Day After Thanksgiving Observance: Native American Heritage Day

Native American Heritage Day

( – promoted by navajo)

Native American Heritage Day

Friday, the day after Thanksgiving

Most people aren’t aware of this, but last June, President Obama signed into law a joint resolution of the House and Senate, sponsored by Rep. Baca of California and Sen. Inouye of Hawaii, naming the Friday after Thanksgiving Native American Heritage Day, “to honor the achievements and contributions of Native Americans to the United States.”

The general truth, that we little understand the implications of what we celebrate, and that we should become more aware of our history and how others view it, is very appropriate to carry in our thoughts on this supposedly contemplative occasion.  

My family origins are with an ancestor who came over from England in 1680.  Nearly a century later, a descendant of his fought in the American Revolution.  My great grandfather learned a portable trade growing up in Litchfield, Connecticut, as a wheelwright, and made it all the way West – to Albion, NY.  Despite the long history of my family in America, I largely am an expert in the ignorance of Mainstream America in this subject area, beyond the Disneyfied bubble many of us have lived in. I feel I should comment from my attempts to overcome this.  

So, as a non-expert, how to get across some things about American Indian ways of life that enrich us?  There are so many ways one might go about this.  A list of things like corn, so much a staple of our diets that our bodies are nearly identical to corn in chemical analysis?  Quinine?  The insight into political process and governance that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson gained from meeting and talking with councils of the Six Nations confederacy?  

Given the spiritual and family nature of this holiday for many people, maybe it would be interesting to explore something most people might not consider.  

Several years ago I was living on the main campus of the Navajo Nation’s tribal college, in Tsaile, Az (derived from the Navajo word for a place where water enters the canyon) at the head of Canyon de Chelly in a stunning setting on the flanks of the Chuska (Ch’osgai – white spruce) Mountains, high up at 7200 feet.  

I thought I was going to a public lecture, but found myself in a large meeting convened on the Navajo Nation by many medicine men, tribal college leaders, tribal government and legal experts and others concerned about the issue of spreading water from sewage treatment onto the slopes of a sacred mountain.  This was approved by the National Park Service under Bush.  Fake snow  for ski tourism on the mountain near Flagstaff.

The purpose was to review  the legal strategy for opposing the Park Service action before the appellate court and possibly the Supreme Court on behalf of the Nation, and some fifteen other tribal entities as well.  

Harry Walters, a well known expert on Navajo culture, a teacher at the college and a tribal elder, explained the difference between “Western” viewpoints on issues such as this and “Indian” ways of seeing it, thus to explore the problem of translating the issue into language useful in a courtroom.  

I should mention that Dine’ College was founded on the principle that Indian youth could best be prepared for a future as leaders for the Nation, and successful people in the larger culture, through an education that honors traditional Indian views of life, as well as the accreditation requirements for US colleges.  The educational philosophy uses an ancient wisdom tradition description, Sa’a N’yae Bikeh Hozhon.  It isn’t translateable directly.

This is the sort of issue at the heart of the cultural divide between the two different traditions.  Language is a real limitation when it really represents different ways of thinking.  

Specific breaking down into atoms, molecules or logical bits that can be categorized is the “Western” gift to mankind.  It creates science and the benefits derived therefrom.  It also creates problems when people and cultures are subjected to compartmentalized thinking that allows them to be dismissed as less than human or irrelevant.  This is the source of war and horrible legacies that we know all too well, unless we dismiss the truth of history as many do – also made possible by compartmentalized, limited, left brain thinking.  

The more fluid, open and right brained intelligence welcomes more subjective experience as truth.  Poetry and art are more congruent than, say chemistry.  More comfort with ambiguity.  Less comfort with regimentation.

Walters drew a line and a circle.  More or less, straight line logic that sees things in terms of a continuum, such as a timeline or a process is one way of looking at the world, and a circle, where all things are seen as a gestalt with no beginning or end is another.

One might compare this to an Eastern, maybe Buddhist philosophy.  But it goes further.

The wisdom to be found in American Indian philosophy cannot be separated from ancient experience of place.  This is why land issues are so vastly crucial.  Dine’ people, especially in the very center of the Nation, have the fortune of living on land that direct ancestors walked going back at least into the fifteen hundreds.  Maybe further back.

The reason that there is a dispute over the sacred mountain is that there is no distinction between the time of Creation – back then in ancient times – and now.  The figures in the myths of origin, notably the Yei, are still alive and present within the four sacred mountains that define the Dine’ world.  These are deities.  Peeing in the baptismal font, as it were, is not only disrespectful, but could harm balance on a profound level and cause a drift into negativity across the land, increasing criminal thinking, drug and alcohol abuse, and bad public leadership.  Maintaining balance in the world is the essential issue.  

One could talk about this in terms of String Theory.  Time exists all in one place and we live in a dimension of it, not able to experience beyond what our senses are designed to process.  We are limited beings who cannot take in more than a small amount of reality.  We live in very limited ways.  We need some kind of help with enlarging into our potential as individuals and as a society.  What we seek, that we may lack, is proper balance.  Calibrating balance is the larger work of consciousness leaders.  The ideal is what is meant by the word, “beauty.”

The insight that we live in a landscape that we ought to open ourselves to having reverence for, is a valuable insight.  Heedless existence that has no respect for Others, is completely selfish and allows unchecked consumption of everything without respect for any consequences in the future is the opposite of balance, of beauty.

Navajo families gather in the fall and winter for Yei Bi Chei ceremonies.  These may be open to the public, with hand painted signs visible along roads pointing to them.  Traditionally, they last for nine days.  People do take off work, telling supervisors that they must go to a family ceremony and this is acceptable, with compromises.  There are now short form ceremonies lasting maybe only a day or so.  But there are still very lengthy observances among the most traditional folks.  

I attended a Christmas Eve Yei Bi Che a few years ago, up the road a few miles at Lukachukai, as it happens, an historic center of ceremonialism.  Here’s an image:…

The elaborate ceremony involved a specially built ceremonial Hogan (an eight-sided log house) a lighted area out front, four ceremonial bonfires in a line on either side of a dance runway leading out into the sagebrush, and a large area for parking in an adjacent field.  The medicine man conducting this performs a long series of complex songs that are the equivalent of a libretto for a long opera, and executes sand paintings and other rituals in private, in the hogan.  He also manages and oversees everything so it is all done right.

A line of dancers comes in from the field, approaching the patient, seated in front of the hogan.  At night, the area between the bonfires is lit, and the dancers enter from complete darkness.  Out here, there are no city lights.  No lights at all.  Only stars, which are bright and close enough to almost touch in the high altitude air far from traffic or smokestacks.  It was cold.  Fifteen degrees.  No one in the large crowd was complaining about it, so I didn’t remark on it either. But I did get some hot chocolate from the guy in the trailer with the fry bread, Navajo tacos (mutton in fry bread) and coffee.  

I contemplated, among other things, the license plates on about a hundred pickup trucks and cars, some idling with people inside warming up.   When the call goes out, family gathers as they might for a wedding, driving in from everywhere imagineable.  

Navajos are unified by a strong sense of family, clan, community.  It is a healthy support system.  For those who participate in this, resources can be shared that might help get someone through a distant college,  create a great network of caregivers for children, even capital for business investment.

The line of dancers, dressed in white body paint and the unique masks representing the Yei, move through the ritual in stages, calling out in the strange hooting that evokes supernatural utterance.  At some point, the dancers may be “possessed” (a western term that will have to do) by the actual Yei who enter them and bring healings and blessings.  This is one reason so many people are so dedicated to dropping what they are doing and driving however many miles they have to in order to make it.  

In “The Web of Life” Fritjof Capra points out the work of physicist Ilya Prigogine, who won a Nobel Prize for postulating systems theory.  In this “New Physics” everything is connected to everything, in a giant web, and not in straight line sequences.  The world wide web is an example.  The Gaia system is another.  I guess one could say String Theory extends this.

The first Europeans to come to these shores, like the Pilgrims, did not understand ecology.  (anybody talking about String Theory back then would have been accused of blasphemy, or worse.)  They believed in Man’s Dominion over Creation.  A sense of reverence for all things, seen or not seen, understood or not understood, a sense that man does not have the right to dominate but is an equal part of the whole web of life –  is an essential indigenous wisdom.  This is ancient human heritage for all cultures, but it has been a lost wisdom through the European Christian era, with its war on the indigenous world of Europe, brought here by the settlers.

Perhaps one of the great gifts of the meeting of the “Western” and Indigenous minds can still be a rediscovery of that deeply ancient wisdom which might be relevant to our future survival as Homo Sapiens.  

Last Thanksgiving, or around then, we had a dinner guest from Lukachukai, a graduate faculty member in the education department who had lived for some years in San Francisco and was on his way to an Ivy League university to do a lecture.  I remember him saying, “We have no wisdom to share with anyone. Look at us.  We are a devastated people.  We live in poverty.  Look at the alcohol, the domestic violence, people leaving the reservation for jobs a long way away.”

You can certainly see a lot of cultural devastation and the history is full of causes for grieving.  But on deep reflection, I believe that if the core of indigenous experience is ever lost, all mankind will suffer from that in ways we may never grasp.  I prefer to take what opportunities there might be, to honor what wisdom I might be able to comprehend.  That isn’t an easy process, and yes, it is full of contradictions.  

A line came to me for a poem once:  “we will be shown what we can see.”

Wisdom begins with being fully open to the idea that we may not know everything or understand everything, but we might do better at that if we try, in time.  

What I am saying is that the differences between perspectives have in the past led to killing and huge conflict.  We should contemplate, instead, the ways that we can learn to open our minds to new dimensions of understanding and gain new ground in the process.  That is something to consider and give thanks over – for the future.

Hozho Nahastle

Hozho Nahastle

Hozho Nahastle

Hozho Nahastle  (May there be Beauty)  

More on the Navajo sacred mountains by Wilson Aronilth, a medicine man and teacher at Dine’ College:


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