I enjoy reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels because I can learn a bit about Native American culture while being entertained by a good story. This week I’ve been reading Hunting Badger. In one passage, Jim Chee, a Navajo Tribal Police officer recalls a lesson from his uncle and mentor in traditional Navajo wisdom. Jim Chee tries to live in the modern world while keeping the customs of his native culture. He has tried to do this by learning the songs and rituals of a traditional healer.
Here is the passage in which Chee is talking with his now elderly and dying uncle:
"You know the chants. You sing them without a mistake. And your sand paintings are exactly right. You know the herbs, how to make the emetics, all that."
"I hope so," Chee said, understanding now what Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai was telling him.
"But you have to decide if you have gone too far beyond the four Sacred Mountains. Sometimes you can never come all the way back into Dinetah again."
Chee nodded. He remembered a Saturday night after he'd graduated from high school. Nakai had driven him to Gallup. They had parked on Railroad Avenue and sat for two hours watching the drunks wandering in and out of the bars.
He'd asked Nakai why he'd parked there, who they were looking for. Nakai hadn't answered at first, but what he said when he finally spoke Chee had never forgotten.
"We are looking for the dine' (Navajo people) who have left Dinetah (traditional homeland of the Navajo). Their bodies are here, but their spirits are far beyond the Sacred Mountains. You can go east of Mount Taylor to find them, or west of the San Francisco' Peaks, or you can find them here. "
Chee had pointed to a man who had been leaning clumsily against the wall up the avenue from them, and who now was sitting, head down on the sidewalk. "Like him?" he asked.
Nakai had waved his hand in a motion that included the bar's neon Coors sign and the drunk now trying to push himself up from the pavement. But went beyond them to follow a polished white Lincoln Town Car rolling up the avenue toward them.
"Which one acts like he has no relatives?" Nakai had asked him. "The drunk who leaves his children hungry, or the man who buys that car that boasts of his riches instead of helping his brother?"
~From Hunting Badger by Tony Hillerman