Gathered around in our favorite armchairs, in a circle as requested, both the ED185 crew and the two visiting student teachers at Rehoboth Christian School welcomed Carol Bremer-Bennett, the superintendent, to share with us her life story. With her, she brought a model of a Hogan, a cradleboard, and a wealth of knowledge and a passion for her Navajo heritage.
Growing Up Off the Reservation
Carol was born on the Navajo reservation to her biological parents but was given to a foster home. As luck would have it, she was adopted only six short months later by a family in New England. She grew up in the area surrounded by a supportive family and with religion playing a significant role in her life, and later attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI in 1991.
Although she hadn't experienced her native culture at an age that she remembered, she explained that, "God called me back to the Southwest to deepen my understanding." This call led her to first work as a volunteer for two years, and then an employee in the middle school. Since then, she hasn't left Rehoboth; working in various parts of the district until becoming the superintendent a few years ago.
While returning to the reservation brought her a sense of peace and clarity, it also brought forth some uncertainty she hadn't initially considered. On the reservation, Navajo peoples belong to one or more of the various tribes in the Navajo Nation that span from New Mexico to Arizona. When she returned and began her work with Navajo peoples, she was inevitably asked about her origins and the tribes she belonged to. Due to her being adopted as an infant, she had no recollection or record of her tribes. Fortunately, some of the Navajo she had worked with offered to "adopt" her, making her officially a part of their tribes. She is now of the To’aheedliinii (Waters Flow Together) Clan and the Todich’iinii (Bitter Water) Clan. "I belong now, you know? And I can use that to my advantage. When kids in my clans get in trouble, I can just threaten to tell my 'sister,' or their mom," she laughed.
Home's Where the Heart Is
As previously mentioned, Carol brought a few artifacts to demonstrate more clearly her connection to culture. Among those, was a model of a Hogan (a traditional Navajo dwelling of six or eight sides; click here for a more detailed description from a previous post), which she used to explain some facets of Navajo culture. While Hogans are no longer the typical housing medium for these people, they still carry important ceremonial and historical values. For the Navajo, Hogans primarily symbolize the dynamic and function of the family.
As a matriarchal group, many features of Hogans commonly pertain to the maternal part of the family. For instance, many are "female", meaning they have a rounded roof, which symbolizes a mother's womb in which the children are carried. Inside, the stove is always in the center of the room with the pipe extending through the roof, symbolizing an umbilical cord as well as an attachment to the outside world. Prayers and chants are given while a fire burns, so that the smoke may carry them to the spirits. Additionally, when a baby is born, the umbilical cord is buried in or near the Hogan, to show that the individual will always return home to the safety and warmth of the home.
Other structural features in building that demonstrate various ties in a Hogan include the walls and door themselves. Usually made from Ponderosa Pine timbers, they interlock to convey a intertwined symbol of hands, showing the connections the family has to one another. The door always faces east, to greet the morning sun, the purity and the promise that a new day holds. When being built, the posts and beam that create the door are constructed, symbolizing the husband, wife, and God. The rest of the Hogan is then built around those pieces.
Perhaps the most drastic action taken is during a death of a member of the family. If one dies inside the Hogan, a specified person (usually a medicine man) tears an opening in the eastern wall to take the body. In some cases, elder members who know their time is coming will just leave the Hogan and find a safe spot in the desert to await their time. "They may die, but they will be at peace," Carol reminded us.
Full-Body Support System
The cradleboard is a traditional staple in Navajo family life. It is composed of two planks lashed together, cords, an arc over the head, and a foot board, each of which have distinct meanings.
Carol was careful to note that the main portion of the cradleboard is made of two pieces, not one. Although the planks could be substituted with single one (which might even be sturdier), it would defeat the purpose, as "the two pieces represent the mother and the father, with points to symbolize the Navajo's sacred mountains". The lashings further demonstrate the connection of the parents.
The cords are meant to keep the baby safe and secure. First, the mother swaddles her child in blankets (to soften the bed) and then laces them in with the cords whilst singing traditional songs, mainly of the Hero Twins. When laced up correctly, the cords cross in such a way that four peaks are visible, once again to symbolize the four sacred mountains. The thought is that, as long as one is within the boundaries of these mountains, they will be protected from harm.
The arc over the head is meant to symbolize a rainbow, which will protect them from harm both figuratively and literally. The cradleboard was commonly hung on a tree near the parents while they worked, to protect the baby from harm (mainly fire ants, which, as some hikers and campers will testify, HURT to run into). The rainbow is ever-present in the baby's life because of its position, and they look upon it for most of their infancy.
Finally, the foot board has four sides, symbolizing half of a Hogan. Once again, this establishes a connection to family and the home.
Everything Comes in Fours
Just like in Christianity, certain numbers are of the utmost importance and are held as sacred by the Navajo, and it's evident that the number four is very important to these people. From multiples of four(in the case of Hogan walls), to mountains and cardinal directions, four shows up regularly. Four became commonplace due to the creation story it was attached to.
Navajo legend dictates that the gods created a series of worlds, which were destroyed one by one by various events. The third world was taken over by a flood that the first man and woman, as well as an assortment of creatures (even the coyote- known for his love of mischief and mayhem!), narrowly escaped from by hiding in a reed. They emerged in the fourth world with an awareness and caution they hadn't possessed before. It was understood that the fourth world would most likely be the last chance at life, and must be protected. To this day, this care for nature persists.
Personally, I was very affected by Carol's stories. Coming to New Mexico was a decision that stemmed from my love of education, but more than anything, it has fed my passion for interacting with people and learning from them all that I can. The chance to explore a culture so entirely different from anything I can experience in the Midwest meant more to me than I can explain. Perhaps part of that was due to her passion and willingness to share, but it was an experience that I will carry forth with me always.