Over the years the Navajo people have highly valued their culture and their culturally connected healing systems that are directly linked to their traditions both culturally and spiritually. The Navajo people have two main healing systems that the majority of the Navajo population practices. The main traditions include Traditional Navajo medicine and the ways of the Native American Church. Each is directly connected to the people, and each practice has its own distinct history. Over history they have intertwined to become the dominant healing systems amongst the Navajos.
It is essential to first note a few important facts about the culture of the Navajo people in order to fully understand their healing systems. The Navajo call themselves the Diné, which means the earth surface people. They reside in the land called the “Diné Bikéyah” which translated means the home of the people. This name is directly connected to the Diné origin story which is the basis of how the people came to be. As noted earlier, the Navajo healing systems are directly connected to culture and spiritualism and they cannot be separated therefore we need to take a look at the cultural as well as the spiritual aspects of the people and tie them together with their healing systems. The Diné Origin story is the root of every ceremony that is performed among the Navajo people. The story has a moral and that is that of universal harmony.
To put the Diné people into the geographical context, it must be understood that the land Diné Bikéyah is geographically located in the present day United States of America. Specifically the Diné resided in what today in the twenty first century is known as the Great American Desert. The land was physically located inside the area that was surrounded by the mountains of Blanca Peak, Colorado; Mount Taylor, New Mexico; San Francisco Peaks, Arizona and Mt. Hesperes, Colorado. They inhabited the land prior to the establishment of the United States in 1846.
The impact of the United States Government had a huge role in shaping the future of the Diné people. When the Native Americans were exposed to these new foreigners they were also exposed to their foreign diseases. The adjustment for the Native Americans was not easy once the United States was established. In the 1850’s after the United States was established and after the fact that many Natives died because of exposure to foreign diseases such as small pox, cholera and dysentery, the United States began to offer the Natives vaccinations for their diseases if they had not already died because of exposure to them. Following this time period, the 1860’s brought drastic change to the Diné. There was clearly a vast difference with Native American Medicine and Western Medicine. The Navajos healing methods at the time were focused on the entire individual and were more from a holistic point of view. Whereas Western Medicine was specifically focused on micro-organisms as the principle causes of sickness. These barriers were troubling to overlook for both cultures.
Prior to the formation of the United States the Navajos had already adapted to their environment, acquired their own beliefs and principle, and established their own health practices. But life for the Navajo people changed drastically in 1864. The reason is that the United States troops forced the Diné out of their land (Diné Bikéyah) and they were sent on what is now known as “The Long Walk”. They were forced to evacuate their land, and be re-located to a designated area built for them known as Fort Sumner. The journey was about four hundred and fifty miles long, and over 8,000 Navajo people made this trip. They had no choice as they were forced by military groups and along the journey hundreds of Navajo people died due to the physical tolls the trip took on their bodies. The move to Fort Sumner not only had a physical toll and the Navajo, but also a cultural toll was taken on them. The loss of their sacred land meant the loss of balance in their culture as well as the loss of traditional herbs and other remedies. They lost knowledge within their culture as many prominent practitioners of their beliefs both medical and spiritual practitioners died during the Long Walk. Many Diné were criticized for their beliefs and subject to being murdered by the personnel that escorted them to Fort Sumner.
While at Fort Sumner the Diné continued to suffer. They had to adapt to the new environment and lacked proper resources to stay nourished. They suffered physically due to the overcrowding of Fort Sumner and were victims to rampant diseases, overcrowding and tainted water among other factors. The armies did build some hospitals to treat the people who were ill with Western Medicine but what was provided by them was minimal and there was not enough help medically for the size of the population at Fort Sumner. The Diné were also having to re-adjust their daily diets as they were subject to inconsistent food rations and they lacked the knowledge to prepare the new foods that they were given and not accustomed to cooking or consuming. The Navajos remained in Fort Sumner for three decades as they were not allowed to return to their land of origin from 1868 until those three decades later. The late 1800’s came with a time of suffering for the Diné culturally and spiritually. They however, did seek to preserve their cultural traditions through all of the hardships they were faced with.
As the 1900’s rolled in, the Diné still suffered from cultural separation from those of the United States. There continued to be tension between the Natives and the new leaders of the country. The two cultures of Traditional Natives and that of Anglo-Americans were so vastly different and throughout the remainder of the twentieth century there continued to be opposition between these groups. But through this time period, the Navajos healing systems endured and were shaped and constantly evolving through all of the new circumstances that the Diné went through. The history of the people is important because it shaped how they reacted and adapted to all of the changes happening to them. It is remarkable how they continued to develop their healing systems and as noted we will see that “Healing and history are interwoven in the sings, and many healers take their roles as teachers and historians as seriously as their role as curers.” (Davies; pp.8) History is important to understand in order to connect the culture, and their beliefs to their medical practices throughout the life time of the Diné.