Ceremonies Title Image

There is no word for "religion" in the Navajo language. The closest term is nahagha', meaning "ritual," but even this bears "no semiotic or sytagmatic relationship to the word 'religion'" (Witherspoon 14) 1. This distinction is important, because as John Farella asserts in The Main Stalk : A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy, Navajo ideology is a "fact- rather than belief-based system," which forces an examination of "different levels of meaning in an attempt to make sense out of what is said. Treating something as a belief can result in a rather passive acceptance and recording of anything that is reported. Examining something as fact requires an active participation in understanding and discovering meaning" (9).

This section's heading also illustrates the importance of the language in Dine culture. All ritual knowledge is the Dine world has already been created by the Holy People; therefore, the challenge is not to make knowledge, but to reveal it. Knowledge is the basis of things; it precedes thought, language, and speech (Witherspoon 31). The Dine world was thought into existence by the Holy People, but the realization of these thoughts only materialized through the manifestation of language, speech, in prayer and song (Witherspoon 31).

The relationship between the four elements of knowledge, thought, language, and speech is very important. Witherspoon asserts that "this world was transformed from knowledge, organized in thought, patterned in language, and realized in speech (symbolic action)...In the Navajo view of the world, language is not a mirror of reality; reality is a mirror of language" (34). Therefore, whenever I possible I will use Navajo terminology rather than English because the Navajo term is not only more appropriate, but also more resonant in the culture.

The Holy People

The Dine landscape is occupied by the diyinii (particular-ones-who-are-holy) who are also called diyin dine'e (Holy group or groups--here glossed as Holy People) and the dine'e, or the Earth-surface people (Reichard 51). In the creation story, the Holy People

lived first below the surface of the earth. They moved from one lower world to another because of witchcraft practiced by them. In the last of the twelve lower worlds the sexes were separated by a quarrel, and monsters were born from the female Holy People....In the course of all these events, the Holy People developed ways of doing things which were partly practical and partly magical. When they decided to leave for permanent homes at the east, south, west, north, the zenith, and the nadir, they had a great meeting at which they created the Earth Surface People, the ancestors of the Navahos, and taught them all the methods they had developed, so that He People could build houses, obtain food, marry , travel, and trade, and could also protect themselves against disease, hunger, and war. (Kluckhohn and Leighton 180-181).

Not all diyinii are "holy" in the "sense of possesing moral sanctity," --they can be manipulated, coerced, and are spoken of as experiencing jealousy, anger, and fear ( Kluckhohn and Leighton 180; Farella 25). Although the diyin dine'e cannot be seen in their "real forms" since leaving the Earth Surface People, they can be seen in natural objects and phenomenon such as the wind or corn (Wyman qtd in Farella 25). Moreover, in ceremonies the Navajo patient (also referred to as the one-sung-over in some sources) comes in contact with a certain diyinii, becomes healed by the association, and then is restored to his or her former identity.


Gary Witherspoon succinctly summarizes the role of ceremonies in Navajo life: "Navajos possess and perform over sixty major rites and numerous minor ones. They perform rituals for blessing, for curing, and for purification. they bless (make immune to illness and tragedy) their land, their livestock, their crops, their homes, their property, their relatives, and themselves" (13).

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