Modern history


Chapter 33


The greatest leader of the Navajos had died, but there would be no funeral. The Navajos did not believe in funerals; when someone died, even a great eminence like Narbona, the important thing was to get the spirit on its way to the underworld as expeditiously as possible. People did not have any desire to linger around the body to pay their respects. The immediate family would handle the messy details of disposing of the corpse and dividing Narbona’s considerable possessions. For the many thousands of other Navajos who knew Narbona, and the thousands more who knew of him, the mourning would be profound, but it would not be public.

Shortly after he was killed by Colonel Washington’s troops, Narbona’s body was brought back to the constellation of hogans that formed his outfit on the great slope of the Chuska Mountains. (Some Navajo accounts say Narbona did not die immediately from his wounds; that although he was mortally injured by Washington’s troops and then scalped, the aged headman somehow remained alive long enough to be brought back home, where he was able to bid his wives and children and grandchildren farewell.) Outside the hogans, the family prepared the old man’s corpse for burial. For them it was a repugnant task, and they went about it quickly, deliberately, alert to any inauspicious signs.

As much as they loathed dealing with death, they knew it was important that the body be handled correctly—according to all the old protocols—or else Narbona’s ghost might escape the bonds of mortality and come back to haunt them indefinitely. He would prowl around the hogans at night, whistling in the dark, throwing clods of dirt at people and giving them bad dreams, causing loved ones to become crazy, or to shrivel and die from some strange sickness. He might shoot corpse powder into someone’s head, causing a dire condition that would manifest itself only as a faint bump on the victim’s scalp. In Navajo thinking, there was no such thing as a good ghost, no matter how kind or gentle the person might have been when he was alive.

If Narbona had simply died of old age—passing happily in his sleep, perhaps—then his family would not have needed to take so many precautions, for it was thought that old people who died of natural causes were incapable of producing ghosts. (The same was said of stillborn babies and infants who died before uttering their first cry.) But Narbona had been killed against his will—murdered, in fact, and then scalped—and now his people had every reason to fear that his ghost would be angry and vengeful. The old man’s wrath would naturally be aimed at the Americans, but since a ghost rarely traveled far from his hogans and the immediate world familiar to him when he was alive, Narbona’s own people would bear the brunt of his rage; his family feared visitations of a special fury unless they handled the burial with exactitude.

The only fortunate detail about the manner in which Narbona died was that it had happened outside; had he died inside his hogan, by whatever cause, the family would either have had to bury him right there in the floor or else remove the corpse through a hole opened in the north wall. But that was not the end of it: The hogan would then have had to be destroyed—razed and burned—for otherwise it would be considered permanently chindi, or bewitched.


When Narbona was alive, some Navajos had wondered whether he might be a witch—at least that was the gossip he sometimes had had to live down. This belief came not from anything Narbona had done or said during his long life, but rather from the simple fact that he was one of the richest men in all the Navajo country—rich in livestock, rich in crops and jewelry and slaves. Some Navajos looked askance at wealth, even as they envied it, and especially among the poorest Diné, speculation often circulated that the only way a person could get rich was by learning witchcraft and breaking into tombs to plunder the treasures inside.

Consequently, a wealthy person had to go to great lengths to counteract this suspicion by constantly sharing his largesse, throwing elaborate and expensive ceremonials attended by many hundreds of hungry people. The expectation that rich men would assume their communal responsibilities and bankroll these extravagant feasts and healing gatherings—ritual meetings that formed the public pulse and political blood of Navajo life—worked as an economic leveler, a kind of tax. The custom encouraged simple generosity, but behind it all was a steadfast need to convince a jealous society that one was not a witch.

Among the Navajos there was an old expression: “You can’t grow wealthy if you treat your relatives right.” Throughout his life Narbona had done his best to treat his relatives right, yet he must have been acutely conscious of the fine line he was always walking. Now that he was dead, these social obligations surrounding his wealth gave the family all the more reason to follow every last precaution and do the burial properly.


Narbona’s slaves probably performed the most intimate tasks of the body preparation, the abhorrent parts that involved coming in direct contact with the skin. They removed the bloody garments and carefully disposed of them by incineration—for it was thought that a man’s blood heedlessly left behind, even a small quantity of it, could be used by a witch for malicious purposes. The attendants then bathed the body and dusted it in corn pollen.

They dressed Narbona in his best clothes, the ones he wore to Blessing Ways and Yeibichei and other ceremonies: lustrous buckskin leggings and a buckskin shirt draped in a brilliant striped blanket, red as blood and black as night. Arms jangling in silver bracelets. A fine turquoise necklace. A belt embedded with silver. Beads of polished coral and abalone shell.

Then they carefully held his scalped head and slipped a feathered helmet over it, so that he looked something like the warrior of old. They placed him on several layers of wool blankets and set one of his long sinew-backed bows by his side with a quiver full of arrows. Other personal objects of value—fetishes, fine pottery, a tobacco pipe—might have been laid with him. Wrapping Narbona up tight in the blankets, the attendants then rolled him in a buffalo pelt, the animal’s thick matted fur turned toward the body. With some twine made of horsehair, they tied the bundled corpse until the rope was cinched tight in an intricate pattern the Navajos called “the death knot.”

Then, in the late afternoon, two of Narbona’s sons assumed their place in the ceremony. They wore their hair untied, their bodies slathered in a gray film of moistened ashes. They hoisted the body and laid it across the sheepskin saddles of Narbona’s two favorite horses, a gray stallion and a palomino. Taking a roundabout path, one of the sons led the team slowly on foot while the other son walked alongside, making sure the buffalo-hide sarcophagus did not fall off.

Finally they came to a place called Rock Mesa, and there they found a deep crack in the sandstone. The Navajos rarely buried their dead in the European sense, perhaps because the rocky soil was often too hard to dig. Nor did the Diné follow the tradition of many Plains Indians, who tied the body to a high pole or a tree to be picked apart by birds—the spirit of the dead literally taking flight. Instead, the Navajos placed their dead in high caves and crevices, in the many hidden folds of their red rock world. Tightly wrapped bundles like the one that now contained Narbona were discreetly stashed throughout the pocked and riddled landscape, natural catacombs as dry and hard as the skeletons that moldered inside them.

The Navajos left no cairns or tombstones, no marks of any kind; they did not want anyone to know where the dead were laid to rest for fear that their graves might be desecrated by the skinwalkers or by enemies from other tribes. For the Navajos, the business of burial was to be carried out with a zealous and methodical secrecy.

Carefully, Narbona’s sons lowered the body into the crevice with ropes, until they felt it touch the rock surface below. They tossed down juniper branches and the scrub of chamisa sage to obscure the bundle, then a thick dusting of sandy soil. Finally they covered everything with stones of various sizes and shapes, trying to make the site look natural and inconspicuous.

Smudging out their footprints, they led the palomino and the stallion a ways to the north, the direction in which Narbona’s spirit, having shed its “shell,” would soon be traveling. Then the two men came to a low hill and hobbled the horses and tied them tight, making sure their noses were pointing directly north.

And there, right at sunset, Narbona’s sons slaughtered the two steeds, probably by slitting their throats and clubbing the animals to death. This was an old Navajo custom. Those tasked with the burial were supposed to destroy several prized horses of the deceased right beside the tomb site—not only to honor the dead, but also to ensure that he or she would have something to ride into eternity. Certainly Narbona’s sons wanted their father to go in style.

Making the long journey happier and easier was the least the living could do for their departed loved ones, for the afterworld was thought to be an uninviting place, a place of desolation. There was nothing radiant about the afterlife—no joyous reunions with the Maker, no glorious white light. On the other hand, neither did the Navajos have a notion of anything resembling the Judeo-Christian concept of hell. They did not believe they would find fire and torments awaiting them; no angry God would judge them for their conduct here on earth.

For them the spirit world was just a realm of drab melancholy where souls eventually went and from which they could never escape; there was no hope of reincarnation, no expectation of a return. Once there, the spirit was there forever.

This afterworld was not a theological construct; it was a real place somewhere off in the distant north, and it was said to be located deep inside the ground. Many Navajos believed it was one of the lower realms from which they had emerged as a people long ago—one of the four netherworlds where they had evolved as a race of chittering insects.

North, of course, was also literally the place from which the Navajos had come. While they did not actually believe they had migrated to the Southwest from Canada (in fact, the theory is still not widely accepted among modern Navajos even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible linguistic, cultural, and DNA evidence), the Diné entertained many dark legends about certain close cousins from the North from whom they had somehow become separated ages ago. The Navajos, spooked by all things literally and metaphorically associated with cardinal north, seemed unsettled by the notion that they might have direct relatives living in that direction.

There is an extraordinary story about a small delegation of Navajos that was invited to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. They were wandering from one exhibit to the next when they stumbled upon a particular pavilion from Canada that struck their fancy. This exhibit was staffed by Indians who happened to be Athapaskans, and the Navajos, to their astonishment, understood nearly every word these oddly familiar-looking Canadians said. Although they could carry on a perfectly intelligible conversation, the Athapaskans were not happy to see the Navajos. “We split up a long time ago,” they warned, “and it is said that if we ever saw each other again, the world would be destroyed.” The Navajo delegation was similarly unnerved by the encounter, and for their remaining three weeks in Chicago, they never again visited the Athapaskan pavilion.

If not exactly in Canada, the underworld was nonetheless somewhere in that sinister direction. To get there, Narbona’s spirit would have to wind down a long, narrow mountain trail with many switchbacks. Near the bottom of the trail stood a rippled sand dune at the base of which he would be greeted by deceased kinfolk who looked just as they had when they were alive. His relatives would guide him on a gloomy trek lasting four hard days. Standing at the gates of the afterworld, vigilant guardians would put Narbona through a series of trials to determine if he was actually dead.


Narbona’s sons believed the old man was already on the path.

“You’ve gone away from us now,” they chanted. “You’ve gone away by yourself.”

Having slaughtered the horses and left them on the ground, the two men then ripped the saddles and bridles into shreds so they could not be used by anyone who happened to pass by. They may have also followed the old custom of hurling the ruined tack high up in a tree.

Similarly, whatever tools they had brought with them to perform the burial—an ax, digging sticks, a shovel perhaps—were also destroyed and strewn among the rocks. The Navajos took care to obliterate everything involved with a funeral, as though it had never happened at all. They also obeyed a converse taboo—they were not allowed to break sticks or other objects idly, or to destroy any kind of disused property, or even chop wood at night, for fear that this might be taken as a disrespectful imitation of funeral behavior. Also, the loud snapping and ripping sounds would be extremely vexing to any spirits that might be lurking around.

Narbona’s sons then broke into a run, jumping over the scrub and taking erratic paths so no evil spirit could catch them. Around dusk they made a small fire in a sheltered place that enjoyed a commanding view of Rock Mesa. There they stayed for four nights, fasting and chanting songs. During the day they remained in the same place, watching over the mesa and thinking about their father while observing a strict silence, communicating only by sign language.

It must have been difficult for the two men to concentrate on the vigil, knowing as they did that a large force of foreigners—the same people who had killed their father—was even now penetrating deeper into Navajo land, heading for the heart of their country. Possibly the two men could have spotted the plumes of dust kicked up by Washington’s expedition as it climbed toward the Chuska Range. Narbona’s sons must have burned with hate, must have wondered whether they should be taking up arms against these invaders, the Americans. Their own country was under attack and yet here they were, staring in silence at a rock vista.

But they knew they could not take shortcuts in the burial ritual. They never separated from each other, not even for a minute, for they did not want some evil force “to come between” them. Until the rituals were complete, they felt they were in mortal danger of spiritual infection, and they had to help keep each other strong. Even when one of them had to relieve himself, the other son would go along.

After four nights they were satisfied that Narbona’s spirit had reached the underworld and that their father could no longer hear their chants and prayers. So the next morning the two sons headed for home.

On the north bank of the Rio Tunicha, still a good ways from their village, they encountered a mound of rocks that must have made them smile; prior to leaving on their funereal errand they had asked their wives to bring fresh clothes and hide them beneath a rock pile in just this spot. Now here it was, and they were relieved to know they could finally strip out of their dirty, death-tainted clothes.

Beside the cairn the sons constructed a sweat lodge and built a fire and heated river rocks in the coals. Then they crawled inside the close structure, placing the glowing stones in a small pit in the center of the dirt floor. They poured ladles of river water on the rocks so that they sputtered and hissed and then sent up radiant waves of steam. All day and all night they sat and baked in the smarting heat. They wanted to wash off the contamination of death, to make themselves clean again.

The next morning the men buried their old clothes and put on the fresh leggings and shirts their wives had left for them. Purified, their unpleasant but necessary task behind them, they crossed the river and walked toward the smoking breakfast fires of their distant hogans, to eat and drink and sleep among their people. Like all the Navajos of the Chuska Mountains, their hearts were turned away from mourning, and fixed upon a different emotion now—vengeance.

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