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ritual healing and the politics of identity in

contemporary Navajo society

THOMAS J. CSORDASCase Western Reserve University

My point of departure is the intersection of three heavily traveled conceptual highways that
wind across American anthropology. The first is ritual healing, which has preoccupied anthropology as religion, performance, therapy, and, broadly speaking, as cultural process (Csordas
and Kleinman 1996; Dow 1986; Kleinman 1980; Levi-Strauss 1966). The second is identity
politicsthat is, the deployment of representation and mobilization of community within plural
societies in the name of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or religionwhich in recent
years, has captured the attention of scholars in both cultural anthropology and interdisciplinary
cultural studies (Calhoun 1994; Friedman 1992; Giddens 1990; Lash and Friedman 1992). The
third is Navajo society, which remains one of the most heavily documented, most frequently
plundered for ethnographic examples, and most irritated by the persistent probing of anthropologists of all stripes (Farella 1984; Kluckhohn and Leighton 1946; Lamphere 1977; Witherspoon 1977). In this article, I elaborate the relation between ritual healing and identity politics
in contemporary Navajo society by presenting a conceptual framework that can potentially be
applied across a wider range of societies.
What is the purpose of questioning the relation between ritual healing and identity politics?
Doing so allows me to address in specific fashion the perennial issue of the relation between
religion and politics, both of which are forms of power but with ostensibly different motives and
modes of operation (Fogelson and Adams 1977). It allows me to address the parallel issues of
the individual in relation to the collective and of microsocial in relation to macrosocial

Ritual healing and identity politics interact on three levels in contemporary Navajo
society: representation of Navajo identity in relation to the dominant Euro-American society, interaction among religious healing traditions within Navajo society,
and transformation of individual experience with respect to dignity and self-worth
as a Navajo. The first is illustrated with two events: an epidemic ofhanta virus and
a serious drought. The second is examined with respect to the coexistence of
traditional Navajo healing, Native American Church healing, and Navajo Christian
faith healing. The third is discussed in terms of case studies of Navajo patients who
have used these forms of heal ing. These levels constitute a framework for analyzing
the relation between healing and identity politics that is potentially more nuanced
than either the position that ritual healing is a futile expression of frustrationthe
opiate of the masses interpretationor that ritual healing is a subtle form of political
resistancethe postmodern liberation of the indigenous voice interpretation.
Future studies using such a framework could begin to distinguish more clearly
between a personal politics of collective identity, in which individual actors with
clear commitments struggle to assert a shared identity, and a collective politics of
personal identity, in which each actor among a group of actors with ambiguous
commitments struggles to attain individual identity, [religion, healing, ritual, identity politics, Navajo, Native American Church, Christianity]
American Ethnologist26(1):3-23. Copyright 1999, American Anthropological Association.

healing and identity politics

processes. Stated strongly, ritual healing Is a form of identity politics, as suggested by Rudolph
Virchow's famous dictum that politics is nothing but medicine on a grand scale. Stated
somewhat less strongly, ritual healing Is a window onto larger cultural processes, as in the
anthropological notion of cultural performance (Geertz 1973; Singer 1972).
Why ask this question in the particular context of Navajo society? The Navajo setting requires
us to confront an empirical situation that further undermines the already shaky distinction
between tradition and modernity. To be precise, on the one hand typical accounts treat ritual
healing as "traditional" and backward-looking in values and goals even though it is practiced
in many postmodern settings, including that of Navajo society (see the literature reviewed in
Csordas and Lewton 1998). On the other hand, scholars often discuss identity politics in terms
of modernity, diaspora, postcolonialism, and globalization (Calhoun 1994; Lash and Friedman
1992), whereas "tradition" itself is a central orienting concept in everyday life for Navajos
struggling for sovereignty as a fourth-world nation.
In this article, my purpose is to show that the relation between ritual healing and identity
politics in Navajo society is played out on three different levels of social generality. On the
broadest level, healing articulates Navajo identity in relation to the dominant Anglo-American
society. Here I will be concerned with cultural representation of events in which identity is at
stake in the public sphere defined in part by the news media. On an intermediate level within
Navajo society, healing and identity are closely interrelated in the interactions among relatively
distinct forms of healing. Specifically, I will highlight negotiation among participants in these
healing forms around issues of competition and cooperation. Finally, on the individual level,
healing frames the relation between personal and collective identity in terms of dignity and
self-worth as a Navajo. Here, my focus is on behavioral and experiential transformation of
patients and their immediate social relations. Basing my presentation on this threefold analytic
framework, I will return in the conclusion to the above-mentioned series of conceptual relations
between religion and politics, tradition and modernity, individual and collective, microsocial
and macrosocial.1

Navajoland in the nineties

The Navajo (Dine) are an Athabaskan people who, along with the kindred Apache peoples,
migrated south from Alaska and Canada to what is now the U.S. Southwest approximately 500
years ago, roughly the same time as Spaniards were migrating north from Mexico into the same
region. The contemporary Navajo Nation comprises more than 17.5 million acres (roughly the
size of West Virginia) in the four corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and
Colorado meet. It lies immediately to the east of Grand Canyon National Park and completely
surrounds the Hopi Indian reservation. The reservation and its boundaries are an institution of
the U.S. federal government, established by an imposed treaty in 1868 as the condition for the
Navajos' release from captivity at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.
The collective trauma of the Long Walktheir forced march into collective exile from their
homeland, following military defeat by U.S. government troops using a scorched-earth policy
at the command of the infamous Colonel Kit Carsonis critical to contemporary Navajos' sense
of identity as a people. Today, the Navajo reservation is divided into five federal administrative
districts or agencies as well as into 110 indigenously recognized localities or chapters. Each
chapter sends a delegate to the Navajo tribal council established in the 1930s. The chief
executive of the Navajo tribal government is a president chosen in a general election for a
four-year term.
According to the 1990 U.S. census, the population of the Navajo Nation was 155,276, of
whom 96 percent were American Indian. Although precise figures are not available, as many
as 50,000 Navajos may live in other regions of the United States, many maintaining close ties

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to their homeland, for a total of roughly 200,000 Navajos. These figures make the Navajo, along
with Cherokee and Sioux, among the largest Indian tribes in the United States. Given the size
and geographical expanse of Navajoland, it is not surprising that there exists a degree of regional
cultural variation among Navajos. This variation corresponds to differences in microecological
zones within Navajoland and, more recently, to development of semi-urban administrative and
commercial centers. In addition, residents of some areas of western Navajoland are relatively
isolated either by the stark physical landscape around Black Mesa or by the interposition of
Hopiland; while in areas of eastern Navajoland residents' contact with non-Navajos has been
quite common due to the checkerboard pattern of land holdings. Regional variations doubtless
are becoming less salient as more paved roads have decreased isolation over the past 20 years.
There are, nevertheless, slight dialectal differences in lexicon, accent, and the construction of
certain expressions, and there appears to be some variation in the distribution of ceremonial
knowledge among traditional Navajos.
Navajo society is traditionally organized around a system of exogamous matrilineal clans.
There is common agreement on the identity of the four original clans said to have been created
by the deity Changing Woman, but the system is quite complex and several versions of clan
classification are extant. Several clans are regarded as extinct, and a good number are adopted
clans representing groups of foreigners who at various historical moments were incorporated
into Navajo society. Traditional subsistence is based on a combination of farming (primarily
corn) and livestock raising (primarily sheep). The Navajo undertake farming and livestock
production in varying combinations, depending on their ecological zones within Navajoland.
In the 20th century, these have been supplemented by wage labor, first in railroad construction
and the mining of coal and uranium, and more recently in service occupations in the vast
bureaucracies of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal Indian Health Service, and the
Navajo tribal government. Many of the debates over tribal sovereignty in Navajoland have to
do with tribal control of services rather than issues of legal jurisdiction, although the topic of
whether the Navajo Nation will open itself to the casino industry has recently entered public
debate. In general, though Navajos remain an economically poor people, their land, natural
resources, population, and cultural and linguistic base place them as relatively well off in
comparison to many other Indian tribes in the United States.

healing and the representation of social self and other

Popular awareness of Navajo society outside Navajoland is based largely on media reports
of disputes between Hopi and Navajo tribes over reservation boundaries that were never of
their own making. Popular awareness is also based on fictional accounts of the Navajo,
including the detective novels of Tony Hillerman whose heroes are a traditional Navajo
policeman (who wants to be modern) and an acculturated policeman (who wants to be a
medicine man). Perhaps even more influential (especially for travelers to the Southwest) have
been the marvelous woolen rugs and silver jewelry sold at reservation trading posts and roadside
stands near Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. Popular awareness of the dominant
"Anglo" society among Navajos comes from direct interaction in the four reservation border
towns of Gallup, Farmington, Flagstaff, and Page, as well as in the four more distant cities of
Albuquerque, Phoenix, Salt Lake, and Denver.2 On the reservation, Navajos encounter tourists,
missionaries, and employees of the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Navajo
tribal bureaucracy. Awareness of Anglo culture is also developed during military service, which
is not uncommon among Navajo youth, and via cultural and technological innovation. Over
the past generation, the Navajo have readily adopted the pickup truck and, with the dramatic
extension of paved roads on the reservation, have enthusiastically put it to the service of their
love of travel and visiting. They have also adopted television and, more recently, computers

healing and identity politics

and faxes. Traces of the postmodern pervasiveness of electronic media are apparent in the image
of the traditional chanter who takes appointments for ceremonies by cellular phone from his
pickup truck.
All of the preceding points of contact are occasional sites of cultural activity that could be
defined as identity politics, whether expressed overtly as the literal politics of tribal sovereignty
or covertly in the form of humorous stories about the curious ways of white people.3 In this
section, I will examine two events in recent Navajo history that bring healing to the fore as an
articulation of the relations between Navajo and Anglo-American societies.

reflections on a mystery illness In May 1993, the news media reported the sudden outbreak
of a mysterious and deadly illness in the southwestern United States, centered in the eastern
area of the Navajo reservation. The illness typically began with flu-like symptoms and, within
scarcely more than 24 hours, progressed to total respiratory collapse. By mid-August, the Centers
for Disease Control (CDC) had recorded 30 cases, 20 of which had resulted in death (Centers
for Disease Control 1993:612). Significantly, the first patients were all Navajo. The CDC sent
an emergency team onto the reservation to try to identify the source and vector of the mystery
illness, and they set up a hotline that reported possible leads and kept a tally of new cases. Along
with the federal investigators, an army of national and international media personnel invaded
Navajoland, prying into isolated communities and poking microphones into bemused or
embittered faces. From there, the situation deteriorated.
Early media reports referred to the unidentified illness with names like "reservation flu" and
"Navajo flu" (see Bales 1994). Some Navajos had difficulty getting service tn restaurants, and
tourists were observed driving across the reservation wearing surgical masks (Grady 1993). In
early June, a front-page story in The Washington Post reported that school officials in Los Angeles
had canceled the visit of a class of Navajo third-graders who had flown there to meet their
suburban California pen pals (Pressley 1993). Navajos were profoundly insulted at the apparent
implication that they were a disease-ridden people or, worse, that they were somehow
responsible for the outbreak. At the least, transformation of the epidemic into a global media
event focused negative attention on the reservation and its people. In the frantic ten-day period
before the illness was identified, the intensity and contrast between on-reservation and off-reservation opinions were particularly vivid to me because the opinions were being voiced in the
weeks before my wife and I were to leave for a summer of fieldwork in Navajoland with our
then six-month-old twin children. Friends in the university community, including our family
pediatrician, expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of our departure before knowing
the nature and degree of contagiousness of the mystery illness. Friends on the reservation,
including Anglo physicians, were nonplussed by the episode, pointing out that life there was
proceeding much as usual, that the outbreak seemed to be quite localized, and that, in any
case, fatalities occurred everyday for a variety of causes among which this was only one more.
With our appraisal of the situation suspended between these poles of panic and complacency,
we set out, hoping that by the time we reached Albuquerque the mystery would be resolved.
We checked the CDC telephone hotline at every night's stop along the highway. The day we
reached Albuquerque was the day the CDC announced the cause of the illness: a new strain of
a rare Asian virus called hanta that had previously been known to attack the renal system rather
than the respiratory system. Acting on advice of traditional Navajo elders who observed that
several outbreaks of severe illness earlier in the century had been associated with seasons of
high rainfall, abundant pinon crops, and correspondingly high rodent populations (Schwarz
1995), investigators concluded that the virus was spread via the saliva, urine, and feces of deer
mice. The deer mouse is a species not known to encroach on human habitation except
occasionally in cold weather. The disease did not appear to be communicable among humans.
The Centers for Disease Control, the Indian Health Service, the state of New Mexico, and tribal

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health agencies were all involved in spreading the word. The tribe issued guidelines for trapping
and safely disposing of mice. Many Navajos heeded the health warnings and took precautions.
The political situation deteriorated again, however, when one agency suggested that Navajos
refrain from traditional ceremonies conducted in hogans with dirt floors. The implication that
their sacred ceremonies were conducted in structures potentially made filthy by mouse waste
was again deeply insulting. Hogans are used as dwellings or for ceremonies, and the earth inside
them is carefully swept and regarded as very clean, indeed holy, by Navajos.
The predictable result of the episode was a degree of resentment and resistance. One Navajo
woman, a sophisticated, bicultural person (i.e., equally conversant in Navajo and Anglo culture)
who was active in tribal politics and health care issues, drew the following parallel between
the hanta virus outbreak and the serious flooding that was occurring at the same time that
summer throughout the Mississippi Valley region. She indicated that the two events were
linkedthat given the proclivity of Mother Earth for keeping all nature in balance, it was not
surprising that "whites" were having to undergo this hardship insofar as white people had slurred
the Navajo with regard to the mystery illness. As evidence, she pointed out that due to the
flooding many whites along the Mississippi were being forced to haul their own fresh water,
just as Navajos had been doing for many years in their arid homeland.
Even more telling was the understanding expressed by an elderly healer of the Native
American Church (see below). He had been consulted by the relatives of a young couple who
had been among the first to perish in the outbreak. They were concerned about spiritual danger,
wondering what had caused the deaths and whether they should now be taking some
ceremonial steps. His response was that it was incorrect to blame the mice, for they are harmless
creatures with no apparent capacity to bear ill will to humans. In his estimation, the couple's
death was caused by exposure to atmospheric contaminationpoison in the air from some kind
of government testing, or poison that had drifted over the ocean from a foreign source (e.g.,
Chernobyl or the Gulf War). The young people had succumbed because they had recently
attended more than one funeral, thereby making themselves vulnerable by exposure to the dead
in a way that is today quite common but is considered highly inappropriate in traditional Navajo
practice. Traditionally only a few of the closest relatives take responsibility for a dead body and
then only with careful ceremonial procedures that enable them to deal safely with the person's
spirit and belongings. The healer's dual explanation is etiologically rational in invoking a factor
of individual vulnerability combined with an agent to which others are also exposed but do not
necessarily succumb. More impressive, however, is its cultural logic with respect to identity
politics, whereby it combines lack of adherence to traditional practice by Navajos with the
pathogenicity of the dominant society.
Stories of atmospheric pollution, occasionally linked to conspiracy theories, are relatively
common on the reservation, which is to say they predate the hanta virus episode. Such stories
are neither fictional nor delusional. Revelations over the past several years confirm that there
have indeed been environmentally dangerous tests in the Southwest (e.g., ABC News' Turning
Point 2/2/94). Government secrets only recently divulged in the media (to the surprise of most
Americans) may well have been known from observation over decades by people living in the
areas where such tests were carried out. Given the variety of ways in which Navajos (and others)
see the environment and lifestyle of contemporary society as seriously out of balance, the
authorities' implication of the humble mouse stimulated additional suspicion. It was common
at the time to hear comments like, "My grandmother has mice around her house, and no one
there has ever gotten sick." Some Navajos pointed out that people had lived side by side with
mice for centuries, and only recently had it been reported that mice could be harmfuljust as
they had used the same water sources for years and only recently (e.g., since the advent of
uranium mining) had water contamination become a concern. In the rare instances in which
healers acknowledged a possible role for mice, the mice tended to be regarded as messengers

healing and identity politics

bearing a warning rather than as carriers of disease. In the even rarer instances in which mice
were recognized as potential carriers of disease, they were more likely to be regarded as
malevolent spirits in disguise than as vectors for a virus.
The denouement of the episode occurred as more cases began appearing among non-Indians
living beyond the reservation boundaries. As the affected area expanded, fewer cases were
reported, and survival rates improved for those identified early. The media's appetite for the
illness subsided, though occasional reports still appear, the most recent (as of this writing) being
a brief New York Times article in October 1996 about a case in Utah. Perhaps the crowning
ironyor crowning insultof the hanta virus episode was reported by the New York Times in
February 1999, as part of a story on mismanagement of funds held by the U.S. government on
behalf of American Indians since the 19th century. At the document center in Albuquerque,
New Mexico, records of the trust accounts were so poorly maintained that, according to
government officials, they were contaminated with rodent feces that could contain the hanta
virus (Egan 1999). With respect to the identity politics of healing, the outbreak had two effects
on the ethnographic work we were doing. First, it largely precluded conducting interviews in
the eastern area of the reservation where people had become most embittered about outside
intrusion by the media. Second, it provided the occasion to include in interviews conducted in
other areas a question about how the mystery illness, along with other "new" diseases like AIDS,
fetal alcohol syndrome, and drug addiction, were being incorporated into Navajo understandings of health and healing.

the drought apparitions A second episode in spring 1996 also illustrates the identity politics
of healing with respect to cultural representation. Two Navajo deities appeared to two elderly
women in a remote area of the Navajo reservation. The apparition occurred in the context of a
serious drought that lasted through the spring and into the fall of that year. Regarded as the worst
drought since the 1850s, it caused considerable hardship for Navajos who were forced to sell
part of their herds at a loss. On the reservation, the drought resulted in the largest livestock
reduction since the government-enforced stock reduction of the 1930s. Aberle (1982) argued
that the early popularity of the peyote religion among the Navajo was a religious response to
conditions during the 1930s; similarly, I regard the 1996 apparitions as a religious response to
the drought and its accompanying hardship. Of greatest importance, the deities left a message
for the Navajo people. For reasons I will elaborate in a moment, I do not have the exact words
as reported by one of the women to whom the deities appeared, but I did hear several
interpretations of that message reported by Navajos in different regions of the reservation.
Though these interpretations range in urgency and import, they bear a distinct family resemblance. The mildest interpretation was that the apparition was a warning that the drought was
coming and that chanters (traditional Navajo ceremonial leaders or medicine men) should
undertake the appropriate ceremonies to prevent or ameliorate the effects. Another was that the
drought and other difficulties were occurring because the proper ritual offerings had not been
made. The strongest was that the drought had occurred because Navajos were neglecting to
learn about their own language and culture. Offerings should be made on the site of the
apparition, and failure to heed the warning could lead to the end of the world.
These reports point to the relevance of the divine message to both healing and identity politics
among contemporary Navajos. The requested offerings can be understood as healing rituals
insofar as their intent is to remove obstacles to human existence and restore balance in nature
and human affairs. The idea that this disorder is the responsibility of Navajos themselves for
having forsaken their own identity is explicit in the strong form, while in the mild form it could
be construed that the deities are simply doing the Navajo people a favor by instructing them in
the ritual means for overcoming a difficult situation. The central theme is not a new revelation,
but reflects the sentiment of many Navajos concerned about cultural viability. It was well stated

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by a chanter I interviewed several years before the drought. For him, the central feature of chants,
dances, and ceremonies is that they heal people. Not doing the ceremonies so often as in
previous times, not knowing the older generation's teaching and planning, disharmonizing the
ceremonies by secularizing them as "song and dance," or making fun of and fancifying them
are all reasons "why we are easy targets for illnesses, tornadoes, lightning, things that harm us."
In other words, he was suggesting that illness and natural disaster belong to the same category
of events, that healing ceremonies address both, that both are exacerbated by failure to perform
ceremonies, and that such failure is a consequence of weakened Navajo identity.
The critical feature of this episode for our present understanding is not in the message itself,
however, but in the public response to it. In this respect, I must say, first, that the direct apparition
of Navajo deities or Holy People is rare,4 although they are pantheistically present throughout
nature and human existence. Indeed, according to Navajo myth they terminated their immediate
presence on earth long ago, departing with the following statement: "This day and this night
alone you have seen Holy People. From this day on until the end of days you shall not see them
again (in person), that is final!" (Wyman 1970:324-325). Second, as Aberle (1982) observed in
his discussion of early Navajo resistance to the peyote religion, Navajo culture does not typically
place high value on individual vision or mystical experience, and there is no clear tradition of
publicly recognized visionaries.5 Third, Navajo ceremonies are customarily organized around
specific kin groups on a relatively small scale. While in Roman Catholic societies the apparition
of the Virgin Mary or saints to gifted individual visionaries is widely publicized and leads to the
establishment of permanent shrines (such as those at Lourdes or Guadalupe) as sites of
pilgrimage, in Navajo society apparition to such individuals is not a typical mode in which
traditional Holy People manifest themselves, and public pilgrimage is not a typical ritual practice
among Navajos.
Thus it is all the more important that in this instance news of the apparition spread rapidly
throughout Navajoland, and Navajos began arriving en masseliterally by the busloadto
make offerings at the spot where the deities had appeared. A traditional diagnostician determined which of the Holy People in particular required offerings, and a variety of medicine men
reportedly came to the site. One renowned and respected chanter performed a ceremony that
included the appearance of masked dancers representing the deities who had come as
messengers. A steady stream of pilgrims arrived, finally tapering off during the winter months.
The president of the Navajo Nation granted time off to all tribal employees who wanted to make
the trip, and he also made the pilgrimage. At the same time, however, he issued an appeal for
Navajos not to talk about the sacred event, and for there to be no publicity about it. A few
articles appeared in regional newspapers and then nothing. Not until December 31, 1996, did
the tribe's own newspaper The Navajo Times carry the headline "1996 Top Story Is One That
Never Ran." The article acknowledged the apparition but quoted the paper's publisher and
managing editor as saying that the family of the two women had requested that no details be
printed until they decided to give out the "correct story" of their experience and the Holy
People's message, which at the time they had not yet done.6
The requests for circumspection by both the president and the family may or may not have
been connectedthat is, the president may or may not have been relaying the family's request
to the Navajo public at large. The stated concern for accuracy of detail may be recognition of
the stakes for the Navajo people in the transmission of a sacred message, or it may have been
an attempt to control the message by requiring people to come to the site of the apparition to
get the real story. In either case, the identity politics of this episode of collective environmental
healing have important dimensions with respect to cultural representation both internal and
external to Navajo society. Further, there is a sacred and a pragmatic aspect of each of these
dimensions. Let me elaborate.

healing and identity politics

For Navajo people, sacred knowledge is powerful and potentially dangerous (bihidzid), and
it must be treated with a respect that requires circumspection and even secrecy. Spreading
knowledge too far could weaken its spiritual power, abuse its power, or turn its power
destructively against the original knowledge holder. Widespread and uncontrolled dissemination of details of the apparition could be inherently dangerous in an analogous way. This
understanding of potential danger dovetails with the pragmatic aspect of the politics of
representation. Recall that the apparitions occurred within immediate memory of the media
invasion surrounding the hanta virus episode. If a media circus is distasteful in itself, it is even
more distasteful when it promotes misunderstanding and ridicule by outsiders who have no
appreciation for Navajo traditions of spirituality. No less disruptive could be an invasion by
well-meaning but unschooled New Age Indian "wannabes" who might have all manner of
outrageous notions of what constitutes a proper offering to deities that are not theirs. From the
traditional standpoint, that would be a dangerous situation indeed. In these respects, the
remarkably widely heeded call for circumspection was a notable political act of collective
self-identification vis-a-vis the dominant non-Navajo society.
Internally, both sacred and pragmatic issues surrounded the interpretation of the apparitions,
particularly with respect to their authenticity. Medicine men from some parts of the reservation
objected that they had already been performing ceremonies and performing them correctly;
therefore, they were skeptical of the apparent need for the deities to descend and deliver such
a message. In addition, plans for a public ceremony at the site of the apparition for the benefit
of the entire tribe seemed unorthodox to some elders who thought ceremonies for rain were
more appropriately carried out in a localized and private manner by individual families. Yet
others were concerned that traditional Navajos were (again reminiscent of the hanta virus
episode) being unduly singled out and that the message of the Holy People was also relevant
for Navajos of other religious persuasions and even for non-Navajos. In this view, all people,
including Christians, need to return to their traditions. Pragmatically, some Navajos expressed
concern that the legitimacy of the apparitions, or at least their positive impact, was being
undermined by financial profit being made from the events. Making profit from a sacred event
is strictly distinguished from the fees paid to a chanter that establish respect for his ceremony
and legitimacy before the Holy People. In this case, some people complained that the host
family was "selling tacos" out there and that there was a medicine man (hataatii) asking for
money from visitors. In contrast, a respected medicine man who did perform a ceremony at the
site said that even with all the money being taken in, the fee he received was too small to pay
his ceremonial helpers appropriately.

healing and the negotiation among traditions

The above discussion presumes a certain uniformity among Navajos both with respect to
healing and identity. Within Navajo society, however, religious identity, multiple forms of
healing, and interpersonal politics among Navajo make the picture considerably more complex.
The critical ethnographic fact is the coexistence of three forms of spiritual healing in contemporary Navajo society:7 Traditional Navajo healing, Native American Church healing, and
Navajo Christian faith healing. Traditional healing is practiced by the medicine man with his
chant and sandpainting and the diagnostician who works by methods such as hand-trembling,
crystal-gazing, or star-gazing. Native American Church healing is practiced by the road man,
with his earthen altar, sacramental peyote, and Plains Indian-style sweat lodge. Finally,
Christian faith healing is practiced by the independent Navajo Pentecostal preacher, with his
revival meetings and laying on of hands, and by Catholic charismatic prayer groups with their
communal integration of Navajo and Roman Catholic practices.


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All of these forms of healing are resources on the Navajo reservation, but only the one based
on the traditional religion is indigenous to the Navajo people (Farella 1984; Reichard 1950;
Witherspoon 1977). The Native American Church (NAC) is a pan-Indian movement that
developed the sacramental use of peyote in its contemporary form beginning around the turn
of the 20th century with Plains Indian tribes. With its introduction to Navajoland in the 1930s,
adherents faced legal pressures from their own tribal government, which decreed peyotism
illegal in 1940 and did not move for tolerance until 1966 (Aberle 1982; La Barre 1975; Stewart
and Aberle 1984). The introduction and influence of Christianity in many of its contemporary
forms has been only sporadically documented for Navajo society (Bowden 1981; Hodge 1969;
Sombrero 1996). Catholicism came largely with the influence of Franciscan missionaries, and
Mormonism arrived with missionaries from Utah. Many of the major Protestant denominations
are represented, but as is true among Christians in other societies, most ritual healing is carried
out by adherents of various forms of Pentecostal ism. These include branches of denominations
like the Assemblies of God and participants in charismatic prayer groups within Catholic
parishes. Notably, however, they also include a number of independent congregations and
networks of congregations that appear to be proto-denominations, all headed by indigenous
Navajo pastors. They constitute an emergent and distinctly Navajo form of Christianity.
It is possible to outline a model of the relationship among the forms of healing associated
with these three religious traditions with respect to what they have in common as aspects of
Navajo culture and what distinguishes them as components of a cultural system of health care
vis-a-vis one another. To summarize a longer argument (Csordas 1992), all three have as a
common goal that the patient understandNavajo healers typically say that a healer "must talk
to them so they understand." In contrast with a psychoanalytic emphasis on "insight" into the
conflictual origins of the problem, this kind of understanding has to do more with a person's
current place in the world, and is in accord with the often observed preeminence of language
and thought in Navajo culture (Farella 1984; Witherspoon 1977). However, each of the three
Navajo healing forms approaches the goal of understanding in terms of a distinct philosophy
and by means of a distinct therapeutic principle. Traditional Navajo healing is predicated on
what might be called a philosophy of obstacles. Nothing happens without a reason, and the
reason for misfortune is encountering an obstacle. The therapeutic principle of traditional
healing is didactic, as the healer engages the patient in the therapeutic process using methods
that guide thought toward the goal of understanding. In contrast to traditional healing's
philosophy of obstacles, Native American Church (NAC) healing is predicated on a philosophy
of self-esteem. Through the sacramental ingestion of peyote, patients achieve a profound
personal connection with the sacred, and their voices and presence are valorized. The
therapeutic principle in Native American Church healing is confessional, as patients pray,
confess, or tell of their problems, are moved, and cry. Navajo Christian healing is characterized
by a philosophy of moral identity, answering the question "Who am I?" in a way that among
fundamentalists often includes the understanding that the person answering the question is not
a traditionalist or peyotist. Finally, the therapeutic principle of Christian healing is conversional,
with healing typically predicated on adopting Christian values and a Christian way of life.
Beyond these relatively abstract relations in principle, identity politics within Navajo society
are played out in the interaction and negotiation among these three healing forms in everyday
practice. The three tolerate varying degrees of eclecticism with respect to mixing forms, the
most among peyotists and Roman Catholics, the least among fundamentalist Christians and
conservative traditionalists. Fundamentalist Christians, including Protestant Pentecostals, typically require converts to burn ceremonial paraphernalia pertaining to Traditional or NAC
practicegiving such objects away to unconverted relatives is not sufficient. On the other hand,
conservative traditionalists regard Christianity and the Native American Church equally as
foreign intrusions with no proper place in Navajo life. In practice, however, particularly in the

healing and identity politics


pragmatic matter of trying to find the most effective type of healing in any episode of illness or
distress, Navajos often have recourse to all three forms with little or no sense of contradiction.
The 1996 drought provides an initial example of this on-the-ground process of negotiation
among religious forms writ large across the social field of therapeutic practice. It was reported
that some Christian employees of the tribal government were none too pleased at the official
leave granted to Traditional Navajos for making the pilgrimage to the site of the apparitions. A
Traditional chanter who prayed at the site felt that one of the problems that needed to be
ceremonially addressed was that the family had allowed a Native American Church meeting to
be conducted on their land. On the other hand, a major public event was held in the tribal
capital of Window Rock and broadcast across the reservation by the tribal radio station KTNN,
during which a Traditional chanter, an NAC road man, and a Christian minister took turns
offering prayers for the end of the drought.
In the remainder of this section, I will begin to elaborate on this complex situation through
an examination of healers' understandings of one another's practices and worldviews. There is,
to begin, a profound amount of cultural cross-pollination between Traditional and NAC among
Navajos today. Among Traditional healers interviewed, a very small number dismissed peyotism
outright. These were not always the eldest, contrary to the expectation that older Navajos would
be most conservative. Indeed, some of the eldest have consented to be patients or lay
participants in peyote meetings, and may have children who are active. Some appear to have
integrated peyote into their pharmacopeia, treating it simply as another among traditional
healing herbs. One traditionalist who objected to peyotism appeared to do so on pragmatic
grounds, and not without humor:
That's a new fad. That is a new practice. They claim it is a Navajo ceremony, but you hear them sing
happy birthday within their NAC songs. Us Navajo medicine men don't sing like that.. .. Now with the
Native American Church, they use the peyote button and they sing songs. I don't understand the songs.
But there's a lot of, still too much emotionalism in it. Also, the peyote button, it works as a painkiller. So
to really say it's real healing, there is two sides to it and doubtful.
Among NAC healers, multiple participation is also quite likely, especially as patients in
Traditional ceremonies when illness strikes. Those who cite ignorance of traditional ways often
appear to do so with the humility of an untutored layperson rather than with an attitude of
aloofness or rejection. Today many of the most devout younger traditionalists appear to have
been inspired by peyote to learn more about their own cultural roots. Some say that peyote is
not an import from the Plains Indians, but was originally given also to the Navajo and lost, only
now to return. Yet even among those who blend the two religions there are certain ways in
which they are distinguished in practice: certain traditional prayers should not be said from the
peyote altar, one shouldn't participate in traditional and NAC ceremonies on the same day,
some prefer to hold peyote meetings in a Navajo hogan rather than a Plains tipi, certain
traditional herbs (as well as certain hospital medications) are known to be incompatible with
peyote, and some Navajo road men insist on the legitimacy of holding funeral services (despite
traditional constraints on proximity to the dead) on the grounds that people should continue to
feel connected to deceased relatives who will always be a part of them.
Among Christians, one striking example of multiple participation is that of the devout Catholic
woman interviewed as a Christian healer who regularly attended Native American Church
prayer meetings and who made use of our interview honorarium to pay for a Traditional blessing
ceremony. On the other hand a conservative pastor made the following pronouncement: "With
Christianity, our prayers float up to God spiritually. With NAC and traditional, the prayers go
to the devil. In NAC, they have to go to Texas (where the peyote cactus is gathered] to get the
medicine. In traditional, they get herbs from the mountains. We Christians don't have to go to
the mountains or Mexico or Texas."


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These varieties of conflict and cooperation are not only matters of principle and doctrinal
positioning but have everyday implications for social interaction among individuals and
especially within families. For example, three brothers participated in our study: one is a
traditional chanter, the second a peyote road man, and the third a Christian pastor. The
often-strained interplay of interpersonal relationships, religious commitments, and family
loyalties among these men is evidence of the critical role of religion and ritual healing in the
negotiation of contemporary Navajo identity.

healing and personal transformation

Examining the experience of individual patients in ritual healing calls attention to the
little-addressed need to specify a theoretical connection between personal and collective
identity. As a step in this direction, I have selected from among the patients interviewed in our
work three persons, one treated in each healing form. For these three patients, the issue of
identity is a life theme or locus of therapeutic attention. Each of these cases revisits the tensions
animating the two levels of analysis I have treated thus farthe tension between Navajo and
Euro-American values and ways of being-in-the-world, and the tension among the three healing
forms and their implicit visions of what it means to be a Navajo today. Here on the level of
individual experience, these are diffracted by the tensions between illness and well-being and
between aimless existence and dignified self-worth.
Traditional healing Sylvia is a 30-year-old woman in her third year of college at a small
branch state university in one of the reservation border towns. She is very close to her family,
especially her mother whom she admires for her strength, respect, comfort, and support. She
regards herself as a well-rounded person confident in her traditional background in the face of
non-Navajo friends, despite early problems with self-image because of being heavy-set in
comparison to her "beautiful" sisters. She spoke explicitly about the relationship between
self-identity and the traditional life philosophy summarized in the phrase "to walk in beauty":
To me to walk in beauty would mean to know your whole self identity, to walk in harmony, you know
with nature, your surroundings, and even, you know, having your whole family, being aware of everything
around y o u . . . .Walking in beauty will also be the person themselves. You know that uh, getting, knowing
their traditional beliefs, their culture. Arising from that, once you know the whole background, that can
be your backbone, to growth, knowing that's your self-identity, and from there, you won't get discouraged.
You won't get disappointed. A lot of the negativity that one must feel won't be with you forever 'cause
you'll know how to deal with it, once you know your self-identity. And that begins, I think that should
begin at an early age. I believe that, you know, walking in beauty.

Her problem began with her father's death seven years previously when, as the eldest of six
children, she assumed much of his role and responsibilities. Since then she has quite literally
been carrying the weight of his death on her shoulders, with the onset of shoulder and arm pain
on her left side. At the hospital, x-rays were inconclusive, and she developed a dependency on
a pain medication that inflamed the lining of her stomach. Frequent treatment by chiropractors
helped temporarily, but the pain always returned. She felt that there was a spiritual component
to the problem and that this component could be addressed only through a traditional ceremony.
This feeling may be due in part to the fact that her father was a strong believer in traditional
religion, and, as in other aspects of life, she felt the need to carry on in his ways. Indeed, there
was a significant emotional component to her distress. She reported that she wasn't herself (a
common self-description among Navajos in illness or distress) and that she was lonely and
unhappy. She said that she thought and dreamt about her father, had thoughts about the deaths
of others, and experienced negative feelings: "Like there was something heavy weighted on me
so much, on my shoulders, and I just couldn't take it anymore."

healing and identity politics


The most vivid dream she recounted was one shortly after her father's death. In this dream,
he spoke to her lovingly, showing her where he was and who he was with, assuring her that he
was fine and that he was watching over the family. Despite the positive nature of this particular
dream, in Navajo culture dreams of the dead are invariably problematic. They require ritual
treatment to determine the effects of the deceased spirit on the living. Sylvia herself acknowledged uncertainty about whether the dream was a good or bad thing, and her uneasiness was
evident as she made it a point to report that every time she visited a medicine man he would
ask about such dreams. Her first consultation was with a Traditional diagnostician who, by the
technique of crystal-gazing, determined that Sylvia required an Evilway ceremony.8 This
diagnostician resolved the contradiction between a positive and negative interpretation of the
dream with an elegant therapeutic move. He determined that her father's sudden death was
due to witchcraft, the effects of which lingered in the family and were augmented by additional
witchcraft performed since the death. He also determined that Sylvia and her second youngest
brother, the two family members who were emotionally closest to their father, were most
affected. It was thus possible to attribute any evil effects to the malicious intent of outsiders,
removing blame from the father's spirit and preserving the positive emotional valence of his
memory, while implicitly recognizing the two siblings as vulnerable to an internal psychological
process identifiable in clinical terms as bereavement or grief reaction.
In the meantime, the diagnostician ritually extracted objects from Sylvia's shoulder. He
claimed that these were the immediate source of her pain, whereupon it subsided. She had to
return to the diagnostician on several occasions for this procedure while she delayed having
the more elaborate ceremony. According to Sylvia, she delayed the ceremony because she did
not know how to prepare or how to find the right chanter. Only after becoming involved in a
significant new relationship with a man whose family, coincidentally, knew a chanter with the
appropriate ceremonial knowledge to conduct her ceremony, did Sylvia become ready to leave
behind her debilitating emotional attachment to her father's memory. She found the most
compelling element in the ceremony the moment in which she accompanied the healer outside
the hogan to confront the evil and to pray that it no longer affect her. Subsequently, during the
final morning prayers, she likened her experience to that of an eagle, flying high in the sky. She
said she felt clean and as if her senses were heightened.
Sylvia stated quite explicitly that for her the ceremony was the beginning, not the culmination,
of a healing process. Three months after the ceremony, she reported:
For me personally, I'm a traditional person and when I know I have the prayer done, to me that means a
lot. It motivates me, and it knows that I can . . . it tells me that I can do it. And that whatever obstacles
that may lay ahead that may be hard, hard to do whatever, you know, hearing the prayer and having that
protection I need. All that stuff I feel. I guess that's what a traditional person does. . . . It's given me a lot
of courage and determination in saying that won't finish. I guess that it's a motivator for, you know, within
me not just the English way but also the Navajo traditional way. It just makes you want more, to strive for
more and, you know, knowing that wherever you go, you're always protected. . . . After I knewonce
the ceremony or the main part that was donewhat I was there for, and what it was supposed to have
done to me, it did because, you know, they say that prayer is very powerful. And you know the stuff you
hold like they have the arrowhead and that stuff. Those are very powerful. All that comes with, you know,
stories and behind that there's a meaning for all that
I could feel it within me. I could feel a mixture
of all that he was praying about. And I could feel it. You have to really understand, you know, why your
ceremony was being conducted, you know, and the reasons for it and the purpose of what it's gonna do
for you in the outcome. You know why they used those prayers. And also behind every prayer and every
song that's sung traditionally, the medicine man always tells you why that song originated and what its
purpose is and what it served for. So knowing that, knowing after he tells you, you know, you think, "Okay
this is how I'm gonna get you over this thought process." . . . So I think everything has diminished
don't know exactly when it was, or you don't know exactly, "Okay after that song I'm healed." It takes
usually time.

Thus, Traditional healing initiated a series of changes for Sylvia. She was able to make sense of
her father's death without blaming him; to feel reassured of his well-being in the afterlife while
letting go of his distressful afterlife presence in her life; to learn to experience positive rather


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than negative memories of her father; to question and finally reaffirm her own identity in terms
of aspirations, past, family, and culture; to relieve her physical pain and negative thoughts; and
to become closer to her boyfriend and his family.
Christian healing Nancy is a woman of 47 with three children. At the time of this writing,
she was twice married and twice divorced. Two years previously, she was diagnosed with breast
cancer, which is currently in remission. In addition to suffering from the after effects of surgery
and chemotherapy, she was troubled by abandonment issues; after her diagnosis, her second
husband left her for another woman. She recounted a troubled early life of violent abuse by an
aunt with whom she lived, by boarding school personnel, and by her father, followed by a first
marriage to a violent alcoholic who left her a widow. Of her recent abandonment she
commented, 'This is like a recycle." Despite this history of difficulties, she demonstrated her
resiliency in two ways. First, she pursued her second husband in court and won a significant
settlement, and second, she reenrolled as a full-time college student.
Nancy encountered Christianity after being diagnosed with cancer and before her husband
left her. A friend invited her to attend a small independent Navajo congregation. Nancy
characterized the atmosphere at the church as peaceful and open and said she felt more at
home there than with her own family where everyone was constantly arguing. Prayer meetings
at the church include prayers for healing by the pastor. On one occasion, Nancy asked for
prayers for her daughter's strength and health and for her own education in the context of
upcoming midterm exams. Such healing prayers are available on a regular basis for participants
in the Christian prayer meetings, services, and revivals. Nancy said the prayers gave her strength,
determination, faith, peace, wisdom, renewed sociality, and help with the stress of pursuing her
education. She added, however, that she did not understand the meaning of the songs sung in
church until she had the experience of being saved. In her words, the overall effect has been
to be more open and to be like, I feel it did a lot for me. It really, I feel more at peace, and I feel they can
make me stronger like health-wise, and I can communicate better with people now than before because
I was always locked up in bedroom, you know, studying, studying, studying. I'd be with my books, and
I feel like I just came out into the world again, and I just went with them. And you know I love those
prayer meetings. I like to go to those prayer meetings. I like to be with Christian people. They're more
understanding. They help me a lot.
Critical to understanding this overall effect in the case of Christian healing is that it is
compounded of participation, healing prayer, and salvation. Moreover, particularly among such
independent Navajo congregations (i.e., those not affiliated with a major denomination), the
Christian community with its distinct lifestyle is an insulated society within a society.
Nancy's experiences with the other two spiritual healing forms say much more about the
politics of personal identity acted out in social relationships than about those healing forms per
se: an exceedingly negative experience with the Native American Church, of which her
unfaithful second husband was an adherent, and a highly positive one with Traditional healing,
in which her father is a medicine man. She recalls her second husband threatening her that
peyote would somehow "come after you and do something to you" if she did not listen to and
respect it. She allowed him to practice and keep peyote at home, and she even allowed a road
man acquaintance to live with them for a time and to hold a peyote meeting for her. She felt,
however, that this road man was also "using peyote for sex and love," causing her husband to
leave her by involving him in this abuse of peyote's spiritual power. She chased the corrupt
road man out of the house, saying she would go the route of chemotherapy instead of submitting
to his treatment; she was skeptical that a one-night ceremony could heal her in any case. She
claimed she was told by a physician that peyote could make cancer grow, and she concluded
that her husband and the road man had been conspiring to bring about her demise.
On the other hand, though in principle she feels that she should no longer participate in
Traditional ceremonies because she has "dedicated myself to the Lord," shortly after her

healing and identity politics


husband left she had a Blessingway ceremony performed by a chanter contracted by her father.
In this case, pragmatism in the logic of therapeutic choice, in the form of accepting an alternative
treatment that may not only prove to be efficacious but that will also please a family member,
impinges on identity politics at the personal level. Although Nancy belongs to a classic
independent Navajo fundamentalist congregation, the friend she asked for advice beforehand
said to go ahead as long as it was a Blessingway and not an Evilway ceremony and as long as
she said a prayer, "so you can get the color of the Lord's light." In effect, her friend advised her
to give the Traditional ceremony a Christian benediction. Nancy reported the following effect
of the ceremony:
[It] kind of cleared my mind, and I used to cry a lot, and I couldn't eat, and I couldn't even think. And it
just kind of fulfill my spirit again. It's like it just woke you up, like you were dead for a while and you just
came back to life, you know. Kind of made me feel that way, and then the medicine man told me, "Don't
think about your past, don't think about, don't think about your ex-husband. Don't think about what he's
doing, what he's saying to you. Don't listen to the gossip. Don't listen to rumors." And he told me, "Just
think about yourself." That's what the prayer was, just for myself, just to get my life back together. .. .
And after that, that took a lot of pressure off my back.
Nevertheless, she declined the chanter's offer of further treatment because it would have cost
additional money.
For Nancy, the experience of "being pulled three ways" was resolved by being saved. She
expressed the need to "know where I stand," to "find myself," and "to know what's going on
in my life." This knowledge emerged through an act of commitment to Christianity. She says,
"And so when I got saved, I had to say my own prayer from my own heart, from my inner-self,
just give everything, all my problems, everything back to the Lord, let him take care of it."

Native American Church healing George is a 24-year-old student at a state university in

one of the reservation border towns. His experience is diametrically opposed to that of Nancy
in that his grandmother was an early and strong adherent of the NAC. He refers to her as a
"pillar" and speaks of her "teachings" about "peyote and the importance of life." The family has
long used the same road manhe ran meetings for George's grandmother and watched George
and George's siblings and cousins grow up. This stability and the long-time friendship and
respect between the family and the road man is important to George, and the role of road man
as an anchor for social relationships stands in sharp contrast to the marginal and corrupt
practitioner portrayed in the previous discussion of Nancy. George had a traditional upbringing
centered around caring for the sheep. His father was a heavy drinker who regularly abused his
wife. He is very close with and concerned for his motherfor him the Navajo word shima refers
equally to one's mother and to one's home, the earth where one was born. He cites the
connection symbolized by the custom of burying a baby's umbilical cord where it is born.
After boarding school, high school, and a year of college (all on or near the reservation),
George enlisted in the Marines, traveling widely in the Far East and Middle East. He participated
in the Gulf War, having peyote ceremonies both before his departure and after his return for
protection. A prevailing theme for him is comparing the Navajo worldview, religion, and
lifestyle with those of the larger society, trying to come to terms with and integrate his
experiences, to figure out how he wants to live and where he wants to fit in. His problems
amount to a general malaise compounded by helping his mother care for an alcoholic brother's
children, his own lack of motivation concerning his goals of finishing school and joining the
Peace Corps, problems in his relationship with his girlfriend, and several physical complaints
including back pain from an old injury and respiratory problems that began during the Gulf
War. He used to run regularly (as is prescribed in traditional spiritual discipline) but says recently
he has stopped running because of "low self-esteem." Behind these issues, there is a sense
shared among family members that the influence of witchcraft perpetrated against his grand-


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mother years ago has been passed on through the whole family, causing them to fight among
George and his mother asked for help from their family road man during a brief ceremony
he was conducting for some other close relatives. This request initiated a process, allowing them
to identify their problems explicitly. According to George, the simple effect was "just knowing
you're getting helped. That's about it. I mean, I've attended it since I was small, so you just know
it's going to work, I guess. It's an idea. And, you relate your problems to other things, maybe
see the source of your problem, why it's going on, why you are blinded by it." Later, as a result
of a full-scale all-night peyote meeting, he described a feeling of familiarity and self-knowledge
that brought him back to the basics and let him know who he is. He strongly got the message
that "it's all up to you" and was able to engage in significant self-evaluation. In addition, he was
able to "release a lot of emotional baggage," as well as to express some feelings and issues in
prayer that he knew his girlfriend, sitting next to him, could hear. Three months after the
ceremony, he reported doing better in school, having better motivation, and having an improved
family situation. He remained with his girlfriend, and several months later she became pregnant.
George appears to be explicitly concerned with his own identity and proud of his open-mindedness and experience. He is a young man who wants to do everything, who is interested in
everything, and who says, "My whole life is an experiment." According to George, his religion
teaches him "how to carry yourself." He is concerned that "society is going to take us all down,"
and he is concerned about "new Navajos" who "keep themselves blind," are materialistic, and
do not want their peers to know they speak the Navajo language or that they participate in
ceremonies. For him, peyote itself is less a spirit or entity than a means of protection and a
medicine that allows clarity of thought, expression, and the ability to release emotions. In this
case, healing was a way to move beyond a difficult transitional period, one in which identity
as a Navajoa responsible adult bicultural Navajo man with deep ties to family and significant
aspirations in the contemporary worldwas immediately at issue.

healing and politics, the politics of healing, healing politics, political healing
How then to formulate this relationhow are identity politics being played out through the
practice of ritual healing among Navajos? Answering this question requires taking a position on
the series of conceptual relations I identified at the outset between religion and politics, tradition
and modernity, individual and collective, microsocial and macrosocial. In elaborating such a
position, I want to review some of the literature in which anthropologists have begun to discuss
the way ritual healing, itself a form of cultural power, is relevant well beyond a specific problem,
illness, or disorder. Arthur Kleinman (1980,1986) pioneered this area through studies of healing
and psychiatric disorder in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, showing that
suffering must be understood in the context of both larger political realities and local moral
worlds. Also working in China, Thomas Ots (1994) documented changes in bodily practice and
emotional experience in a cathartic healing movement based on qigong (breathing therapy) in
relation to the course of the prodemocracy movement that culminated in mass demonstrations
at Tianenmen Square. Marina Roseman (1996) described a ceremony involving Sri Kelantan,
spirit of the Malaysian state of Kelantan, showing how ritual action articulates interactions
among Malay, Chinese, and indigenous Orang Asli. Drawing on material from the Newar of
the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, David Gellner (1994) took up the issue of the predominance
of women in the role of medium by considering both traditional notions of gender roles and
contemporary political changes.
In Africa, Jean Comaroff (1985) examined Zionist healing within the legacy of colonial
repression as a "mode of repairing the tormented body, and through it, the oppressive social
order itself. Thus the signs of physical disorder are simultaneously the signifiers of an aberrant

healing and identity politics


world" (1985:9). Matthew Schoffeleers (1991) disagreed with Comaroff, arguing that political
acquiescence, rather than resistance, is a characteristic of churches in South Africa. In his view,
Zionist churches are acquiescent because healing, the central component of their practice,
individualizes and depoliticizes the cause of illness. Lesley Sharp (1990, 1993) understands
possession by tromba spirits in northwest Madagascar in relation to psychological consequences
of conflicting moral orders and anomie. In a setting where ethnic boundaries had been blurred
by colonialism and polyculturalism, tromba possession articulates themes of ethnic and
individual identity and resistance to capitalism. Sharp focused on female participants who
become involved in a fictive kinship system requiring adherence to restrictions that provide a
rationale for manipulating economic relations and thereby undermine processes of capitalist
exploitation. This process provides them with work as healers, liberating them from ordinary
agricultural labor.
In the Americas, Michael Taussig (1980a, 1980b, 1987) regarded shamanism in southwest
Colombia as part of the context of colonial violence and its aftermath. This violence is intricately
linked to conceptions of persons, self, and other, to constructive appropriation of the other, to
various healing systems of the Indians, and to cultural understandings of Indians as mysterious,
powerful, and dangerous. Shamanic practice and its hallucinatory possibilities thus transcend
the meaning of healing as an attempt to ameliorate the distress of individuals, becoming a central
figure in the cultural discourse of colonialism. Libbett Crandon (1989) examined mestizos'
adoption of Aymara healing methods during rural Bolivia's transition from a colonial society to
a class-based agricultural society. These methods serve to explain social group participation
expectations and to integrate the person into a new sociopolitical position in the cosmological
system. In Ecuador, S. A. Alchon (1991) showed that with the advent of the Spanish presence
and the rise in mortality, indigenous conceptions about etiology changed, but healing practices
changed little. A critical sense of cosmological balance based on the need to propitiate both
Andean and Christian deities became increasingly difficult to maintain, and preservation of
traditional healing practices became a form of political resistance. Ramirez de Jara and Pinzon
Castano (1992) discussed how Sibundoy shamans in Colombia integrate indigenous thought
structure and the challenges of national society with Columbia's diverse manifestations of
popular culture. J. Waldram (1993) examined symbolic healing in Canadian penitentiaries,
looking specifically at aboriginal offenders in cultural awareness programs. The programs
provide new meaning to disrupted lives and help inmates resolve identity conflicts. Since many
offenders are from different native groups, the establishment of a common cultural ground and
mythic world is also an adaptation to a situation of increasing cultural plurality.
Integrating these few sources is only a small first step in fleshing out a problem area where
discussion too easily defaults to a polarity of simplistic interpretations. Either ritual healing is a
futile expression of frustrationthe opiate of the masses interpretationor ritual healing is a
subtle form of political resistancethe postmodern liberation of the indigenous voice interpretation. I propose that the kind of analysis I have begun of the Navajo situation offers a more
nuanced opportunity to clarify relations among the conceptual pairings that I have identified
here. To make my position explicit, scholarship must move beyond defining the project as a
study of ritual healing in the context of politics, or as the opening of a performative window
onto larger political processes, and toward an understanding of the kind of experiential
transducers operative between the religious and political domains. Bodily experience may be
a prime example of such a transducer, and moreover one that is relevant at all three levels of
relation between healing and identity politics I have identified (see Figure 1).
Indeed, this notion corresponds with the kindred attempt by Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987)
to situate the "mindful body" of medical anthropology with respect to broader social issues. To
elaborate briefly, cultural representations of the mystery illness and the drought apparitions
contributed to the ongoing constitution of what Scheper-Hughes and Lock term the "body


american ethnologist

between societies
Body politic

Ritual healing

within society
Social body

Identity politics

Person in society
Individual body
Figure 1. Relation between ritual healing and identity politics.
politic" of Navajo society in its vulnerable yet resistant confrontation with the dominant society.
The ongoing negotiation among healing traditions is a process of constituting the "social body"
by situating it within Navajo society as a subject of one tradition or as the node of intersection
among traditions. The experience of personal transformation narrated by patients constitutes
the "individual body" as a person with a contemporary Navajo identity in the politically charged
space between tradition and postmodemity. In this formulation, each of the cultural processes
I have singled out in the relation between ritual healing and identity politics (representation,
negotiation, and transformation) is inherently political, and not only those occurring on the level
of the body politic per se. In sum, reading Figure 1 horizontally, recall that it is no coincidence
that the term power is essential for analyses of both religion and politics (Fogelson and Adams
1977); reading the figure vertically, recall the contribution of feminist theory's lesson that the
personal is also political.
Again, in contemporary analyses of the relation between tradition and modernity, aside from
an interest in fundamentalism of various stripes, there have been relatively few efforts to
understand the place of religion in the contemporary world system or in the process of
globalization (Beyer 1994; Csordas 1997; Friedman 1994; Ong 1996:745-747; Robertson and
Chirico 1985; Schieffelin 1996; Wuthnow 1980). In this respect, it is critical both that the appeal
to tradition is just as likely to be heard on a global as on a local scale (witness the recent
proliferation of "fundamentalisms"), and that themes of modernity (and postmodemity) are
evident not only in the global ecumene but equally in fourth-world enclaves such as Navajoland. For contemporary Navajos, tradition thrives in itself but also comes to be defined in relation
to Christianity and the NAC, as well as in relation to modern technology, national politics, and
global movements of indigenous peoples. The college-educated Navajo who declares in an
e-mail message, "I am a traditional person," means something quite other than the stereoptypical
image of the old person adorned in turquoise or tending sheep in the desert. Especially in its
religious aspect, tradition is more than a badge of ethnic identity; it is a mode of engaging the
Finally, just as power belongs to both the religious and political spheres, the concepts of self
and identity belong both to the psychological analysis of individuals and to the social analysis
of collective processes. As Calhoun notes, in the historical context of democracy and the
Protestant Reformation, "problems of individual and collective identity were joined, both
because individual identity was shaped by what Foucault called new disciplines of power, and

healing and identity politics


because the question was raised of what sort of individual identity qualified one to participate
in the public discourses that shaped policy and influenced power" (1994:2).
I would argue that these issues need to be teased out by more explicit and frequent dialogue
between psychocultural and sociopolitical approaches, by more attention to these issues
beyond the locales where democracy and Protestantism have been cultural touchstones, and
with respect to particular empirical problems such as that of ritual healing. In this way, they can
continue to be made problematic as the point of intersection between, for example, Friedman's
(1992) concern for the relation between the construction of identity and larger global processes
and the concern raised by the study of ritual healing for the relation between construction of
identity and smaller psychocultural processes.
One way to advance this problematic in future work might be to distinguish between a
personal politics of collective identity, in which individual actors with clear commitments are
struggling to assert a shared identity, and a collective politics of personal identity, in which each
among a group of actors with ambiguous commitments is struggling to attain individual identity.
Such a distinction would certainly serve to set up comparisons by identifying relative emphases
rather than absolute differences in the substance of identity politics. In contemporary North
American society, for example, it would suggest a degree of commonality between a movement
for gay rights to define a personal homosexual identity and a religious movement that places a
priority on personal salvation or transformation. Likewise, it would suggest a commonality
between a feminism that aims for a collective identity based on sisterhood and an ethnic
movement intent on creating a community. With respect to the particular case of the Navajo,
such a distinction would facilitate a specification of the senses in which individuals, though in
identifiably Navajo ways, are struggling for personal identity, and the senses in which a personal
commitment to the community is a contribution to collective identity. If, in practice, the
distinction is difficult to tease out because both personal and collective sensibilities are highly
relevant and because both center around the critical issue of being Navajo, it may by the same
token serve as a useful tool for understanding the pairs religion and politics, individual and
society, microsocial and macrosocial, tradition and modernity, as complementary aspects of
the same phenomenon, sides of the same human coin.

Acknowledgments. The section subtitled "Reflections on a Mystery Illness" is based on a paper presented
in 1993 to the symposium on "Symbol and Performance in Healing: The Contributions of Indigenous
Medical Thought," a preconference of the XIII International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. I am grateful to the colleagues who offered
comments and questions during presentation of earlier versions of this article to the Scholars Seminar at the
Russell Sage Foundation, to the Seminar in Clinically Relevant Medical Anthropology at Harvard University,
and to the 1997 meetings of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, particularly John Logan,
Michael Hout, and Arthur Kleinman. I am also grateful to Janis Jenkins for her insightful critique of my
argument. The article was completed during my tenure as a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation
in 1997.
1. This article is based on data from a five-year project on ritual healing in contemporary Navajo society
funded by National Institute of Mental Health grant MH50394-05. The Navajo Healing Project was carried
out under Navajo Nation Cultural Resources Investigation Permit C9708-E and with the endorsement of five
Community Health Advisory Boards in regions of the Navajo reservation in which the project was
conducted. Research was conducted by four teams, each consisting of an ethnographer and an interpreter,
and by a psychiatrist with substantial clinical experience with Navajo patients. As principal investigator, I
supervised all research conducted. The initial phase of the project consisted of ethnographic interviews with
95 healers distributed across Traditional, Native American Church, and Christian forms of healing. Working
with a smaller selected group of healers, we followed a total of 84 patients for a minimum of four to six
months through ethnographic and clinical interviews, as well as observation of healing ceremonies and
domestic environments. Interviews with the three patients discussed in this article were conducted by the
team of Elizabeth Lewton and Victoria Bydone.
2. Anglo is the generic English term used by Navajos for Euro-Americans; the corresponding Navajo term
is Bilaga'ana. African Americans and Mexicans are recognized as distinct groups.


american ethnologist

3. As Keith Basso (1979) has documented among the neighboring Apache, such stories constitute a major
genre of contemporary Navajo expressive culture.
4. Such rare public hierophanies may be particularly associated with moments of collective stress such
as the 1996 drought. Clyde Kluckhohn (1942:59-60) reports two apparitions of Holy People in 1936, during
the traumatic period of U.S. government forced livestock reduction on the reservation. In these instances,
the divine message also included instructions that ceremonial activity be carried o u t
5. There is evidence, however, that some Navajo ceremonials have originated in dreams or visions (Haile
1940; Kluckhohn 1942).
6. This request for silence brings the Navajo politics of identity face to face with the politics of
ethnographic representation in that, although at the time individual Navajos were willing to discuss the
apparition with me, it was unclear in what way I could respectfully write about the incident in an
ethnographic article. In the present discussion, I take my lead from the tribal newspaper article cited in the
text, maintaining cautious respect for the sacred by not publishing the names of the particular Holy People
who appeared, or the details of their mode of appearance.
7. A comprehensive account of the Navajo health care system would have four components, including
biomedical care practiced in facilities of the Indian Health Service and private or public hospitals both on
and off the reservation (Csordas and Garrity 1992). Interaction of the spiritual traditions with biomedical
care is beyond the scope of the present argument.
8. Some Navajos are critical of the term Evilway as the English rendering of the HochxtfO'jf ceremony.
In their opinion, the adverse effects of exposure to spirits of the deceased are not well described by a word
that in English connotes profound malevolence and even demonic influence.

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accepted November 3, 1997

final version submitted January 7, 1998
Thomas J. Csordas
Department of Anthropology
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH 44106-7125

healing and identity politics