Monday, January 12, 2009

The Rosy Fingers of a Navajo Dawn, by Paul Zolbrod

Okay, this isn't really a blog post. It's an essay - and a long one. But I found it on Paul Zolbrod's blog without paragraph breaks, and when I suggested that he punctuate his longer pieces, he sent it to me with an apology that he doesn't really understand how to manipulate his blog. So I'm publishing it here with at least some paragraph breaks.

It will take you a few minutes to get through this, but if you are interested in poetry, cross-cultural experiences, the Navajo or reservation life, then read this thing. If the publishing industry weren't imploding, this would essay would form the beginning of a great memoir.

Paul advised Stefene Russell on her use of Navajo themes in her poem Go South for Animal Index, which we scored, and Paul's translation of the Navajo epic Dine Bahane is on our list of future scores, if anyone is wondering why he is on the Poetry Scores blog.


The Rosy Fingers of a Navajo Dawn:
Learning While Teaching at a Tribal College

By Paul G. Zolbrod

With the day's first light, I wake up in the Crownpoint Campus building of the Navajo Nation's Diné College, where I go each week from my Albuquerque home to teach. Since there are no motels within fifty miles of that isolated, one-building campus just off the Continental Divide, I sleep on the library floor. Mornings, I get up and do stretch exercises against a tier of windows facing east before beginning another day with adults learning to read and write. There as I twist and bend, I watch the horizon begin to redden, as if to reignite in a terrorized world the perspective on nature I have gained at this place; then I see the sun come out from strands of early haze, rise clear, and shine free until its light bathes the interior walls with an incandescent glow that unites indoors and out.

In that new day’s arrival, I anticipate seeing now familiar features of the landscape that will soon show with the brightening dawn but then vanish come full sunlight: the upper peaks of Dzil lizhinii—-the Jimez Mountains—-silhouetted far off to the northeast low along the horizon; Tse ajéááí'--Heart Butte--jutting above the flat edge of landscape more nearby to the southeast; a ribbon of shadow a middle distance due east that suggests a canyon’s rim; and what seems like tier after tier of wide mesas extending farther in the distance. Across the entire span of horizon tiny details of form and color virtually spell out that particular morning's point of the sun's emergence; but once it moves skyward into broad daylight such things are no longer visible, for the early dawn fixes that horizon temporarily in a way unique not only to that one day of the year, but to the moment. Meanwhile, a golden-red formation of clouds appears halo-like above the horizon itself with the brightening dawn, while still further skyward glow portions of the spectrum so rarely seen they must go unnamed, except to say that for those familiar with it, Homer’s phrase “rosy fingered dawn” takes on vibrant new life.

Sitting on the eastern edge of a Reservation larger than the state of West Virginia and almost as irregular in shape, Crownpoint is not a well known Navajo community, save among aficionados of Navajo weaving, since it is the site of a monthly auction of hand-woven rugs. But even those who come to buy learn little or anything about the town itself. Home to some 2500 residents, it is surrounded by a dozen or more widely scattered rural county-like units called chapters. Interlaced with family and clan relationships, it is a place where the only strangers come from elsewhere. A four-way stop sign marks the town’s center, together with a small elementary school and a modest flea market where local residents sell and trade merchandise and food. A mile to the east stands a minimalist shopping center consisting of a general store, a coin-operated laundry, a kidney dialysis station, and a little super market where adventurous campers who choose to take the hazardous back route to Chaco Canyon across a wildly unimproved road might stop for canned goods, ice or bottled water.

Those who pass through only once may leave with the impression that Crownpoint is not an especially friendly place, since Navajos generally appear to ignore folks who make a random single stop. But people like myself who go there on a regular basis learn to expect warm-spirited generosity. Locals exchange friendly greetings with people who become familiar, will stop and chat, and like to tease or joke with outsiders they get to know. Anglos-—as whites are customarily called-—who teach there as I do or provide some other service and show an openness to the culture often find themselves invited to a ceremony or some other family gathering, where they are welcomed with warm smiles and genuine handshakes and treated as kinfolk themselves. And to those receptive to it, knowledge is shared that reveals how different from our own way of life Navajo culture can be. What I especially like about teaching there, in fact, is how much I learn about this very different world, and how sometimes the stark contrast allows me to revisit our own with a new perspective. Since I am honored as one myself in this society that reveres age, for example, a fellow elder might sit in the library with me and tell of traditional ways or exchange views on how our two cultures differ in their respective responses to modernity. Between such socializing and the teaching I do, it all makes for a gratifying experience in the autumn of my career as an educator.

I do not wish, however, to covey the impression that Crownpoint meets some kind of Arcadian ideal. Like reservation communities elsewhere in North America it shows a dark underside, too. Poverty is rife. Unemployment hovers at around sixty-five percent. Alcoholism persists as an abiding curse. There is plenty of domestic violence, teen pregnancy, gang activity and petty jealousy. A half mile away from this campus that commands such a magnificent view lies the local police station, a district tribal court, and a high school-junior high school complex where all the problems familiar to any ghetto or barrio or other minority enclave produce distressing statistics and where no rosy outlook prevails. Adolescents kill each other; children go hungry or are sexually abused; homeless drunks die of exposure in roadside washes. All the same, something characteristically Navajo—at once subtle and yet palpable—unifies this community, holds it together, and makes it a place I return to eagerly.

That quality can be seen, I have come to understand, in the way light moves with the sun from pre-dawn through dusk and on into the night as the moon follows its phases, the seasons change, and the most distant constellations shift as seasons come and go. The ceremonies that Navajos still practice to restore and maintain well-being reflect this cyclical change, and as elders and medicine men repeat, a victim of illness, misfortune or self-imposed suffering can restore whatever balance has been lost from his or her life by taking refuge in those old communal ways that always culminate in a celebration of the sunrise. And that is what I recognize when I marvel at Crownpoint’s eastern horizon come the dawn.

That vista is not Navajoland's most celebrated, of course, at least in the popular eye. Reserve that for Monument Valley, thanks to movies like John Ford's Stagecoach or The Searchers, or more recently the very un-Navajo Windtalkers, and the now hackneyed images of towering sandstone pillars they have promoted. Rather it goes unnoticed because it is at once so remote and because its more subtle appeal registers not at once but slowly over time. I have come to appreciate it only gradually during the thirteen years I have taught here two or three days each week following my retirement after thirty years on the faculty at Allegheny college. Its stark beauty does not overwhelm the eye the way it does where those John Wayne movies were made. Instead, it grows with the familiarity that comes from tracking the sun's point of emergence from week to week in the morning, and seeing how it plies its light to begin each unique day and reaffirms its role as the ultimate arbitrator of time--lighting up the eastern horizon in a slightly different way as morning follows morning. Thirty-five years ago when I started coming out to the Southwest to learn how cosmology interfaced with Native American narratives, I was scarcely aware of the meaning of solstice and equinox. Like most people, I tracked time by clock and calendar, never having observed the sun's shifting position against a horizon come dawn and dusk. But as I grasped while learning their stories how Navajos calibrated sun and moon with their ceremonial lives, I became fully aware that the numbers we assign to the named days of the week or months of the year are arbitrarily named analogs to nature's cycles.

In Navajo, though, no single word exists for nature. That English term is barely approximated in the nearly untranslatable phrase, hanaagóó áhoot'éhígíí, which does not denote a place elsewhere that we can escape to with backpacks when urban life grows oppressive. Instead it is an aggregate term which roughly means all that surrounds whatever is surrounded. My Crownpoint colleague Shirley Bowman, who teaches Navajo language and culture there, points out that the expression includes everything: hills, mountains, mesas, the four winds; plants, animals and people alike, insects, birds; the expanse of sky and all things evident therein night and day; and most especially all spirits visible or otherwise that animate whatever moves or dwells inside what appears immovable, and of course those who interact with it all along with the full range of that interaction. It designates, as it were, one encumbering organism that contains all others, presiding over which are the moon, the individual stars, the constellations, and most especially the sun, which Navajos call Jóhonaa'éí--The One Who Rules the Day.

In the Navajo creation story, which warrants recognition as narrative at its richest, he is positioned to move high above the earth to light the sky from dawn to nightfall, and to mediate the seasons by rotating on an oscillating orbit so that the world neither remains too hot nor grows too cold from year to year. Later he becomes the absentee father of the vaunted Warrior Twins, who hazard dangers to seek him out and beg for weapons to slay marauding monsters poised to devour the still young earth’s emergent population. Following the defeat of the monsters, he secures a pact with the Twins’ mother, Asdzáá nádleehé, or Changing Woman as her name translates into English. As he ends his daily journey across the sky each evening, they agree, he will join her for a night's rest before beginning a new day's journey. Meanwhile, she will change with his course as the seasons come and go. Unyielding in his power, he must nevertheless relent to her demands for a shimmering home in the west before she consents, which places mother earth and father sky in harmonious counterpoise, reinforcing the delicate balance that must prevail in the complex system that hanaagóó áhoot'éhígíí entails.

I am reminded of that story and how he must compromise with Asdzáá nádleehé as I watch Jóhonaa'éí emerge from the clouds that cushion the eastern horizon. Morning, afternoon, evening and night, his progress through the sky marks the time of day; and where he first appears from one day to the next determines when to hunt, when to plant, when deer will breed and horses foal. In partnership with the stars, he directs the work of days. Thanks to his ever-changing yearly path, we observe the four seasons and recognize four cardinal directions as the months go by, tallied as well by his consort Changing Woman and his nocturnal partner tl'éhonaa'éí the Moon--The One Who Rules the Night. In fact, even the four separate additional personifying names given him as he changes underscore time’s passage: ‘ooljéé’ dah yiitiih for the new moon, ‘ooljéé’ bélheel for a half,‘ooljéé haníbáas for the full moon; and ‘ooljéé haasáál for an old one--all in an ongoing cosmic drama where scene follows scene unendingly, and people too play out their individual roles.

I myself have experienced how that can work. Not long before I began teaching there a group of Crownpoint elders recommended a formal ceremony for me. At the time I was conducting a study with a Navajo colleague of how the old stories were deliberately woven into rugs and blankets produced by those people with such artistry. Rich and intense, that research was busying my mind with facts and details faster than I could absorb them, and as a result I began to have trouble sleeping. When I mentioned that to a couple of the old weavers who were providing data, they insisted on bringing in a medicine man to sing over me for two successive nights to allow me to process all that information. Accordingly, soon thereafter my Navajo partner and I joined the weavers accompanied by our own close relatives in a traditional Hogan on a high mesa overlooking the landscape around Crownpoint. Thanks to the shaman-like effect of the chanted word and the enduring presence of an ancient story, I accompanied the Twins in their sky journey to ask Jóhonaa’éí for help in overcoming adversity. After a safe return, I was purified the following morning with yucca suds, and on the second night--again helped with the power of song--a dwelling was erected for me surrounded by all the things that make for a rich Navajo life: plenty of sheep, cattle and horses; fields of corn, beans, melons and squash; abundant water; and an extended family including those who were participating in our study. And culminating that second night-long session were songs to bring Dawn Boy out of the eastern horizon so that he could usher in the sun itself.

By then I had become familiar enough with the chants—-voiced in an archaic ceremonial dialect as different from contemporary Navajo as Chaucer’s English is from today’s-—to sing along with the others. So there I sat, cross-legged in that small Hogan together with people who had become my kinfolk, appealing to Diné Diyinii the Holy People to bring forth a new day. Totally absorbed in the proceedings, I was one of them as they summoned the dawn while expressing its full meaning together with that of the sun and the moon, the wind and the mountains, the corn and the sheep, and how all those things are linked in a meaningful, harmonious cosmos. By now it was after four a.m., and since we were only two days beyond summer solstice, dawn would arrive as early as it does all year long. There would be four more songs, the medicine man whispered to me, and then I was to go outside and greet the rising sun, which this past night had become mine to summon. As instructed, so I did, seeing anew that glorious vista first of stars overhead and then the sun’s initial hint of morning light against the eastern sky as far to the north as it can possibly reach year round. And preparing to watch it rise, I noticed just slightly northward a very narrow but phosphorescently bright perpendicular thread of light extending upward from the faintly visible eastern horizon. I had never before seen anything like that, but was later told that it was first visible crescent of summer’s very newest moon. And as is customary in the Navajo ceremonial way, I put a pinch of corn pollen on my tongue, then took another, sprinkling some of that on my head and some down across my upper body, and next spread the remainder before me as I faced the newly emerging Jóhonaa’éí to make a path for his light to touch me so that I could now absorb the knowledge I was so rapidly acquiring and thus sleep peacefully as my research proceeded.

Upon waking with the sunrise, we all become players one way or another in such a daily production that eventually measures out an entire life span. At birth we enter the cycle as infants, move into childhood, proceed through adulthood, and eventually reach old age. Thus rotating through four seasons of our own, our lives advance with each day’s sun and the phases of the moon as we undertake task upon task, whether large or small, which Navajos sort into four steps for each, identified respectively as nitsáhákees--beginning or thinking; nahat'á--planning or implementing; iiná--proceeding or executing; and sihasin--perfecting or securing a clear path for what is to follow. That four-step process is further aligned with the four parts of each day, the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, and the four phases of a human life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Thus we participate in a master production that features earth's annual awakening to warmth, followed by a time of germination and growth, then of blossoming and harvesting, and on to a time to cool and rest, each of us reenacting a perpetually self-renewing cycle of cycles commensurate with a harmony evident alike on earth and in the sky. In the classroom, in fact, I suggest that students consider each essay they write as a four stage process of thinking, outlining, producing a draft and finally revising. As Navajos, I remind them, they have been raised in a culture where that movement through four steps places them in harmony with Asdzáán nádleehé in her alliance with Jóhonaa'éí. I even find myself wishing that I had known to apply that pattern in courses I taught here at Allegheny College.

"Mother Earth can think," I once heard Navajo Elder Frank Morgan insist shortly after I began teaching in Crownpoint. He was offering a course in the Navajo philosophy of education for non-Navajo instructors, which I agreed to take. And before we questioned the assertion with our skeptically western perspective, he cautioned, we should all step outside during that particular evening session and look for ourselves. If we observed carefully, we would see what he meant. So out we went, and it turns out that he was right, or so I concluded in that warm, mid-April twilight there on the high desert where spring comes grudgingly. Not knowing at first exactly what I was looking for in the stubble at my feet, I soon noticed a small prickly pear cactus not much larger than a hand growing out of the hard, sandy earth. And from one of its tawny fingers there sprouted a tender green one, evidently new this season. Now approaching midway between spring equinox and summer solstice, the sun had been rising steadily northward mornings. Meanwhile, evenings were growing longer, days warmer, and the next day's dawn earlier to arrive. It became evident: this little cactus could tell the time of year by the movement of the sun, just as I would learn to do during my subsequent years of waking up on the library floor with the onset of daylight.

Thereby earth's knowledge intersects with our ability to observe in a symbiotic interdependence that cannot be violated. Nor can the planet itself turn independently of the solar system. Likewise we humans cannot set ourselves apart from our surroundings or isolate our species from all others. We are all of a piece, we and nature—in that state Navajos call hózóón, which translates best by combining the trio of English words, “beauty,” “balance,” and “harmony”—-functioning interdependently as if one grand organism. In coming to mind, that simile unites the systole and diastole of a single bloodstream with mighty solar revolutions and planetary orbits. Scientifically that may not be viable, I know; it is the spinning earth, of course, that revolves around the sun, and to condense all creation into a single body goes beyond literal credibility. But the image works, for with its similes and metaphors poetry has a way of conveying a deep truth that science alone cannot express. And it is to poetry I turn to pursue my argument.

In Coriolanus, for example--not one of Shakespeare's best known plays--the Roman patrician Menenius Agrippa staves off a hungry mob’s uprising by reciting a story of the body's parts threatening mutiny against the stomach because it does no real work itself, unlike the eyes that see, the ears that hear, the feet that walk, and the hands that grasp. Yet it takes in all the food, they complain. The belly retorts that yes, while it receives the body's nourishment initially, it redistributes it to all other parts so together they may flourish as one. Likewise, argues Menenius, the nobles merely gather the grain, but then share it among all. To overthrow them would harm the entire body politic. Those familiar with the play recognize its ultimate irony. For when Menenius’ friend and fellow patrician Coriolanus fails to win popular endorsement to become a consul, he flies into a rage, angers his plebian countrymen, and turns against Rome by leading an invasion against it. Spreading destruction in his path, he becomes a wrathful limb assaulting the body that houses him, in effect, waging war not only against the collective whole of which he is a part, but against his very self.

While the language he uses is his own, Shakespeare drew the image of the body at war with its belly from Plutarch, whose life of Coriolanus was his main source. So the alignment of the human organism with the larger civic body has a long history, as does the union of nature’s forces with human affairs. In Hesiod’s Theogeny, Earth and Sky unite like a human couple to engender gods. Homer, meanwhile, gives the morning dawn those rosy human fingers that caress the awakening earth and make each morning distinct from all others. And in those great epics we call his, he maintained a vision of a unified cosmos easily disrupted by disorderly human behavior. In The Iiiad, XXI, for example, the excessively boastful Achilles angers the river Skamandros first by killing a man along its bank, then by shouting insults when it objects to having its waters defiled with human blood. The result is a rampaging flood similar to those in the Bible or in the lower worlds of the Navajo creation story where the deities counteract petty squabbling with wildly surging water. If you must kill your enemies, the river god complains to Achilles, “drive them at least out of me to the plain, and there work your havoc. For the loveliness of my waters is crammed with corpses, I cannot find a channel to cast my waters into the bright sea since I am congested with the dead men you kill so brutally.” Wanting only to slay Trojans, however, Achilles leaps defiantly into the water, whereupon Skamandros pummels him with the bodies of slain victims.

Then, when the defiant Greek warrior tries to escape, Skamandros overflows his banks to chase him, “streaming after him” unrelentingly, “turbulent, boiling to a crest, muttering in foam and blood and dead bodies” until Achilles begs for help from those gods who favor him. Among those is Hera, wife of Zeus, who summons his son Hephaistos the fire god to resist the enraged river. “Set fire the trees,” she instructs him, “and throw fire on the river himself.” And from “out of the sea” she summons “a troublesome storm of the west wind and the whitening southwind.” Achilles’ mortal defiance is thus thrust by nature and the gods beyond human control. Alike on water and land, wind and flame contend more fiercely than Greeks and Trojans until the entire landscape falls asunder where mortal warfare has contaminated stream and field, or—as it were—the body’s parts wage war against their sustaining host.

The bitter lesson in the human realm where Coriolanus turns against his community or Achilles defiles the earth with the bodies of his slain foes is that to make war on one-another is to war against nature herself. The more benign lesson is that as far back as the ancients, poets had a way of recognizing and thus expressing that reality. In disregarding their lesson we abandon our own well being as part of a single cosmic organism which merely houses us collectively. We might very well call those ancient times primitive by today’s standards: there were no clocks to record the hours, no calendars to count off the days; no photographs in effigy of what one actually saw; no electronic images of any kind mediating between individuals and first-hand experience. Reality was direct, not virtual. While their perspective on the world was narrowly confined to what they could observe first-hand, people then maintained a vision that united the human community fully with its surroundings. Well before the Industrial Revolution, poets voiced the symbiotic effects of human encounters with nature without intervention from mass-produced images. In the sun’s agency they saw nature whole, which is to say they stayed more directly in touch with their surroundings than we generally do today to express what dawn could mean through the ever-mediating force of simile and metaphor.

In his great elegy Lycidas, for example, where he mourns the untimely death by drowning of his young friend Edward King, John Milton consoles himself by merging the Resurrection with dawn. Just as the sun sinks westward at day’s end, so lives his late friend eternally through Christ’s mercy by rising again with "new-spangled Ore” of the each morning’s newly risen sun as it “flames in the forehead of the morning sky.” Or in "A Drop of Dew," Andrew Marvell attests to the union of nature and self when he observes the impact of the swift evaporation of a minute orb of "orient dew" with dawn's arrival. In describing that closely watched event, he explains how—for a fleetingly momentary lifetime when measured against all eternity—the transiently embodied soul lies separated from its celestial home until it is drawn like a swiftly vanishing drop of moisture back into its eternal, cosmic fold by the morning sun's reunifying, evaporative power. Similarly, in his “To a Sky-Lark” the poet Shelley celebrates that bird’s soaring flight and its accompanying song of triumph and rejuvenation by locating it “in the golden lightning” of the rising sun “o’er which the clouds are brightening.”

Such examples abound; these are just a few. And as I exercise while greeting the sun from my Crownpoint Vista, I think of them in their abundance, and marvel how closely they match the reality still available here in this setting where a pre-industrial outlook somehow endures. I find myself united not only with my surroundings, but with those who once saw or can still see the sun as a direct partner with the onset of each new day in an active life. We are all of a piece, we and nature, in that state Navajo call hózhóón, and that union connects each heartbeat with mighty solar revolutions and planetary orbits. It brings what is housed and what houses together in a single entity, and makes us all kindred children of earth and sky.

“House made of dawn,” begins a powerful prayer-poem from the Navajo Night Chant, one of a broad array of opera-like ceremonies conducted to perpetuate well-being whose collected lyrics could fill volumes:

House made of evening light,
House made of the dark cloud.
House made of male rain.
House made of dark mist.
House made of female rain.

And just as strikingly, it ends:

May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.

The flaw in that otherwise fine translation from Navajo, of course, is that the word “beauty” alone does not do justice to its counterpart hozhon, which invokes those added properties of balance and harmony. And it is that deep, pervasive quality I appreciate as I witness each new dawn from my Crownpoint library bedroom, sometimes mindful of the terror that rends today’s world and sometimes able to transcend it. No longer inclined to detach what I do as a teacher from what I see come morning’s light, though, I reflect on ways to remind students that in mastering the tasks of reading and writing texts as well as in all else they undertake to learn, they are partaking of patterns perceived by their living elders and vanished ancestors who have recognized the east as the first direction and prayed knowingly to the morning sun. I reflect, too, that it is presumptuous of humankind to seek dominion over nature, or to question whether we need it, as if it were something we could dominate in the first place or dismiss by choice. Nature is not a place apart; it is not a need to be satisfied, like needing an education, a new car, a walk along a stream to hear rippling water, or a mountain vacation where bees hum in high meadows far from city noises. It is needed the way the whole needs its parts and vice versa, the way inhale needs exhale, or a cell needs protoplasm to stay alive.

How obvious the irony as I awake with each Crownpoint dawn and behold the rising sun together with the small features unique to that particular morning. I first came here to teach students how to assemble words on a page and interpret written texts. Yet here I have learned to reconstruct some once familiar old poems, and to read as it were for the first time each day the horizon at dawn, piecing together my entire surroundings, all the parts of my life, and all the lives of others into a living, unitary whole.


Photo by William J. Carpenter (1915).

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