon is under the shade of Dook’o’oosliid, the San Francisco Peaks, so in the very west of the reservation. We travelled over two hours on the open road to get Rock Point, close to the centre of the reservation; we saw one corner of the trbal lands of the Diné.

The number four is a sacred number. Their geography, architecture, their art, their ceremonies, their health and education programmes all use a fourfold structure. For example, the social and education programmes we were introduced to all came from the same basis: thoughts or nitsáhákees; planning or nahat’á; life or ‘Iiná; and finally hope or sih hasin.

The hooghan is the centre of their ceremonial life. Unlike the Hopi, the Diné ceremonies are often just for an individual, so you see hooghan at most houses on the reservation. The hooghan is an octogan, predominantly wooden walls and a dirt floor. The floor is soil so that all who come in, leave their footprints behind them. The roof shape indicates whether it’s been established for female or male ceremonies (a female hooghan has a womb-shaped roof). Everything is done clockwise, following the path of the sun in the northern hemisphere. At the centre of the hooghan is most often a fire place with a flue. It indicates the connection between earth and sky, an in a female hooghan it is the umbilical cord.

As with tāngata whenua, there is deep and abiding interest in geneology. Each person has six clans: the two of their parents, and the two from both their maternal and paternal grandmothers. It is a matrilineal society; everything is inherited through women. Within their family structure, everyone from the same clan is my brother/sister, and anyone from your maternal or paternal grandmothers’ clans are your grandmother/father, irrespective of age difference.

Their jewellery is predominantly silver and turquoise, and also representations of their animal spirit. They have an active silver smithing and jewellery making tradition. As with our tāonga, they represent protection, authority and safety. Their jewellery also represents their geneology. As with the Hopi, there are many clans, but your role is not as prescribed by your clan identity as in the Hopi Nation.

Mutton is king on the reservation. We ate a beautiful mutton soup with corn and fry bread. They love their salt, and for all purposes it was a mutton boil up. They also cook in their own underground earth oven, though often whole carcasses surrounded by corn to sweeten it. The chef Franco at Diné College had a little light go on when I described cooking kumara in our hangi; I can imagine he is planning to give it a go. Corn is an essential part of the diet. We ate it in a variety of forms, the two most exotic being a corn and cedar ash porridge and dried corn creamer for coffee. Unsurprisingly, your coffee tastes like corn after that. Due to the huge range of berries available to them, my humble opinion is that the Diné season food better than we do.

We are so alike. The reservation land is leased on a grant system to all First Nations’ peoples, not permanently owned. The Navajo Treaty of 1864 remains a significant guiding document particularly due to its agreement to financial resources for health and education; the Federal Government holds their purse strings. Initially the Diné were administered by the War Department, renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The educators we met were fascinated by our tamariki, as transmission of the Diné language to children is a big concern. Time and again we heard the prophecy that when our language and culture dies, that will be the end of the Navajo.

We are so different. At Dilcon College, we all stood as they did the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem in Navajo to the flag. Later it was explained to me that most Diné see themselves as honouring fallen warriors, rather committing to the Federal Government, but they were interested that our kura would never raise the New Zealand flag and sing the National Anthem. The Diné are also very committed to the military and the memory of the fallen soldiers. Whilst we were here, the last of Navajo Codebreakers passed away. Whilst we are the same, I think there is a clearer subversive discourse amongst Māori about the military and its role in the wars against us.

I left weeping today. As I drove from Chinle and saw the expanse of Diné land displayed before me, I wept for our tūpuna. Mine were with me in this reservation and were comfortable along side the tūpuna of the Diné. These people are my brothers and sisters. It is only right to weep as we part.

As my eyes turned back towards the Pacific, I am full of longing for the sea. The reflection I bring back to our moana is that we are seem unaware of the inspiring achievement of Te Aho Matua, of Kōhanga Reo, of Kura Kaupapa Māori and of Whare Wānanga. We have created these incredible gifts that are receieved gratefully by our tuakana throughout the world. In our lack of awareness, we often fail to recognise how much our tamariki understand about their story and their fight as Māori. Our tamariki are inspiring because we are inspiring.