A Navajo woman’s day has always begun before dawn when she rises, goes outside, faces east and prays with white cornmeal.
This is vital to ensure that each day is successful and properly lived, Ruth Roessel, a lifelong educator, wrote in her 1981 book Women in Navajo Society (Navajo Curriculum Center,1801). Following her prayer, the woman would return to the hogan and build a fire—often using wood she herself had chopped.
Daylight hours were filled with responsibilities, including cooking, cleaning, sheep herding and hauling water, Roessel wrote. The Navajo woman’s day ends with weaving and storytelling before she tucks her family into bed.
“Finally, the Navajo woman would have her family asleep and a fire burning to keep the hogan warm,” Roessel wrote. “Then she herself finally would lie down and rest.”
Women were always busy, said Vivian Arviso, president of the Navajo Nation Women’s Commission. Arviso, a former Miss Navajo, looks to her late grandmother, Bah, for guidance.
The daughter of a hataałii, or medicine man, Bah was the revered matriarch of her extended family. The mother of 11 children, she was the keeper of wisdom and authority, and she never strayed from traditional teachings.
For example, Bah rose with the sun, wore moccasins every day and never sat in a chair, Arviso said. She was an herbalist who understood the role of plants—from medication to dyeing wool.
“In the morning, you could hear her pounding the loom, the sound echoing throughout the place,” Arviso said of her grandmother. “Then she would get a team of horses and hook them to the wagon, and put her loom in the wagon. She would drive the wagon behind the sheep. While the sheep were grazing she would sit at her loom. She was always busy.”
Since she was the matriarch, Bah’s word was law, Arviso said. Her entire extended family deferred to her authority.
“There was no doubt she was the center of the family,” Arviso said. “She didn’t have to raise her voice or argue. She explained her positions and everyone followed. When she said it was time to move the sheep, we went. If she said a ceremony was needed, it was done. She was very clear, very rational, as to why these things were needed.”
The Navajo woman was strong and independent, Roessel wrote. She knew how to accomplish her tasks and lead her family, and she did not rely on help from other people.
Her role “is not one in which the Navajo woman was dependent upon and subservient to her husband,” Roessel wrote. “She was not constantly asking him to do certain things because she was incapable or unwilling to do them herself.”
This independence stems from the teachings of Changing Woman, the first mother in the Navajo creation story. Changing Woman, raised by the Holy People, gave birth to twin boys who later became cultural heroes.
Navajo women learn their roles from Changing Woman, whose example provides guidance from infancy through adulthood, Roessel wrote. Girls are named before they are four days old, and their ears are immediately pierced. Relatives gather to celebrate the baby’s first laugh, and later to commemorate puberty with the Kinaalda ceremony.
All these ceremonies “reinforced the extended family roles,” Roessel wrote. “The role played by the women in the life of the Navajos’ home was one of primary importance. They were the center of the home, and around them revolved the life of each family.”
The Holy People taught Changing Woman how to dress, wear her hair, care for the home, prepare food and build a fire. Changing Woman did all of this on her own, without the support of a husband, Roessel wrote. She raised her boys alone, and gave them “great affection and love.” She taught them how to race, shoot a bow and arrow, approach danger and ask for help—and to always embrace the good side of things, or the “beauty way.”
Navajo women are expected to teach their children four main elements: religion and traditions; gathering and preparation of food; the importance of water; and instruction related to plants.
“Without the four elements, there could be no life,” Roessel wrote. “It is in the homes that these four essential areas were taught to the children so that they in turn could grow up and carry on the traditions that were handed to them.”
Audra Platero, a lifelong educator and principal of Tséhootsooi Diné Bi Ołta' School in Fort Defiance, Arizona, said women traditionally held a variety of leadership roles. These roles occurred in the home, extended family and community.
“Traditionally, our role is to take care of our home and our children, but that’s never to say that’s a limitation, that’s all we’re here for,” Platero said. “That’s not the same concept as being barefoot and pregnant. We are the keepers of our homes, our children. We teach them language and culture, and we are responsible for making sure the home is a safe place.”
Men and women share responsibilities and complement each other, Platero said. One is not superior to the other.
“In the Navajo way of life, women nurture, support and provide guidance so there’s a harmonious balance,” she said. “They bring forth ideas and act as leaders, whether they’re wearing the mother hat, their community hat, their employment hat or the grandmother hat.”