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Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hózhǫ’, and Track Work

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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.

Author, lawyer, and advocate Jay Youngdahl writes:

There is an importance for ‘harmony and order’ for the Navajo People.  There is a certain order in the universe, of which human beings are a part in a unique way, as are birds and insects.  Personal harmony, so important to the Navajo people, comes from acting in accord with the structure of the natural world.  Mental order comes from alignment with the order of the universe. [Their ceremonies] are a way to approach and participate in that order … it allows the Navajos to “walk in beauty.”

This is what it means to “walk in beauty”—to be in accord with nature and with the harmony of the universe.

Youngdahl continues,

In N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book House Made of Dawn, [he] describes what his protagonist saw when encountering Navajo families at a celebration:

"The Diné, of all people, knew how to be beautiful.  Here and there in the late golden light which bled upon the walls, he saw the bright blankets and the gleaning silver work of their wealth:  the shining weight of their buckles, bracelets and bow guards, squash blossoms and pale blue stones."

Thus, the importance of beauty and its relation to the balance by Navajos permeates all facets of Navajo life.

Therefore, nothing they do should be out of this harmony.  When it became extremely necessary for Navajo men to take wage-labor jobs off the reservations—after such devastating American government actions as the Sheep Reduction Program which took away their livelihoods and rendered them even more powerless—the lives they were and are still forced to live reserve no place for this essential definition of their way of being.

A common core exists that emanates from traditional Navajo religion:  the concept of hózhǫ’.  The Navajo word hózhq′ refers to a harmonious and ideal environment.  ’It is beauty, harmony, goodness, happiness, and everything that is positive, and it refers to an environment which is all-inclusive.”

Whereas this harmony would be made manifest in all that they do and are in their daily lives, for example in the things they create like their art and ceremonies, the American way of life left no room for any part of this way of being.  Not only is there no respect for it, it is denigrated because it has no economic value in American greed.  The workers were expected to leave home not knowing when or if they would return, leave their families and their beliefs and go into the harshest labor for little compensation, extremely bad treatment, hazardous work, and deplorable living conditions in train cars.  Beyond this, they were still pressed to be “better” workers.  All along the way are inhumane injustices and a set of deeply entrenched bureaucratic systems designed to take what respect or any human right that remained.

It was an outright goal to make “serious changes in Navajo culture and identity” in order to use them as throw-away commodities.  This is the world view that misses the essential beauty of being.

Hózhǫ’ anchors a worldview, and it is this foundational belief that grounds what is often called the “Navajo Way.”  Hózhǫ’ functions as an anchoring force in Navajo life, infusing all practices.  In addition to defining the condition in which one aspires to live, hózhǫ’ incorporates “the goal of Navajo life in this world [which] is to live to maturity in [this] condition … and to die of old age, the end result of which incorporates one into … universal beauty, harmony, and happiness.

Youngdahl quotes from author of Language and Art, Gary Witherspoon in explaining:

The Navajo saying “sa’ah naaghhaii bio’ eh hózhǫ’” is the ‘electricity or life-giving force that moves all life to beauty.  The blessingway rituals are to give the powers of the movement toward inner and outer human harmony that leads to beauty.’

This way of life is one which is close to a more natural way of being and within an American system it is disintegrated until it seems barely tenable.

In American culture there is an imbalance and conflicting relationship with a natural way of being.  The stories told in this book exemplify this degradation of all forms of life in a radical way.  In a system with unchecked greed, human life has no value.  It makes for a soulless and empty culture.  

The author, Jay Youngdahl also argues that there is displacement and loss of community within American culture.  American culture (despite a unwavering world view that it was “more advanced”) did not benefit the Native Americans, it drew them away from a way of being that would have benefitted everyone.  Youngdahl goes on to advocate learning from these hard lives of the Navajo railway workers.  He offers an important philosophical equation:

"One must walk in beauty before one can be in beauty."

While there is a great deal of effort by other viewpoints and religions to try to supplement or alter or save this world view, it is essentially golden and prime on its own.  Even the Navajos themselves have searched out other paths.   Jay Youngdahl goes seeking the answers by interviewing Navajos who have lived through the brutal abuse.  One poignant moment is when an older medicine man asks Youngdahl if he is there to help bring back the old ways.  We are not revealed the answer in his writing, but perhaps in the silence after the book is read and the pages closed, the simple truth speaks quietly:  we are one with the universe whether we fight it or more beautifully, align ourselves with it.

In that equation, the humans working the railways would be our guides.