On November 16, the Page Campus of the Coconino Community College hosted an evening of Navajo story telling followed by a Navajo taco dinner. The program was sponsored by the college’s Page Indigenous Comet Club and Grand Canyon University and catered by the Page High School Culinary Course.
The evening started with one young lady, in traditional clothing and jewelry, gracefully singing the Star-Spangled Banner in Navajo. She was followed by another young lady, also a student at the college, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, in Navajo. For many, it was the first time hearing the Navajo versions.
Jace, the club president, led the program and introduced himself in the traditional Navajo way both in Navajo and in English, and introduced Malcolm McCabe, Navajo medicine man who learned the traditional ways and songs from his grandfather. McCabe also introduced himself the traditional way, telling the audience the names of his four clans and that he was from Oljato, on the Utah side of the Navajo Nation. McCabe lived with his grandparents for about ten years. His grandparents raised seventeen children. He learned the traditional ways, songs and stories from his grandparents. His traditional upbringing is a large reason why he is now a medicine man and teller of stories.
McCabe spoke about the creation of the land and hogans. He mostly spoke in English and interjected some Navajo words, phrases and some song as he spoke to a diverse audience numbering around 30. McCabe said that many Navajo stories are told as song.
His first story was how the Navajo land was created. As his grandfather explained to McCabe, in the beginning, the land was only as big around as arms forming a circle in front of the body. Clearly this was not enough room for the Navajo people. So, a holy person attached a rock to the circle of land, in each of the four cardinal directions. He then threw each rock as far as he could in each direction until the circle was stretched in all directions. The rock thrown in the north direction didn’t go very far because there was an inland sea in that direction. The holy person used a black obsidian arrowhead and traced a zig zag line from the inland sea away from the sea. The sea drained and formed the Grand Canyon.
With the land sufficiently stretched to allow the Diné, or ‘people’, to live there, they did not yet have homes to live in. At that time the people didn’t know how to build, so the people and the holy people got together and decided they would build a ‘hogan’, the traditional Navajo home. At that time there were no trees or plants nearby so they talked about how they would go about building a hogan. They sent the holy people in four directions to find materials. The holy people brought back the dawn and the large and small rainbows and found materials to build with.
As with large groups, there was politics involved. Before anything could be built, the different ideas of how to build a home had to be worked out. There were people who believed in opposite ways and then there were the people in the middle who usually didn’t have strong feelings either way and would usually follow along whichever way the group went.
As the people continued to disagree, the people in the ‘middle’ decided to help. So, they put the first pole on the east side, the second pole on the west side, and so forth, until four poles were placed, and leaned together to form a cone shape. This became the male hogan and was the largest building on the earth at that time. An old man, who laughed often, took out pollen and blessed the people, laughing the whole time. The old man brought laughter to the people.
As the hogan was completed, and since this was the first time one was built, there were some things missing that hadn’t been thought of right away. There was no ‘heart’ in the form of a hearth, or fire place. So a fire was built. It was the first fire and took a breath and started the heartbeat of the hogan. The fire became the place where the families would meet and eat and talk. McCabe said that the tradition is that the Dine’ were the first people on earth and Navajo was the first language.
The new hogan didn’t have a door, so the people inside couldn’t get out. They looked around and the only way out was through the chimney. There was an argument about which side to put the door. Four groups were each wanting a door in their preferred cardinal direction. It was finally decided that since good blessings come from the east with the rising sun, the door would be put on the east side. From then on doors on hogans always face east.
At this point in the story mischievous Coyote arrives and starts to cause trouble. The people tell it to leave, but Coyote won’t leave. They even beat Coyote and he wouldn’t leave so they let him stay but told him to behave.
Coyote wanted to make songs. He sings the first song without much trouble, but when it came to the second song, things got out of hand and Coyote had quite a party.
Talking god and Calling god, two Yei Bi Chei (Yébîchai) beings came to the people. Talking god, who has a blue face doesn’t get along with Coyote and weren’t friends. Coyote kept contradicting Talking god. Calling god finally tells Coyote to stop being ornery. Calling god pulls them apart and said that the objective should be the same and to work together as the hogan is dedicated.
The men built the hogan and asked the women what they thought. Back then, women were not allowed to speak unless spoken to and were property, so they didn’t say anything at first. The men tried to finish the hogan but it wasn’t going together all that well. The women told the men to leave it alone and it would be their responsibility to finish. By the time the women finished, they created the female or tsé bee hooghan.
The male hogan is conical and built of forked poles and is smaller than the female hogan. The female hogan is built with logs laid horizontally, as with bricks, to form a large circle and is where families live. The inside of the hogan is usually logs and the outside is sealed with a mud plaster.
Once complete, the women came up with necessary items such as a frying pan, bowl, stirring stick, grinding stone, baskets, and grass mats to sleep on. It wasn’t fancy, but the people could live more comfortably.
When McCabe finished telling the stories, the audience was invited to eat Navajo Tacos that were prepared by Page High School Culinary class. Grand Canyon University sponsored the food. This was a great way for members of the audience to get to know each other and talk, much like what might happen in a hogan.
For more information about events at the Coconino Community College and courses offered, visit https://www.coconino.edu/page-center.