Navajo calendar rooted in tradition & necessities
Before the modern day calendar was introduced to the Navajo, the months were determined by the new moon and named according to the general weather conditions of that month or the migration or birthing of certain wild game animals. In those days the weather patterns were different than what we experience today. The names of some of the months changed when agriculture was introduced to the Navajos through the Puebloan and Mexican cultures.
During the month of January the snow was used for drinking water and for other household use. The snow was gathered in buckets and melted on the hot wood stove inside the hogan.
Sometimes an outside fire was built and a huge barrel was placed over an iron grill and the snow was melted in large quantities. The Navajos named the month of January melting or cooking the snow, Yas Nilt’ees. The snow naturally began to melt towards the end of the month.
In Navajo the month of February is ‘Atsa’ Biyaazh, which means Baby Eagles. Baby eagles hatch in their parentally incubated nests high up in the cliffs. By now the snow is melting fast because the spring winds are gusting.
The first thunder is heard and it gently shakes mother earth awakening all hibernating animals and reptiles. When a Navajo hears and feels the first thunder he or she blesses him/herself with corn pollen to express to the creator a new beginning of life.
The baby eagles have grown big and noisy. It is because of their noise the month of March was named Woozhch’iid. There are also other baby animals being born at this time. It is lambing season for the Navajo sheep and other livestock.
Spring is evident by the blades of tender tumbleweed grass covering the ground like pieces of thin carpet. The weather is unpredictable. The wind is stronger than the month before. The day can start out sunny and calm and abruptly change to a snowstorm, and then back to cold wind.
A March snowstorm is called ‘ayahi neidinoyodi, the in-law chaser. The Navajos tease each other that if they are an in-law they better show their in-laws that they are hard workers even in the snow storm and that they don’t run away when a storm is approaching like some in-laws do.
April is called T’aachil, Growth of Early Plant Life. It means the plants that grow closer to the ground are fully-grown and green. Wild game and Navajo livestock mothers and their babies can forge on the nutritious and tender plants.
This will help them regain their health and the babies can start growing much stronger and bigger because of the green plants which are a supplement to their mother’s milk. The bigger plants are beginning to grow introducing the summer months. The Navajos are also preparing to plant their crops.
The month of May is called T’aatsoh, Growth of Bigger Leaf Plants. It is named for the plants with bigger leaves that were now growing everywhere. Mother earth is fully awake and thriving. The rainy season has been ushered in by lively thunder and lightening.
The sheep have to be shorn so they don’t loose their fleece in the bushes and weeds. Navajos raise sheep for their wool as well as meat. After shearing their sheep they packed huge gunny sacks full of wool to trade at the trading post. Some of the wool was saved for weaving.
The fields were prepared for planting. The seeds were gathered. It was time to plant corn, squash, chili peppers, melons and other vegetables Dine used.
The month of June is named Ya’iishyaashchili, which means Planting of Early Crops — when the big rains came to nourish for the newly planted seeds.
This is also a time when the wild plants that have sustained the Navajos for centuries start bearing their fruits. In the olden days the Navajos went out to gather the early crops of the wild like wild berries and seeds. This was welcomed because the corps, which they planted, would not yield their fruits for three and four months.
The Dine word for July, Ya’iishjaashtsoh, means Planting of the Late Crops. This was done so that harvesting of those crops would be lengthened over a period of time. The lambs and baby goats have grown to one third of their adult sizes and they are ideal size for butchering. Their meat is tender and plump.
At this time of the year the Navajos enjoy many summer traditional activities and social gatherings where the tender meat is served. Also at this time mutton stew is made with the blossoms from the squash plants as well as cut up baby squash.
During the month of August the crops begin to ripen and it is time to harvest the early crops. The Navajos named August, Biniant’aats’ozi meaning Ripening of Early Crops. This means that some of the crops are now ready for harvesting. Parents are very watchful of their children who are helping with the harvest that they don’t pick the green crops, which will be picked later when they are ripe.
The harvested crops are shared among immediate family members and clan families. Many traditional corn recipes are cooked and eaten at this time. They include underground steamed ears of corn, fresh cornmeal baked in cornhusks called kneel down bread, open fire roasted corn, corn in stews, and other delicious ways of cooking corn.
In Navajo, September is known as the Ripening of the Late Crops, Bini’ant’aatsoh. The crops are now in their final stages of growing. Navajos are continually picking the ripened corn, squash, melons, chili peppers and other fruits of their fields. The fruit trees are also bearing their fruits to be picked and shared.
In the early days in some parts of Navajoland the people traveled by wagons and horseback to nearby Pueblo villages to trade their fattened lambs and goats for their ripened crops and fruits. The fattened lambs were also taken to the trading posts to pay off the family debt.
During the month of October the Navajos cleared their fields in preparation for winter. October is Ghaaji’ which means End of Growing Season. Harvested crops were brought into storage cellars to feed the family during the winter months.
At this time Mother Earth also welcomes all living things back under her covers that could be hurt by the harsh cold and formidable winds for the long winter months of sleep. For the early Navajos it was time to go hunting. The wild game yearlings were hunted for their tender meat. The older game animals were hunted for their hides.
The month of November, Nilch’its’osi is Slender Winds. For the Navajos winter has begun. The light but bitter cold wintry winds are ever present. Traditional winter ceremonies and activities are performed. Daylight is short and the nights are long.
Sacred songs and stories are taught and learned in the hogans. The sheep can only graze for a few hours of daylight each day. The ewes are pregnant and need extra feed and they are fed dried corn stalks and alfalfa.
The frosty and icy freezing winds keep the Navajos from working outside. This is why the month of December was named Nilch’itsoh, Great Winds.
December is mid-winter and Navajo children and adults alike are playing string games, shoe games and other winter games to keep their minds sharp and bodies fit. The men chop piles of wood to keep the hogan warm. A pot of stew simmers throughout the day on the wood stove. The fire in the hogan never goes out.
Even though the traditional Navajo “calendar” has been overshadowed by the modern calendar, the traditional Navajo ways were practical, grounded in traditional necessity and are worthy of our remembrance.
Sometimes I fear that the Navajo are forgetting their traditional roots in their plant’s reach for today’s competitive sunlight. We, like plants must maintain balance. Perhaps as we reach for the sunlight of technological advancement, we should occasionally pause to reflect that tradition provides the roots for today.
(Based in Blanding, Utah, Eagle Air Med provides air ambulance service throughout the Navajo Nation.)