What a Navajo myth can explain — Changing Woman’s triumph

January 6, 2019

From the majestic Navajo creation myth comes an episode pertinent to the moment. Two New Mexico women, including one from Laguna Pueblo, will join a number of other women newly elected to the House of Representatives. It might also help navigate the rancor fraying today’s gender relations. Here’s how I voice the passage in my translated version, Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story, published by the University of New Mexico Press 35 years ago and still in print.

First, some background. The passage climaxes a loosely woven narrative, as national epics can be. Helped by preternatural animals, the Holy People have fashioned a world made for yet uncreated humans destined to be its caretakers. Thanks to the triumphant exploits of Twin Warriors, marauding monsters first need to be defeated.

Once that happens but before the Navajo deity Asdzáán nádleehé, the Changing Woman, can craft those Five Fingered Earth Surface People from parts of her body, she must reconcile with mighty Jóhonna’éí, the Sun, erstwhile absentee partner and the lead warrior’s father, who insists she maintain a nightly western home where he can spend nights with her after each day’s labor across the sky. However, she responds with a set of conditions he must meet, and when he demands to know by what right she issues them, she gives this reply:

“I will tell you why,” she retorts. “You are male and I am female. You are of the sky and I am of the Earth. You are constant in your brightness, but I must change with the seasons. You move constantly at the very edge of heaven, while I must remain fixed in one place.”

She then reminds him that she willingly let him send his rays into her body, endured the pain of childbirth, protected their son from harm and taught him to serve his people unselfishly so that he could willingly fight the monsters — as a single mom, by the way.

“As different as we are,” continues she, “we are as one spirit. There can be no harmony in the universe as long as there is no harmony between us.”

Twelve years of assembling this story from a sprawling oral tradition led me to see Changing Woman’s assertion as its central theme, applicable to today’s political culture as well. In remaining as faithful as possible to its permutations, I now regard the high status Navajo women traditionally enjoy as a template for how today’s newly elected congresswomen should be treated on behalf of all women in this #MeToo age.

Both fascinating and baffling, the story defies easy summarizing and begs to be read in full. Underlying every twist, though, where bawdy humor alternates with suspense and pathos, a growing awareness unfolds that absent the equity Changing Woman demands, cosmic balance and procreation cannot coexist.

Sometimes overtly, sometimes implicitly, sexuality drives the narrative as the recognizable Diné world and its four surrounding sacred mountains materialize in advance of human occupation.

Only with the defeat of the monsters — the result of sexual disorder at the story’s outset, which triggers an epic quest — can male-female reconciliation usher in an ecologically stable worldview: identified in Navajo as hozhoon, translatable only by combining the English words “beauty,” “balance” and “harmony” — an enduring ideal underlying all Navajo thought and readily adaptable to how we today might resist environmental degradation, not only politically, but through artistic expression and everyday behavior.

Human nature surfaces recognizably in the behavior of the Holy People, in an early struggle between human prototypes Altsé asdzáán, the First Woman, and Altsé hastiin, the First Man, to overcome mutual sexual vulnerability, and in the effort of Changing Woman and the Sun to reconcile theirs in accord with the passing seasons. Such recognition accounts for the narrative’s appeal. It also adds a template of understanding to today’s political and social turmoil and puts the myth in a broad environmental context where an acute observation of nature’s laws coexists with mythical fancy.

In today’s conflict over maintaining America’s rich ethnic mix, it seems fitting to recognize what a stirring Native American narrative can offer our polarized world, especially as a Pueblo woman brings to Congress a sample of New Mexico’s unique cultural diversity.

Paul Zolbrod lives in Albuquerque.

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