Above: Time and space take on new dimensions in northwest New Mexico.
WITH THE DAY'S FIRST LIGHT, I used to wake up in the Crownpoint Campus building of the Navajo Nation’s Diné College, where for 20 years I drove each week from my Albuquerque home to teach. Since there are no motels within 50 miles of that isolated, one-building campus just off the Continental Divide, I slept on the library floor. Mornings, I got up and did stretch exercises against a tier of windows facing east before beginning another day with adults learning to read and write. As I twisted and bent, I watched the horizon begin to redden, as if to reignite the perspective I had gained in that place; then I saw the sun come out from strands of early haze, rise clear, and shine free until it bathed the interior walls with an incandescent glow that united indoors and out.
Seated on the eastern edge of a reservation larger than the state of West Virginia and almost as irregular in shape, Crownpoint is not a well-known Navajo community, save among aficionados of Navajo weaving, since it is the site of a monthly auction of handwoven rugs. Home to some 2,500 residents, it is interlaced with family and clan relationships; the only strangers come from elsewhere. A four-way stop sign marks the town’s center, together with a small elementary school and a modest flea market where local residents sell and trade merchandise and food. A mile to the east stands a minimalist shopping center consisting of a general store, a coin-operated laundry, a kidney dialysis station, and a little supermarket where adventurous campers who choose to take the hazardous back route to Chaco Canyon across a wildly unimproved road might stop for canned goods, ice, or bottled water.
In each new day’s arrival, I could anticipate seeing now familiar features of the landscape that would show with the brightening dawn but vanish come full sunlight: the upper peaks of Dzil Lizhinii—the Jemez Mountains—silhouetted far off to the northeast, low along the horizon; Tse Ajéááí’—Heart Butte—jutting above the flat edge of landscape closer to the southeast; a ribbon of shadow in the middle distance due east that suggested a canyon’s rim; and what seemed like tier after tier of wide mesas extending farther into the distance.
The vista is not Navajoland’s most celebrated, of course, at least in the popular eye. That honor is reserved for Monument Valley, whose towering sandstone pillars were made famous in movies like John Ford’s Stagecoach and The Searchers. Rather, the view from Crownpoint goes unnoticed both because it is so remote and because its more subtle appeal registers not at once but slowly over time. I came to appreciate it only gradually during the 20-plus years I taught there. The landscape’s stark beauty grows with the familiarity that comes from tracking the sun’s point of emergence from week to week, seeing how it lights up the eastern horizon in a slightly different way as morning follows morning.
Nearly 50 years ago, when I started coming out to the Southwest to learn how cosmology interfaced with Native American narratives, I was scarcely aware of the meaning of solstice and equinox. Like most people, I tracked time by clock and calendar, never having observed the sun’s shifting position against the horizon come dawn and dusk. But as I learned from their stories how Navajos calibrated sun and moon with their ceremonial lives, I became fully aware that the numbers we assign to the days of the week or months of the year are arbitrary analogues to nature’s cycles.
In Navajo, no single word exists for “nature.” That English term is barely approximated in the nearly untranslatable phrase hanaagóó áhoot’éhígíí, which does not denote a place elsewhere that we can escape to with backpacks when urban life grows oppressive. Instead it is an aggregate term that roughly means “all that surrounds whatever is surrounded.” My Crownpoint colleague Shirley Bowman, who teaches Navajo language and culture there, points out that the expression includes everything: hills, mountains, mesas, the four winds; plants, animals, and people alike; insects, birds; the expanse of sky and all things evident therein night and day; and most especially all spirits, visible or otherwise, that animate whatever moves or dwell inside what appears immovable. It designates, as it were, one encumbering organism that contains all others, presiding over which are the moon, the individual stars, the constellations, and most especially the sun, which Navajos call Jóhonaa’éí—the One Who Rules the Day.
Above: "Mother Earth can think," says Navajo elder Frank Morgan, an author and educator.
In the Navajo creation story, which warrants recognition as poetic narrative at its richest, he moves high above the earth to light the sky from dawn to nightfall, and to mediate the seasons by rotating on an oscillating orbit so that the world neither remains too hot nor grows too cold from year to year. Later he becomes the absentee father of the vaunted Warrior Twins, who hazard dangers to seek him out and beg for weapons to slay marauding monsters poised to devour the still young earth’s emergent population. Following the defeat of the monsters, he secures a pact with the Twins’ mother, Asdzáá Nádleehé, or Changing Woman, as her name translates into English. As he ends his daily journey across the sky each evening, they agree, he will join her for a night’s rest before beginning a new day’s journey. Meanwhile, she will change with his course as the seasons come and go. Unyielding in his power, he must nevertheless relent to her demands for a shimmering home in the west before she consents, which places Mother Earth and Father Sky in harmonious counterpoise, reinforcing the delicate balance that must prevail in the complex system that hanaagóó áhoot’éhígíí entails.
I am reminded of that story and how the sun must compromise with Asdzáá Nádleehé as I watch Jóhonaa’éí emerge from the clouds that cushion the eastern horizon. Morning, afternoon, evening, and night, his progress through the sky marks the time of day; and where he first appears from one day to the next determines when to hunt, when to plant, when deer will breed and horses foal. In partnership with the stars, he directs the work of days. Thanks to his ever-changing yearly path, we observe the four seasons and recognize four cardinal directions as the months go by, tallied as well by his consort Changing Woman and his nocturnal partner the moon, Tl’éhonaa’éí—the One Who Rules the Night. All are part of an ongoing cosmic drama where scene follows scene unendingly, and people too play out their individual roles.
Not long before I began teaching there, a group of Crownpoint elders recommended a formal ceremony for me. At the time I was conducting a study with a Navajo colleague of how the old stories were deliberately woven into rugs and blankets produced with great artistry. The research was busying my mind with facts and details faster than I could absorb them, and as a result I began to have trouble sleeping. When I mentioned my problem to a couple of the old weavers, they insisted on bringing in a medicine man to sing over me for two successive nights to allow me to process all that information. Accordingly, soon thereafter my Navajo partner and I joined the weavers, accompanied by our own close relatives, in a traditional hogan on a high mesa overlooking Crownpoint. With the help of the chanted word and the enduring presence of an ancient story, I accompanied the Twins in their sky journey to ask Jóhonaa’éí for help in overcoming adversity. After a safe return, I was purified the following morning with yucca suds, and on the second night—again helped by the power of song—a dwelling was erected for me surrounded by all the things that make for a rich Navajo life: plenty of sheep, cattle, and horses; fields of corn, beans, melons, and squash; abundant water; and an extended family, including those who were participating in our study. That second nightlong session culminated in songs to bring Dawn Boy out of the eastern horizon so he could usher in the sun itself.
By then I had become familiar enough with the chants—voiced in an archaic ceremonial dialect as different from contemporary Navajo as Chaucer’s English is from ours—to sing along with the others. So there I sat, cross-legged in that small hogan together with people who had become my kinfolk, appealing to Diné Diyinii, the Holy People, to bring forth a new day. By now it was after 4 a.m., and since we were only two days past the summer solstice, dawn would arrive early. There would be four more songs, the medicine man whispered to me, and then I was to go outside and greet the rising sun, which overnight had become mine to summon. I did as instructed, and saw anew that glorious vista of stars overhead and then the sun’s initial hint of morning light against the eastern sky, as far to the north as it reaches in the year. Just to the north of that, I noticed a very narrow but phosphorescently bright thread of light extending upward from the faint eastern horizon. I had never before seen anything like that, nor have I since, but I was later told that it was the first visible crescent of the summer moon. In the Navajo ceremonial way, I put a pinch of corn pollen on my tongue, then took another, which I sprinkled on my head and down across my upper body, then spread the remainder before me as I faced the newly emerging Jóhonaa’éí to make a path for his light to touch me so that I could now absorb the knowledge I was so rapidly acquiring, and thus sleep peacefully as my research proceeded.
With each sunrise, we become players one way or another in a daily production that eventually measures out a life. At birth we enter the cycle as infants, move into childhood, proceed through adulthood, and eventually reach old age. Thus rotating through four seasons of our own, our lives advance with each day’s sun and the phases of the moon as we undertake tasks large or small, which Navajos sort into four steps: nitsáhákees (beginning or thinking), nahat’á (planning or implementing), iiná (proceeding or executing), and sihasin (perfecting or securing a clear path for what is to follow). The process echoes the four parts of each day, the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, and the four phases of a human life.
In the classroom, in fact, I learned to suggest that students give each essay they write a four-stage process of thinking, outlining, producing a draft, and finally revising. As Navajos, I reminded them, they had been raised in a culture where that movement through four steps places them in harmony with Asdzáán Nádleehé in her alliance with Jóhonaa’éí. I even find myself wishing that I had known to apply that pattern in courses I taught far back into my long career.
“Mother Earth can think,” the Navajo elder Frank Morgan once insisted during a course in the Navajo philosophy of education for non-Navajo instructors. Before we questioned the claim from our skeptical Western perspective, he cautioned, we should all step outside and look for ourselves. So out we went in that warm, mid-April twilight on the high desert, where spring comes grudgingly. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for in the stubble at my feet until I noticed a small prickly pear cactus not much larger than a hand growing out of the hard, sandy earth. From one of its dried tawny fingers there sprouted a tender green one, evidently new this season. We were approaching midway between spring equinox and summer solstice. The sunrise had been moving steadily northward. Evenings were growing longer, days warmer, dawn earlier to arrive. It became evident: This little cactus could tell the time of year by the movement of the sun, just as I would learn to do during my subsequent years of waking up on the library floor with the onset of daylight.
—Paul G. Zolbrod is featured in “Storytellers."