Thought, speech, and Mother Earth

It is true that I typically cannot distinguish noun from pronoun, verb from adverb, or preposition from proposition, so when Rick suggested I read Language and Art in the Navajo Universe by Gary Witherspoon, I was uninspired.

Most often English feels like a second language to me, and Priscilla has many times counseled that Navajo is complex and almost impossible for outsiders to learn.

Rick can, however, be persistent, so after his copy of the book sat around the trading post for a month, I took it home.

After it had kicked around the house for another three months, I ran out of alternative reading material and gave it a thumbing.

Many years ago, Priscilla and I struck a deal; she would only speak to me in Navajo during our time at Twin Rocks and I would learn her language through osmosis.

After teaching me basic numbers and simple greetings, she gave up and never spoke Navajo to me again.

On my own, I had learned to swear extremely well, which was a sore spot for her, so that ended our arrangement. Consequently, after all this time I can greet, count, and curse, but not converse, in Navajo.

After dragging my feet far too long, I realized Rick was not going to relent, so I dived in.

Having waded through most of the introduction, which required a great deal of focus, I was still unsure this was the right read for me.

Then I came to a paragraph where Witherspoon said, “Navajos taught me that anything you cannot remember without writing down is something you do not know or understand well enough to use effectively.

“So I have tried to learn about Navajo life and culture by entering it, not by recording or inscribing it.”

Witherspoon’s description accurately illustrates how I have approached Navajo culture at the trading post; I entered it and it entered me, so I took that as a sign Rick was correct and I needed to forge ahead.

In the first chapter, Witherspoon discusses the Navajo belief that, using various elements already in existence, the Holy Ones thought and sang the world into existence.

This is an alien concept for those of us steeped in Western philosophy and theology, but it somehow made sense to me.

Witherspoon then recites part of the Beautyway ceremony in which First Man speaks to two beings who personify thought and speech. These individuals originated in First Man’s medicine bundle, and it is said that when they emerged their beauty, excellence, and radiance were unequaled.

First Boy and First Girl are understood to be the parents of Mother Earth, who is also known as Changing Woman.

To traditional Navajo people, Changing Woman is the female deity responsible for fertility, new growth, regeneration, and a continuing stream of offspring on this planet.

I had never considered who Mother Earth’s parents might be, or even if she had any. She seemed timeless to me, eternal.

Typically, when I come across a new concept like this, I approach Priscilla to confirm it is not taboo to discuss openly with other individuals. She is my local expert.

Once Priscilla green lights the information, I feel comfortable talking with artists about how the idea might inspire their art.

After I received Priscilla’s stamp of approval, the first person to stop by was Elsie Holiday, arguably the best Navajo basket weaver ever, so I showed her the passages in Witherspoon’s book.

At the beginning of our working relationship, Elsie and I settled on a principle outlined by Paul Wellstone, “We all do better when we all do better.”

As a result, she and I have shared ideas, collaborated on designs, and generally worked in tandem to ensure great art happens.

Almost daily Priscilla, Rick, Susie, and I stare at Elsie’s work in amazement, haunted by her talent. Her design sense, variety of subjects, materials preparation, and execution are excellent.

Elsie left that day saying she had an idea and would return once she worked it out.

About a week later, she reappeared with a sketch incorporating First Boy, First Girl, and Mother Earth all on the same basket, a truly innovative construct. About two months later, she completed the weaving and came to reveal the results.

At this point, we have seen “Hunger Monster,” “Funky Frog,” “Navajo Picasso,” “Ceremonial Cash,” and many others, but we have never seen a basket like “Thought, Speech, and Mother Earth.”

This weaving blends one of the foundational stories of Navajo culture with Elsie’s distinctive style to make an inspired weaving. Priscilla, Rick, Susie, and I are once again stunned by Elsie’s art, and anxious to see what comes next.

San Juan Record

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