Navajo Identity

January 10, 2005

Who are you?

The questions come right after an exchange of names. Where did you come from? What do you do for a living? Do you have children? We tend to quickly try to categorize the people we meet. People think of the questions as friendly exchanges, not prying, and the information exchange helps oil the way to understanding between strangers.

If you come from Ohio, Charnell and I will follow up with, “Where in Ohio?”, because we both came from there. We’ll probably recognize the name of the county and know if you were close to Columbus, Cincinnati or Cleveland. We’ll likely wind up talking about the Ohio State Buckeyes. Likewise, we’ll bond if you’re from Arizona or Texas or Virginia or from Santa Fe. If you have children, we may whip out our PDAs and show you pictures of our families. Of course if you mention Navajo Art as an interest, we’ll talk your ear off.

In the Navajo culture, clan comes first. According to the Saganitso family that took Quincy in as a small child, Quincy was born to EdgeWater and born for Many Goats.

“Born to” means that his mother belonged to Edge Water clan, and “ born for” means his father was Many Goats.

Harrison Begay, who was a close friend when they attended the Santa Fe Indian School, believes that Quincy did not know his clan. Begay thinks that Tahoma’s adopted father was Edge Water Clan and that is why he was named “Tahoma,” which is similar to the Navajo words for Edge Water (Tahonnie, the name used in early school records for Quincy).

But according to the Navajo clan system, Tahoma would have been of his birth mother’s clan, and could not have actually become a member of his adoptive father’s clan any more than of his real father’s clan. Therefore the Saganitso’s version more logically explains why he was originally referred to as Tahonnie, which was gradually changed to Tahoma.

Although it may be confusing to the more patriarchal society of non-Indians, the fact that a person belongs to their mother’s clan emphasizes the matrilineal system of the Navajo. Non-Indians get even more confused by the practice of calling everyone in the same generation in a clan “brother” and “sister” and giving honorific aunt, uncle and cousin titles out by the fistful. The Navajo clan system provides a sensible way to keep track of what family relationships a person has and is a key part of each person’s identity. That makes it particularly disturbing to think that Quincy Tahoma said he did not know his real clan. You can learn more about clans at a web site run by a Navajo. Of course there are many reference books, but if you want an entertaining way to learn about Navajo society, try a few Tony Hillerman books .

Now it is your turn. If you are an American Indian, or a Native American scholar, please help us try to understand why Tahoma denied known his clan. Can you help others understand how important clan is to the Navajo? If this is new to you, what questions do you have?

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