The Navajo Hunter Tradition
1975 Excerpt and 2016 Commentary

Karl W. Luckert


According to the opinion of some anthropologists, and according to information given by Navajo Tribal officials, by the time I came to inquire, in 1971, nothing supposedly had survived of the Stone-Age Navajo hunter tradition. Nevertheless, from what I knew about survivals in the history and evolution of religious traditions elsewhere, I suspected that some prayers and songs of an obsolescent hunting ritual could indeed have survived. After all, among the archived files of Father Berard Haile I have found some stories of which he was not sure, but which he suspected to have come from obsolescent Navajo hunting rites. I was reconciled to the possibility that perhaps no more than a few hunting prayers or hunting songs might still be found on the Navajo Reservation. I found myself a good Navajo interpreter – Johnny C. Cooke, a student of religion -- and began searching for remnants of similar stories. Even small portions of data could possibly have contained glimpses of the ancient hunting ways that would have enabled us, then, to peer deeper into the bygone Stone-Age era of the Navajo hunter tradition.

Johnny Cooke and I were fortunate to find the last singer-practitioner, on the Navajo Indian Reservation, Claus Chee Sony, who still knew an entire Deer-hunting Rite, the Talking-god Way. We talked, negotiated, and became Claus Chee Sonny’s trusties to record as much as possible of his hunting-way for preservation in a book. Later, when we asked him general questions about the Navajo Ajiłee tradition, to better understand Father Berard’s collected texts, Claus Chee Sony revealed to us that indeed there was a Deerway Ajiłee and that he would like to see it recorded. Navajo people in the future should know some of the things that their Diné ancestors thought and did. The remainder of humanity should be given an example by which to deepen their understanding of the mental and ceremonial habits of ancient hunter ancestors in general. Hunting and gathering provided the livelihood of all human people since the beginnings of their evolution until approximately ten thousand years ago.

The assumption that mythologies represent stories about human relationships to the greater-than-human dimension, and the fact that those stories necessarily must originally have been told in specific cultural and linguistic contexts, implies the possibility that most mythologies also contain historical clues, and traces of ancient lifestyles, of people’s hopes and fears. With sufficient context reconstituted, some of these clues do reveal glimpses of ancient beliefs, attitudes, existential problems as well as some of the resolutions. Inasmuch as the Navajo arrival in the American Southwest happened only a few centuries ago, and inasmuch as the preceding dominant Anasazi/Pueblo culture there is still extant on the Hopi Mesas, it is not all that difficult to identify intrusive or adaptive elements that refer to traditional Diné hunting. Any references to maize-planting, to kachina-like divine impersonations, to deities stationed in the four direction, the veneration of serpents or the myth of human origins told in the context of an emergence -- (i.e. “birthing“) from four underworld strata, do belong to the culture of sedentary maize planters which predate the arrival of Navajo hunters in the Greater Southwest. This means that the Navajo Dear-way hunting myth was not yet organized in a Southwestern four-square pattern. It still follows the round-trip journeys of the Deer. It also means that the Deer, along with all hunted animals and fellow animal-predators, were still considered to be people -- people who could be identified as victims and hunters. Guilt accrues while hunting animals who are recognized as “fellow people.” Illnesses struck and diseases were spreading. They were experienced as the revenge of divine and offended animal peoples. With their superhuman powers of inflicting revenge -- on human consciences and bodies -- even victimized animal-people achieved greater-than-human status -- as Holy People or “gods.” Healing for Navajo shamans required certain skills at doing exorcism. But for the most part they developed ceremonials -- ritualized demeanor by which they could be reconciled with offended greater-than-human animals or “gods.”

Applying these insights to the two dozen or so Navajo ceremonial compilations, we find that major portions of them can be identified as syntheses, comprised of either Pueblo or Diné elements. For instance, the emergence-related Blessing rites and songs represent later adaptations to Southwestern worldview and reality. The basic notion of existence and life, in Navjo ancient hunter mythology, I have characterized and classified long ago as “prehuman flux” mythology. 

Here is what I began noticing in 1971 and have published in 1975, in a book titled, The Navajo Hunter Tradition, pages 133-135.

It should not come as a surprise, if the notion of “prehuman flux,” as the most basic existential notion in ancient Navajo hunter tradition, has been noticed time and again in much of my later research concerning Stone Age religions elsewhere. Elements of that worldview generally disappear in times of strife and warfare, but they drift again into view whenever in history the hunters’ achievements, their aggressiveness and their guilt therefrom, are rising again into consciousness -- to dominate their minds and to shape their perceptions, their language, their hopes and their destiny. The “prehuman flux” notion, of animals and humans all deserving reverence as “people” -- some as Holy People -- ascribes to them dignity and their right to life. When they are hunted as food, the conscience of the hunters will end up getting loaded with vaguely perceived “original sin.” The hunters’ existential reality of hunger, of reflective thinking while killing, and their guilt, became even more confounded when ten thousand years ago humankind began the process of winning food through domestication. This was a process by which humans needed to live in closer proximity to the animals, at homesteads, while at the same time they assumed more control over them regarding matters of life and death.

We can safely conceptualize how the process of domestication, of plants and of animals, was achieved worldwide by way of taking more control over both “the Animal and the Plant kingdoms.” Botany, Zoology and Anthropology, all three needed to be distinguished and kept defined. In order to rationally maintain the distinctions, an umbrella of theological upper boundaries toward greater-than-human creative powers needed to be postulated. The entire process was augmented when, from the contexts of tribalism all the way to the complexities of imperialism, domestication was amplified to over-domestication, head-hunting, cannibalism, slavery, and global warfare. “The unity of all life was the nostalgic seed idea of the Romantic Age. It finally became the basic tenet in the general scientific theory of evolution. Formerly the ideal of equality was being obtained from faith in divine creation, implying equal birth rights among all offspring of the gods. This justified all notions, from rights to liberty to the pursuit of happiness.  

Now, as a direct result of massive scientific rationalization, all these ideological dreams appear to escape our grasp. These things can all be less well deduced from scientific biology than formerly they could be accepted by faith in a divine Source-Reality. Every rational creature upon this planet must seek its balance of life by delimiting the notion regarding the “unity of all life.” The ultimate sanctity of all life would require ultimate refusal of all killing and eating. Some types of religious systems provide partial forgiveness for such original human sins -- provide religious justification by way of enabling “sacramental eating,” for example -- is required in some sublime fashion, for the rational survival of theists, deists, and atheists alike. Not accepting such a measure of religiosity, rational beings would become obligated by their own ideals to cease eating and to die of hunger. The more the human species multiplies, the louder will need to be its call for unity and coexistence. But in actual coexistence, humankind will also discover the duty of thinking about themselves as fellow equals, as becoming increasingly more difficult. The reader will find the problem of “prehuman flux” in hunter mythology mentioned again in my 2016 book, concerning the “Stone Age Religion at Goebekli Tepe,” relative to the entire evolution of human cultures and religions, from hunting to domestication and to over-domestication. From that point on we must consider modern threats that loom over us, alongside the threat of potential self-destruction of our species. Ceasing to be religious implies abandonment of one of the pillars of being human. Life cannot survive on imbalance, stilted on the narrow pillars of aggressive scientific intelligence alone. Human survival requires religious reasons to bow, to retreat, to compromise, and to love.