Grownup Navajo

Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

Month: October, 2012

Origins of the Kinaalda

As a little girl, I never dreamed of my wedding day. I did however, dream of my Kinaaldá. Young women often note how they imagined their wedding day since they were in elementary school.  Some recount with certainty what their wedding dress would look like or the song playing to their first dance. I was never this type of girl.

It was my mom who nurtured my enthusiasm for my Kinaaldá. In future posts I will discuss how we prepared. But here, I want to express the overwhelming thanks I owe my mom. She taught me to be excited for my ceremony. Because of her I would dream of how fast I would run and how I would be an exemplary young girl. I imagined the knife cutting my perfect cake at dawn on the final day. But mostly, I dreamt of how it would feel to be so closely connected with Changing Woman.

Changing Woman is one of the Holy People and the reason we have the Kinaaldá ceremony. In Navajo culture many of the teachings of how we should live our lives as Navajo people is told through our origin stories.

Origin stories are the sacred and powerful stories Navajo people have continued to pass from generation to generation. These stories tell of time when the Holy People were a part of this world, a time, when animals and Diné spoke and understood one another. Since origin stories are sacred and layered many parts are told only during certain times of the year.

The founding of the Kinaaldá ceremony occurs in this era. The Holy People are the spiritual guiders and creators. Navajo believe there are multiple beings or figures that comprise our Creator. Within the group there are certain Holy People who are responsible for different aspects of Navajo culture and religion.

The story of the first Kinaaldá begins within Dinétáh – Navajo holy land.  During this period near the mountain of Gobernador Knob (what is now northwestern New Mexico), First Man and First Woman heard a baby crying and began searching for it. As the crying from the baby began to be more intense they saw this area with a dark mist – low clouds on top of the peak. It was here, folded in the clouds, they saw a little girl.

Talking God – who is the leader of the Holy People – decided this baby would be raised by First Man and First Woman. They would be responsible for rearing the child. Shortly after this, the Holy People noticed this child was special. She was given the name Asdzaan Nagleeii or Changing Woman because she grew fast. For every day the baby grew one year. So after 12 days, Changing Woman was 12 years old. Her body began to change and she had her first menses.

The Holy People decided this was a special occasion and it must be respected and noted. They held the first Kinaaldá to mark the transformation occurring in Changing Woman’s body – the ability to bear children.  The start of the ceremony was marked by the brushing and tying of her hair in a low pony tail with a strip of buckskin. She lay on an unwounded buckskin and was physically molded into the shape of a woman by First Woman.  She was dressed with white shell beaded moccasins, a skirt and leggings as well as wristlets with fringe.

The Holy People said Changing Woman needed to make a cake as part of an offering to the Sun. She was directed to grind and mix the corn to create the batter. Once the cake was cooked and finished it would be given to the Sun first. This is often called the heart of the cake and reserved for the Sun as the most powerful Holy Person because he made day and night.

Changing Woman had four Kinaaldá ceremonies for each of the first four times she had her period. She kept two ceremonies for herself and gave two to future Navajo women. This is why today traditionally, Navajos hold two Kinaaldás out of respect for Changing Woman.

The practice of the Kinaaldá today is viewed as a direct link to this powerful and sacred part of the Navajos’ past. It is because of this story; I have an affinity for this sacred ceremony. I fondly remember writing stories about how various Holy People would help me in my life. Even with menial things like my homework. But the story of Changing Woman and her life is impetus for what it means to be a Navajo woman.

I remember having my ceremony and feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not because I was worried or frightened but I felt I wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to follow the direction of Changing Woman so my life would be blessed. Not for myself but so I could help my people, so I could be strong enough to handle the challenges in my life – whatever they might be.

Grownup Navajo: A Journey

In April, I lost my Nalí Asdzaan (paternal grandmother), a woman whose essence was what it meant to be a traditional Navajo woman. She was the epitome of Navajo education and a trailblazer. She was also my teacher and because of her I was raised as a traditional Navajo woman in modern society.

In my career I educate people about the uniqueness innate in American Indian cultures and art in the southwest. While I love my job and the work I do, I am cognizant of the trade-offs I make to do it. In essence this is the state I am referencing when I say grownup Navajo. The term grownup has child-like connotations. When you are young adults ask you, “What do you want to be when you’re a grownup?” Now in my late twenties, I ask myself that question. So being a grownup Navajo is an evolving state. One I think you never quite reach (if you are lucky).

As a grownup, who has grown up Navajo, I have to make hard decisions about how I connect with my culture. Being a grownup Navajo means I am still learning. I am a young Navajo woman taking ownership of my role as a carrier of Navajo culture. I carry a notebook with me everywhere. I jot down questions as a way to keep track of stories I haven’t learned or ideas and teachings I don’t quite understand. It was my Nalí Asdzaan who aided me in these efforts.

I do not call myself a grownup Navajo lightly. Being a grownup Navajo means I acknowledge the weaknesses I have in understanding and knowing certain Navajo stories, language and ceremonies. But being Navajo has also meant challenging me to be a stronger person, to decide to carry on because I have responsibilities within a larger society. In losing my Nalí Asdzaan, I have lost my teacher and role model. By starting this project, I am taking responsibility now to share and learn what makes us as Diné people unique. I look for new teachers but I also trust in the knowledge I have to guide me in this next phase of my life. My Nalí Asdzaan taught me well.

I was born and raised on the Navajo Nation between three communities Round Rock, Lukachukai and Kayenta, Arizona. I was taught to introduce myself by acknowledging our clan system, I am of the Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water People), meaning this is the clan of my mother. We note our father’s clan by saying “born for” in my case, the Kii yaa’ aanii (Towering House People). My maternal grandfather is of the Tódikozhí (Bitter Water clan) and my paternal grandfather is of the Monteath Clan from Scotland. It is through our clan system that we find our place in our Navajo world.

I began giving “Growing Up Navajo” talks as part of an outreach program for my job. It was a way for me to share a modern perspective with people who are interested in learning more about Navajo culture. I used my own Kinaaldá ceremony as a window for audiences to see into the Navajo world. What I didn’t anticipate was how my own appreciation of Navajo philosophy and the Kinaaldá ceremony would grow.

Over a year ago, my cousin had her first Kinaaldá. It was an exciting blessing. She was the second to the last cousin to have her ceremony. A Kinaaldá is a four day puberty ceremony held in honor of a young girl when she has her first menses. Traditionally, this would be held two times – at the point of both her first and second menstrual period. It begins with the tying of her hair and she is physically molded by a respected Navajo role model. Every day she runs to the east before dawn and at noon, each time pushing herself to go a little further. The second to the last day is the hard work of preparing the cake. The cake is baked in a pit in the ground spanning approximately 4 feet in diameter and 6 inches deep. The ground has been preheated with a fire making the pit hot enough to cook the cake. The core of the ceremony is an all night prayer session in which the girl and family sing for blessings. It is a beautiful night where the family and community come together to celebrate. In the morning, with the sunrise, the cake is cut and distributed to family and friends after the girl has run as far as she possibly can. The ceremony is meant to prepare the girl for her life as a young Navajo woman. She follows certain taboos and restrictions as a way to test her endurance, stamina and emotional capacity. It is a ceremony which personifies the transition the girl is making in her life and allows for the community to join in marking this special moment. As Navajo people we believe by the time the Kinaaldá ends, the girl is a Navajo woman and is prepared with the blessings of the ceremony for her journey.

I romanticize the Kinaaldá because I am one of only five girls (on my dad’s side). As I await the start of my youngest cousin’s ceremony, I feel proud that we have such a strong line of young women who have chosen to carry on this tradition.

The last Kinaaldá in my family was different. I felt there was much more I understood because I have explored many more stories and sought answers to many more questions. Since I had learned more I was able to give more.

There have been noticeable changes to the ceremony. Today, Kinaaldás are often planned and even shortened to fit into weekends. In an effort to become more streamlined – the corn for the cake prepared by the girl is sometimes no longer hand-ground. Some families use meat grinders so the batter can be prepared quicker. There are aspects of the ceremony made to be more convenient. One friend shared that her family prepared a spreadsheet to track materials they needed to purchase for the ceremony (a handy idea).

Depending on your family you may be offended, protective or inspired by these findings. My goal in writing this blog is to facilitate a sharing of ideas and perspectives to construct what the Kinaaldá ceremony means to Navajo society today. The differences are shared to provide dialogue and paint a landscape of the ceremony in present day, not as a critique. Foundational to all posts is the understanding that there are many different kinds of Navajo people. I am not a judge of the way the ceremony is practiced. On the contrary, I am most proud of the fact Kinaaldás still occur. This is a tradition that is practiced and being adapted to ensure its continuance.

An assumption of this blog is Navajo families view this ceremony as being a foundational aspect of Navajo culture – a necessity to practice. As I will explain in future posts, the Kinaaldá isn’t solely about the young lady having the ceremony. If that was the case, I believe the ceremony would have died out a long time ago. It is carried on because much like other Navajo ceremonies, this one is about the community, it is about Ke’ (kinship).

Found within the Navajo Kinaaldá are key teachings of leadership. It allows women to learn about their culture and importance of their role in our traditions. It stresses the impact of community, giving back, generosity and perseverance.

With this focus on Navajo culture there are lessons for men and non-Navajos. My culture is one which stresses the idea of connectedness; to family, to the land and to the people. It is my hope this blog can provide discourse about leadership and civic responsibility as seen in the communal ceremony. Ultimately, it will share how our practice of Navajo spirituality stresses community leadership.

My observations are meant to share a perspective – a Navajo view – a modern Navajo view about the complexity in this beautiful ceremony. This blog is aimed at sharing lessons from a people who have continuously preserved and are still celebrating the endurance, strength and beauty of our culture.

Grownup Navajo will continue to be a tribute to my late Nalí Asdzaan. I start this blog as a thank you to her for the greatest gift she gave me, my own Kinaaldá ceremony. I firmly believe this ceremony is responsible for the vitality and blessings in my life today. Because she was one who shared our culture both within Navajoland and out, I know this project would make her proud. I know because it was her life’s work to ensure Diné people were proud of who they are. It is because of the Kinaaldá that my heart resides in Diné Bikeyah (Navajoland). I look forward to hearing from you as this project evolves…Ahe’hee’ (Thank you).