Power and Self in Navajo
Cosmology and Ritual


In my readings of Navajo lifeways and traditions I have noted several themes, all of which are interconnected. That is, such motifs as 'power,' knowledge, ritual, and relationship do not occur as autonomous, separate aspects in Navajo cosmology. Beacuse each of these themes in one way or another imply the others, it would be unjust to consider any one of them in isolation. For this reason I intend to provide an critical, if preliminary, exposition of these four motifs as they are related to one another. Therefore, in the following pages I will begin a journey into Navajo cosmology with a discussion of the Navajo notion of power in juxtaposition to Western conceptions of the same. I will then circumnavigate such notions as knowledge, which implies the attainment of power, and ritual, which is means of utilizing power. The paper will finish on the shores of relationship, which, I believe, will return this literary excursion back to it point of departure--'power.'


To begin, there are a myrnid of conceptions of power in the western world. We can discuss notions of power in terms of technology--that which powers machines and the like--or we can point to such power as that which refers to a more human realm. In any introductory sociology course, one of the things discussed is the notion of power. In such a mileu a distinction is made between power and authority. While I think it is true that these aspects of power, although as yet ambigious, have a role in human interrelations they may not be apropos when discussing non-Western cultures. It is not my intention to refute this model of human power relations, but merely to point out its possible inadequacy in terms of the Navajo Weltanschauung. Power, in this model, has both economic and political implications and is traditionally held by a privledged few--the power elite. Conversely it also implies the power to control others whether through consent or not. That is, the use of such power is consideredd to be coercive. Authority, in contrast is considerd to be legitimate power--power sanctioned by the society.0

Such economic and political forms of power certainly do exist in Navajo culture, but I think if we were to understand how things work under such a rubric we will develop an deficient understanding of Navajo life and cosmology. While it is true that there are certain individuals in the Navajo nation that wield political power, it is not the case that they are members of some sort of a power elite. In fact, Navajo leaders are said to lead only in so far as others chose to listen to them.1 This perspective is further evidenced by the Navajo conception of individualism. To the Navajo, individualism is characterized as follows: "No person has the right to speak for or direct the actions of another."2 This attitude is reflective of a basic Navajo rule and it is suggetive of the notion that all things have power and therefore must be respected as such.3

What the above discussion suggests to me is that when we speak of Navajo conceptions of power, it might be wise not to consider power in terms of authority. Perhaps it is more appropriate to consider the notion of infulence instead of power. That is, that it is possible to see the Navajo as having influence not authority over individuals, the world, and the spirits. If, as Reichard suggests, a Navajo is "just as likely to assign efficacy to inaminate objects as to himself [sic]"4 and if the Navajo world view states that humans are only one category of a large number of entities in the universe, then, because of this state of affairs, humans cannot be considered to be more important than any other entity or being.5 Furthermore, one human cannot be understood to be any more important than any other. This suggests to me a disparity between the notion of using one's power to control or coerce the spirits, as is generally suggested by the literature6, and the actual day-to-day practices of Navajo life.7

If we choose to define Navajo practice in terms of one's influence over others, I believe we may develop a more realistic approach to Navajo cosmology. In fact, it seem to make more sense to consider Reichard's similie of power in terms of influence. When she suggests that power is like a wave in a pool (it is "always effective though [it] becomes weaker the further it radiates from the chanter and patient...."),8 it seems to me that such a notion of power is more reflective of the notion of influence than it is of control or coercion.


In The Main Stalk, John Farella notes that a primary theme in Navajo myth and religion is the acquisition and loss of knowledge.9 In fact, Farella indicates that many Navajo stories have instruction as one of their functions. There are two aspects to instruction that are a feature of the Navajo universe, these are as follows: knowledge acquired through personal instruction or experience, and "the necessity of ritually exercising what is learned for it to have an effect (or power [influence])...."10 The latter aspect of instruction will be dealt with in the next section on ritual and healing.

In terms of the former aspect of instruction--personal instruction and experience--I think we can assume that such instruction refers to the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another--this is a point to which we will return in the final section of this essay. In regards to personal experience, what Farella seems to suggest is that through one's participation in ritual, one gains personal knowledge of the Holy people (Diyin Dine`e). Nonetheless, Farella attempts to show that the 'supernatural' powers of the Holy people are contigient upon knowledge that is available not only to the diyinii11 but also to humanity. In other words, "power [influence] persupposed knowledge and does not exist as an inseperable attribute of being, as in the case of the Christian God."12 (From this perspective it is prehaps more pragmatic to view the Holy people in terms of being members of a 'power continium' rather than as being autonomous and separate from the cosmos itself.)

To the Navajo, the universe works according to rules. If one can gain the knowledge of to these rules and follow them, he or she can maintain some degree of safety. Furthermore, it is through such knowledge that an individual is in a position to influence the spirits.13 Such positions of influence are what provides the harmony of the Navajo cosmos. That is, there is harmony in the relationships between the Holy people, humans, and other beings. Such harmony refers to a positive, ideal environment, which is thought to be all inclusive. Harmony is suggestive of the notion of the "power of positive thought", that is, positive thoughts make positive things happen. Hence thought, in the Navajo Weltanschauung, is influential. As Witherspoon points out, the "Navajo believe strongly in the power of thought. The world was created by it; things are transformed according to it; life is regenerated from it. People are cured and blessed, vegetation is improved and increased, and health and happiness are restored by the power of thought."14

(The Navajo conception of thought is interconnected with notions of speech, bodily actions and knowledge. Thus, in a circular way, Witherspoon points out that speech is the outer form of thought, and thought is the inner form of speech. This notion of an inner form refers to a conception of an animate being within the indivdual [breath], which controls one's body, including thoughts and actions. As a result, bodily movements are considered to be the externalization of thought; speech is thought of as being an extension of thought; and knowledge is the inner form of thought.15 In this passage Witherspoon indicates the depth of the interconnection between life and 'power' as well as emphasizing the importance of knowledge in Navajo thought.)

A further consideration that Farella brings to light is the connection between power and risk. He writes that "there can be no utilization of power without incurring risk."16 From this perspective, to repeat, it is prehaps more pragmatic to view the Holy people in terms of being members of a power continium rather than as being autonomous and separate from the cosmos itself. Because all power is based upon knowledge, one's relationship to it becomes a question as to the amount of risk relative to the payoff. That is, one involves himself or herself with the Holy people at his or her own risk and one does so in terms of the amount of benefit that may be gained. This is particuarily the case in terms of curative ceremonies--the more powerful the being invoked, the greater the benefit and the greater the risk.17


As the above discussion suggests, there is an intimate interconnection between power and ritual. Ritual is usually performed for curative practices. In fact, as Leland Wyman suggests in "Navajo Ceremonial Systems", Navajo ritual was developed to cope with the uncertainties and dangers of the Navajo universe. To the Navajo, the universe is an orderly, all inclusive, unitary system of interrelated elements. Thus, as previously noted, both the tiniest and the largest object has its place. The Navajo universe is considered to be all inclusive in that it contains both good and evil as complementary components and not as abstractions of Navajo ethics. That is, what is good is said to be in harmony and what is evil is thought to be out of harmony. Because good and evil are interrelated, and since the notion of evil is based on contaigon and not sin, we can understand the Navajo 'need' to 'control' that which is threatening. That is, the Navajo desire to control threatening things in order to remove individuals from the contagion of evil and to promote good. Thus Navajo ritual is the means of controling the dangerous, of exorcising evil and restoring the harmony of the world or group. In practical terms, this implies a threefold ritualistic procedure which is concerned with 1) restoring or maintaining the health of the individual and group, 2) obtaining an increase in wealth and well being of the individual or group, and 3) the acquisition of certain ceremoninal proptery, which allows for further ritual.18

In this preliminary exposition of Navajo ritual, I intend to focus only on the first of these three aspects of Navajo ritualistic proceedure--restoring or maintaing the health of the individual or group. To the Navajo disease or injury are due to 1) contact with the holy people which is caused by transgressions of taboos; 2) ghost sickness--i.e., contact with the dead of either Navajo or non-Navajo; and, 3) witchcraft.19

It is not within the parameters of this paper to enter into a discussion comparing the similarities and differences of these three aspects of the Navajo understanding of disease. Instead, I will merely point out Reichard's suggestion that disease or 'sin' is to the Navajo a situaltion in which an individual, the culture, or the cosmos is "out of order" or out of harmony with its surroundings.20 Therefore, it appears that one of the functions of ritual is to restore order, harmony, or a natural state of being.21

Reichard continues the discussion on the notion of harmony by suggesting that to the Navajo the universe is conceived of as being a place for humanity. As a result of this conception, all natural phenomenon is interpreted as being either allies or enemies--that is, as helpful or hindering. The Navajo may find himself or herself in a position from which he or she must discover ways of manipulating the deities "so as to divert their powers in his [sic] favour...." 22 It is through a chant and its myth that one organizes the details necessary to manipulate the dieties.23 Thus, as we can see, "even skills and cultural institutions...have a [role] in the harmony into which we are all inexorably combined."24 That is, the notion of harmony is something that realtes to all aspects of the cosmos, natural phenomena, supernatural phenomena and cultural phenomena.


Among other considerations Farella also writes of the function of Navajo ritual. He suggests that for the Navajo everything that exists has been created. Yet "acts of creation do not just happen; they are achieved ritually, and the successful creative ritual performance depends upon obtaining a large body of rather percise knowledge."25 That is, creation (through ritual or otherwise) occurs as a result of the influence of knowledge. Because the initial step in any curing ceremony is to identify and objectify the intangible or nebulous thing that is causing the illness,26 Navajo emphasis on knowledge in connection to 'power' and ritual is more than evident. If one is unaware of the cause of the disease, how is that person to confront it and engender recovery? Hence, knowledge is of the utmost imporance in securing a successful ritual.

Although it is important to obtain knowledge in order to be an effective ritual practioner, it is interesting to note that those who are the most knowledgable are not ritual performers.27 That is, the most influential individuals do not partake in curative ceremonies as spiritual leaders. Farella suggests one reason for such abstinence is fear of withcraft accusations.28

Because Navajo interest is primarily one of the restoration of harmony between individuals, within individuals, and with natural forces, all rituals must in some way make reference to creation. That is, in each Navajo ritual there is an implicit, if not also explicit, reference to the Navajo creation story--the Diné Bahané. Sam Gill, in "The Shadow of a Vision Yonder", agreems with this observation. To the Navajo, Gill notes, creation means that all things were formed and set in a place and that proper relationships existed between them. Such formalities are said to dominate social relationships as well. "The formal enactment of a ritual," Gill writes, "brings things to their proper place and serves to interconnect them by establishing binding relationships."29

In the above paragraph we may begin to sense a specific hermeneutic of Amerindian culture that has been suggested by Mark F. Ruml.30 This hermeneutic is one that sees the Amerindian and their conception of their connection to the spirt world as being one of intimacy and kinship. This is an interesting perspective especially when one considers the fact that Navajo ethics requires "the people" to consider all individuals, human or otherwise, to be kin.31

This notion of kinship, it must be noted, is not limited merely to animate, organic beings. For instance, Navajo cosmology also considers the earth to be a true kinswoman. That is, the Navajo consider the earth to be the source of all life and the actual mother of all living creatures who emerged from the four underworlds of the Navajo creation story. Because the Navajo define kinship in terms of one's actions or behaviours, the earth is considered to be as much a mother as one's own blood relatives, who are biological mothers. As Witherspoon points out "kinship is discussed in terms of the acts of giving birth and sharing sustenance."32 Therefore, in Navajo culture, there is a primary bond between the adult and the child and kinship consequently connotes an "intense, diffuse, and enduring solidarity, and this solidarity is realized in actions and behaviour befitting the cultural definitions of kinship solidarity."33 Witherspoon also points out that the sun is considered to be the father of all things.34

The emphasis on kinship in the Navajo conception of creation is suggestive of growth on an generational basis. As Farella points out, Navajo creation stories have not so much to do with creation out of nothing as they have to do with the "transformation of 'primal' life stuff and the placement of the result."35 Although gender is a universal quality in creation, the gender differences descibed is not identical with the sexuality that we know in the present world. Rather "a second (and the primary) aspect of Navajo creation is animation, espically after diyinii reach the earth's surface."36 Nonetheless, "creation [as it is] described is based on reproduction. It is overtly sexual, although it is seldom described in explicitly sexual terms."37

Farella furthers the argument of generativity (to which I alluded earlier) when he refers to what is considered to be the most fundamental, and contraversal, concept of Navajo philosophy. This concept is revealed in the phrase sa'a naghái bik'e hózhó. Farella points out that sa'a naghái in one instance refers to the semen of First Man (the male creator of the Navajo world, often identified with the sun) and that bik'e hózhó is the reproductive fluid of Changing Woman (a creatrix often identified with the earth). Thus, as Farella puts it, sa'a naghái bik'e hózhó is the means by which the Navajo reproduce in the past, in the present and in the future.38 It is the model of Navajo life, cosmology and so on.

Farella suggests that there is only one thing that is of importance in this notion "and that is the question of kinship, or relatedness."39 He continues by indicating that the notion of sa'a naghái bik'e hózhó in some sense indicates wholeness of the entitative. "As Westerners we are inclined, I think, to relate that [the entitative] to the ego, to the performance of the individual...."40 Instead, as Farella points out, in Navajo culture "...the importance is placed on, and wholeness is derived from, one's relationship to the beginning, to the past, to one's father [and to] one's grandfather' to First Man and First Woman, [and] to Changing Woman."41

It is by going back to the beginnings of one's relationship to life, Farella continues, that the notion that all who are my brothers or my sisters is emphasized. It is one's task to have children and for them to have children, that is, through generativity one passes on this world view of generativity to one's offspring. But most important is the notion that upon death, one's life force will return to the "Dawn and become part of the 'undifferentiated pool of nílch'i' [animation, breath] that will animate future living things."42 From this perspective we can see that "Sa'a naghái bik'e hózhó bounds animate beings, but by reference to the beginning, the future, and one's relatedness to other beings, rather than by rigidification of the skin that appears to surround us."43 Thus sa'a naghái bik'e hózhó manifests our relationship to all things, past present and future; it 'symbolizes' the intricate interconnection of the cosmos and all things in it.


In the preceeding pages we have circumnavigated the relationship inherent to Navajo cosmological notions of 'power', knowledge, ritual, and kinship. We have discovered that there is an intimate interconnection which binds each of these concepts together. As a result and as stated earlier, it would be injust to consider any one of these notions in isolation from the others. Finally, I would like to direct attention to the following quotation, which, I feel, provides a good way of bringing this excursion back to its starting point. Farella writes: "The sexual reproductive process is, of necessity, accompanied by a structure of relatedness... of kinship. A fundamental part of this relatedness is the sharing of property and [a] general sharing of gain."44 I think that this statement is a good place to end because it reminds us of the purpose or the ends of this essay and it takes us back to its beginning. This quotation reflects the Navajo belief that it is through kinship or realtionship that things are created, or re-created, in harmony; it is through the structures and interactions of kinship that one gains the knowledge necessary to perform the ritual, which returns harmony from disharmony; and it is through kinship, knowledge and ritual that one exercises the power or influence which restores harmony to the cosmos.


0 Ian Robertson. Sociology. (U.S.A.: Worth Publishers, Inc. 1981) 478ff.

1 James F. Downs. The Navajo. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1972), 123.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Gladys Reichard. Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings. (New York: Dover Publications, 1939, 1977), 14.

4 Ibid., 11.

5 Ibid., 14. Reichard makes what I think is an error by suggesting that the beings of the spirit world must be controled in order to be considered tolerable by human standards. This notion of controling or coercing the spirits appears in most writings on Navajo culture that I have read. I will attempt to argue that it is more appropriate to suggest that there is an attempt to infulence rather than control the spirits, etc.

6 See, for example: Leland C. Wyman "Navajo Ceremonial System," In William C. Sturtevant (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 536ff.

7 Navajo practices of child rearing is described as more like herding than coercion. In fact punishment of children uses such techniques as persuasion, ridicule, and shame in opposition to the corporal practices of western parents. See: James F. Downs The Navajo. (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1972), 24.

8 Gladys Reichard. Navaho Religion: A Study in Symbolism. (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963), xxxvii

9 John Farella. The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1984), 18.

10 Ibid., 26.

11 Farella's spelling of the Navajo name for the Holy people or spirits.

12 Ibid., 29.

13 Clyde Kluckhohn & Dorothea Leighton. The Navajo. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 156.

14 Gary Witherspoon. "Language and Reality in the Navajo World View." In: William C.Sturtevant (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 573.

15 Ibid., 573-574.

16 John Farella The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1984), 37.

17 Ibid., 37.

18 Leland C. Wyman "Navajo Ceremonial System." In: William C. Sturtevant (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 536-537. In the above passage, which paraphrases Wyman's text, we find emphasis on the notion of controling the spirits. Nonetheless, Wyman suggests that control is not really what is going on in Navajo ritual. In fact, he indicates that such a religious system ritual is employed to attract and obligate the spirits.

19 Clyde Kluckhohn & Dorothea Leighton. The Navajo. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 132.

20 Gladys Reichard. Navaho Religion: A Study in Symbolism. (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963), 125.

21 As Reichard points out one of the purposes of Navajo ritual is to extend the personality so as to bring it into a harmonious relationship with the powers of the universe. An opposite purpose of ritual is to keep humanity from contact with evil or sorcery. Ibid., 35.

22 Ibid., 148.

23 Ibid., 149.

24 Ibid., 148.

25 John Farella The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1984), 26.

26 Ibid., 52.

27 Ibid., 67.

28 This is an unsurprising turn of events if one considers what the literature says about the functioning of such accusations in Navajo culture. Kluckhohn and Leighton, for instance, note that stories of witches serve the function of permitting the release of anxiety and forbidden desires. It is, as they write, "a means of defining and personalizing [one's] anxiety which will be accepted by others." Again witches serve as scapegoats thus providing an acceptable means of dealing with an individual's aggression. Kluckhohn and Leighton conclude that withcraft accusations function by 1) helping maintain a system of checks and balances so that the rich and ritual practioners are kept from gaining too much influence, and 2) as an implied threat against all socially distressing activity, it helps to strenghten and maintain the customs of traditional Navajo society. This suggests to me that there is a virtual economy of knowledge and hence influence in Navajo culture. See: Clyde Kluckhohn & Dorothea Leighton. The Navajo. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 173-179.

29 Sam D. Gill "The Shadow of a Vision Yonder." In: W.H. Capps (ed.). Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native Americian Religion. (New York: Harper Fourm Books, 1976), 48.

30 Personal communication during conversations, 1988-1992.

31 Gary Witherspoon. Navajo Kinship and Marriage. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 96. In fact, everybody, even strangers, are addressed with a kin term. Thus we find egoism and alturism existing side by side in Navajo culture. This sentiment is found in the term the Navajo use to describe themselves and others. Dine, an Athapascan term, refers to "the people" in Navajo. Yet, there is an boundary implied by this term. Not only are there the categories between the diyin dine'e (the holy beings) and the nihohaa dine'e (natural, earth people), there is also a division intrinsic to the latter group. Thus the Navajo also distinguish between the dine (the members of the Navajo peoples) and ana'i (those who are non-Navajo). (119)

32 Ibid., 20.

33 Ibid., 20-21.

34 Ibid., 33. As the father of all things, the sun is considered to be a role model of fatherhood for the Navajo.

35 John R. Farella. The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1984), 69.

36 Ibid., 70-72.

37 Ibid., 75.

38 Ibid., 177.

39 Ibid., 178.

40 Ibid., 178.

41 Ibid., 178.

42 Ibid., 179.

43 Ibid., 180.

44 Ibid., 192.


Capps, W.H. (ed.). Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native Americian Religion. New York: Harper Fourm Books, 1976.

Downs, James F. The Navajo. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Inc., 1972.

Farella, John R. The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1984.

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Gill, Sam D. "The Shadow of a Vision Yonder." In: W.H. Capps (ed.). Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native Americian Religion. (New York: Harper Fourm Books, 1976), 48.

Kluckhohn, Clyde & Dorothea Leighton. The Navajo. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Reichard, Gladys. Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings. New York: Dover Publications,1939, 1977.

________________. Navaho Religion: A Study in Symbolism. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963.

Robertson, Ian. Sociology. U.S.A.: Worth Publishers, Inc. 1981

Sturtevant, William C. (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz.) Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.

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Witherspoon, Gary. "Language and Reality in the Navajo World View." In: William C.Sturtevant (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz.) Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.

_________________. Navajo Kinship and Marriage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Wyman, Leland C. "Navajo Ceremonial System." In: William C. Sturtevant (ed.) Hand Book of North Americian Indians. (Vol. 10. edited by Alfonso Ortiz.) Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Diné Bahané: The Navajo Creation Story. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

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