Navajo Traditions
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Laws for Living Written Among the Stars: A Navajo Tradition

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

March 10, 1999

Over the next few months I want to share with my readers some "wisdom from the stars" that comes from the Navajo people. These intelligent and gentle people are best known for the spectacular landscapes they live in, for their arts and crafts--especially for their colorful wool textiles and silver jewelry. It might be better if we knew more about the values they base their lives upon.

The Navajo call themselves DinM-i, "The People," and the phrase that seems synonymous with DinM-i is, "Walk in Beauty." The identity of these people is nicely summarized by words from one of their ceremonies:

In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud and rain
In beauty I walk.

With beauty before and behind me,
With beauty below and above,
With beauty all around me, I walk

As they walk the beautiful trail, Navajo people look around, finding wonder and splendor everywhere they wander. Their instruction book of life comes from the phenomena of nature with rules for living imbedded in the landscape and engraved in the sky. Consider one of their stories.

The Holy People made the Sun from a perfect piece of turquoise and the Moon from a perfect piece of white shell. To each they gave crystals for light, feathers for flight, spirits for life and they placed them in the sky. Many crystals of different sizes remained and it was decided that these should be used to portray the laws that people should live by. After much thought they decided to place the gleaming jewels in nice patterns up high in the sky where nothing could bother them and where they could always be seen by everyone.

So the Holy People arranged the brilliant gems on a buckskin: pairs of patterns symbolized important principles for healthy and happy living. Then, carefully, they began transferring the gleaming icons onto the velvet blanket of the night. They put up the Fire Star right where everything came together, so that it would not move and could always be seen, a burning ember in the north. Nearby they placed the Revolving Man on one side of the Fire and Revolving Woman on the other: a perfect example of balance, the quality desired above all others.

Coyote, wandering around as he always was, noticed the sky begin to change. At first he was curious. Then he was furious. "They always leave me out of the really important things," he said as he started running, determined to find out what was going on.

The Holy People put up the stars called DilyM-ihM-i, the seven stars that symbolize all the others. Next came First Slim One, Keeper of the Months. This pair would guide farming and religion, two necessary labors for successful living.

As the sky took on new character, Coyote's frustration increased. He ran in a different direction, searching for the star-making place. He found it just as the Holy People were placing Man With Spread Legs and First Big One. He watched. Quietly he moved in. Finally, right among them, he spoke in angry voice: "What are you doing? Why do you do these things when I am not around to help? Give me one of those. It is my turn now."

The Holy People knew Coyote well. They knew that the thing he did best of all was create chaos where order was intended. But they also knew that he, too, was a holy person. Unable to deny him, they gave him one star which he placed low in the south where it would barley rise then quickly set again. "Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it grand? That is Coyote Star," he pronounced, but the others paid him little heed as they arranged in the sky the Rabbit Tracks, the Hunter's Guide.

Then they rested, admiring what they had done and thinking about how they would complete this momentous work. Coyote rested also--his favorite activity. When the others were dozing, Coyote sneaked over to the buckskin upon which the remaining crystals remained. Looking down upon them he mused, "It isn't really difficult. It shouldn't take so long. Surely I can do it quicker," he concluded. And so he grabbed the corners of the buckskin and cast the remaining crystals adrift within the heavens.

"There," he said arousing the others, "It is finished, and a fine job too. Isn't it wonderful? My way was quicker and better than yours. Aren't you glad I happened along?"

The Holy People were sad, not glad. Not all the laws had been placed in the sky, but Coyote was correct. It was forever finished.

That is why there are just a few nice patterns--billboard in the night for those who can read them. And that is why most of the stars seem randomly scattered, the way Coyote flung them across the cosmos.

Sometimes accidents are better than planning. Without even knowing it Coyote inscribed a most important law in the firmament: his impulsive motion left a trail of tiny crystals along a pathway that signifies the principle that one should rise before the dawn to walk in first light, saying prayers, sprinkling corn meal in a motion across the sky like the Milky Way and contemplating the harmony and balance that cultivates long and happy life.

If you want to know these stars, stay tuned, and keep this article handy. In future columns, interspersed through coming months, I will identify the stars arranged in the sky by the Holy People and explore some of the laws for living that are, according to Navajo tradition, written among the stars.

Copyright 1999-2003 The Clark Foundation.
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