Navajo Nation tribal member Kelvin Long, 36, chuckles at the memory: He’d taken a year off from work, and a would-be co-worker lured him back by inviting him to a meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona—with the promise that there would be lots of beautiful women. “I went, and I fell in love. There were all these brilliant, beautiful, determined women. Unfortunately, it turned out they were all related to me through clan.”
When babies are born in the Navajo tribe, they become members of their mother’s clans. Traditional Navajo people introduce themselves by identifying the clans on both their mother’s and father’s sides. This allows clan relations like brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles to recognize one another, even if they’ve never met. It also helps marriageable youth avoid partners who share the same clan as their own mother or father, a traditional safeguard against inbreeding. Long was born into the Bitterwater clan, which is one of the original four clans created by the Navajo matriarch White Shell Woman, or Changing Woman. It also happens that it’s one of the largest clans. As a result, “I’m related to everyone,” Long says, adding that he almost always assumes a love interest is out-of-bounds. “A lot of times I don’t even date Navajo women.”
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has been expressing concerns lately about that very reality. He says the tribe’s clan system is on the verge of becoming too restrictive. By most counts there are now about 130 clans, largely because new clans have been created through marriages between tribal and nontribal members. Shelly says as the clans grow, it’s getting harder and harder to avoid running into—and marrying—relations.
Shelly has been floating the idea that intertribal marriages should be encouraged, to widen the options for tribal members. He points out that leaders of smaller Indian tribes, where membership often hovers around 200 or 300 people, are in even more precarious positions than the Navajo Nation. “They also know that they are losing their membership and their full-blooded tribal members,” he says. “These smaller tribe leaders…instead of losing out to members of another nationality, are saying maybe we should open our doors to each other, our nation, our civilization, and welcome them Native to Native.”
Shelly recognizes that intertribal marriages will also result in the loss of members for some tribes, because people must choose membership in a single tribe. He emphasizes that he’s not pushing people to leave the Navajo Nation—but he insists even that’s better than the alternative, when it comes to the bigger picture of Native people. “We want to stay in existence,” he says. “We don’t want to lose that.”
Although Long and other traditionalists aren’t opposed to that approach, they are reluctant to abandon the clan system that is a foundational part of being Navajo. They’re advocating a path forward where the traditional clan system is restored to a place of honor in the tribe’s cultural identity, as it’s opened up to allow for marriages with people outside the tribe.
Shelly worries that within the clan system confines, clan brothers and sisters will eventually have no choice but to marry. He points to sickness and weakness among the Nation’s youth, and suspects already that close intermarriages could be a cause. “We are mammals,” he says. And Navajo people know better than most how to keep mammalian offspring their healthiest: “The maximum you can use a bull is four years. That way, the cattle or sheep are healthy, bigger.” He worries the people aren’t applying that same standard to their own lives.
“You see a lot of weakness in the young kids. They get sick more. Talk to some health-care people, they would tell you there’s an increase in a lot of the health problems,” he says. “In the past it never used to be that way. That concerns me.”
There are no studies documenting genetic diversity or the effects of intermarriage on the Navajo Nation. In fact, those sorts of studies are forbidden, says Ronald Maldonado, program manager in the Cultural Resource Compliance Section of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.
“There is a moratorium prohibiting genetic research on the Navajo Reservation,” he says. “This has been going on, to the best of my knowledge, for at least 10 years. The tests have not been done to my knowledge and would not be allowed under current rules.”
Philmer Bluehouse, a Navajo peacemaker and traditionalist, says there’s an alarming and fundamental shift that underlies the worries about inbreeding—and it has more to do with disconnection from culture than any inherent limits in the clan system. He refers to unwritten rules governing Navajo people, also called Natural Law. “Our traditional practice to prevent genetic corruption was to determine, through our clan system, by asking our parents, who and which clans to marry,” he says. “This shows respect and understanding for self and others in these serious matters. In this contemporary world, it is sad to know that many cultures do not understand or appreciate how to interpret and apply these laws. I see many of us simply following what the greater society is practicing without consideration as to the real intent of why the unwritten laws were created.”
He says most Navajo people understand the risks of inbreeding, given their experience as shepherds. And he’s not opposed to using modern methods to protect the tenets of natural law: “When I married my wife, I made certain—I had a genetic blood test.”
At the same time, Bluehouse isn’t against the idea of encouraging marriages outside the Navajo tribe: “We have to allow that to happen to keep the blood clean,” he says. But he also hopes people will go about it in a reasoned way. “This is something that the Diné really need to open up and have some intelligent discussion on. We need to not be lazy.”
Long thinks he has solution. He’s the executive director of the Flagstaff-based organization Educating Communities while Healing and Offering Environmental Support (ECHOES), and through that group he’s gathering funds for a series of conferences and a book, all under the title Ké Bíká. Ké is a Navajo word referring to an understanding or relationship, of interconnectedness. And bíká means a reasoning, or purpose. “When you put them together it’s like a journey, toward an understanding of how we’re connected—an understanding of our culture, ceremony, history,” he explains.
He wants to gather experts on the Navajo clan system for the conferences; the book will document their knowledge. He wants to give it as a gift to his people. “We’re at a point where I feel like our culture is frozen,” he says, adding that social ills like alcoholism and diabetes are some of the results of that stagnation. “I feel like it’s because people are disconnected from their own identity. They’re not in control of their own lives.”
Long says he went through a process, early in his 30s, where he had to overcome parts of his past in order to reconnect with his own identity. And he feels the same thing needs to happen on a societal scale. He laments that the most commonly held impressions of the Navajo were created by scholars and historians during one of the lowest points in the history of the tribe. “Histories record of a people traumatized, emotionally disconnected, starving. We were taught in boarding schools that’s what we are,” he says. But Long feels there’s no reason those views should be perpetuated—and it’s damaging for them to be ingrained in the tribal consciousness.
He sees his book as an antidote. “It’s a toolkit,” he says. “It’s a historical gift to the people. People are hurting. By giving them this book, showing them who they are and where they came from, it’s a way to provide that map, if they choose to go down that road. It’s a way to heal.”
No one’s claiming there will be a quick fix for the issues facing the Navajo clan system. Long’s conferences aren’t even set to begin until the middle of 2013. As for Shelly’s idea of opening the door to more intertribal marriages, even tribal law will have to change to accommodate those plans. For example, right now, tribal jurisdictions don’t cover nontribal in-laws living on the reservation, he says.
“When I was running for this office,” he adds, “A lot of nontribal members came to me and said, ‘You need to change the law so we can vote in the elections and be citizens.’ We are looking into that.”