HESPERUS, Colo. - While Navajo politicians and bureaucrats back in Window Rock are arguing over how to limit cows or where to find money for drought relief, Alfred Yazzie is here, cheerfully hiking up the side of one of the four sacred mountains - DibÅ NÆtsa (Big Sheep Mountain). He's what Navajos call a hatêêlii (singer) or medicine man, and he carries with him a bulging briefcase. Behind him walk 10 others.
Once he finds a suitable spot, Yazzie
spreads out a blanket and arranges a basket containing medicine
bundles next to a hearth that he quickly assembles from stones and
twigs. Without fanfare, he begins chanting. An hour later, the
offering complete, the group circles clockwise in the direction of
the sun. People are smiling and seem relaxed; some pick flowers and
everyone gathers for a group photo before getting back in their
Yazzie says this particular trip to what
European settlers called Hesperus Peak marks the end of a busy time
that began in May, when a 96-year-old woman reported that two holy
people visited her to say that the Navajo people were having
problems because they had forgotten tradition. As a respected
hatêêlii and cultural expert for the Navajo Nation's
Historic Preservation Department, Yazzie was called to perform a
blessingway ceremony for the family and has since led pilgrimages
to the four sacred mountains. After this fourth offering, Yazzie
says he's comfortable talking about recent events.
Yazzie says the holy message was one that he and
many other traditional Navajos had already considered. "We've been
aware that Navajos have drifted from the old ways for the past 50
years," he says. In fact, adds Yazzie, he had brought up the idea
of prayer as a tool at an emergency drought meeting just two days
before the deities appeared.
officials) showed pictures of the land," he says. "And the
recommendation was to haul water and to tell people to reduce their
livestock." Yazzie suggested that the group should bring along a
singer who could give offerings to counter the bad news as they
toured the range.
The drought has brought a
religious resurgence, says Yazzie. Navajos are holding family
ceremonies all across the reservation and many politicians have
since embraced prayer as a way to fight the drought. Navajo
President Albert Hale gave all tribal employees a half-day holiday
to visit the site where the two deities appreared.
Shortly thereafter, Speaker of the Navajo Nation
Council Kelsey Begaye called for an official day of prayer that
would unite all Navajo faiths. That happened on June 20, when more
than 500 Navajos met at the Navajo Nation Civic Center to
participate in a half-day ceremony that included elements of the
traditional Navajo religion, the Native American Church and the
Christian faith. Thousands of others listened to live radio
broadcasts of the event.
"In time of drought and
hardship that the Navajo Nation is facing, one has to not rule out
our spiritual resources," says Speaker Begaye. "After all, that's
what we relied on when we didn't have the federal government or
It rained the very next day,
the first real rain in nine months, says tribal climatologist
Robert Becker. Since then, sporadic showers have fallen across the
reservation - not enough to break the drought, but enough to be a
sign of hope. "Now people are kind of relieved because it's
starting to rain," says Yazzie. "Their tension is released."