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Know the West

Prayers generate hope and bring showers


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Drought has Navajos discussing a taboo subject - range reform."

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 cars.

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.

"(The Navajo 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 other resources."

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."