Traditional Navajo clan practices

Discussion and References

A personal recollection:

I knew as little about kinship when I became a Navajo legal services lawyer as any average American. We grow up with images of cowboys and Indians, but we don't have the vaguest idea what it all means. (By the way, I found that even Navajo kids play cowboys and Indians. The little boy next door announced to his father one day that this was what he was playing. The father smiled, looked at me for a moment, and then said, "Which one are you?" As if there were a choice.)

I found out right away that there are great differences between a kinship-based society and a society built on what I later came to call "market individualism." For one thing, kinship relations provide an ever-present context for action and reflection: How will what I do affect others? Who am I with respect to this person? This context is neither theoretical nor abstract, but is pragmatic and practical. It exists as a perception and awareness in the moment, in a way that is palpable. I felt it myself as a concern expressed by others for me.

One example might illuminate the workings of kinship as I experienced it. I had just finished a presentation to a community group at Teec Nos Pas, about a case involving their control over the local school. This was probably the first time any lawyer had ever worked in this community, and certainly the first time that the prospect of local control over their children's institutional education had ever been presented to these parents. A century of federal control over their children seemed about to end.

When I finished my talk, which was being translated by a Navajo Tribal Court Advocate, several people began to speak. The interpreter turned to me and said, "They want to know more." Thinking I had perhaps been too complex in describing the law, and that the novelty of a lawyer working for them might require some further explanation, I began to discuss the general plan for Navajo legal services. The interpreter stopped me. "No, that's not what they're asking about. They want to know about you. Where do you come from? Do you have any brothers and sisters? Things like that."

I was flabbergasted. In all my work, never had anyone asked about me, personally. Professional talk and personal life were in different categories of reality. This was not only common American practice, but was emphasized in my legal training. I remember my feeling of shock and surprise. I was embarrassed. But I was also thrilled. I knew that these people were listening to me, not just to their lawyer, but to me as a human being. I loved it.

From that time on, I was drawn to work with Frank, the Advocate/interpreter whenever possible. There were others in the office with whom I also worked, and with all of them I not only got along but learned how to see the world with new eyes. But, somehow, perhaps because he was older, more traditional, perhaps because he was with me for this first experience of being cared about as a person and not just as a lawyer, I tried to work with him as much as possible. We would travel to meetings sometimes an hour or more away, and he would talk to me, telling me stories about the places we passed, about the lives of people, about what it means to be human in the Navajo world.

Much later, when a family arrived at my house one day to have an argument, I understood what they were doing. They didn't want my services as a lawyer, but my presence as a person who could work with conflict. All day they stayed around the house, talking out whatever it was that had erupted among them. I never knew what it was, whether it was a legal problem or something else. By day's end, they seemed to have resolved something, and they left. Their presence was an honor and a blessing.

Some reading material:

Son of Old Man Hat, A Navajo Autobiography, recorded by Walter Dyk in the 1930's, is one of the best-known older sources. H. David Brumble III points out in American Indian Autobiography, that this autobiography of Left Handed (as Son of Old Man Hat was also known) appears to be a "massive exception" to the general rule that "... narratives that are published just as they came from the interpreter ... tend to be either very brief autobiographies or narratives of single episodes in the life of the narrator." [p. 111]

Son of Old Man Hat's narrative begins with the story of his older sister taking him among the women with babies because his mother was sick and had no milk. He is part of a community of mothers from the moment of his birth. This life among others is the touchstone of Navajo life, even when long distances separate members of the family and clan. His upbringing demonstrates both the freedom allowed a child and the methods of inculcating responsibility. He says, "I said all kinds of things that I shouldn't have said and did a lot that I shouldn't have done, but I always learned a lesson from them (referring to his elders)." [ p. 27]

Childhood in an Indian Village, by Wilfred Pelletier, is a story of life in the Odawa village of Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Though not Navajo, it is a story that illuminates much that is common to clan societies everywhere: a way of life in which everyone is related to each other and to nature. One might say related in nature and by nature: human relations are natural, not imposed by something called "society."

Parent and Child Relationships in Law and in Navajo Custom, by Leonard B. Jimson, originally part of the Ramah Navajo School Board's "bicultural approach to legal education," discusses the differences between Anglo and Navajo family cultures. This work became an important part of the legislative history of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. It presents the examination of an expert witness in a 1969 Arizona case in which the welfare department attempted to terminate parental rights of a Navajo father. The expert witness, testifying on behalf of the father, says:

"One of the most significant differences between Navajo family structure and that of ordinary middle-class Americans is the relationship of the child to a number of caring people. In general, the relationship to aunts and uncles is much more important in the Navajo family than it is to the middle-class American family. A great deal more responsibility is given to other members of the extended family, and there is considerable attachment of the child to the entire group." [p. 74]


Brumble, H. David, III, American Indian Autobiography [Berkeley: University of California, 1988]

Dyk, Walter, Son of Old Man Hat [Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1970]

Jimson, Leonard B., "Parent and Child Relationships in Law and in Navajo Custom," in Unger, Steven, ed., The Destruction of American Indian Families [New York: Association on American Indian Affairs, 1977]

Pelletier, Wilfred, "Childhood in an Indian Village" [Somerville, MA: New England Free Press, undated; originally in This Magazine is About Schools, 1969]

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