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  • Dinéjí Na’nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History by Robert S. McPherson
  • Charlotte J. Frisbie
Robert S. McPherson. Dinéjí Na’nitin: Navajo Traditional Teachings and History. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012. 220 pp. Paper, $24.95.

McPherson’s goal in this book, stated on page 3, is to share some of his insights gained during over thirty years of working with Navajos, especially elders and residents of southeast Utah, where he lives and teaches. The unifying theme “is the role of traditional Navajo thought in daily life, its pervasive interpretation, and incidents that fostered its change” (5). A corollary is “the impact the loss of these teachings is having in contemporary Navajo culture” (6). The emphasis is on the thoughts, practices, and beliefs of “traditional” people, those who reached early adulthood ca. 1930 and were raised in the first third of the twentieth century, when subsistence was based on livestock and agriculture. Thus, the work covers both history and change from diverse perspectives, but mainly Navajo ones.

Incorporating terms he has heard Navajos using, such as the fearing time, the palm of time, and the changeover, McPherson has organized his book around nine topics. Following acknowledgments and introduction, the first chapter focuses on various forms of divination; the second reviews the 1918–19 influenza pandemic; the third, witchcraft; and the fourth, the famous Ba’álílee from the Aneth area. Chapters 5–8 consider various aspects of Navajo thought and language. Chapter 5 examines metaphors and their use in teaching values. The sixth chapter reintroduces Fr. H. Baxter Liebler, Episcopal missionary in southeast Utah who was known through Boil My Heart for Me (Exposition Press, 1969, reprinted in 1994). Chapter 7 examines the saga of the Pectol shields and their 2003 repatriation to the Navajo Nation. The title of chapter 8, “Of Stars, Goats, and Wind,” aligns with chapter 2, “Wind, Hand and Stars”; it revisits metaphors past and present, thereby being reminiscent of chapter 5. Chapter 9 shares some elders’ diverse views about both gambling and the end of the world, or the “changeover.” Endnotes follow each chapter; back matter includes a bibliography with helpful subheadings and an index.

Although there is no list of illustrations, the book includes photographs from the Milton Snow collection at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, the Utah State Historical Society, Kay Shumway, the [End Page 266] Oshley family, the San Juan County Historical Commission, the National Archives in Washington dc, Baxter Benally, Neil Busk, Stan Byrd, the Ray Hunt family, and the author. A painting by Charles Yanito, reportedly a ceremonialist knowing ten ceremonies (214), used as the book’s cover, also appears in chapter 1 as a photograph. The Yanito in the index is son Curtis, also an artist. The photo of Navajo Oshley on page 35 was used earlier as the cover of Oshley’s book (McPherson, The Journey of Navajo Oshley: An Autobiography and Life History [Logan: Utah State University Press, 2000]). The one map should have been enlarged to improve readability and attributed to a source.

I have some criticisms. There are some errors in punctuation and word division (e.g., “worl- dview” [14]). There are some misspellings: Shumway (21); and [sic] should appear after Hatrál in the Wheelwright citations (40nn9, 17 and 273 in the two 1958 citations); the word should be hatáál. Then, too, occasionally things don’t make sense, for example: “The origin myth of hand trembling is different from star gazing and listening, while generally, women may render the former but not the latter” (15, lines 1–3). And in the last sentence on page 5 (continuing on page 6), does the author mean that nnhpd stores traditional knowledge collected by its fieldworkers someplace in Window Rock? And wouldn’t identifying the Navajo cultural-historical specialists be appropriate here? Does note 40 on page 41 refer to a Navajo who requested anonymity or to Buck Navajo, and are the continued references on page 42, note 66, and page 43, note 80 to the same person? Clarification is also needed on page 135 for the reference to “curriculum demonstration projects on or near the reservation.” Then, too...


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