Ceremonies are one of the most private parts of Navajo culture,
and a class at Diné College is bucking tradition to ensure
they don't disappear.
Part of Diné College's required
Navajo and Indian studies curriculum is a series of classes that
teach everything essentially Navajo from language to culture
But they also teach something much more
fundamental, and in the past, reserved for a select few.
The Navajo studies requirement embraces
Navajo ceremonies: the heart of the Navajo understanding of the
world, something that never was taught in English prior to the college's
The ceremonies class explores fundamental
rites that are essential to the Navajo understanding of healing
and the way the world is ordered.
"The goal is to get students familiarized
with what ceremonies are and how they are used," said Navajo
Singer, or medicine man, and part-time Diné College teacher
Harry Walters. "The goal is not to turn all the students into
To make things even more untraditional,
the classes are taught in both Navajo and English, and they don't
enforce the oral tradition focus students get to take notes.
"I learned by listening, not by stealing
people's tongues," said Navajo singer Francis Mitchell, who
wouldn't comment on the college's ceremonies curriculum. "My
grandfather knew when I was taking notes; he said I was taking his
With one look at the ceremonial bundle
Mitchell was workinghard to wrap, his grandfather knew he was memorizing
to write down later.
"Writing it down was stealing the
song," said Mitchell, who wouldn't let notes be taken during
his interview. "Songs belong to the singer."
Diné College requires nine to 10
credit hours of Navajo language and cultural studies to graduate.
The reason for the requirement, according
to college officials, is to make sure that nothing gets lost.
Walters said the Navajo Nation is fighting
a strange form of extinction: not one of people dying, but one of
important cultural aspects being threatened because of a decreasing
population of fluent Navajo language speakers.
"Our people aren't dying, but our
songs are getting harder to sing," Walters said. "That's
why we use both Navajo and English. There are ideas that can only
be sung in Navajo, but for our youth we also need English."
Walters believes it's important to keep
the Navajo ceremonies and culture current because the ceremonies
have the power to affect everyday life, regardless of whether an
individual is a singer.
"A lot of things, they die, but this
isn't one," Walters said. "The whole idea is that there
is an order in nature, an order in how things interact. The sky
the sun is warm, there is rain, wind and air, life comes
from that. These are things that Navajo youth can use in their own