Késhjéé: Navajo Shoe Game a winter tradition that explains cycles of life

Talibah Begay explains the use of the yucca stems during the Navajo Shoe Game in Flagstaff Feb. 16. (Alexandra Wittenberg/ NHO)

Talibah Begay explains the use of the yucca stems during the Navajo Shoe Game in Flagstaff Feb. 16. (Alexandra Wittenberg/ NHO)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Singer and speaker Talibah Begay of Shiprock, New Mexico, hosted a Késhjéé — Navajo Shoe Game — at Summit High School in Flagstaff Feb. 16.

Native Americans for Community Action created the event as part of its Reach UR Life and Lasting Indigenous Family Enbrichment program. Begay presented two informational sessions over Zoom in January in preparation. Despite the three hours of prep, the complexities of the ancient Késhjéé can make it difficult for newcomers to pick up.

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2022-2023 Miss Indian Arizona First Attendant Emile Eich and 2022-2023 Miss Navajo Nation Valentina Clitso participate in the Késhjéé Feb. 16. Event goers were all ages. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

“I wish we had an all-day session because there’s so much to talk about in the shoe game,” Begay said.

Though it is called a game, many consider Késhjéé a ceremony because of all the songs, offerings and interconnectedness it produces between the players.

Késhjéé is played on winter nights, and is used as an explanation for how the cycles of day and night came to be.

It is thought that night animals like the fox, bat, badger and skunk wanted it to be night all the time, while day animals like bear, antelope, rabbits and mountain lion always wanted it to be day. It is said the first Késhjéé was played as a contest to see which group had the most power, and when there were no winners after playing throughout the night, a lesson was learned about why both cycles are equally important.

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Participants look on as a Navajo rug is held up, hiding the other team from seeing where the yucca ball is being hidden. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

In the Zoom sessions, Begay went over the format of the game which is based on the directional set-up of a hogan, the Navajo names of the four old moccasins used on each side to hide the yucca ball, the point system which uses 102 yucca stems and songs that are sung throughout the game.

“There’s so many songs about why the animals are the way they are,” Begay said. “As a kid I would just sing, and I didn’t even know what I was singing about — I would just sing along — until I was older and I guess was more curious about this, and that’s when I really looked more into these songs and my grandma finally opened up to share with me.”

Begay has learned a lot about the traditional Navajo ways from her 96-year-old grandmother. She said there are a lot of differences in the way Késhjéé is played now from when her grandmother was a child.

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Begay learned about the old ways of playing the Navajo Shoe Game and other traditions from her 96-year-old grandmother. (Photo/Talibah Begay)

“Grandma said people used to explain the old stories, how it came about, what the animal was singing about, how the animal had part in the shoe game,” Begay said. “Now they just sing the songs, and don’t give explanations….but it’s beautiful, it’s such a beautiful story and it makes sense now when you look at these animals — what part they played in the shoe game and why they are the color they are, why they look the way they look.”

Now people bet money during Késhjéé, but it used to be physical objects.

“Because food was so scarce back then, (grandma) said that they would bet their block of cheese, they would bet their cans of milk, they would bet their baking powder, their flour…whatever was of value, whatever was needed at that time,” Begay said. “They would even go down to betting their sheep —one sheep for another sheep.”

How to play

The bet is placed in a bundle in the middle of the room between the team on the south side, representing the day animals, and the team on the north side, representing the night animals. Both sides have a box with four old moccasins, filled with sandy dirt.

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Talibah Begay helps a participant at a Navajo Shoe Game at Summit High School in Flagstaff Feb. 16. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

Blankets are held up while one team member hides the yucca ball in one of their team’s shoes (In the original game, Begay said it was the owl and the bat who held up their wings to block the opponents from seeing).

Then a person on the opposing side comes and tries to guess which shoe has the ball in it. The guesser uses a cedar stick to tap once on a shoe they think the ball is in, or tap twice on a shoe if they think it is not in there.

“There’s no strategy...some people just have the darnest luck,” Begay said.

Teams can eliminate shoes to help them, and 4, 6 or 10 points are given based on how many shoes are eliminated per turn, or if the shoe with the ball is found.

The first team to get 102 points — paid with the yucca stems — wins the game. Sometimes, the game can go on into the wee hours of the morning before there is a winner, Begay said.

The yucca stems traditionally come from a yucca plant that is dug out and cleaned by a male, who peels each stem one by one, Begay said. The bottom of the yucca contains a big chunk of root, which is also used to traditionally wash hair. That is where the ball in the game is carved from. The 102 points from the yucca stems represent years in a life.

“Our life span is supposed to go to 102 and that’s why in this game my grandma says when a 10 is hit, you’re supposed to massage yourself wherever you’re aching — wherever you’re hurting you massage yourself right there,” Begay said. “She says it helps and it makes the aching go away. Nowadays in shoe games, it’s not done like that, but a long time ago in shoe games that’s how these yuccas were utilized.”

When the yucca materials can no longer be utilized, they are returned to the earth and thanked.

A taste of tradition

Begay is Red Cheek Clan, born for the Towering House clan. Her maternal grandparents are the Red Running into the Water clan and her paternal grandparents are the Mexican People clan.

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Talibah Begay and a guest lead traditional songs at the event. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

At 13, Begay released her first album, “Talibah’s Traditional Songs,” which was nominated for two Native American Music Awards.

Now, Begay intertwines Navajo songs and music with cultural topics, teaching things like the Navajo shoe and stick games, Navajo two step and skip dancing, storytelling and other traditions all around the Navajo Nation. Begay said she keeps busy in the winter months with requests to teach the shoe game.

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Talibah Begay opened for James Junes show at NAU in January.

“Some people consider it a ceremony in that way all the songs that have been offered, all the laughter, everything that has been done throughout the whole shoe game,” Begay said. “We want beauty to come restore itself. At the end we put tádídíín down and we thank the shoes, we thank the cedar stick, we thank all those items for allowing us to utilize them as we got to play the game and we got to ask for more snow during that game as well.”

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Old moccasins are covered in sand and a yucca ball is hidden inside one. These moccasins may not be utilized again as footwear as they have been transformed into a sacred object when played in the game, Begay said. (Alexandra Wittenberg/NHO)

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