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Dramatic silhouette of a tall, jagged rock formation against a peach sky after sunset.

Shiprock in San Juan County, New Mexico, is an iconic landmark that is central to the Diné cultural mindset, much like the four sacred mountains.

Photo by Amy Horowitz

  • A Navajo/Anthro Perspective: Wesley Thomas on Diné Landscape, Identity, and Spirituality

    Between 1863 and 1866, the Long Walk of the Navajo marked a period of trauma for the tribal nation. The U.S. military marched around 8,000 Navajo, or Diné, peoples several hundred miles from their ancestral homelands in modern-day Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. It was part of an effort to corral Native populations into what they called “Indian Country”—no matter the lives it disrupted and extinguished.

    “It was easier to shoot pregnant women and kill them than aid in delivering their babies,” says Dr. Wesley Thomas, a Diné anthropologist and professor emeritus at Navajo Technical University. “If you were an inconvenience to the soldier, it was easier to eliminate you. It was common practice. If there was an elderly person slowing down the whole movement, it was easier to eliminate them.”

    I had the opportunity to speak with Thomas, an expert on Diné culture and spirituality, at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s program on Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. He participated with a small delegation from GALACTIC (Global Arts Language Arts Cultural Traditions in Indigenous Communities), a project he co-directs between Navajo Technical University, Diné College, and Indiana University. Thomas’s academic background coupled with his insider perspective as a member of the Navajo Nation offers a powerful dual lens through which to share his views on Diné identity, religious cosmology, and the natural landscape.

    But to speak about the landscape, Thomas requires first acknowledging a topography marked by suffering. He began our conversation with a lesson on the Long Walk. After four years of Fort Sumner serving as a concentration camp, he explained, the cost of keeping people there became too high, and the government allowed the Diné to return to their traditional land. There, in the area surrounding Crownpoint, New Mexico, where Thomas lives now, the United States established the Navajo reservation.

    A man sits behind a desk, gesturing with both hands.
    Wesley Thomas enjoys meeting informally with students in his office.
    Photo by Amy Horowitz

    After a forced displacement and return, how do you view the reservation today?

    They call it a reservation, but in my thought, it is another concentration camp because they were going from one to the other.

    To this day, we are still under the thumb of the federal government, but that thought is not common to the generation that is younger than seventy years old. You must try to understand the concept of controlling Indigenous people in the United States. And now I understand that this is common worldwide. Colonization is still happening—religious colonization and, now, politically driven colonization. So that frame of mind is something I am quite interested in learning more about.

    How has the Diné community’s interaction with the landscape changed over several generations, following the relocation and the move toward Western culture? 

    We do not plant as we used to, like fifty years ago. We do not have cornfields like we used to. We do not grow our own food. We got so used to going to grocery stores, because we have this concept that they are going to always be there. So, what would happen if there were no longer grocery stores? There is going to be great huge starvation, because we do not have the skill or qualities to grow our own food.

    I know that my parents planted just one-eighth of what my grandparents did. And from my grandparents, I brought it down to one-sixteenth of that. My grandparents planted corn, squash, potatoes, a row a spinach—and those were the generics of Native people, particularly my tribe. My parents only did corn and squash. I have one row of corn, one row of squash, four plants of watermelon, and two cantaloupe plants.

    My grandparents were about eighty percent [self-sufficient], and they had cellars that they made under the ground and that was where the storage was, so you could store maybe eighty pumpkins and squash. They would harvest once a year in the fall. My great-great-grandparents were completely dependent on the land, and they were very creative too. There were some really sweet plants. I remember my grandmother talking about drinking coffee with plants floating inside that sweetened the coffee.

    We do not have those anymore. Imagine how much has been lost from one generation to the next.

    Three tall rock formation and a mesa, all lit red by the setting sun, rise from a desert landscape.
    Thomas feels that Monument Valley, at the Arizona-Utah border, marks the northern edge of the Navajo world. “Yes, Navajo people live beyond this point,” he acknowledges. “Still it marks the north.”
    Photo by Amy Horowitz

    Do you think it’s possible for people to learn to live off the land again and reclaim that traditional, cultural, and ecological knowledge?

    You must experience living in the land to understand the meaning of it. For example, I have some relatives who were born in urban areas, and they have a hard time leaving because they are afraid to live out in the open.  The land is a foreign concept to them. I think that one day that connection could be created, but the only way to understand the meaning of land is by living on it and then being able to express that through words, through songs and music. You must be part of that to understand it.

    Time has really changed the culture. When I was growing up, we got up, got something to eat, and went out the door and did not come back home until beyond sunset. We were out there playing, running around in the canyons, in the ditches, climbing trees, going where the water is, playing in the water. We would put our wet clothes on the bushes and the brush to dry. Those things are not experienced by younger kids, so that is the reason why they do not understand the importance of being out there, of being in the land and appreciating that. They are very much fixated on watching the television and playing with toys.

    They have no concept of using the natural elements like a broken piece of wood as a car or as a horse. Their imagination has been limited by Western toys that are physically in the form of horses, as in the form of plastic horses, and that is the connection they make in understanding what a horse is. But you can imagine it with a piece of wood and play with it. I remember doing those kinds of things. Playing with small rocks, how they represented dogs and sheep and goats, and we would play forever with those kinds of tools. So, the younger generation has a different concept of being.

    Sheep graze along a dirt path through low brush under the setting sun.
    For centuries, Navajo life revolved around sheep. Now the community is experiencing a renewal.
    Photo by Amy Horowitz

    How else does this modern and Westernized shift affect their identity?

    Most [of the younger generation] would say that they are “Indian” now, so even their own identity is much broader. They identify as Native or Indian, and most would say they are Navajo but would not mention the word Diné as their identity, because the word is associated with a different time in the past. And in being part of a Western culture, it is much easier to say you are Navajo because they think that is a term that is more understood in America.

    My grandmother would say that she was Diné. Me, I am more comfortable saying I am Navajo. My nephews, they would identify as being Indian, or Native, or American Indian, and those that are more urbanized use the term Indigenous.

    So, there is a scale going between traditional to transitional to contemporary, to acculturated to assimilated, and it is like a ruler you are using to measure a whole board. For example, this scale would explain why my mother would prefer to see a medicine man first and then afterward consider going to a medical doctor.

    How has studying anthropology allowed you to further understand your own culture?

    My fascination with my own background occurred when I took an elective course at the University of Washington. Initially, I went in as a business major, but I had to take an elective course, Anthropology 202: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology—a fascinating class. I told myself, this is where I need to be, because this is where I can find answers to my own culture. Why do we do certain things? How do we do it? Who does it? Who cannot do it? Why are there seasonal ceremonies? Why are they separated by seasons? What are these dances? Are they mimicking somebody or are they impersonating a deity?

    Two weeks into that course, I switched majors to anthropology. I think that moment was a key point when my life changed. I began to look for answers.

    When I was eight or nine years old, my father was dancing in the winter ceremonies, and my mother told me, “You need to watch your father dance.” I said, “Why do I need to watch him? I see him at home all the time.” My mother said, “Watch what he is doing because you are going to be doing all that too.”

    So, I began to look for answers as to why we do certain things. Why do we have young girls’ puberty ceremonies? What is the boys’ version of that same ceremony? Why are there arranged marriages taking place? Soon, that practice came to a halt. What happened? Why do we have spiritual ceremonial naming, and any other type of naming we have over our lifetime? Why do we use English naming? Why do we need naming people on a piece of paper to validate who they are? Those type of questions—an endless amount.

    A man speaks to seated students in a circular, wood-paneled classroom.
    Thomas teaches from an anthropological perspective so students can better understand their Diné cultural traditions. “For example, I reinforce the importance of Diné women in our culture. All students can benefit from this knowledge.”
    Photo by Amy Horowitz

    How does Western academic thinking struggle to define nature?

    I think that one reason we leave nature outside our conversations is we are still not able to write what nature really is. We talk around it, because we do not have the qualities, or we do not have the intellectual knowledge, to address this. Even with the human body—when we talk about DNA, we realize that there is more beyond DNA, like RNA, and beyond that there is more. We try and get to the core of human life, but it continues to move away from us with all these new things we are learning.

    For example, with the study of the universe, we are trying to reach the end things, where we can say we understand what that means, but it keeps moving further away. They found one more solar system, then they realize there is another one beyond that. It’s pretty much like trying to catch the rainbow. I think that is a Western academic desire to discover what it basically means and why it means that, but, at times, it is something that cannot be accomplished, and we do not like to hear that you are not able to do it.

    Humans want to be the superpower, or we want to have that power over nature, but nature wins all the time. We still have not realized that. I do not think that we will ever acknowledge that we are not able to capture that. For example, let’s look at climate change. There are certain things we could do as humans, but I think we are now at a point where we are incapable of that, that we as a human species have a hard time understanding the change that is taking place.

    What is a foundational spiritual perspective in Diné culture?

    The concept of spirituality arrives through the creation story. So that is always a starting point. The creation story sets the foundation for how the culture is supposed to function. It guides whatever we want to talk to. The creation story is where ethics and morality are constructed.

    What does spirituality mean? Is it a living entity? Yes, it is. Does it come in a certain form? I say, no.

    There is spirituality in all natural things. There is a spirit in rocks, in trees, in the plants that are around us, so you have a relationship with them. For example, if you are going to collect plants for a ceremony, you must make offerings to the plants as you are going to literally take their lives when you are removing them. You seek forgiveness for violating their lives, for the healing of a human. There is that relationship that takes place. There is a relationship with water. Water has spirit. It is a living entity. That is one angle in the foundation of Diné spirituality.

    The sun sets behind a wooden structure in the desert.
    Photo by Amy Horowitz

    Henry Lesperance is a filmmaker, doctoral student in cultural studies and political science at Claremont Graduate University, and a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

    Amy Horowitz, who contributed photographs for this article, is the co-director of GALACTIC at Indiana University. A longtime associate of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, she served as acting and assistant director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Folklife curator in the 1990s.

    This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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