I WAS AT PIZZA EDGE IN CHINLE, Arizona, contemplating the idea of the sacred. The air was warm for late autumn. I recognize this weather: warm, faint winds, and the awareness that at any moment the day could turn toward winter. It made me think of the crescent moon, which my partner describes as a bowl that holds wind, snow, and ice. Every fall and winter, he notes the moon and its tilt. I think of the lunar cycle and its deep time. So many communities have studied and derived meaning from this cycling, my own included. The moon and other celestial bodies make up a more sacred part of Diné thought and lifeway. As a child, my mom would remind us constantly to never look at the full moon. But we would spend summer nights camping out studying the night sky with very little light pollution. Each star, planet, and satellite a reminder of force and energy. It’s an immensity I still to this day can only wonder and imagine. Sacred things, we conclude; things beyond our understanding. And maybe that’s okay.
The idea of sacredness tends to come up often in my work. What anoints something as sacred? It’s a question I often receive as a Diné poet talking to audiences across the country. But it’s a subject I feel I can’t talk to, because that kind of esoteric knowledge is unreachable. Not in the sense that I can’t learn it, because I can. It’s unreachable in the sense that perhaps I am not ready to learn it, or I have not made the right kind of commitments to learning that kind of knowledge. During the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute, a summer program for creative writing held at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, Philmer Bluehouse talked about the three realms of Diné knowledge and the ways esoteric knowledge is almost meant to be just beyond our grasp. Because that knowledge unlocks a different coding of reality, a different approach to the world, and it’s one that has sustained Diné thought and lifeway for generations. In the wrong or unprepared hands, the knowledge could backfire. So, instead, I answer knowing what I know based on the stories I’ve been told: that a sacred space is anywhere meant for reverence to a realm beyond our current spatial awareness of reality. That this sacred is beyond our three dimensions, maybe even dimensionless. It is the beyond itself.
In that answering, I know I will be illuminated in a way that is more aligned to that of the “spiritual American Indian” stereotype. To combat this, many Native thinkers and leaders have started discussions around the connection between the Native and the Sacred. That night at Pizza Edge, for instance, I thought of a GIF of Ray Taken Alive (@regcharging) mouthing: “It’s not that sacred.”
All things should have an opening, and all openings should face east.
PIZZA EDGE IS A LOCAL CHAIN of pizza shops across the reservation. I would call it sacred because it’s a place that sells decent pizza in a food desert. And what’s more sacred than pizza after a hard day? This Pizza Edge in Chinle is located within the Tseyi’ plaza, one of many shopping centers that the Navajo Nation government felt were necessary to spur local Navajo economies. This one houses the Bashas’ grocery store, U.S. post office, ACE Hardware store, Diné College Chinle Center, some office space, Wells Fargo Bank, and an abandoned building that was formerly a Taco Bell and a King Dragon Chinese restaurant. To the south sits a Burger King.
The architecture and design of Tseyi’ plaza is what first caught my eye. Adorned across the entire plaza is what I’ve heard referred to as the Diné step design, which is associated with the Diné basket used in a variety of ceremonies. I asked my partner if the design has a Diné name and he shrugged his shoulders. Normally, what he doesn’t know, I take as a sign as knowledge that is maybe beyond my grasp. It’s a matter of the sacred. Dozens of contemporary Diné artifacts, from weavings to tattoo designs, feature the step design. Are those artifacts then sacred themselves? Are they at least kissed by sacredness? As I stood at the Pizza Edge, waiting for my ranch dressing, I noticed that the pillars of the plaza also take up the shape of the step design. Funny, I thought. Designers and architects found ways to instill a sense of cultural history into a shopping plaza. Of course, often overlooked and maybe unnoticed, even by me up to that point. If the design itself is an aesthetic of the sacred, then can a shopping plaza be a sacred space?
A Diné hogan is a sacred space. It is where much of Diné lifeways are learned. Today, many spaces mimic the Diné hogan such that it becomes both aesthetic and framework. Each hogan should face the eastern direction as all openings should, like a body with its arms out toward a clear morning. The eastern opening is codified in Diné thought and lifeway; all things should have an opening, and all openings should face east. It’s an awareness informed by a Diné understanding of the cosmos: an environment geared toward opportunity with the rise of every morning sun. It makes sense. Most prayers and ceremonies revere the sunrise. So much, in fact, that the eastern opening becomes a design feature as well, a matter of aesthetics. It can represent a variety of things, but mostly an opening toward the sacred. For instance, the Diné basket that features the step design has an east-facing opening oriented to the morning.
Rex Lee Jim, a Diné poet and scholar, writes, “I faced the east and stood there in silence.” This orientation to morning is an orientation to possibility and emergence. Every morning holds opportunity if we see it as such. In this recollection, Jim compares a childhood morning prayer experience to one with his adult self. As a child, he saw his grandfather praying in the morning and named it magic. As an adult, Jim stands in his grandfather’s place, praying in the morning, and names it affirmation. “After so many years later, I finally stood where my grandfather stood. I prayed and the world came to life. And my grandfather, Talking God, was right there with me,” he writes. It’s an important teaching and one that was passed on to me quite early. Even today, I strive to ensure my apartment doors face the east. It’s not an easy task but it’s worth the extra looking. Again, the idea of the sacred finds itself woven into a contemporary life, like apartment hunting. And this urge to meet the morning is pinnacle to Diné thought and lifeway. Rex Lee Jim continues, “The morning prayer is an affirmation of my life philosophy, followed by my outline for the day. This outline must take me closer to my lifelong goal.” All this to say that all things should have an eastern opening.
Tseyi’ shopping plaza, too, opens up toward the east. But, then again, it’s a shopping plaza. Can something so capitalist be sacred?
The Tseyi’ shopping plaza is not the only plaza of its kind. Just to the southeast, in Window Rock, Arizona, a kind of sacredness permeates the buildings. There is a history there, both contemporary and ancestral. Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation, with much of its administration housed in various historical buildings. Each office and hallway bears the memory of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its agents, under whose authority Diné communities faced countless aggressions. Today, the legislative body of the Navajo Nation gathers in the historic Navajo Nation Council Chamber, originally constructed in 1933 with the help of Public Works Administration funding. The council mirrors a Navajo hogan with an eastern opening and continues to hold so much of Navajo memory and sits just beneath the town’s central figure: a rock formation that also bears an opening toward the eastern direction. Most evenings in the summer, families will be hiking its back or singers singing a prayer or another song at the opening’s center, the chant echoing out over the tribal government and its administration buildings as a kind of ode to the place’s ancestral memory of water and medicine gathering before contact.
Can democracy be sacred?
The Navajo Nation is still a very young democracy, and one that has a rocky history. In the 1980s, the government evolved from a council to a three-branch government after a standoff between a chairman and his council led to a deadly riot near one of the administration buildings. The sitting chairman at the time, charged with fraud, was removed by the Navajo Nation Council. This set off months of clashes between pro-chairman and pro-council factions that culminated in a shootout between tribal police and protestors, leaving two dead and many more injured.
Today, the government is more intact, with further defined governmental branches that mirror the U.S. government. Partisan behavior continues but not to the level of “riot.” Well, not entirely at least. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued its campaign on the reservation, a clash between the president and protestors resulted in an arrest, while there was another supposed incident between a sitting councilwoman and the first lady of the Navajo Nation. All within a supposedly sacred space.
But what should one expect when we force into a container thousands of years of teachings? Each leader believes in their version of Diné creation and uses it as such to inform the way they act and see the world. This is not to imply that everything within a Diné sacred space is or should be utopic. I believe the Diné sacred is more aligned with balance and the acknowledgment of everything being present in any given moment, including hardships. This, of course, is my very loose interpretation of teachings that have survived decades of Western aggression. This continued collision between Diné thinking and Western thinking takes different forms across the country, as shopping plazas and government buildings are built around Diné sacred images and Diné sacred images are employed in the pedagogies and methodologies of Diné instititions across the country.
The collision has even gone interplanetary. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars Perseverance rover mission has become a kind of border space between Diné and Western thinking. The rover’s first focus was naming a rock in Diné: Máaz. The Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President offered the NASA team a list of Diné words they can use to name different features found on Mars. This is all thanks to Aaron Yazzie, a Diné engineer on the team, who helped NASA work with the Navajo Nation on obtaining permission for the naming.
I’m not here to reduce the significance of this recognition in any way. I am more wondering what I wondered that night while I stood in line for pizza and ranch in Chinle: What makes something sacred, and can that sacredness be offered to things not considered sacred? Is there a rubric? Does giving something on Mars a Diné name transform the reality of it into a Diné space and, therefore, a sacred space?
Of course, I am making a big conflation here. Are all Diné spaces sacred? It’s a unique way to trouble our realities when we consider the sacredness of a thing. For Diné, the line between the sacred and the non-relies on language. Language, after all, is the coding of our reality. It is the very thing that drives our consciousness forward. We perceive the world through the words we use.
The work of the Diné language is a work of the beyond. Our language was molded out of deep reverence and observation to the natural world. Words like łii’ (horse), tó (water), and hashtl’ish (mud), as illuminated by Diné poets Orlando White and Sherwin Bitsui, are words forged out of the mere sound of their subject. Imagine a body wanting to form and mimic a sound and using just the mouth and voice to name it. I would also name this magic: to want to mimic the world around us and then to find a way to do it. This process even created the name “Máaz” (Mars). Today, Diné engineers, pianists, and doctors are using the language to name things found in features of the outside world and, quite literally, outside worlds. And naming things in Diné is a process unlike the naming we do today. We don’t discover a thing; we labor for it. For example, I asked my partner what the Diné word would be for “stanza.” He asked me to clarify the purpose of a stanza because Diné languaging requires context, time and space, its orientation to the morning. If stanza really means “room,” I asked about the Diné word for room. He asked me to be more specific because each room has a different word. Is it a bedroom, a living room, a room where everyone stands? And who is in the room and where in time and space is this room situated? So if stanza really means “room,” what kind of room is it within a poem? Naming things in different languages uncovers the way English forgets and erases so much. So a Diné name in space might make it sacred again.
But the galaxy being sacred is nothing new, of course. The moon and sun themselves are beings within Diné creation stories, and their sacred acts are still revered to this very day. Although many would rush outside to witness the cosmic dance of the solar eclipse, for instance, Diné who still practice Diné lifeways hurry inside to fast, meditate, and pray.
I remember learning about eclipses in elementary school. We read Sunpainters: Eclipse of the Navajo Sun by Baje White-thorne, in which a child and his grandfather discuss the ceremony behind the eclipse. The grandson learns, as I did, about the things one shouldn’t do (like sleeping through it) to show respect and reverence for the ceremony.
Rita Gilmore, a Diné medicine practitioner, has turned to Facebook to teach her followers about this reverence to the sacred. Whenever an eclipse occurs, she livestreams her singing over Facebook Live. Despite what I knew from her and Whitethorne, I planned to sleep through an early morning lunar eclipse last year, but after a night of tossing and turning, I found myself awake for it. I navigated to Gilmore’s page and, as promised, there she was in the dark, singing songs. It was a strange experience, to be engaged with Diné songs and prayers over Facebook Live during a global pandemic. Was that moment a sacred moment?
The internet has offered up more ways than one when it comes to broadcasting Diné thinking and lifeways, both positive and negative. Many Diné medicine people have innovated ways to conduct ceremonies virtually. The Diné Hataałíi Association, a formal organization of Diné medicine people, released information on Zoom ceremonies early in the pandemic. I attended a prayer over the phone with a medicine person who called every so often to talk with me. So, the boundary between Diné and Western thinking resulted in a public good in this case. But what does it mean to have these ancient prayers broadcast over the internet, filtered by software corporations, and heard through speakers? What does that do to the sacred?
“NÁ,” THE CASHIER SAID, which, when translated to English, means, “here you go,” as they held out the ranch cups. I took them and ran back to my car.
“Yadilah,” I said to my partner, using a common phrase in Diné that signals a kind of frustration: they took forever. Yadilah as a word has shaped a lot of Diné humor. Today, the word has been abbreviated to YDL and is scattered across social media posts. Young Diné influencers use their platforms to educate and entertain by sharing their particular kind of blended knowledge.
The idea of the sacred is not directly addressed in many of these videos, but they often handle subjects that surround the idea of the sacred. One TikTok user, @jeff_bryant17, created a video of a group of young Diné walking home and suddenly hearing something in a nearby piñon tree. The camera shifts over and, in the tree, we see a person clothed in a hairy costume of some sort. This is a caricature of what are popularly known as skinwalkers. Skinwalkers, like the word Yadilah, take up a lot of space in Diné videos. Though not dealing with the sacred directly, the idea of the skinwalker is informed by Diné ceremonies, which are inherently sacred spaces.
The young Diné in the video, instead of running away, make light of the situation. “It’s Richard,” one of them says. This is followed by jeers and laughs, the joke being that Richard is an ex who takes the form of a skinwalker and is spying on the young Diné folks. What does it mean to have so much Diné ceremony displayed through social media? Again, I wonder how the sacred changes through these mediums, such as TikTok, where creators rely heavily on an algorithm for exposure and all work toward viewership. Is anything reduced? Or is the ability to use contemporary forms to discourse these ideas a blessing?
Even a pizza place located in a small town can become a sacred thing.
MY PARTNER AN I DRIVE OFF from Pizza Edge toward home. The town itself sits in a small valley by the famous Canyon de Chelly. The landscape is breathtaking and the land itself informs much of my writing practice and offers up so much space for these questions. We drive northward toward Tsaile, Arizona. On the way, we make our way uphill and see a glimpse of the canyon on our right. The rocks cascade, twist, and smooth on the canyon rim. At the top of the hill, we see for miles. To the east, the Chuska Mountains rise and tower in beautiful symphony. To the north, the mountains make their way into steps of red rock that travel all the way to Round Rock and Rock Point, Arizona. It’s an amazing experience to be surrounded by time and beauty.
We make our way onto the Diné College campus. This campus is a circular space that is positioned similar to the Diné hogan: Its entrance faces the east. Moving clockwise, we move into what was originally a classroom building dedicated to the sciences and that, in a hogan, is where medicinal herbs would be created. Toward the west, the dorms, also the ancestral place where one sleeps. In the north, the Pinion Pit, where health and wellness are prioritized. In the center sits the library, signifying the fireplace, the place where the sacred meets the world, the body.
Today, the campus maintains its original layout, but pressures from the higher education world dictate its need to change, evolve. There seems to be a clash again of Diné and Western thinking in a lot of these spaces, but this tension, I think, is fabricated and placed (that is, forced) upon our idea of architecture and place. Navajo Technical University, the other tribal college on the reservation, has a campus that is fast expanding but maintains a sense of the Diné sacred. In one of their buildings (also shaped like a Diné hogan), they built a fireplace in its center where actual embers can be used during prayers.
It’s interesting how these spaces intend to keep sacredness part of their identity. There is an intuition abounding on the rez to have our material things embody as much of Diné sacredness as possible: from grocery stores to government buildings to college campuses. Today, aesthetics like the Diné step design represent a sovereign act. We turn our spaces toward the sacred because of one crucial Diné value I’ve internalized over the years: spaces hold memory. It is an orientation to morning. So a building’s attempt to keep Diné ancestral teachings alive in a blended form is survival.
I think of the body and the ways Diné people operate similarly, as border spaces between Diné and Western thinking, as blended forms between Diné teaching and Western influence. Boarding schools were the attempt to rid the body of its sacred. They were an attempt to turn Native people into machines to serve expansion and extraction. Diné communities still suffer from this violence as fluency of Diné itself is declining. And one thing that is often spoken is the way sacred things are endangered: how sacred spaces and their sacredness are endlings, falling victim to an everchanging modern world. But if the body can be synonymous with the place regarding sacredness, is the body also endangered?
No,” I say out loud.
My partner looks over, confused.
“Sorry,” I say, “I was zoning out.”
This is nothing new. I often zone out on these long drives on the rez. I’m sure he has gotten used to it and is able to recognize when I’m thinking deeply about various things or no things and I just need to be quiet. On these drives between Chinle and Tsaile and Tsaile and everywhere else, I see many homes, each one with a hogan located nearby. I see meandering roads maneuvering through the landscape. The only roads that plunder through the land are the main highways. When left to their own devices, Diné take a path that leaves much of the natural world intact to get from point A to point B, as if to go only where allowed. There is a natural inclination to sustain a space, and this awareness of a space’s capacity for a beyond is what interests me. The way we move into a space and make a home of it.
The homes too are small and take up the least space possible. Though I’m sure many families dream of larger homes for their families, the reality is much more frugal and quiet. Rather than large family homes, I normally see one main house surrounded by smaller homes as children grow into adults and start families of their own. Relatives, both immediate and extended, come in and out, making homes and sharing homes in a community that is revolving. It’s a true sustainability, and this urge to sustain is also one geared for the body. We change our hairstyles and clothes into a blended form. Our bodies, too, become blended forms to survive. We become ourselves again and again and again.
Although evolving is normally the linear answer to modern society, Diné communities have found that revolving is much more important. Again, that’s not to say evolving doesn’t happen or isn’t happening. Rather than linearly evolving, Diné people are emerging into fuller and more whole versions of themselves. The phrase “I walk in beauty” is about this becoming and emerging. Again, it is an orientation to morning. There is a huge misconception that beauty is about the superficial or some mythic sacredness attached to stereotypical notions of Native identity. Rather, beauty within a Diné thought and lifeway has always been about emerging and revolving within the cosmos in quiet waves of being, or, as the Irish poet John O’Donohue put it, “more rounded, substantial becoming.” Beauty isn’t about utopia; it’s about moving through the world in an attempt to keep a kind of balance.
So I suppose the answer is no. I don’t think anything is reduced from the sacred when the sacred or elements of it are transmitted through wires or made of concrete and neon; rather, another version of it emerges. More and more versions of the sacred emerge. More and more versions of the Diné self emerge. So, not endangered, no; just emerging.
The sacred has the capacity to be its own ecosystem of many different faces and elements. The sacred grows more whole, into a fuller version of itself. So much so that even a pizza place located in a small town can become a sacred thing. This is not to say that takes anything away from other sacred things, but rather that it adds to the symphonies of our perspectives glowing and compiling and weaving together to form dynamic structures. We anoint these structures as sacred because of their composite, blended forms. We recognize the process of erosion and then the compacting of memory that exists in a space and the contemporary attempts to represent it. And sometimes we recognize it in our bodies.
We are sediment and through time we layer and condense and crystallize and give ourselves to future generations; we empower them, so they too can emerge. All of us whole, glittering, sacred.