The Purpose of Giving

by Jaclyn Roessel

This is my first Christmas without my Nalí Asdzaan. As I prepared for the season, I was reminded of times we shopped together. She was adamant about getting gifts for people. It was important to her that her family knew she was thinking of them and cared.

She would buy dishes for an auntie who recently moved into a new home, a pair of gloves for one of my uncles who she noticed feed the animals with bare hands in the cold. She was perceptive as she reviewed what she was going to give and always gave with purpose.

Ten Christmases ago or so, she made buckskin bundles filled with weaving tools and stirring sticks. These sticks are used during the Kinaaldá ceremony. She presented all the women in my family a bundle of their own. Explaining to us all these were critical parts of the home. My sister, mom and I treasured each of our bags because we knew the beads decorating each were put in its place with us in mind.

While there are so many things I admired about my Nalí Asdzaan, I am most inspired by her generosity. She was by far the most generous person I’ve known. And while this is a trait which is noble in itself what I see in this virtue is the essence of what it means to be a Navajo.

Selfishness is arguably the worst character trait in Navajo culture. Navajos are supposed to continuously share and care for others. In fact the accumulation of material goods is something which is frowned upon in Navajo culture. Wealth is shown not through having a lot of stuff but traditionally through the livestock you owned and cared for. It was also shown through your children. Not so much that you had many but most importantly because you could take care of them.

Generosity is exhibited by Navajos during our ceremonies. The first ceremony a child has is held at the point of their first spontaneous laugh. The Laughing Ceremony is hosted by the person who “makes the child laugh”. They act as a sort of Godparent. Showing the baby through the hosting of a dinner how they should live their life. It is important to provide the dinner unselfishly.

The second key ceremony is the Kinaaldá. As mentioned in an earlier post, the ceremony occurs over four days. Over this period the young girl follows a strict diet and displays key traits a Navajo woman should possess. On the third day, the girl begins to make a cake. Really it is the most important cake she will make in her life.

It is called ałkaan, a coarse and dense semi-sweet cornmeal cake, as Navajos tell this cake is the result of the girl practicing the taboos and rules during the ceremony. We believe the girl’s work over the four days will show in the cake which is baked all night on the final night. On the morning of the fourth day, the cake is uncovered and cut. The girl gives away all of the cake saving no piece for herself. It is the ultimate act of generosity, having even a crumb from her own cake is considered especially selfish.

Navajo ceremonies, including the Kinaaldá, depend on the support of the community. It is typical for community members to participate whether it is by bringing additional food items like flour or drinks, for the family to use during the ceremony. Other times, people will arrive at the home to provide help by aiding the medicine person in singing prayers in the all night song/prayer-session which occurs on the final night of certain ceremonies. The act of participating is the act of being generous.

There are healing ceremonies which occur during the winter which involve the creation of sandpaintings to aid a patient in healing. Since many of these ceremonies are elaborate and can cover the floor of the hogan, multiple people are needed to help the medicine person in this creation. Community members come together to help, almost always without being asked. At the conclusion of these ceremonies, having served its purpose, the sandpainting is destroyed and returned to the earth. This act of wiping away an intricate piece of art many seems strange because these items are articulated and elaborate and are made over many hours. However, this is the only way Navajo people believe the healing can be complete. So even after the ceremony is finished and there is not a physical reminder of a person’s help, their generous act is critical to the process.

Often times when I come home, it is typical for both my parents and grandma to tell me who we know that is having a ceremony. Sometimes they are “routine” Blessingways or more serious healing ceremonies. They will tell of people they saw when they took food or brought other home goods. My brother will note he chopped wood for a relative for a few hours as they prepared for a ceremony.

While they give me their reports it is not shared as a means to brag but more as a notification of the people in our community and family who needed help. Generosity is not about showing how we help but is practiced in Navajo culture as a civic responsibility. We help each other because we understand there may be a day when we might need help.

In this period of “liking” and “tweetables” the act of people being supportive of one another has change. What is the value of a “like” or nine? How much is one challenge to be a better person in that? What I find most beautiful about Navajo culture is the effort in which one must give to be truly generous.

As we had our Christmas dinner today, I was touched by the presence of my Nalí Asdzaan as we used the china she gave my mom a year ago for her birthday. Knowingly or not, my mom gave all the ladies in my family new cookbooks. She even made us new aprons matching material to our personalities. It’s the kind of gift my Nalí Asdzaan would give. Something to underscore our roles in the home but ultimately something she knew we would love.

But what is most important is the effort of giving. This is key. It is important to show your support even though these acts are ephemeral. During the Kinaaldá, ceremony I remember several of my teachers came by to share support. There were aunties who sat and gave me advice and relatives who helped me  with everyday tasks. Those are lessons I carry with me today. Though people can’t see the residual at first glance, the way I live my life and the effort I make is the result of multiple acts of generosity from my relatives and community members.