Taboos

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A very high proportion of all the acts which arise out of convictions about beings and powers are negative in character. Thus lightning-struck trees must be avoided. Coyotes, bears, snakes, and some kinds of birds must never be killed. The eating of fish and of most water birds and animals is forbidden, and raw meat is taboo. Navahos will never cut a melon with the point of a knife. They never comb their hair at night. No matter how crowded a hogan may be with sleeping figures, no Navaho may step over the recumbent body of another. Mother-in-law and son-in-law must never look into each other's eyes. Any kind of sexual contact (even walking down the street or dancing together) with members of the opposite sex of one's own or one's father's clan is prohibited. Most technical processes are hedged about with restrictions:the tanner dare not leave the pole on which he scrapes hide standing upright; the potter and the basket-maker work in isolation, observing a bewildering variety of taboos; the weaver shares one of these, the dread of final completion, so that a "spirit outlet" must always be left in the design. Let these few common examples stand as representative of the literally thousands of doings and sayings which are ba'ha'dzid, or tabooed.
Most of these "superstitions" seem absurd to white persons, but we should not forget that superstition may be well defined as "what your people believe and mine do not." White fears of sitting down thirteen to a table or of starting a journey on Friday seem ridiculous to a Navaho. It should also be remembered that Navaho fears which seem unrealistic to whites are often connected with very real danger. In a country where rattlers abound and lightning kills livestock and humans and destroys dwellings every summer, it is not unrealistic to fear snakes and lightning. The connection between "realism" and "unrealism" in the taboos is not complete -snakes, for example, are avoided rather than killed-but the danger and the taboo may nonetheless be connected. Moreover, even though the practice of The People in regard to taboos may seem absurd to white persons, a little reflection shows that some taboos have practical values. Coyotes eat prairie dogs that might otherwise ruin meadows and sown fields. The same may be said of snakes. The taboo against destroying birds helps to control grasshoppers and other insect pests. The outlawing of sexual rivalry within a clan undoubtedly makes for clan solidarity. And it does not seem a farfetched speculation to suggest that preventing intimate contacts between sons-in-law and mothers-in-law has socially useful consequences. This does not mean that Navahos at some past time sat down to talk these matters over and made rational decisions about them. It probably does mean that only those taboos which somehow have value will survive indefinitely. Pgs. 139-141

The Navaho; 1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.

There was only one result of Tuli's boarding-school education which worried Dezba. He had married a girl of a forbidden clan. Dezba, with the rest of her people, believed that marriage between two persons having the same clan-name was incestuous. Such persons called each other sister and brother, even though there was no blood relationship. Furthermore, certain clans, like Tuli's which was Black Rock and his wife's which was Red House, were closely related, and persons of the same generation called one another sister or brother. It was not quite as bad to marry one of a different clan but of the same clan-group as to marry one of the same clan, but a conservative Navajo like Dezba believed that misfortune lay in wait for those who broke the tribal rule. Pgs. 63-64

Dezba:Woman of the Desert; 1939, Gladys A. Reichard.

With such a complicated system of symbolism and worship handed down by word of mouth from the Stone Age period, it is not surprising that the Navajo is superstitious about many things. When we recall the large number of taboos we ourselves have, despite Christianity and our scientific civilization, we must be charitable toward these children of the sand and wind beaten canyons. Here are a few peculiar beliefs or taboos common among them:
One should not whistle after dark; it attracts spirits. Any hair that comes out in combing must be buried; otherwise someone wishing you harm can take your hair, mix it with an herb and some gravel from an ant hill, and launch an evil thought which will bring illness to you. Belching or ringing in the ears is a warning to postpone a contemplated trip. Eating fish or other creatures living in water is forbidden. According to Navajo mythology, some of the early Navajo ancestors turned white and died from eating fish. If a Navajo develops a sore throat, he is suspected of having eaten fish, knowingly or unknowingly. It is a bad omen to enter a hogan where someone has died or touched a dead animal. No one - not even suckling babies - should eat until the dead are buried. Sometimes the burying is carried out as promptly as possible to rid the family of the danger of contamination with evil spirits. However, if there is lightning, the dead are not touched for four days.
One should not sleep until an eclipse of the moon is over; while during the sun's eclipse all activities, including ceremonies, must cease. Intermarriage between close relatives is forbidden. Since the Navajos are polygamous, a man can take for a second or third wife sisters of his first wife and all of them live together amicably. One should never kill an eagle. After removing the desired feathers for ceremonies, the bird should be permitted to fly away. Snakes are not killed. If you use the skin of a rattler, you will die a violent death. The fear of snakes is so great that some whites have been known to keep Navajos off their premises by merely hanging rattlers' skins from their gates. Only certain specified animals may be hunted, and the hunt must be preceded by a proper ceremony. In every act of life the directions of the compass play an important part. In all ceremonies, preference is given to the east and the course is always sunwise, that is from east to south, and from west to north. Mentioning the name of a person present is an offense. Ghosts inhabit all cliff dwellings and all places where someone has died. There is always a prescribed sequence of steps in any undertaking - in ceremonies especially - deviation from which may bring on the wrath of the gods. To be struck by lightning or bitten by an animal is an indication that the victim is pursued by some evil spirit. Bad dreams are always a warning of impending danger, and only appropriate dances can relieve one of the malignant influences. Masked medicine men, even when impersonating the talking god, should utter no word save the whoop ascribed to the appropriate god.
Any violation of a taboo requires a special dance to free the person from harm that may befall him. One of the most delightful Navajo superstitions is the belief that no dance will succeed without a bath. Baths are mentioned in their legends as prerequisites to most rites. Even preparation for hunting requires a special bath to remove the personal odor of the hunter so that he will not be detected by the quarry. His body is washed with suds obtained from roots of yucca baccata, rich in saponin, after which he is rinsed in water and dried with corn meal. Baths for other purposes vary in details.
Unlike most other Indian tribes, the Navajos heat the stones for their sweat baths outside of the sweat house. That is why one always sees stones, bark, and kindling wood piled near the entrance of their sweat houses. They carry the heated stones with improvised wooden tongs and deposit them in the center of the tiny windowless room. Then the water is poured on them. By hanging a blanket over the doorway, the only opening into the sweat house, they make the place so hot that they perspire profusely, especially in the summer when it is already unusually hot. When they come out, they rub themselves with yucca suds, and sometimes with corn meal, before they continue with the rest of the ceremony.

Navajos, Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.

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