The Navajo Culture

"My children, as you journey throughout life from generation to generation; do not forget your language, your culture, and your way of life. That identifies who you are."
- Navajo Chief Manuelito

Spirituality and Life

We the five-fingered beings are related to the four-legged, the winged beings, the spiritual beings, Father Sky, Mother Earth, and nature. We are all relatives. We cannot leave our relatives behind.
Betty Tso, traditional Navajo

Our offerings places are sacred to us, and the spiritual beings take care of us. We know the land, the spiritual beings know us here. If we leave our offering places, we will not be able to survive.
Jack Hatathlie, Navajo Medicine Man

The traditional Navajo way, or belief system has been described as encompassing life itself, the land, and overall harmony with others, nature, and supernatural forces.  All living things – people, plants, animals, mountains, and the Earth itself are considered relatives of one another. Each being is considered to be endowed with its own spirit, or inner form, which in turn gives it life and purpose within an orderly and interconnected universe. The interrelatedness of all creation is recognized through daily prayer offerings and an elaborate system of ceremonies. It is said that the purpose of Navajo life is to maintain balance between the individual and the universe and to live harmoniously with nature and the Creator. In order to achieve this goal, the Navajos must perform their religious practices on the specific, time-honored lands, which they inhabit. 

According to teachings, Navajos believe that their Creator placed them on the land between four sacred mountains of reverence known as Dine Bi’ Keyah (Navajoland). Each range lies in one of each geographical direction to protect and guide them in their daily lives, and represent the circle of life.

  • Mount Blanca (Tsisnaasjini’ – Dawn or White Shell Mountain)                                                                       
    • Sacred Mountain of the East – near Alamosa,  Colorado.

This mountain symbolizes a place where the sun rises and where day begins, as well a representing the spring season.

  • Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil – Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain)
    • Sacred Mountain of the South – northern New Mexico

This mountain symbolizes a continuation of the day’s journey at mid-day when the sky is blue. This direction also represents the summer season.

  • The San Francisco Peaks (Doko’oosliid – Abalone Shell Mountain)
    • Sacred Mountain of the West – near Flagstaff, Arizona

This mountain range symbolizes the sunsets and the days end. It also reflects the adulthood of all living beings and represents the fall season.

  • Mount Hesperus (Dibe’ Nitsaa – Obsidian Mountain)
    • Sacred Mountain of the North – La Plata Mountains, Colorado

This mountain is represented in black, which symbolizes the color of night, when all life must rest. It also represents the winter season, and the elderly, and completes the life circle.

Hogan, once a traditional Navajo home, is the microcosm of traditional Navajo life and considered a sacred place – a gift from the Holy People. A typical hogan on the reservation today is constructed of logs, barks and packed earth in a round dome-roofed shape, with each of the supporting posts representing the four sacred mountains. Other sections of the hogan correspond to the structures of the universe: the earthen floor represents Mother Earth, and the round, domed roof symbolizes Father Sky. It is this structure that is the site for all religious, and many healing ceremonies, and constitutes one of the most sacred places for members of a Navajo family. 

The Navajo Language

The Navajo language is a richly complex language. It is a tonal language with 33 consonants and 12 vowel sounds, and prior to the 1930s, had no written form. There are approximately 170,000 speakers of the Navajo language, making it one of the most highly spoken Native American languages. The majority of speakers live on the Navajo Nation (~ 75%) with approximately 3% of those considered Navajo monolingual with no knowledge of English and mostly elderly. But in spite of this large community of speakers, and of the value of the language to its linguistic community, many linguists consider the language to be severely threatened.

In the early 1980s, approximately 85% of the Navajo child population spoke Navajo as their first language. More recent surveys show that this percentage has fallen to 25% of the child population. A 1991 survey of 4,073 students in the Navajo Reservation Head Start program found that 54% of 682 preschoolers are monolingual English speakers, 28% bilingual in English and Navajo, and 18% monolingual Navajo. This decline of Navajo children learning their ethnic language has led to the creation of Navajo immersion programs throughout the reservation to preserve and promote usage of the language, and to maintain the richness of the Navajo culture.  

Geography and Demographics of the Navajo Nation

Of the 562 federally recognized Native American Tribes and 318 reservations recorded in the United States, the Navajo Nation is the home of the largest American Indian tribe. The reservation is situated on over 27,000 square miles within northeastern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Population: 180,462 (Ethnic Navajo) *                                                          

Median Age: 24 -

Labor Force: comprises 28% of population

Median Household Income: $20,000

Unemployment: 42%

Poverty: 43% live below the poverty level

Education: (for ages 25+): 56% have high school degrees, 7% have college degrees

* Approximately 58% of ethnic Navajo live on the reservation. Scarcity of jobs and higher level academic institutions are some reported reasons for the ~ 42% that live off of the reservation.

Navajo Beliefs about Health and Disease 

The foundation of the Navajo health belief system is built upon the necessary harmony among holistic concepts, specifically the interrelationships of the individual, family and community, nature, and spirituality. Spiritual or physical health is, therefore, dependent upon maintaining harmony with nature, which will establish a vital link among spirituality, physical health, and healing. The Navajos perceive illness to be the result of disharmony within these forces of life. This disharmony that occurs may be due to supernatural forces, witchcraft, and transgressions, such as violating a taboo or having said harmful things to people. Others possible reasons for this disharmony may come from some bodily contact with various natural phenomena. Such phenomena may include contact with spiritually dangerous animals, such as bear, scorpions, or coyotes, inappropriate behavior at ceremonies, being within proximity of ghosts of deceased humans, and contact with non-Navajos, especially enemies, living or dead.

In the case of witchcraft, it is believed that witches, or Skinwalkers, as they are commonly referred, exist in the form of the earth’s surface people. These Skinwalkers may climb on top of a hogan while a family sleeps, dropping pollen made from the bones of human infants into the smoke hole of the hogan. Contact with this substance brings a sleeping person ill health, social problems, and sometimes death.

In addition to classic western, or allopathic medical intervention for disease, the Navajo culture strongly believe in a holistic approach to healing which involves three branches of health practitioners:

  • Herbalists – use medicinal plants for symptomatic and healing properties. It is said that these herbalist have traditional knowledge of more than 400 curative plant species. Examples include:
    • Chewing bark of wild hydrangea settles a queasy stomach and stops diarrhea
    • Liquefied root of the black-eyed Susan is used for earaches and reduces edema
    • Leaves of the tulip tree are crushed into a paste to ease pain of a headache
    • Paste from pine bark is used to soothe burns
    • Root of the dwarf iris yields a salve to treat open sores
    • Catnip relieves gastritis
    • The leaves and bark of the sassafras tree produce treatments for numerous illnesses and are strictly intended for use in medicinal ceremonies
  • Shaman – diagnose illnesses, and are consulted to find the origins of a particular sickness. There are 3 types of diagnostic methods that the shaman may perform in order to determine which ceremonial cure will be implemented by the medicine man:
    • Stargazing – involves looking at the stars directly or through a crystal and receiving information about the patient.
    • Listening – simply involves gathering pertinent information from the patients regarding their signs and symptoms of illness.
    • Hand-Trembling – most common of the three diagnostic methods used by the shaman. Diagnoses made by the hand trembler are based on the belief that the spirits move the diagnostician’s hand so that it draws a picture, which is then interpreted to reveal the cause of an illness.
  • Medicine men/women – the healer; a person of great respect. Once diagnosed, the healer conducts a ceremonial chant, or ‘sing’. These ‘sing’s may be intended to ameliorate or amend the cause of suffering. They may also be intended to enhance health, the quality of social relationships, and financial well being. These ceremonies take place in the hogan and may last for less than an hour to many days.

Clinical Implications for Speech Language Pathologists 

Cultural Care Principles and Practice within the Navajo Population

Culture care practices should be required in all aspects of the care process – assessment and intervention when working with clients within this population. Culturally sensitive care requires accommodation and negotiation with clients as well as families/caregivers when providing care, and requires attention and sensitivity to what is in the their best interests. This will require research into their cultural values, beliefs, and practices.

The following are important cultural beliefs, values and practices to take into consideration when working with potential clients within the Navajo population:

  • Direct eye to eye contact with others in not common among the Navajo.
  • Handshakes (when a hand is extended to someone) are a touching of hands as opposed to a firm handshake.
  • The Navajo are a present orientation culture and may fail to understand the relationship between one’s past activities and present illness. This may create some challenges in gathering a health history, and keeping future therapeutic appointments.
  • Listening and not interrupting are strongly held values in Navajo etiquette, and frequently a Navajo listener waits a short period before speaking to make certain the other person has completed a statement.
  • Family decisions regarding health matters are highly important. Navajos are very family oriented and the biological family is the center of spiritual and physical comfort during illness.
  • Assessing the home environment is essential before therapies/interventions are prescribed. Many people still live in homes without electricity or indoor plumbing.
  • Conversational ‘courtesies’, such as thank-you, excuse me, etc. are infrequently heard among the Navajo, but appreciation is felt and expressed by patients particularly once a trusting relationship has been formed.
  • Patients may present with their skin blackened with charcoal, which indicates that they have recently had a ceremony performed for them by a traditional healer.
  • After certain ceremonies, patients have to observe certain practices outlined by the healer (only eat certain foods, avoid anything dead, etc.).
  • Personal space is important to Navajos, and some have difficulty adapting to spaces and people with whom they are not familiar.
  • Traditional Navajos, especially the elderly sleep on mattresses or sheepskins stacked on the floor.
  • Being hospitalized may create high anxiety for many of the elderly.
  • Navajos’ have a strong sense of privacy and modesty, and are averse to being touched by strangers.
  • Navajos' have religious prescriptions for bathing and cleanliness. Traditional Navajos use yucca roots to wash their hair.
  • Navajos' have specific food and beverage preferences: grilled mutton, mutton stew, fry bread, corn, and fried potatoes are some examples of these preferred foods.
  • Some foods are restricted following a traditional healing ceremony, and such foods will be shared with family and/or hospital staff by the medicine man/woman following the ceremony.

Cultural Care Principles with Regards to Death and Dying

  • Death is a sacred rite of passage to the next world.
  • Navajo have a great fear of their dead and believe that discussing death may bring upon death.
  • A dead person’s name is never spoken.
  • Only designated tribal members are permitted to touch and bury the dead.
  • The spirits of dead people pose a threat to life harmony, and many precautions are taken in order to ensure that their dead do not return to the land of the living. This is achieved through various purification rites.
  • If someone dies in the family hogan, a hole is made in the north wall to let the good spirit out, and then the hogan is abandoned; the family will have to find other living accommodations.
  • Upon death, the family will engage in a five-day ‘sing’, with careful thought given to foods and herbs chosen for the celebration – a reflection on how the deceased lived their life. 

"When that time comes, when my last breath leaves me, I choose to die in peace to meet
Shi’dy’in – the creator." 
 -Author unknown

Contributed by Adria Lagasse Winter 2013

References and Resources