For years, the wind, water, earth and sacred traditions were all the Navajos believed they needed to prevent illness and heal themselves spiritually and physically.
That was before the development of Western medical technology, before the number of Navajo medicine men began to decline and before young Navajos began to discredit their own traditions.
Now, through a pilot project aimed at training young people in traditional Navajo healing methods, the Navajo Nation hopes to revive the health care system they say works best for them--and to save the ceremonies from extinction.
The Navajo Traditional Apprenticeship Program, implemented in December, chose seven applicants to train with traditional ceremonial practitioners--medicine men--and take on the closely guarded knowledge handed down only through family and clan members.
The survival of the medicine man is vital if Navajo language and culture are to survive, said Alfred Yazzie, a Navajo language instructor at Arizona State University.
“Medicine men are, for the most part, the people who hold all the teachings and spiritual aspects of the community,” Yazzie said. “They still hold a lot of the history--undocumented history.”
Learning the ceremonies is a difficult and lengthy process. Depending on the ceremonies learned, training can take up to 10 years. And because ceremonies are not taped or written down, they must be learned orally.
As an incentive, the program awards a monthly $300 stipend to apprentices and $350 to teaching practitioners. It may not seem like much, but time is running out.
Eddie Tso, the program’s director, said six traditional ceremonies are almost extinct and will be the primary focus in the apprentice program. Not many Navajos with the knowledge remain, he said.
“If we don’t do anything about it, and look back in 20 years there won’t be any ceremonies left,” Tso said.
There are about 34 traditional ceremonies left in all, he said, with only a handful of medicine men left to perform them and a growing Navajo population. The Navajo Nation sprawls across remote areas of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
“When there are less doctors, how are you going to maintain a balance of wellness?” Tso said. “The Navajo people still rely on these ceremonies today for their health care and their mental care as well.”
Supporters of the program are hoping to boost the number of medicine men, despite an apparent lack of interest from Navajo youth that is blamed, at least in part, on the integration of Western ideas.
Yazzie said Navajo ceremonies were condemned in the past by Western educational and religious communities.
“A lot of young people didn’t see the need to follow in those footsteps [of Navajo ceremonies] because they were told they were no longer needed.”
That has caused young Navajos to stray from the community’s traditional healing methods, said state Sen. Jack Jackson, also a Navajo.
"[Western education] made us ashamed of our way of life,” Jackson said. “Our ceremony was classified as superstitious, taboo. Therefore, our younger people sort of look down on these ceremonies.”
The solution, Jackson says, is for the state to treat the Navajo health care system as equal to Western medical health care.
“What we have to do is give our traditional ceremonies a higher level of dignity--give these medicine men names equivalent to doctors,” he said.
In 1980, the Tribal Council turned down a request to charter the medicine man’s association, saying that Navajo ceremonies were a religion and that it wouldn’t be proper to mix church and state, Jackson said.
Jackson argues that although the ceremonies are spiritual in nature, it is important to distinguish that they are part of the Navajos’ actual health care system and not a religion.
“Spirituality is the teaching that you exist within the universe with Mother Earth and Father Sky,” he explained. “Many of our older people live to be 100 years old and never went to a hospital. They live by the laws of the universe.
“The whole universe is sacred--wind, water, air, plants, animals and you, yourself . . . that’s missing in Western education. And that’s why we have all these corrections centers. The penitentiaries are full.”
If the Navajo Nation continues to lose the knowledge and tradition only their medicine men possess, Yazzie said, there could be a serious cultural impact. “We now have the social ills that most media have written about, and my belief is that we have to grasp what tradition still means,” he said. “If we lose that, there will be a higher degree of a feeling of hopelessness.”