If it had not been for the Navajo, I might not have noticed it at all. I had driven my pickup truck to the mesa top and parked it. The mesa overlooked the Animas Valley of northwestern New Mexico. I got out and walked across the rocky ground to photograph the beautiful autumn scene below me.
As I walked along the edge of the mesa, the yellow-leaved cottonwood trees down in the valley seemed to complement the turquoise sky. Scudding, white, cumulus clouds would sometimes block the sun and cause sprays of light to create rainbow-colored sundogs along the misty edges of the clouds. Two ravens circled overhead.
He was about sixty yards away from me when I saw him. It wasn't unusual to see a Navajo Indian in San Juan County. The distance from the mesa to the reservation is only about thirty miles. Navajos frequently live in the towns that border the reservation. But he was alone, sitting on the ground facing west.
The ravens flew higher and were now gliding in front of me. The wind gave a sudden gust and, as they turned to circle, their iridescent wings flashed silver shafts of light into my eyes. The Navajo slowly rose and faced me. The taller grasses bent with the wind as we looked at each other. Feeling slightly embarrassed at my intrusion, I took off my day pack and faced away from him and looked down at the sparkling waters of the Animas River that flowed through the valley. I reached in my pack for my camera and made a few phantom shots. By the time I turned around, he had gone. I waited a while longer and then slowly walked over to where he had been.
Grey stones. Grey stones arranged in a circle, some of them about twelve to sixteen inches long and five to six inches wide. Every stone had been smoothed and rounded by the eternal forces of wind and water. I sat down where the Navajo had been and examined the feature.
At some point in history this stone circle might have been easy to recognize. Now, it was difficult to distinguish these grey stones from the rest of the rocks and stones of the mesa. From this location, I could see the river down in the valley and the mountains to the west. The circle of stones was almost flat with the ground and small grasses grew out between the stones. The circle looked to be about six or seven feet across.
"Is this Navajo, or . . . something else?" I thought. I didn't know. But the Navajo knew. I reached over and picked up one of the stones. It was cool to my hand and smooth. The weight and hardness of the stone surprised me. I ran my hand over the river cobble and examined it closely. For a moment, the fine lines in the stone seemed to form a face. Then, my concentration was broken by the far away cry of the ravens. I put the stone back.
The weight of centuries seemed to unwind in my head. The congestion of the twentieth century faded away. When I looked down into the valley again, I saw that certain, almost timeless events had not changed. There was still corn growing in the fields and smoke rose from burning weeds and fires. Men split fragrant juniper and pinon trees for winter firewood. Irrigation ditches watered gardens of beans and squash. The river flowed as it always has.
Then I knew what the Navajo knew. For it was the "Ancient Ones," the Anasazi, who had gathered the river cobbles and built this shrine. Because this is an active shrine I have not revealed its exact location. A thousand years ago, the Anasazi had called the Animas Valley their home. A thousand years ago, another man sat at this shrine and looked at the rainbow clouds and watched the river flow.
Archaeologists are not sure when the Navajos first entered the Southwest or even where they originally came from. The life of these hunters and gatherers was such that they did not leave a trace of their origins. When they did emerge in the Southwest they came face to face with the sedentary Pueblo Indians, whose ancestors were the prehistoric Anasazi.
Most ethnographers agree that the Navajo adopted the Pueblo religion to one degree or another. Anasazi sacred places are as hallowed to the traditional Navajo as they are to the Pueblo Indians. There are hundreds of Navajo sacred places in a variety of locations, both on and off the reservation. They are revered according to their importance as indicated by the creation myth. Some are found deep in canyon crevices, others at sacred springs and on the banks of arroyos and other water courses. Sacred places also include mountain peaks and the mountains themselves. Areas where mythological or historical events might have occurred are also revered.
There are many types of Navajo shrines. Secondary use of Anasazi and Pueblo shrines by the Navajo is just one example. Some Navajo shrines are as simple as a few sandstone rocks piled near a hogan or an arroyo. Stone boxes or cists are used as well as rock shelters, caves, and unusual rock and sandstone formations. Large cairns are often found near trails that lead up to the summits of sacred mountains.
The Navajos make many different types of offerings to these shrines. Feathers of the Red-shafted Flicker and the Yellow Warbler have been recorded. Turquoise, jet, obsidian, fossils, and petrified wood are used. Plastic turquoise-colored beads as well as ancient Anasazi pot sherds and Pueblo-style prayer sticks are placed on shrines. If these objects are not available, pine boughs and twigs serve as offerings.
The Navajo word for shrine, tsenadjihih, means "picking up and putting on stones." A Navajo legend* explains that Hasch'ethi, the Talking God, made the first tsenadjihih on the west side of Governador Knob. The first things he put on the shrine were white shell, turquoise, abalone, jet, and carnelian. Hasch'ehogan, the House God, gathered up some rocks and twigs. When he had made a pile, he said, "We will call this tsenadjihih." The Navajos were given the tsenadjihih by Talking God and House God so that they would have good fortune on their journeys. These shrines were always started beside trails. When traditional Navajos go to trade and see a tsenadjihih, they take a fresh twig from any living tree or shrub and place it on the shrine. Then, they make a prayer for good luck. They only make their prayer and offering when going to their destination, and never on the return journey.
*As recorded by Richard F. Van Valkenburgh, an early ethnologist, in "Sacred Places and Shrines of the Navajo, Part I, The Sacred Mountains," in Museum Notes, Museum of Northern Arizona, September 1938; cf. also Part II in Plateau, xiii, 1940.
When the Navajo put n'tlizb or turquoise or other sacred stones on shrines, they say a strong prayer.
Placing rocks, Male One.
Placing rocks, Female One.
Everywhere I go myself
May I have luck.
Everywhere my close relatives go
May they have their luck.
This prayer, which was given the Navajo by Talking God and House God, is only said when one has something very important to hope for. Besides using the regular starting lines, they also pray to Kxin'ninagaih, White House in Canyon de Chelly, Sisnadjinih, Sierra Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Tsotdzil, Mount Taylor, in central New Mexico, Dook'o'oslid, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona, and Dibetash, the La Plata Mountains near Durango, Colorado.
Proper shrine use calls for knowledge of the prayer of Talking God and House God from the Blessing Way ceremony. Turquoise and other sacred stones make the prayer more effective, but an improvised prayer and an offering of stones or fresh pinion or juniper twigs will also work. Burned rocks are never placed on a tsenadjihih. If there is a wind blowing, a rock is placed over the twig to hold it on the pile. Nothing that has been struck by lightning, whirlwinds, or touched by snakes or bears should ever be placed on a tsenadjihih.
As I left the ancient shrine and walked back to my truck, I turned and saw dark clouds gathering in the west. Down in the valley the corn stalks rippled in the wind. I still wasn't sure what the Navajo or the Anasazi might have hoped for when they went to the shrine. Suddenly, I remembered the face in the stone. I thought of the Anasazi and smiled to myself. When I got back into my truck, I could still see the two ravens circling the shrine. As I drove away, the first heavy drops of rain began to fall.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)