Friday, July 5, 2013

Tsé Bitʼaʼí - Shiprock - the Sacred and the Banal

Shiprock, New Mexico.

There was a time when I believed humans to be rational beings who sought consistency in the application of our beliefs (religious or otherwise), and that once we had the facts of x, y, or z, we would adjust our thoughts or behaviors in accordance with our espoused beliefs.

Shiprock, New Mexico.

This assumption of mine caused me no end of consternation over the years until I realized that:
  1. Our rational selves have only a precarious edge over our animal selves; and 
  2. It is normal for us to hold opposing beliefs simultaneously, and it doesn't necessarily matter if we know they are inconsistent.

Shiprock, New Mexico.

Which brings me to Shiprock or, in the Navajo language, Tsé Bitʼaʼí., which means "winged rock." It's a sacred place to the Navajo. One of the stories related to Shiprock is: 
A long time ago the Dine were hard pressed by their enemies. One night their medicine men prayed for their deliverance, having their prayers heard by the Gods. They caused the ground to rise, lifting the Dine,  and moved the ground like a great wave into the east away from their enemies. It settled where Shiprock Peak now stands. These Navajos then lived on the top of this new mountain, only coming down to plant their fields and to get water.
For some time all went well. Then one day during a storm, and while the men were working in the fields, the trail up the rock was split off by lightning and only a sheer cliff was left. The women, children, and old men on the top slowly starved to death, leaving their bodies to settle there.
Therefore, because of this legend, the Navajos do not want any one to climb Shiprock Peak for fear of stirring up the ch'iidii, or rob their corpses.

This concern about stirring up the bad mojo in Shiprock conforms with my understanding of the Navajo taboos regarding death, such as talking about it or about those who've died. 

Shiprock, New Mexico.
There seem to be two, and maybe three, roads to Shiprock. I took two of them as far as my low-slung car on a bad gravel road could safely take me. (And I'd read about ill-tempered dog packs in the area, so I didn't want to walk too far away from my car.) 

Both of the roads I took were off of Highway 13. The first one, closest to Highway 491, was littered with beer bottles and cans. The second entrance was clean of debris. Why the difference? I don't know. 

The first road triggered cognitive dissonance for me:
  • Sacred place, yet defiled by empty beer containers
  • If you're going to drink, then why not take your litter with you
  • If the place is sacred, is there no group that comes out periodically to pick up the place?  
  • The Indian "brand" is that Natives revere the earth (some part of that brand being foisted upon them, I think). Yet there is so much visible evidence to the contrary when one sees such trash. But a note: I used to hold evangelicals (insert faith here) to a higher moral standard than non-proselytizers, until I finally got it that they are no more immune to our animal selves than the rest of us, so I took them off the hook. Looks like I've been holding Indians to a higher standard than other folks, and I need to release that.  

Old anti-littering campaign. For the record: Man in photo is not Indian. Credit: The Litter Problem.

And some other disturbing thoughts that are reflective of biases I have:
  • Until I began writing this post, I held the untested belief that the beer trash came from partying Navajos. Maybe my assumption is accurate, but it's uncomfortable to realize how mindlessly I jumped to that conclusion. 
  • Without knowing the cultural context of a behavior (i.e. beer bottles left at a sacred place), all I've got is a puzzle piece without the picture and without other pieces to link it to. 

About that cultural context. Mentioning alcohol and Indian in the same sentence --> aberrant connotations. But if I were talking about Georgians and, say, letting adolescents drink on a school field trip or the custom of anointing the graves of loved ones with wine --> accepted cultural behaviors. 

Another example of context: I learned from a family in Addis Ababa, who lived in a house with lovely bones, but which was in deplorable condition, that if they were to do repairs or remodeling - on their own dime! - that the government would raise their rent, and they would be damned before they gave the government one cent more than what the government already exacted from them. The choice to live in difficult conditions made sense to them within a larger context.

Reminds me, too, of the narrow houses in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. - built so narrowly because home owners were taxed at one time on the basis of the width of their houses. Context.

Shiprock, New Mexico.

On the other hand, we can't control how others perceive us.

Beer bottles and cans littering a sacred place. An observation.

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