On Tuesday I went to the Dartmouth library to do research for today’s service. I took my stuff down to the basement level to work; I often work down there, because it’s where the books on philosophy and religion are kept. I assumed I would find books on Navajo spirituality there, as well. But when I looked up books with that topic, I discovered they were all upstairs; when I went to find them, they were all in the sociology and anthropology section. This demonstrates an interesting dichotomy: what is known to us about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or other worldwide religions mostly comes from practitioners of those religions, whereas what we non-indigenous people know of indigenous religious practice comes to us almost entirely from white scholars who study those religions from outside. And this serves as a warning: whereas I have participated in worship and in interreligious dialogue with people from all the religious traditions I’ve talked about so far this summer, I don’t know any Navajo people, nor have I participated in Navajo religious traditions. I am merely a reader and an admirer, especially of Navajo justice.
To begin: the Navajo people have historically mostly lived in the desert in the American Southwest. They do not call themselves Navajo, but Dine’, a word meaning, simply, “people.” The anthropologist Gladys Reichard writes that the Dine’ are individualists, but individualists with strong social systems in place, and a strong sense of duty. But, she writes, the Navajos she talked to do not emphasize their duties and responsibilities, but the honor that accrues to them by providing for others. This makes sense in the desert, where what you and your relatives can do for each other is necessary to keep you alive: it’s an environment that punishes your attempts at self-sufficiency, but rewards cooperation. The Dine’ have their own version of the Trail of Tears, which they call simply the Long Walk. From 1864 to 1866, U.S troops forced the Dine’ to walk from their reservation in Arizona—already a diminishment of their traditional territory—to eastern New Mexico. Of the 10,000 that began the march, only 8,000 survived. The combination of environment and history has made the Dine’ experts in the art of survival. There are over 173,000 Navajo members today, despite systemic efforts to wipe them out.
The core concept of the worldview of the Dine’ is hozho, a word often translated as “beauty.” Like the Hawaiian aloha or the Hebrew shalom, hozho is impossible to translate fully—it encompasses peace, right relationship, wholeness, well-being, order, harmony, balance, and of course beauty. Tony Hillerman’s famous Navajo detective and apprentice singer Jim Chee describes it this way:
“This business of hozho . . . I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought. You see what I mean. The system is designed to recognize what’s beyond human power to change, and then to change the human’s attitude to be content with the inevitable.”
Nothing is wholly good or wholly evil in Navajo cosmology, but everything must be in a harmonious balance. Because of this, Navajo interpersonal justice looks worlds different from white justice: Whereas justice traditions from modern Europe often have to do with punishment and the safety of the community from offenders, Navajos look at the offender and ask: How did this person come to this? What can they do to make reparations? How can their lives come into balance once again? It is not about meting out vengeance, or whatever will make a victim feel better in the moment, but what will heal all the people involved—victim and perpetrator alike—and indeed the whole community. For instance, Irene Toledo, a Supreme Court Justice of the Navajo Nation, noticed that many defendants who came before her were Vietnam vets, and she was worried that they were teaching harmful coping strategies to their children, thus perpetuating violence. So she asked her probation officer to be on the lookout for vets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so that the community could address the root causes of violence and disharmony, rather than simply punish the offenders or break up families, as a white court would have done.
Conflict comes from hochxo, from a person not being in right relation with their environment, or having mistaken views of the world and their place in it. It is the complete opposite of hozho, and turning hochxo into hozho involves prayer and ceremony, as Jim Chee described. But interpersonal hochxo requires a peacemaker as well. The peacemaker, or mediator, is not necessarily a person of great power in the community, but a persuasive person, a person who’s a good talker, and a good psychologist. She is all about persuasion, not coercion, and she strives to help the participants go from conceiving of the problem intellectually to understanding it in the heart. She may invite the victim to talk about their side of the event, and then the perpetrator to talk about their side. As one writer says, “Venting is encouraged.” And then she talks with them some more, and some more. To me, this sounds like nothing so much as Quaker decision-making and conflict resolution: anchored in prayer, non-coercive, heavily talk-oriented. The talk includes trying to overcome everyone’s internal barriers to hozho: anger on the part of victims, excuses on the part of the perpetrator, basically everyone’s defense mechanisms need to be dismantled. Everyone in the process must realize the ways their behavior affects others. It is, essentially, a way to remind everyone of their relationships toward each other and their duties to each other as part of the community.
Then there is a teaching portion, where the peacemaker relates the conflict to an aspect of Navajo mythology, so that the myth becomes a kind of case law, a universally-held belief that has something to say to the current situation. Every part of Navajo theology may have applications to the ways humans live in community with each other. Finally, to complete the head-to-heart journey, the path from cerebral understanding and reaction to holistic, community-oriented understanding, the peacemaker brings everyone to the point of reconciliation. Grounded in prayer and mythology, having expressed themselves and heard each other, now everyone concerned must reach a consensus. This consensus includes a recognition that each participant affects the others, and reparations to the victim, often in the form of money or jewelry. But there must also be a commitment to change, whether that includes the traditional solution of the offender’s family helping them keep their promise, or attending therapy, treatment, or some other kind of counseling. Perhaps there will be a sing, a traditional healing ceremony. Perhaps several of these solutions will be used.
At the end of the process, the participants have reached hozho, and everyone is in right relationship again. Right relationship is based in interconnectedness, in the process of working out disputes—of moving from head-space to heart-space, and in social solidarity with each other. I said earlier that Navajo culture is very individualistic, and it is, but the sovereign individual is also committed to this interpersonal responsibility to each other. Almost everyone I read this week mentioned the loneliness of Navajo culture; traditionally, families often lived far apart from each other. Perhaps this loneliness is what has made the Dine’ prize interpersonal harmony. There’s a Navajo saying about a selfish, destructive person: “He acts as if he has no relatives.” Disorder between people is the root of all evil, all disharmony, whereas remembering our interconnectedness is to be restored in beauty.
What do you need to walk in beauty, to be restored in beauty? What is out of balance? Have you fostered beauty around you? Have you acted with the flourishing of all your relatives in mind—and not just those few related to you by blood, but the whole human family, the sort of “relatives” Jesus meant when he answered the question, “who is my neighbor”? I often hear Christians talk about the benefits of a communal society, but the truth is, those of us reared in a strongly individualistic society are simply not capable of transitioning en masse into a communal one. But maybe we can take a lesson from Navajo justice and prize our interrelationships as individuals above a selfish devotion to the illusion of our independence.
Being restored in beauty is about much more than noticing beauty around us, though that is certainly part of it, but it is more about doing beauty. It is about having a right view of ourselves and our place in the world. Beauty is acting as if we have relatives, relatives who will be hurt if we gossip maliciously, relatives who will suffer if we steal from them, relatives who will be neglected if we choose to feed our addictions. On a global level, beauty is acting like we have family whose homes will be lost to climate change, like we have relatives who need clean water more than we need new gadgets, relatives who need food more than we need them to make us cheap clothing.
There’s a well-known story; no one knows its origin—it’s been credited variously to a Hasidic rabbi, South American indigenous people, the Hindu Vedas, and ancient China. In a classic version of the story, a man visits Heaven and Hell. In Hell, he sees a bowl of stew surrounded by people with very long spoons—too long to reach their mouths. But they keep trying, and failing, to feed themselves, and are miserable and famished. In Heaven the man sees the same huge bowl, the same long spoons, but here the people are feeding each other, and there is joy and celebration. The first is living as if we have no relatives. We act selfishly, but ultimately our selfishness is hochxo: it makes us unhappy and out-of-sorts. We are living in a state of conflict. The second scenario is what it means to walk in beauty, as I understand it. It is a state of mutual responsibility, interconnectedness, and celebration.
The path of beauty: In [your] youth [may you be] aware of it,
And in old age [may you] walk quietly
The beautiful trail.
May you be restored in beauty.