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Native American Heritage of the Navajo Clan

Hello professor, my name is Joshua Little Wolf. I am of the Bitter Water People. I am born for the Big Deer people. My maternal grandfather’s clan is the Bitter Water people, my paternal grandfather’s clan is the Big Deer people. I am from Houston, Texas. I was born in Austin, Texas. I will be discussing the importance of clans to the Navajo people. I will also discuss the origin of the clans, the four initial clans, the creation story involving Changing Woman, and the proper way people of the Navajo Nation introduce themselves.

The Navajo people do not have the same family structure as typical American families do. According to Harrison Lapahie Jr.:

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“In the Navajo culture, two Navajos of the same clan, meeting for the first time, will refer to each other as “brother” or “sister”. Navajos that are cousins to each other in the American sense, think of each other as “brother” or “sister” in the Navajo sense. Father’s and mother’s cousins in the American way are thought of as aunts and uncles in the Navajo way. Grandparent’s brothers and sisters in the American way are thought of like grandma’s and grandpa’s in the Navajo way.

Harrison Lapahie Jr. has many brothers, sisters, Aunts, Uncles, Grandmas, and Grandpas, in the Navajo way, that are his Cousins, his father’s and mother’s cousins, and his grandparent’s brothers and sisters in the American way. When a Navajo is in strange surroundings, it is not uncommon for his relatives (in the Navajo way) or his clan members, to have the responsibility for his housing, food, and welfare, while this individual is in the immediate area.

A Navajo through his own clan (his mom’s clan) and the clan groups to which his father as well as his spouse belong, has a great potential for personal contacts. This complex network of inter-relationships served in the past to fuse the scattered bands of Navajos and other American Indians together as a Navajo Tribe” (Dine` Clans).

Al Durtschi claims that:

“Family is very important to us. We have our immediate family, and we have our extended family. Our extended family is broken up into clans, which were created by the Holy Ones. The four original clans are Towering House, Bitterwater, Big water and One-who-walks-around. Today there are about 130 clans. When we meet another Navajo for the first time we tell each other from what clan we are from. We identify how we are human by the clans of our mother, father, and ancestors. This is who we are. When we know our clan we will never be alone, for our ancestors will always be near us.

We also have our immediate family. We have a great responsibility to our family, for without the family we as a people would have an end. Within the family, everyone has an important part to play. If any members of the family don’t fulfill his responsibility the whole family suffers.

There is a male and a female side to each of us. The male side is our aggressive side. It is our warring side and the lying, cheating, negative, evil side. Our female side is where we will find love, compassion and nurturing. Both of these sides are in each of us. However, men are men, and women are women. We each have responsibilities in the family. The woman uses her nurturing side to take care of the family and the hogan. The man uses his aggressive side to provide for the physical necessities of his family.

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Just because the man and the woman have their own roles doesn’t mean they can’t do the work of the other as each person has both the male and female sides within them. It is not wrong for a man to cook, wash the dishes, change diapers, wash the kids, and so forth if this is needed of him. The same thing holds true of the woman in doing male roles. But there are certain limits as to what a man can do on the female side and a woman can do on the male side. We will not give a woman a bow and arrow and tell her to go and kill in war, although she could do this if it was the final option to protect her family. Everyone, including children, have a responsibility to keep the home alive, well, clean and safe” (An introduction to the Navajo Culture).

The way the Navajo people came into existence is very interesting. According to Regina Lynch, in her book A History of Navajo Clans, the story all begins when the chief-leaders among the people that emerged into the fourth world sent “Changing Woman,” who was also known as “White Shell Woman,” to the West to live (1). Changing Woman agreed to travel west to take care of the Sun and the Moon (1).

After some time in the west Changing Women began to feel very lonely. It was at this point that she created the First Four Clans (5). Lynch states: “It is said that she originated the Four Clans by rubbing her skin under arms-producing four men. Thus the First Four Clans appeared.” The four men decided to journey back to the mainland; however, it is unclear why they left changing women to journey to the mainland. For whatever reason they had to leave Changing Woman, she seemed to be condoning their decision to leave her because she gave them each a cane to dig with water for when the people got thirsty (6).

The first person dug a hole in the ground for water. “The water was so bitter that they drank only a little” Lynch comments. This person was named the Bitter Water Clan (6). The journey then continued and once again The People became thirsty. A person considered an elder of the community was asked to dig for water the people this time. When he dug a hole, the water came above the ground surface immediately. This person was named Near the Water Clan (7). So the journey to the mainland continued, and once again The People became thirsty. A third person was allowed to dig for the water (8). According to Lynch,

“He began digging for water, but all his efforts were unsuccessful. He became tired and left his cane leaning against the canyon wall and stood beside it. When the People saw his cane and him standing there next to it, it looked as if he was standing against a house, with the canyon wall in the background. So they called him…Towering House clan. Because he was unable to find water, he was given a different clan name.”

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The journey commenced once again and the People stopped for something to drink. This time the fourth person began to dig for water. This person dug in the ground and found enough water to cause a flood. So this person was named Big Water clan (9).

The Navajo people try very hard to uphold traditions that they pass along from generation to generation. The story of creation is just one example of how the Navajo pass along some of their heritage. The clan system is a very sacred and intricate part of the Navajo people. A Navajo person finds identity in their clan, and feel that what clan they are from defines the type of person they are. It is in this way that the Navajo introduce themselves. There is a proper Navajo form of introduction that all Navajo are encouraged to use to introduce their selves to fellow Navajo’s.

Wilson Aronilth Jr. defines the correct way of Navajo introduction in the Foundation of Navajo Culture. He states that the greeting should always go first. In other words, the person should state how they are related to the person they are speaking to (27). Next, a person should state their clan.

The way to state the clan is by representing their maternal grandmother and mother’s clan. Then who they are born for, which is their father’s clan. Then they mention their maternal grandfather’s clan and their paternal grandfather’s clan (27). This is a very confusing process to understand and unless a person has done some research into their family ancestry they will not be able to complete this stage of the introduction. Lastly, the speaker would introduce the geographic location of where they are from and would mention where they were born (27).

Why should a person do this type of proper introduction? Aronilth explains:

“For a Dine`, it is the teaching and belief of our forefathers, that an introduction is a large part of what makes us unique. In Dine’s introduction, an individual must give his name and the clan he represents. Other individuals, that are not Navajo, may give their name and the race they represent.”

Aronilth gives a number of reasons for executing a proper introduction. The first reason given is “because our name is the foundation of who we are, while the spirit of our clan is the roots of our life. Our name and clan have to go together.” (26). Another explanation is that an appropriate preamble has a great deal to do with the way Navajo “feel, think, talk, and categorize our words” (26).

Their clan system plays a very important part in their behaviour and attitude, and by introducing their selves correctly, they would feel more comfortable speaking in front of other people. An upside to executing a proper introduction is that the Navajo person might find out that they have relatives that they were unaware of. According to an interview with Aaron Keyoni, a Navajo Indian:

“It [Navajo introduction] becomes annoying introducing yourself the Navajo way at times. There’s been a ton of times when I’ll meet a girl for the first time and think I’ve just met my future wife, just to discover that she’s actually related to me through the clan. That sort of thing just gets on my nerves. I’ve taken a few girls out before, knowing we were related through the clan, but just hoping word wouldn’t get out. It’s considered incest if we’re in the same clan, even if we’re not related by blood. It gets really old after a while.”

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Other clan names outside of the Four Original Clans developed from different native Americans that were integrated into the Navajo culture. For example the website “Navajo and Pueblos” claims that:

“In those days, Navajos probably took very few Pueblo prisoners. When they did, many of the prisoners became slaves and had to work for Navajo families. Often they became part of the family. Navajo men sometimes took captured women for their wives. When their Pueblo wives had children, they belonged to their mother’s clan as well as their Navajo father’s clan. Because of this fact, Pueblo women started new Navajo clans.”

The Navajo Central Web site & FAQ’s About Life Among the Navajo People claims that :

“Clans are not unique to American Indian tribes. Clans in Scotland trace their origins before 1100 A.D. Unlike the Dineh, Scottish clans are patrilineal. Each clan has its distinctive badge, crest and tartan. Oh – In Scotland the tribes live in the highlands, keep sheep, but the men do the weaving!”

In conclusion, the clan family structure is very important to the Navajo culture. The Navajo clans are not similar to the typical American family. Extended family takes care of family members just as immediate family members would. The Navajo creation story involves Changing Woman travelling west to take care of the sun and moon. The first four clans that were created were: Bitter Water Clan, Near the Water Clan, Towering House Clan, and Big Water Clan. The Navajo have a specific introduction they give one another which is sacred to them.

The clan structure is not unique to the Navajo people but has also been used in Scotland for many years. Navajo people have a very intricate family system that I found interesting. It is a confusing system to understand but seems to have worked for a very long time. The best part about the Navajo family structure is the way that the extended family takes care of everyone in their clan. American families could greatly benefit from the loving-kindness that could be given by extended family members that are so often overlooked.

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