The ancient way of Navajo life is very basic and simple. Of course, we Navajos will never go all the way back to living without electricity and cell phones, but we can still honor the values that we learned from our forefathers, whose strong beliefs in the basic and simple life anchored them in society. One basic value I think needs our attention is the traditional value of kinship.
As a child I learned to always make coffee and food for any visitors who came to our home, and it was usually relatives who came to visit. This was a simple way we showed respect and honor to our kinfolk and visitors. This practice creates deep and strong bonds between relatives.
It was important to know my relatives' names and how they were related to me. I was to shake their hands and address them according to their relationship to me. For example, if our visitor was my aunt, I called her "shima'ya'zhi'." The translation is "my little mother." This was truly an important part of Navajo society.
I remember that when these visitors came, my first responsibility was to gather wood. My dad or older sister would then make fire in the wood stove while my mom made tortilla dough. Later when the stove got hot, she made a stack of tortillas. My dad put water in the coffee pot and waited for it to boil then put in the coffee. My older sister peeled potatoes and made fried potatoes. We served coffee first as the rest of the food was cooking.
As we did not have a table to eat on, my dad made a table top without legs that we would use as our table. We placed it on the dirt floor of our hogan or the shade house. We all sat on the ground around the tabletop and ate.
After dinner it was stored outside in the shade house. We had to bring it in every time we ate. It was covered with a vinyl tablecloth that was printed with bowls of fruit. Another job for me at mealtime or when visitors came was to wipe down the tabletop before and after every meal.
Sharing food was another practice of the simple life. I learned that by sharing my food with my kinfolk, I would never go hungry. These simple and basic traditional practices have taught the Navajo to be kind, and generous and to honor and respect one's family, extended relatives and all good people.
Gift-giving is also an ancient Navajo traditional practice. I learned to show great love, respect and honor to each family member when they went away from home for a long time for school, work or marriage. Each individual received a gift such as a Pendleton wool blanket, turquoise jewelry or a woven rug.
This giving of gifts let those departing know they are greatly loved and belong to our family. Gift-giving builds strong kinship bonds. It builds a sense of belonging. It nurtures the love for one's family and gives a feeling that you can always come home to your family. It helps you be strong emotionally and spiritually.
Another dimension of gift-giving took place when a family member returned home. The family butchers a sheep on the returning member's behalf. This is a sign of respect and love. Your family is honored that you have remembered them and returned to them.
When I was away at boarding school and later at college, my parents butchered a sheep for me when I got home for the summer. I was happy to be home with my loved ones. It was fun to participate in preparing a homecoming feast.
At that time, my main job was to enjoy being back with my family. However, my family expected me to tell stories of what I had learned as I helped with the meal. I did simple things such as turning the mutton roasting on a homemade grill, which had been made out of chicken wire and placed over the hot coals of the open fire.
I also showed pictures of my adventures and gave a small gift to each of my family members letting them know that I thought of them while I was away from home. I enjoyed every bite of the delicious traditional meal. It was a great feeling to be home and be close to my parents and siblings, my family.
Now I look around me and it seems to me that times have changed. Today we Navajos seem so busy that we have little time to acknowledge our visitors with the proper honor and respect. When visitors come, I know some Navajos discretely hide their food and quickly clear the table. They have forgotten their traditional etiquette and manners and no longer respect the value of kinship.
Some Navajos don't honor their children when they return after being away from home with the traditional meal. It seems that Navajo society is weakening because Navajos seldom practice many of the ancient ways.
Like the dominant society around us, we live in a time when everything we do is controlled by either time or money. And as so many things compete for our time it is easy to lose focus.
I feel we Navajos have removed ourselves from the basic and simple way of Navajo life that taught the lasting principles of kindness, generosity, respect for family, honoring of loved ones and gift-giving. Yet these simple practices our forefathers taught us are just as valuable today as they were in the past.
I wish we could pattern our lives more closely to the ancient Navajo ways. Perhaps, we could stop for a moment today and express kindness to someone. When you return home from work say something nice to your family members. Give a gift to someone you love and let him or her know how much you care. Share with your relatives and friends.
I believe that by doing these simple things we will be able to see and feel the effects of what the wise Navajo forefathers taught about the value of kinship in the basic and simple life.
(Eagle Air Med, based in Blanding, Utah, provides air ambulance service throughout the entire Navajo Nation.)