By Phil Clark
Lake Powell Chronicle
Wearing a multi strand turquoise nugget necklace and a small medal representing the U.S. Marine Corps, Wally Brown and I talked about the past. His Navajo bun, tsiiyééł, was tied with traditional hair cord, or a tsiitł’óół, crowned by a bandana. Holding his handmade walking stick, embellished with the colors representing the four sacred mountains that define Navajo (Diné) ancestral lands, his soft-spoken words and pleasant demeanor made it a pleasure to listen to him.
He introduced himself through his ancestral clans, a custom of the Diné people. He is Tódích’íi’nii and born for the “Dark Shadow Streak in the Forest” clan. His maternal grandfathers are Tábąąhá and his paternal grandfathers are Kinyaa’áanii. He has a ceremonial name and that name can be used only in Diné ceremonies.
Wally Brown was born in a hogan on the New Mexico side of the Arizona/New Mexico border, north of Gallup. His family history goes back some 500 years and he is from the same clan as the Manson family of Manson Mesa where Page was built. He said he is related, in part to almost all Diné.
When he was growing up, his parents and tribal elders saw in him traits that would make him a medicine man. He started participating in ceremonies at a young age, learning the songs, prayers, and traditions with the sacred gourd rattle in hand. His grandfather, a medicine man, or a hataałii, was known as “Laughing Medicine Man.” Wally came to be known as “Laughing Medicine Man’s Grandson.” There are about 22 different traditional ceremonies and at least 1,000 songs. Many of the songs have to be sung in a particular order and in a particular way. Brown knows many of them.
Brown spent time in a government boarding school in the Phoenix area. There were no cultural programs for the students and students were forced to become “assimilated” in the Anglo, or the Toh Dine’é culture. He and his classmates were punished for speaking their native tongue by being forced to eat green soap, which he calls “mouth washing.” Other punishments included being swatted with a ruler across the hands; sitting in a corner or having to stand for a time with the nose on a circle drawn on the blackboard. Despite being punished, he never lost his culture or language and he understands the value of knowing other languages.
His father spoke Navajo, English, and Spanish. Other family members learned other languages including French, German and Italian, much to the amazement of tourists. A Diné friend discovered that there are similarities between Navajo words and those of the Japanese or Yiddish languages.
Wally wears his hair in a traditional Dine man’s tsiiyéél, centered on the scalp where the spiral grows at the center of the hair. One of the beliefs is that the spiral on the top of a person’s head is a sacred place on the human body. It is where the person’s spirit enters and leaves the body, according to Brown. That is why other cultures use caps and head dresses to cover that spot. Traditional tsiiyéél are normally placed over the sacred spot.
Brown, along with his wife Bonnie and their son Shane, maintain a website dedicated to fostering traditional Diné teachings. Their website reads, “(Diné) families in and around the (Navajo Nation) noticed (Diné) culture was disappearing faster than they could do anything about it. These families got together and decided to do what they could to preserve the stories and way of life they had been taught since they were young.”
Wally and Shane travel around the country speaking to different groups of people who are interested in Diné culture and teachings.
The website encourages those with Diné roots to be proud of who they are and invites all, Native and non-Native alike, to learn about Native culture and to develop a connection with their ancestors. For more information and to be a supporter or a volunteer, he urges readers to visit navajotraditionalteachings.com
Brown believes that anthropologists have done a disservice to the Diné and calls their theories “polluted teachings.” He believes that anthropologists have made assumptions, based on their misunderstanding of anthropological records by not listening to or understanding oral histories, prayers and songs or consulting with tribal elders. For example, he believes Diné have always been here and did not migrate from Asia.
Brown served in the Marines and was honorably discharged in 1968. He said he made some great friends during his service and believes all of his friends came home after the Vietnam War.
In addition to the website, Brown built and operated the Navajo Village Heritage Center on Coppermine Road, where he’s hosted many visitors. The village is a place where visitors can experience Diné traditions and culture. He recently sold his interest in the venue and the new owner shares his vision for the facility as they build on his foundation. Brown serves as a consultant to the new owners. Information: navajovillage.com
When asked what he thinks Page needs to do for the future, Brown said the future of Page lies in tourism. He would like to see Page expand and embrace visitors who have discovered the community and the surrounding area. Brown said Page needs to learn from other towns such as Prescott where festivals and other activities happen year-round giving visitors many opportunities to enjoy themselves.
Brown said he would like to see Page include the Diné people in planning for the future. His goal is to help develop a venue for visitors to experience Diné culture and traditions, which would not only keep the Diné traditions alive for future generations but educate visitors about the rich cultural heritage of the area.
Brown shared with me how Diné humor is different than Toh Dine’é humor. For example, he told me about a man who wanted to take the bus from Tuba City to Keams Canyon on the Hopi Nation. During Mountain Daylight Time, there is a one-hour time difference with Tuba City being an hour later. When the man bought the ticket, the traveler was told that the bus would leave at 9 a.m. and arrive in Keams Canyon at 9 a.m. So, the man decided not to buy a ticket and decided to stay at the bus station and wait for the bus to leave. He said he wanted to see how fast that bus would leave to arrive at the same time.
Even his grandson has a unique sense of humor. Instead of the typical saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” ––His grandson completed the saying, “... shouldn’t walk around naked.”
Brown has eight children and “lots of grandchildren.” His advice to the younger generation is to remember that family is the most important thing in life and to document family history and records of how previous generations lived and what the environment was like. He cautions younger generations about the dangers of technology and the internet robbing people of human interactions.
And he hopes that his website and the Navajo Village Heritage Center will keep Diné traditions alive for future generations.