Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hózhǫ’, and Track Work by Jay Youngdahl, 2011, Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah 84322-3078, USUPress.org.
A vast richness of experience is lost in the world view that believes there is nothing to know from primitive or natural cultures. This book demonstrates many necessary truths about how humans cope with existence, and sometimes—rarely—find a way to ascend towards beauty despite extreme physical and psychological hardship.
This is a book about Navajo railroad workers and their attempts to hold onto the important way of life, the Navajo way, of “walking in beauty.” It may be not readily assumed that a book about railroad workers could reveal something every human would benefit to know. The revelations in this book are truly hard and beautiful at the same time because they are told through the firsthand accounts of devastated peoples who have little to no hope in the American economic grip over their well-beings. Their only hope lies within their ability to create and know beauty within the universe, or at least try to maintain an effort to be in harmony with it.
These two disparate ideas—the American economic grip (and the unlimited corruption and abuse which emanates from it) and the core of harmony within one’s self are completely at odds with one another. This book looks carefully at what happens when the two meet in the lives of these Navajo railway workers.
Despite what is essentially unending efforts by American culture to separate them from their own cultures and even their humanity, these Navajo laborers find a way to get through the hard times, endure long separations from their families, and deal with brutal injuries by trying to keep in harmony with the natural order, mainly by having ceremonies when they come and go in order to be able to do the work that they have to do to survive.
While there is much to be known about this way of being, many Navajo rely on the traditional ceremonies to provide protection from dangers, such as for sons who were deployed to Iraq. The railroad workers felt an immense need to carry with them the protection of the Blessingway ceremonies. One could argue whether there was belief in a superstition or if the harmonizing effect was able to carry them through. One benefit certainly is the sense of belonging and community that is so desperately needed in the horrible conditions, powerlessness and displacement they suffer.
Technically, the Navajo do not have a “religion.” Their ancestral history is to know their place in the universe and try for harmony with that. Traditionally, this plays out into every facet of their lives; it is an ascent to radiance, harmony, and beauty.