National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Earth & Spirit
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003 [clarified 05/30/2003]

Spirit in a world of connection

For Navajos, spirituality is tightly woven with everyday life, and laughter is a sign of holiness


Tony Hillerman is the top mystery writer in America today. His success comes from a series of novels featuring the Native American police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn working on the huge Navajo reservation that covers parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The 15th in the series, The Wailing Wind, was published early this year.

Adam Beach and Wes Studi play Navajo detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in a PBS adaptation of Tony Hillerman's "Skinwalkers." Produced by Robert Redford, "Skinwalkers" was the first "Mystery!" title set in the United States in the series'history.
-- WBGH/Larry Guss

Hillerman fans delight in the contrasts between the overtly spiritual Navajo worldview and our own, where spirituality is so segregated from our living. Sgt. Jim Chee, who is also a trained medicine man, a hataalii, solves crimes using modern forensic techniques combined with the ancient intuitions of his culture grounded in interconnection and place. Chee yearns to keep this outlook healthy in a world of consumerism, fragmentation and speed.

“The Navajo are originals,” says Hillerman. “As a people, they have always impressed me.”

Navajos believe in hózhó -- walking in beauty. Their worldview sees everything in life as connected and influencing and being affected by everything else. A stone thrown into a pond has an effect on the life of an owl in the forest. A spoken word can alter events on the other side of the globe. All things possess spirit and power, so Navajos strive to live in harmony and balance with everyone and everything else. Their belief system sees sickness as a result of things falling out of balance. Sin is losing one’s way on the path of beauty. In this belief system, religion and medicine are one and the same.

People are healed by singing poetry, by sand paintings and ceremonies held by firelight in the winter. Spirituality is not a side aspect, something for a weekend retreat once a year; it is tightly woven together with everyday life.

Blessed Sacrament Sr. Gloria Davis[, who taught Native American spirituality in New Mexico until her death in October 2000]. Her notions about spirituality were formed growing up in her traditional Navajo community. “I noticed,” she told me, “that the holy people in our community, the ones we turned to for spiritual guidance and who conducted the blessing and healing ceremonies, were always the people who had the keenest sense of humor. You could spot them by the laugh wrinkles near their eyes!”

The hallmark of holiness was not a gaunt, hollow-cheeked, aesthetic look or one of otherworldly serenity, but just a common lively sense of humor, honed from birth on the lathe of life’s ups and downs, its absurdities and sorrows, its joys and unpredictable encounters. Humor is a side effect of living deeply.

Are applicants to Catholic seminaries ever checked for a funny bone?

After a Navajo baby is born, the first celebration takes place just after the child’s first laugh. Yes, laugh! “We believe the soul (also called ‘the wind’) enters the body soon after birth,” says Lori Alviso Alvord, a Navajo physician. “A baby’s laugh is an indication that the soul has become attached to the body.”

Alvord continues: “The person who made the baby laugh is expected to host a party, at which small pieces of rock salt are placed in a woven basket. The baby ‘gives’ the pieces of salt to each guest. The Navajo believe that by doing this the baby will grow up to be generous and giving.”

It’s a mistake to romanticize this approach. The Navajo have their problems, too. Yet this strong sacramental sensibility and belief that there is more to life than meets the eye is something their worldview shares with ancient traditions in Catholic spirituality. The Navajo, though, have resisted that division of the world into sacred and secular that so plagues us.

In the early 1990s a mysterious flu appeared in the Navajo lands resulting in the deaths by acute asphyxiation of at least 11 people. The epidemic, affecting otherwise healthy young individuals, was so baffling that at one point a dozen laboratories were investigating the disease, and medical investigators had proposed theories ranging from Epstein-Barr viral illness to bubonic plague to explain the sudden deaths.

On the nightly news, anchors nationwide reported on “the Navajo mystery virus.” Residents in the area refused to serve Navajos in restaurants. People canceled their reservations for vacations in the Southwest. The virus was being depicted as a Navajo disease, probably contagious.

A Navajo doctor employed by the Centers for Disease Control was told by a friend, who was a hataalii and a traditional healer, that the epidemic was caused by a mild and wet winter resulting in a huge crop of piñon pine nuts, occurrences associated with disease in Navajo oral tradition. While the hataalii’s advice apparently made little sense to the CDC, it was not long before the disease was linked to a hantavirus carried by deer mice, which were in great abundance owing to the oversupply of food resulting from unusually wet weather.

“While the epidemiologists were looking for the solution in their microscopes, the hataalii had looked to the macro level -- disturbed natural patterns in the universe,” said Alvord.

One of the great scientific detective stories of recent years had been solved by listening to the careful and astute observations of wise men and women, deeply immersed in a spiritual tradition, their eyes probably framed on one side by laugh wrinkles -- physical evidence of deep joy, of living immersed in a world of connection.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World, published by Forest of Peace.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003 [clarified 05/30/2003]

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: