Grownup Navajo: A Journey
by Jaclyn Roessel
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).