Albert Laughter is a fifth generation medicine man from the Navajo tribe. He has trained most of his life to treat the people of his tribe with traditional healing methods and natural herbs.
But these days, he is employed by the Federal Government to treat military veterans suffering from the trauma of combat.
My family goes back several generations. We were not held captive in Fort Sumner. My family grew up in what is now the Canyon Lands. Over the years I have been asked questions by a number of interested people from universities and I have welcomed the opportunity to share my culture and to learn about their culture.
I have my own language and tradition but I also live in two cultures- my own and my adopted culture, the Anglo society. Presently I am a contractor and build and sell houses. I specialize in making our culture’s type of house, called a hogan. We have some even sided octagon shape and also the traditional dome shape hogans. These are based on the traditional styles that are made of the earth.
Our ways are different. We are not a scriptual type of people. We are not known to be writers, we are known to be symbolizers. We may use a symbol or a color to represent a concept. When we teach something or we are shown something, you will only hear it once – you will not hear it again. If you hear it the second time it will not be the same as you heard it the first time and it will not be as strong a message. That is why we use symbols to represent the meaning of important teachings.
Although we have clans within our tribe, it is the elders in our family who are the ones who answer our questions and give us our tradition. When old people speak we listen because the spirit is speaking through them, the spirit is within them. When we speak with the old people, the old spirits are with them and are speaking through them. That is how we answer the questions from the young people.
The word “Navajo”
I am used to being called Navajo. It is a Spanish word that has a meaning that is not nice. It means renegade. We call ourselves Diné (dee-neh)- like our language. It is our identity and our heritage. I would prefer to be called a Diné.
In my family I am more or less the one who is looked up to because I am asked to explain things to the younger members of the family. I do some chanting with my father, often throughout the night and I assist my father, the Medicine Man, in his chanting and praying.
There are about two hundred sacred songs but we can only use about twenty four or thirty six songs because they must stop when the big morning star is in the sky. We call it the big star and when it comes, about mid-morning, we stop singing. So we sing by these stars. Some of these songs can only be sung in the morning, while some can only be sung from midnight until the time when the big star is in the sky. We also have songs for when the sun comes up and when the sun is in the mid-afternoon.
In healing, there are certain prayers that we say and these prayers are repeated by the patient. He or she will repeat them after the shaman says them. The prayers are to heal whatever the problem is and what is causing it. Maybe the problem is from the thunder or maybe the illness is from the Mother Earth. With each special prayers there can be special offerings. We also use herbs that are prescribed much like modern medicine will prescribe certain pills. The herbs that are gathered are gathered just for that specific individual with that specific illness. We also use what we call prayer bundles. These, like the herbs, are specific bundles of prayers that prescribed for specific conditions. We often have corn pollen in a little bag in one hand and in the other hand we will hold the prayer bundle.
The prayer bundle is difficult to describe because, like the prayer sticks, they are sacred things and we do not want to describe them in detail. The god people, as we call them, do not want these sacred things to be revealed or given away. We believe that if you give up some of these sacred things by revealing them carelessly, we will also lose all of our memory and our thoughts and the memories of our race. This is what my father told me. I am in the last part of my apprenticeship and I am learning certain creative singing right now.
The singing starts with certain ages. There are songs for pregnant women, for babies and for children. Usually, for babies, there is corn pollen that is offered as a blessing. Gestures and direction are important. We always push the corn pollen towards the baby, never from the back or the side – always directly towards the baby. This is how my father, the Medicine Man, taught me and this is how he was taught by my grandfather who was also a Medicine Man.
When we do these ceremonies we do not do them according to a schedule. We do not have a special holy day like a Saturday or a Sunday. We do the ceremonies when they are needed and then we will repeat or continue them in two days, or three days, but we do not use the days of the week as a marker of time. Every week has a Monday and every day has a one o’clock or a two o’clock, so we say that we will do the ceremonies in two days.
That is our way.
I have children and nieces and nephews and a large family with many young people. No one in my family is carrying on these traditions and it worries me. I have enjoyed taking on the tradition of my father, especially at my age. I am 49. But it seems like this long tradition will end with me. My own children do not speak the language. But as far as carrying on with the Anglo society, they can get by much better than even I can do. I do better talking with older people in the traditional ways.
Do you think your children will eventually want to leave this area?
We often talk about it. I try to speak to them about my own experiences. I lived once for six years in Gallup (New Mexico) and Flagstaff. At first the children may want to move there to see what it is like but at a certain age they will want to come back. They want to see what they see here. They often say that they have seen this area in their dreams and they want to come back. They say that even though they do not speak the language – even though they do not understand their grandmother – they have the strong desire to come back. This is the mission that we have in this area. We say that it is important that the traditions be carried on by the next generation and it is very important that they learn the language.
Your destiny is foretold. Like after you pass on someone may mention your name. We may talk about, say, our grandmother. “Remember how grandmother used to say this or that?” Also, we can sometimes see the person who has passed on in a child who has the same expression or temperment. We say, “He or she is just like grandmother!” In this way the person continues. These are some of the ways that a person stays with us. They live on in memories and thoughts. Even tears can mark a continuance. We live within our family who remember us. We all return to the earth and we can come back as the rain.
If you travel around some of the pueblos and the ruins you may hear the conversations of the people who have passed on – you can hear their planning and their laughter, their preparation of food and chatting of the woman folks, old people and the fires. If you close your eyes you can hear the children playing. You can really hear them. These are some of the talk that is left behind within the wind. The winds are the only messengers that we have. As we grew up, that is what our grandparents used to tell us. The only thing that you can have a conversation with is with the wind. There is a certain way that you face yourself and then you can hear them.
The way we were taught was to go out at the dawn – that is the time that you can speak to the old ones. You go out at dawn and make an offering and talk to them. They are the living gods – they are gone to the other side. The only time that you are going to hear them talking back is when there is a thunder or a new plant or a quick glance during which time you can see them. They only come at a certain time but they are around you, they are with you. But they are real and they are your guides. You speak to them in the morning – that is the time to talk to the old ones.
You can make an offering of corn pollen and say something like, “Hear me. You know me.” This other side of the culture, the Christianity, you say “My Father in heaven,” and you are speaking to the Great Spirit, but I will say, “I am your great grandchild, your grandchild, and I, as your child, would like to say something. I talk to you in beauty.” Thats how I learned from my father and he from his grandfather. My grandfather is not here. He is passed on. That is how we say it- we say they have passed on. Some would say that they have passed away but we say that they have passed on, meaning that their life continues. We are their life that carries on.
On History & Tradition
Well, I hate to use the words, but the Hollywood style of viewing us is bad. The “cowboys and indians” view of history is not correct. I can remember when they were filming a John Wayne movie out here and the director had some of our people in the movie. He said that when John Wayne pulled out his gun we were all supposed to fall to the ground. This is what the young people learn about themselves and it is sad.
If I could give a message to any Native children who would listen, I would say to first learn about who you are and then to be proud to be who you are. You should go somewhere very quiet and just feel what kind of person that you are and try to feel the spirit inside and outside and then to not be ashamed or feel bad about who and what you are.
Let nature be nature. Let yourself be who you are. Don’t try to improve or cover up your true self. At the same time, some things should be preserved and kept private. Even within the Navajo people there is a great difference between the so-called East and West Navajos. Around Gallup and Albequerque there are Navajo who are selling souvenirs of sacred items and are making a living off of the culture. This only diminishes the culture when you sell it off. Some things ought to be kept to the people as their sacred traditions.
One thing that is harmful is television. Young people see things and get ideas that are difficult for the older people to even understand. As a result we have young people shooting other young people in schools and we have a problem with drugs and alcohol. It is what they see on television. We have a very bad problem among some of our youth in this area. It is a difficult problem to face.
Some of the other things that I do not feel good about are intermarriage. People will say that he or she is a good person and will be a good mate. We are trying to keep our ways intact. It is hard for me to say what my own children will do. The most important thing is that they should want to learn the language and then they will be able to carry on the ways. I don’t want to be the last one to preserve the ways of my family and my people. My mission is to encourage them to listen and to want to learn these things.
I think I am becoming successful because they are returning again and again. They are coming back and asking questions and they are curious and it is a good sign. Only time will tell.
On the Earth
We have noticed that things are a little bit different from one year and season to the next. Once we did not get burns from the sun but now we notice that even our skin begins to burn when we are out in it for a long time. It was not like that before. Man makes the mistake of trying to understand things and improve upon them when they do not need to be looked at so closely. Once there would be a beauty walk, as we call it, and it was fine. Then someone would decide that it would be better to build a paved road on the same path. And the road is not natural and so things around the road change. Sometimes we do not need to look at trying to improve on natural things. And sometimes it is not really progress.
We thank Albert Laughter for taking the time to share his heritage with us and our readers. We found our time with him to be most rewarding.