Laws for Living Written Among the Stars: A Navajo Tradition
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
March 10, 1999
Over the next few months I want to share with my readers some "wisdom from
the stars" that comes from the Navajo people. These intelligent and gentle
people are best known for the spectacular landscapes they live in, for
their arts and crafts--especially for their colorful wool textiles and
silver jewelry. It might be better if we knew more about the values they
base their lives upon.
The Navajo call themselves DinM-i, "The People," and the phrase that
seems synonymous with DinM-i is, "Walk in Beauty." The identity of these
people is nicely summarized by words from one of their ceremonies:
- In the house made of dawn,
- In the house made of evening twilight,
- In the house made of dark cloud and rain
- In beauty I walk.
- With beauty before and behind me,
- With beauty below and above,
- With beauty all around me, I walk
As they walk the beautiful trail, Navajo people look around, finding wonder
and splendor everywhere they wander. Their instruction book of life comes
from the phenomena of nature with rules for living imbedded in the
landscape and engraved in the sky. Consider one of their stories.
The Holy People made the Sun from a perfect piece of turquoise and
the Moon from a perfect piece of white shell. To each they gave crystals
for light, feathers for flight, spirits for life and they placed them in
the sky. Many crystals of different sizes remained and it was decided that
these should be used to portray the laws that people should live by. After
much thought they decided to place the gleaming jewels in nice patterns up
high in the sky where nothing could bother them and where they could always
be seen by everyone.
So the Holy People arranged the brilliant gems on a buckskin:
pairs of patterns symbolized important principles for healthy and happy
living. Then, carefully, they began transferring the gleaming icons onto
the velvet blanket of the night. They put up the Fire Star right where
everything came together, so that it would not move and could always be
seen, a burning ember in the north. Nearby they placed the Revolving Man
on one side of the Fire and Revolving Woman on the other: a perfect
example of balance, the quality desired above all others.
Coyote, wandering around as he always was, noticed the sky begin to
change. At first he was curious. Then he was furious. "They always leave
me out of the really important things," he said as he started running,
determined to find out what was going on.
The Holy People put up the stars called DilyM-ihM-i, the seven stars
that symbolize all the others. Next came First Slim One, Keeper of the
Months. This pair would guide farming and religion, two necessary labors
for successful living.
As the sky took on new character, Coyote's frustration increased.
He ran in a different direction, searching for the star-making place. He
found it just as the Holy People were placing Man With Spread Legs and
First Big One. He watched. Quietly he moved in. Finally, right among
them, he spoke in angry voice: "What are you doing? Why do you do these
things when I am not around to help? Give me one of those. It is my turn
The Holy People knew Coyote well. They knew that the thing he did
best of all was create chaos where order was intended. But they also knew
that he, too, was a holy person. Unable to deny him, they gave him one
star which he placed low in the south where it would barley rise then
quickly set again. "Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it grand? That is Coyote
Star," he pronounced, but the others paid him little heed as they arranged
in the sky the Rabbit Tracks, the Hunter's Guide.
Then they rested, admiring what they had done and thinking about
how they would complete this momentous work. Coyote rested also--his
favorite activity. When the others were dozing, Coyote sneaked over to the
buckskin upon which the remaining crystals remained. Looking down upon
them he mused, "It isn't really difficult. It shouldn't take so long.
Surely I can do it quicker," he concluded. And so he grabbed the corners
of the buckskin and cast the remaining crystals adrift within the heavens.
"There," he said arousing the others, "It is finished, and a fine
job too. Isn't it wonderful? My way was quicker and better than yours.
Aren't you glad I happened along?"
The Holy People were sad, not glad. Not all the laws had been
placed in the sky, but Coyote was correct. It was forever finished.
That is why there are just a few nice patterns--billboard in the
night for those who can read them. And that is why most of the stars seem
randomly scattered, the way Coyote flung them across the cosmos.
Sometimes accidents are better than planning. Without even knowing
it Coyote inscribed a most important law in the firmament: his impulsive
motion left a trail of tiny crystals along a pathway that signifies the
principle that one should rise before the dawn to walk in first light,
saying prayers, sprinkling corn meal in a motion across the sky like the
Milky Way and contemplating the harmony and balance that cultivates long
and happy life.
If you want to know these stars, stay tuned, and keep this article
handy. In future columns, interspersed through coming months, I will
identify the stars arranged in the sky by the Holy People and explore some
of the laws for living that are, according to Navajo tradition, written
among the stars.