Climate Changing without Hozho
NIS371: Navajo Philosophy
Mr. Avery Denny
Navajo Philosophy, through the wisdom of the Holy People and the ancient practices of generations of survivors, presents an intricate system of balance (Hozho) that is necessary for the preservation of society, economy, culture, and the environment. Humans are merely a part of the greater world web, and the ecosystems in the world rely on the responsible participation of all beings – including humans. Navajo Philosophy’s Hozho concept promotes a balance and good etiquette in terms of land stewardship. However, in the modern world, an increase in global attitudes and practices that do not conform to the idealism of “Hozho” have resulted in a world devastated by a changing climate. In this paper, the evident effects of climate change on the Caribbean reefs of San Salvador Island will be analyzed, followed by a reflection on climate change in the Navajo traditional homeland.
When I first began my classes this Spring Semester, I found myself struggling with a lot of feelings and responsibilities. Throughout the semester, I faced more and more challenges; but I handled them with increasing strategy. I believe my coinciding Navajo Philosophy course and Navajo Rug Weaving fine arts class literally wove themselves together as the course went on to give me perspective on my struggles and how to deal with them. The thinking and planning that went into my weaving made me reevaluate the thinking and planning that went into my decision-making, my future possibilities, and even the way I conduct myself in conversation with other people. My frustrations with the loom were checked by the need to stay calm and not criticize my work and myself. All of these concepts lead to the completion of my rug this week, a rug that is not perfect but that reminds me of how much I learned and struggled and still managed to complete without giving up.
The reminder that Navajo Philosophy emphasizes a balance of the good with the evil helped me accept my undeveloped skills with the realization that I had taken on a complex design and still managed to complete it. It helped me overcome my perfectionism and harsh self-criticism in many ways. The weaving also gave me time to think and reflect on the teachings of my various classes. A lot of this thinking revolved around Navajo Philosophy concepts – about what is balance and how it affects us more than just mentally. I reflected frequently on land stewardship as part of this balance, how Navajo Philosophy is less stressed in modern society and how good land stewardship practices are essentially absent from traditional Western societies. With this perspective, I considered how the loss of indigenous connection to a traditional land base can result in an imbalance and the ultimate destruction of an ancient ecosystem. That is why I have chosen to analyze my past climate change research on San Salvador Island and relate it to Dine Bikeyah.
San Salvador Island
During my senior year in undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, I conducted research under the State University of New York – Brockport College abroad program. We spent a semester in a Biology/Geology course that focused on the Caribbean ecosystem, then flew to San Salvador Island, the Bahamas, to conduct intensive field research at the Gerace Research Center, an old American Naval base. The field research lasted ten long days and consisted of the exploration of patch coral reef systems, the continental shelf, marine caves, interior marshes, and the various types of underwater environments (from shallow, to sand flats, and beyond). We kept journals to document the trips, the organisms encountered, and the weather data for each day. We also collected data on hard coral cover and parrotfish populations that was then added to several decades of data collected at the same patch reef systems by previous classes.
My experience on San Salvador Island was life-changing. I frequently present my research finding to tribal colleges and students around the country because of how much the experience moved me. Scientists often describe the underwater world as being one of the oldest ecosystems living on our planet. It is millions of years old, and evolutionists argue it is the origin of all land life – the reason why humans have webs between their fingers and why the fluid of the amniotic sac is of the same salinity as ocean water. Yet, as a Shawnee woman, I also recognize the Atlantic Ocean as one interpretation of our Creation story. Even stories of Turtle Island in other cultures reflect the importance of water to the first stories of their peoples. In other words, this ecosystem has stood the ultimate test of time…until now.
When my professor first started collecting data in the early 1990s, the coral reefs on San Salvador Island were, relatively speaking, thriving. In 2013, we discovered a significant decrease in all measures of biodiversity. Coral was becoming bleached, algae was consuming the available nutrients, light, and space, and fish populations were suffering. Not only that, but tourists had devastated the island and even inflicted damaged on our fenced-off research areas in the middle of our research collection process. Shrimping boats scoured the famous 1-mile drop of the continental shelf and poached adolescent conch shells littered the beach, the adults being so scarce that the immature flesh is now being illegally harvested.
San Salvador Island used to be the home to a people related to the Taino tribe. In fact, the island we were on is arguably the first island Columbus reached in 1492. Within 30 to 50 years, colonizers managed to enslave and completely remove the tribal people from the island, selling them for next-to-nothing prices until they found the value in their ability to dive for conches and other seafood. Conches were always a part of their traditional diet, but they had practiced an intuitive balance that respected the ebb and flow of the natural world they were ingrained to interpret and respect. Now that invaders without respect for the land and their ways had come into the picture, the island was devastated and exploited, its population completely replaced by African slaves once the original inhabitants died from disease or were removed altogether.
Today, the island remains in turmoil, but its destruction is accelerated on a more global level. While we studied the populations that were disappearing on the island, we also learned about calcium carbonate precipitation. Calcium carbonate is the compound that is used to make fish bones, shellfish shells, and coral structures. It is the literal backbone of ocean life. However, calcium carbonate only precipitates into water under certain conditions. With an increase of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, an imbalance is created of hydroxide (OH-), resulting in the acidification of the water. Simultaneously, the heat that usually radiates back into space is blocked by a change in the atmosphere and reflected into the ground and water surfaces, very slightly increasing the temperature of oceans. Finally, the imbalance of compounds in the water, altered by slowed precipitation, causes the formation of calcium carbonate to be scarce. Organisms therefore struggle to find the nutrients needed to grow. In some cases, they are simply never born at all. The emissions from human activity around the world since the Industrial Revolution have completely broken the balance of this precipitation process. The result is a coral reef system that is expected to be extinct as early as 2050. In other words, an ecosystem as old as life on earth will be completely destroyed by humanity during the course of my lifetime.
Hozho in the Southwest
Maybe the Taino people of present-day San Salvador Island had a name for their practices that lead to a balanced ecosystem of their island. From a Navajo perspective, however, their intuitive way of life could be described as the implementation of Hozho. Conch populations, coral reefs, and the occasional sea turtle were witnessed by my classmates on our trip because of the practices those people had maintained on that island for the history of their existence. If they had not practiced such a balanced lifestyle, perhaps those creatures would not have existed even as Columbus landed in the 15th century. So how can this apply to the southwest?
The southwest is plagued by a very interesting and incredibly intricate number of climate changing factors. First of all, it is a desert area of varied aridity. Specifically in reference to Navajoland, this semi-arid desert lacks significant rainfall but is not immune to rain, snow, or the melting of snow in the surrounding mountainous regions. High winds also tear across the region, and both the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and its counterpart La Nina bring varying cycles of precipitation. It is always important to remember that the southwest may go through periods of droughts, but that these droughts are part of a regular cycle. The question more becomes how often and how intense are these droughts, and what other factors are involved that drive more devastating impacts on the region?
A lot of focus in the southwest is placed on what are called Hadley cells. Hadley cells are essentially the life cycles of evaporated water. These cells appear on either side of the equator, the part of the world that receives the most heat and therefore which produces the most evaporated surface water. This water is brought into the sky and drifts away from the equator until its energy is dissipated. The effect of this dissipation causes a wet zone bordered by a dry region from which additional moisture is drawn during the precipitation process. However, as global temperatures are increasing on the surface (as previously mentioned), the thermodynamic energy of these cells increase, resulting in greater storms and expanding Hadley cells. Scientists are now watching these cells migrate and expect the Sonoran desert to soon consume Tucson and later Socorro, New Mexico as it proceeds northward under current atmospheric trends.
Yet, as you move into the regions of Dine Bikeyah, some of the greatest concerns become the dust and the erosion. Dust storms form, sand dunes migrate across roads and against fences, and washes cut deeper and deeper each season. An unseen factor in the equation? Dust that lands on the snowcaps of the mountains, which is also referred to as albedo, inevitably darkens the surface against the heat of the sun, causing a premature thawing of those snowcaps and therefore completely destroying the thaw cycle and delivery of water to receiving watersheds during the course of a year. This alteration in delivery changes the growing season of many plants. The changing of growing seasons also affects the feeding schedule of livestock, and livestock has become an arguably more modern center to Navajo tradition.
The changes of a growing season can cause herds to starve when the supply is low, or cause horses to founder when the supply is high. Regardless, livestock on the Navajo Nation scramble on open-grazing areas to overgraze on erosion-preventing plants. In some cases, they are attracted to newly reseeded construction projects and become a hazard to motorists in the area. Regardless, the increasing population of free-roaming animals contributes to the consumption of erosion-battling plants, the turning-up of soils by hooves, and even the distribution of undigested seeds that spread troublesome plants like mesquite across far distances. The most troubling part? Livestock on the Navajo Nation is a more newly introduced tradition, yet it is already contributing significantly to the loss if hozho in the natural ways of the land.
I remember one of the first Leading the Way editions that I bought when I moved to Window Rock described the need to harvest only a portion of a yucca root. This is an example of Hozho in good ecosystem practice. However, a short walk around a part of the Navajo Reservation will likely uncover washes with open dumps, broken bottles along the side of the road, and livestock wandering aimlessly and unclaimed to find any amount of available vegetation to consume. The result is increasing amounts of contamination, pollution, and erosion. Navajo Philosophy requires a high amount of accountability for considering how to make decisions in life, yet the problems of climate change on the Navajo Nation indicate a departure from that accountability and those practices. Additionally, resources are being exploited for greed accelerated by monetary greed, and there is little to no consideration for the health of the environment or people affected. In these ways, hozho is collapsing and it is not unrealistic to say the future of the Navajo ecosystem will one day resemble the fate of San Salvador Island.
Navajo Philosophy requires certain elements for good governance. This includes equity, equality, focus on the issues at hand, shared information, accountability, sustainability, assessment, and self-interest – the components we were presented with during our NIS371 course. Yet, all of the components contributing to climate change and poor land stewardship demonstrate a severe lacking in some – if not all – of these areas. Regardless of geographical location, the interruption of long-practiced methods by indigenous communities to maintain balance in their respective environments results in a rapid degradation of that system. This inherent knowledge can be viewed as a part of the epistemology of that culture. Now it is the responsibility of policy-makers and influencers to understand the lack of hozho in modern practices and implement changes that will restore a healthy balance to Dine Bikeyah and prevent a re-creation of San Salvador Island.