December 31, 2019
About a year ago I sat in a large circle in a group therapy session that John Stewart was leading. John started by asking everyone in the circle to identify something beautiful about themselves. He said, “Tell everyone in the circle something beautiful about you.” I was startled and a little uncomfortable. I had never thought of any part of me as being “beautiful”.
The Navajo have many ceremonies that are designed to help them achieve a state of Beauty. For them, Beauty is not a manner of dress nor a way of appearing. It is a way of being. Their ceremonies help them to return to a state of balance, respect, and healing with the universe. They define this – balance, respect, and health – as Beauty.
The Navajo Unity Chant is a perfect example. (Navajo chants are not easily translatable into English. The chants are made up of “vocables” – sounds sung to drum beats that don’t translate well.) Here is a translation of the Unity Chant which communicates the power of the concept of Beauty in Navajo tradition:
You will walk in Beauty; the Beauty will walk before you; the Beauty will walk behind you; you will be surrounded by Beauty. We have beautiful things and now we must have beautiful minds; with beautiful minds we will have beautiful hearts; with beautiful hearts we will talk in Beauty. Those who speak with beautiful speech will lead the world to Beauty.
One Friday evening many summers ago, after a family weekend event, I was lying on my back on a grassy slope at one of our campuses with a therapist friend. We were laughing together and comparing profound experiences from the two-day family weekend, and then he became very sober. He said he’d been thinking about innocence.
To this day I don’t know why he decided to share his thoughts on that topic with me, but it had a lasting impact on how I think. He said he felt that people could reclaim the same innocence they once had as children. He felt that people who had been hurt deeply, people who maybe felt like their innocence had been robbed from them, forced from them, or taken from them could reclaim their innocence.
What he was saying was not that teenagers and adults could (or even should) become ignorant or childish again; he was saying that he felt that wounded people could become childlike again; that they could be in balance with the universe; that they could respect themselves again; that they could heal. He was saying, in essence, that people who feel like their Beauty has been robbed from them are mistaken – everyone can become beautiful again.
In the middle of the winter of 1863, 9,000 Navajo were forced to march about 400 miles to one of our nation’s first experiments with an “Indian Reservation”. They were compelled to march away from the lands between their four sacred mountains. They were forced to leave the spiritual protection of their homeland – something they had believed for centuries that they must never do. On a march that lasted weeks, they walked to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico – a million-acre reservation on a poplar-wooded curve in the Pecos River. To this day they refer to that forced march as “the Long Walk”.
The reservation at Bosque Redondo was a horribly planned location. The Navajo suffered disease and dehydration from drinking the putrid waters of the Pecos River. The rest of the winter they lived on meager rations from the army. The first summer, their crop of corn was destroyed by worms. The second year was the same. The third year a hailstorm ruined the corn fields. By the fourth year the Navajo simply refused to plant anymore.
Barboncito, a diminutive, thinly mustached Medicine Man, assumed the position of leader among the Navajo at Bosque Redondo. He kept the Navajo’s faith alive. Even though they were heart-sick because they were living hundreds of miles away from home, he encouraged them to remember their ancestral values and traditions by leading them in sacred ceremonies. He renewed their hope daily by advocating for them with the government and the soldiers stationed at the Bosque. In the face of enormous obstacles, his message was consistent – never, never give up.
By the summer of 1868 more than 3,000 Navajo had died – most of starvation. One third of those who had marched to Bosque Redondo had perished. General Sherman visited the failed reservation experiment in 1868 and was astonished at the misery and death he witnessed there. After an historic and emotional meeting with Barboncito, the general almost immediately authorized the Navajo to return to the sacred lands of their inheritance. Those lands are about 300 miles south-east of here, near what we call the Four Corners area of the west, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all touch at the same point.
The Navajo were ecstatic to return to their homeland. In a caravan of natives that stretched over ten miles, they made the 400-mile walk home, this time willingly and joyfully. As soon as they reached the Rio Grande and saw their beloved Blue Bead Mountain in the distance, many of them fell to the earth and wept 1 . As they walked homeward, they spoke a healing chant, sometimes known as the Night Chant. Imagine their feelings as they spoke the Night Chant’s words, as their eyes gazed on their sacred mountains, and their feet crossed the boundary into their ancestral homeland:
1 Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West; page 402.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
2 It is significant to me that they chose a healing chant at that moment. It is significant that they were homeward bound. It is significant that after all they had suffered they still believed that they could reclaim their balance and their respect. They believed that they could heal. They could reclaim their innocence. After all they had been through, they had preserved their way of being – they still had Beauty.
What makes you unique is what you had to overcome in order to be sitting right here. What makes you unique in the eyes of your parents and your friends – in other words, what makes you Beautiful – is that what you achieved in life is as important as any diploma you could receive from any institution.
I am speaking of the Beauty that surrounds you. Many of you, if not all of you, have learned balance. You have re-learned self-respect. You have healed. You have reclaimed your innocence. You have returned, in many ways, to the way you were when you were younger. You walk in the way of Beauty. Remember what you have done to reclaim Beauty and cling to it. Be beautiful.
No one can take Beauty away from you, because it is not a thing. It is a way of being.
Beauty before you
Beauty behind you
Beauty around you
In Beauty you walk
You have finished, in Beauty