The concept of sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho is more commonly known as hozho in the shorthand. Sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho consists of two distinct phrases that together form a unity. The whole phrase exemplifies a model of balance in living. At the core of its meaning, hozho is about balance. It is about health, long life, happiness, wisdom, knowledge, harmony, the mundane and the divine. For the Navajo people, hozho represents a synthetic and living description of what life on the surface of planet Earth should be, from birth until death at an old age.
This monograph explores the complex meaning of hozho and discusses the split among scholars and ethnographers as to whether hozho as a concept expresses unity and integration or a view of the world that is fundamentally dualistic in nature and meaning. I hope to capture the essence of hozho in so far as it can be captured and put into a twenty page paper. The two essential views of sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho will be compared to study whether it is a dualistic view of the world or a unified, integrated understanding of dual aspects of the same essence. I will compare the two camps and come to a conclusion about which appears to be the valid one. For the sake of brevity I will frequently abbreviate sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho to SNBH. In our discussion we can understand Hozho to be shorthand for the longer term and SNBH.
What does Hozho mean?
The seminal exegesis of the Navajo world-view – their philosophy and religion, comes to us via the work of Father Berard Haile. Father Haile was a Jesuit priest who spent over 50 years living with the Navajo. His work remains the most complete and in-depth body of writing extant on the Dine’. In spite of his great openness and deeply sympathetic understanding of the Dine’ and their very difficult language he was, at the end of the day, a Jesuit. He saw the world in dualistic terms of good and evil. His own training necessarily influenced his interpretation of SNBH. The Christian view of the world id decidedly dualistic; yet Haile was not alone in his dualistic interpretation. There is, however, a set of scholars who have also lived among the Dine’ for considerable periods of time and have come to the conclusion that the Navajo world-view embodied in Hozho is, in its true light, inconsistent with a dualistic view of the world and instead truly represents a unified whole.
There are intrinsic problemswith the gathering of religious and ceremonial information and understanding of hozho. In particular, an individual Navajo’s own understanding of deeper meanings, like all other power knowledge, is usually not shared or divulged for any price until he or she is so old that it is of no more use, as his/her life is at an end anyway. To the Navajo, knowledge is power is life. A Navajo is usually unwilling to share medicine knowledge because to share it is to lose the personal power the private knowledge bestows upon the knower. He/she has given away with the telling of the knowledge, its intrinsic power. The ethnographic difficulties engendered by this complication are obvious.
Of the many ways that Hozho and sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho have been translated, all are inadequate. Among these, ‘in-old-age-walking-the-trail-of-beauty’ or ‘according-to-the-ideal-may-restoration-be-achieved’ are generally considered to be the most common. Some gloss the meaning of sa’aa naaghaii as the capacity of life to achieve immortality through recurrence and reproduction in the life cycle, and bik’e hozho as the basic harmony needed for life of every sort to continue (Witherspoon, 1977:18).
An excellent exegiesis of hosho and sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho is provided by JohnFarella in The Main Stalk. He writes that hozho is not just an understanding of the whole, but that it is the whole (1996:17). Hozho is the central theme of Navajo philosophy (Farella, 1996; Reichard, 1983, Witherspoon, 1977 and 1995 and Wyman, 1970).
This “main stalk” is as central to the philosophy and religion of the Navajo as corn and water traditionally have been to Navajo survival (Farella, 1996) Living in, or as sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho means continually restoring, finding, and practicing balance in one’s daily life. The ability to live in balance is gained primarily through acquisition of knowledge. It is the possession of knowledge that makes one “divine,” by virtue of putting one in closer contact with and able to better utilize the basic energetic forces underlying nature (Farella, 1093:24). The knowledge is acquired through ritual, stories, songs and experience in life, including all the good and bad of life.
The process of engendering hozho and finding balance in SNBH, is continually recreated in the “main stalk” of all the Navajo ceremonies, that is, the Blessingway. The Dine’ language name for this ceremony is Hozhooji’, and is “synonymous with the continuation of their way of life” (Farella, 1996: 32).
The ceremony itself was apparently designed to attract the power of the holy people. Goodness and balance are conferred to the People (Dine’) from the Holy People, the Diyinii. The Diyinii are the divine supernaturals who not only created all the qualities of worldly existence but created the Hozhooji(Blessingway) ritual and gave it to the people for their benefit. The ceremony itself is a creation ritual (Farella, 1996). Through the process of the Blessingway, the community and its individuals acquire knowledge.
It is the possession of knowledge, on the Dine’ way of viewing the world, which makes one divine. In Navajo religion and philosophy, divinity seems to describe, or be equivalent to, the ability to utilize the primal forces of nature. Divinity is acquired through gaining of knowledge and is not innate. Ritual knowledge should be used until the end of one’s long life. In the wisdom of the Blessingway, the goal of life is to acquire and use knowledge into old age and surrender that knowledge only when in sight of death’s door.
According to Gladys Reichard, sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho ought to be the goal of humanity as it is the goal of supernaturals. To attain SNBH is to be in harmony and in unified intention with time, motion, institutions and behavior. “Perhaps it is the utmost achievement in order,” Farella writes, “To be sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho is, in a sense that is still undefined, to be complete” (1996:49). The goal of sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho is to connect with this “Universal Harmony.” Witherspoon writes that as metaphor, Hozho describes the “cosmic concert” of the entire universe (1995: 15). It is like a mozart symphony in which every note, though distinct, exists in its great beauty not as one of a string of individual notes but rather as parts of a complex web. Every note – each element, is part of a symphony in which the loss of any part – any note, would diminish and unbalance the whole.
Sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho: Breaking it Apart to Understand It.
If a unified and living concept can be broken apart to understand it, is it a unity after all? If we break something into pieces to somehow understand the whole, will the understanding that results be of the unity or only of the parts? Can a unity ever be understood through an analysis of its parts? These questions speak to the heart of the debate among ethnographers as to whether SBNH fundamentally expresses unity or not. They also speak to the heart of any understanding of the Navajo people themselves. In my opinion, though, the old-time dualists – Haile and Reichard, still the two giants in the field,have dissectedHozho in good faith. It is difficult not to see a concept expressed in two parts, and seemingly embodying opposite meanings, as ultimately dualistic. Farella and some others have been able to do otherwise.
To the traditional Navajo, sa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozho is the central power of the universe. All other powers and forces are contained in and stem from it. Literally, “sa’aa naghaii” means “In old age walking.” Literally, “bik’e hozho” means “His trail beautiful”. There are essentially four ways of defining the two phrases (or, if you will, the conjunction of the two as one phrase). First, an etymological reduction of the phrase to its linguistic components yields one definition (Farella, 1996; Witherspoon, 1974). Secondly, one can define it abstractly as Reichard does in Navaho Religion (Reichard, 1983; Farella, 1996). Third, objectification of the elements and subject matter of the stories behind the concept and the elements of the Blessingway ritual yields a definition based upon what one sees as the personification of the mythical and cultural elements (Haile, 1949). Finally, one can look at SNBH as what Farella calls entitivity. I suggest that a truly synthetic understanding of SNBH and Hozhonii (BlessingWay) will require all four definitions. For now, let’s take them one at a time in a brief tour through the methodologies.
Etymological Analysis of SNBH/Hozho
The etymological reduction as used byWitherspoon and Haile isolates and focuses on the supposed meaning of each of the component words. Sa’aa is derived from the past tense verb “to grow” or “to mature”. It denotes maturity, ripeness, being aged, and reaching or dying of old age. It reflects the Navajo goal of life: to die of old age in a good way (Witherspoon, 1974: 47-49; Farella, 1996: 157). Witherspoon writes that sa’ah indicates the derivative of a past tense verb stem “to grow” and “to mature” and also represents the old age as the primary objective in life with an emphasis on living, not fear or thought of dying (1977:19-21).
Naghaii is, extraordinarily, one of 356,200 conjugations of the verb “to go” (Witherspoon, 1977). The prefix naa emphasizes repetition or continuation of the act under specific cyclical conditions and implies a restoration of conditions. Thus, sa’a (completion of the lifecycle through death of old age) andnaghaii (the continued occurrence of the completion of the life cycle) form the unity of a cycle of being, completing, and recurring.
The word bik’eh is reduced to Bi (“it”) k’eh, meaning “according to it”, or “by its decree” (Witherspoon, 1974 and 1977). The bi refers back to the preceding saa naghaii and conjoins it to hozho.
Hozho is said to be the most important word in the Navajo language (Witherspoon, 1995). It means “beauty” or “blessing way” (the good way). Breaking hozho down further, the prefix ho denotes the following complex of meaning:
General as opposed to the specific
The whole as opposed to the part
The abstract as opposed to the concrete
The indefinite as opposed to the definite
The infinite as opposed to the finite (Farella, 1996:159; Witherspoon, 1974:53).
Hozho, then, refers to the positive or ideal environment, or all of that which is good (and, Witherspoon explains, only that which is good). Together it can be seen that SNBH is the source of goodness in the universe. On this view all living things must harmonize with the power of sa’aa naaghaii and alsobik’e hozho. These powers together are understood as a generator or power source which produces Hozho for the inner forms (We will discuss this in more detail later – it is a very Platonic way of looking at the world). Kluckhohn speaks to the multi-dimensionality and importance of the term hozho:
There are, however, some abstract words, extremely difficult to render in English, which are of the greatest importance for the understanding of Navajo philosophy. Perhaps the most significant of these is conveyed by the Navajo root hozho. This is probably the central idea in Navajo religious thinking. It occurs in the names of two important ceremonials (Blessing Way and Beauty Way) and is frequently repeated in almost all prayers and songs. In various contexts it is best translated as ‘beautiful’, ‘harmonious’, ‘good’, ‘blessed’, pleasant’, and ‘satisfying’. As a matter of fact, the difficulty with translation primarily reflects the poverty of English in terms that simultaneously have moral and esthetic meaning (1949:368-60).
SNBH Viewed Abstractly
Abstractly, as Gladys Reichard believed, SNBH/hozho refers to ‘perfection so far as it is attainable by man’ (and also the super-naturals – Farella, 1996:155). However abstractly one view it, SNBH/hozho, Hozhonii (or Hozhooju – the Blessingway ceremony) is the ‘backbone of Navajo religion’ (Witherspoon, 1995:16). Hozhooji is the ceremonial “sing” that recreates hozho through ritual. It embodies 1) perfection and order; 2) many classes of things, beings and concepts; and 3) the subjective ground of being (Farella, 1996:156). Said differently, sa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozho is associated with, or is the abstract representation of, rebirth and renewal in a process that exists outside of time.
A third way to look at SNBH is as the personification of the qualities stemming from the ceremony and the sacred history from which it springs via some process of objectification. The intent here would be to isolate an element of the concept, hold it up and look at it from many angles. There is a significant problem with this type of analysis, viz. it seems that there is no type of objectification that can be made that is equivalent to SNBH. Sa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozhois elusive and complex. The closest anyone has come to such an objectification is Father Haile’s assertion that SNBH is aimed at the final objective of reaching and becoming “inner form of the Earth”.
SNBH/hozho as Entitivity
Finally, one can attempt to understand SNBH as entitivity. In this sense, entitivity means the individual identity of each of the elements of the sacred history behind hozhooji, the Blessingway. It should be kept in mind that in all this we are really talking about the Creation Story of the Navajo the Dine’. The Medicine Bundle of First Man is itself an entity, with purpose, intentionality, definition, sovereignty, and, one would say – spirit.
The inner form of the Earth, what Haile believed to be the end goal of SNBH, is an entity in and of itself. The good and bad, the beneficial and the harmful forms of various phenomena all have their own entities. All things are created by or placed in sa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozho and all have their own entitivity.
A further example of SNBH is the understanding of sa’a naaghaii as meaning and being long life; that meaning – longevity – is an aspect of SNBH. A patient needing to be treated through hozhooji might be feared because he might not be in possession of, or in contact with, the happiness aspect of SNBH, namely, bik’e hozho. He needs these entity attributes. The incompleteness of such a person makes him dangerous because he is an unbalanced entity. 
Those who argue that hozho ought to be viewed as a unified whole embodying, but not being opposites cite the omnipresence of hozho in Navajo ceremony, language, art and culture. Hozho is personified in the qualities and personality of Changing Woman ‘who is now the inner form of the earth…The dynamic, regenerative, and holistic beauty and harmony seen on the earth’s surface’ (Witherspoon, 1995:33). These characteristics are reflections and manifestations of her qualities and power. The power itself stems from the parents of Changing Woman, Saa’Naghaii (her father) and Bik’e Hozho (her mother), the outer form of Saa’ Naghaii (Witherspoon, 1977 and 1995).
The Blessingway recreates the whole of, and continuation of, both birth and death. The Blessingway ritual recreates the cardinal phenomena of the world, all the holy sites, the holy “lights” of dawn, mid-day, dusk, and darkness (Reichard, 1983; Kluckhohn, 1974; Farella, 1996:186; and wyman, 1970). It recreates Navajo sacred geography and ceremony, the animation of the sun and the moon, the past, present, and the future; all of the things that were originally contained in the symbol of the Medicine Bundle dating back to the Primal Couple at their first emergence into this world. The Blessingway directly mirrors sa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozho and SNBH is a synthesis of all Navajo cosmology. They embody beliefs about time, space, growth, development, change, the environment, and all inter-relationships (Levy, 1986:172).
The focus of the Navajo world-view is not on the elements of life – individuals and individual aspects of life – but rather on the connections or relationships between all the elements, and globally, on the unity of the combinations. The fundamental reality of the Navajo, Witherspoon writes, is the whole. As stated above, in Hozho, the Ho prefix refers to the general, the whole, and the abstract, the infinite ground of being; not the finite existence of any one thing or even all things (Witherspoon, 1995:14). In viewing symbolism and symmetry in Navajo ritual, art, and life, any cutting of the whole into pieces damages the essence and elegance of the whole and its parts, both functionally and aesthetically. Witherspoon, quoting George Thompson Mills in his exegesis of Navajo art and culture:
The fundamental pattern of Navajo world-view is dialectical: thesis, antithesis, synthesis…Kierkegaard, I think, called anxiety the dizziness of freedom. For the Navajo, anxiety…is the dizziness of prospective synthesis which, raising life to the highest degree of power and control, is the consummation of the Navajo way (Mills, 1959:201-202 in Witherspoon, 1995:19).
In Navajo sacred history, the Dine’ (the People, the Navajo, and the Earth Surface People), was not created in the four worlds that existed before this one. The Diyin Dine’e’ (the Holy People/Gods) emerged first into this world and were immediately taken into a sweat lodge by the gods to think, discuss, pray, and sing into creation this present world and the people to be in it.
First Man had with him in this process his medicine bundle, which he had brought up with him through and from all the preceding worlds. It contained the inner forms – the animating essences – of what could and would exist in this, the new world. Among the inner forms in the medicine bundle of First Man was a pair of essences described as Saa Haghaii Boy and Bike’e Hozho Girl (Witherspoon, 1995:27).
These children and everything they embodied or represented became the parents of Changing Woman, the Mother of the Dine’. According to Witherspoon, Sa’ah Naaghaii and Bik’eh Hozho actually represent two beings personifying thought and speech, respectively; Sa’ah Naaghaii being the male andBik’eh Hozho being the female, the first also representing long life and the second, happiness.
Through Changing Woman came the Blessing Way ceremony. From Changing Woman, with the Sun as their father, the Slayer Twins: Monster Slayer and Born for Water came into existence and helped to make the world safe again for the Dine’. With the creation of the new world and the Earth Surface People (Dine’), the inner forms of the ancient Holy People disappeared into the outer forms of the new world, to be seen in the manifestations of life on earth, the wind, growth, song and renewal (Witherspoon, 1995:29).
There is an anthropological principle that is intriguingly associated with the Navajo ceremony: synecdoche is an identification of any part with the whole – a kind of hologramatical understanding in which one can see the whole in any part. The unity of disparate phenomena contained in First Man’s Medicine Bundle still Lives in the ceremony of hozhooji. Within the symbolism and function of the Medicine Bundle live creation, existence, and recreation, along with death. Inside of the materials of the Bundle is the Earth:
Within the skin of a deer that was killed without allowing his life force to escape.…The ritual slaughter of the deer repeats the process in the underworlds that began death and continued life…And this bundle made from the skin of the animal that dies, but whose life force continues, is repeatedly used to animate and to reanimate beings on Earth’s surface. Just as it was always used…
The beginnings of things shown in the history of all animate life forms created and living in the Bundle come into the People, the diyinii, as saa’aa naaghaii bik’eh hozho (Farella, 1984:187).
Hozho as represented in the juxtaposition of the duo of Saa Naghaii and Bik’e Hozho exemplify what Witherspoon calls holistic asymmetry. Holistic asymmetry integrates disparate, even opposite kinds of parts of a system into a unified whole. For instance, the presence of opposites in a Navajo artistic composition doesn’t simply enhance the art – they are essential requirements of a correctly done composition. All traditional Navajo art exemplifies integration of disparate and balanced ideas and parts.
In Navajo weaving and sand painting compositions, integration of techniques utilizing holistic asymmetry is one of the highest priorities in the correct composition of the work. The structural elements incorporated in Navajo art, parts, symmetries, asymmetries, bipolarities, color, energy, texture and symbolism all go to form a rendering of the universe in microcosm. Navajo art utilized and continues to utilize bilateral symmetry (the symmetry of left and right), symmetry of movement and space (activity in space), and symmetry of color (with balance from the color wheel hue and lightness/darkness).
There appears to be no place in Navajo philosophy, art, architecture (Hogan, sweathouse, etc.) where unification of elements into a holistic representation does not occur. In Navajo society, even gender relationships (both mythological and current), male and female roles, however different, are complimentary and essential, one to the other (Witherspoon, 1975:50).
The Navajo concept of Hozho ought to be understood as a unified world-view.Hozhois holism; it is unity. There is required a complex mind and cosmology to embrace paradox and opposites without adopting a dualistic view of the world. The original ethnographers of the Navajo came to their study of the culture with a decidedly dualistic Christian world-view that colored their understanding of hozho Theirs was a world-view, according to which, good is not bad, life is not death, and opposites are not contained in each other. Nor can good spring from bad, nor bad spring from good. That indoctrination prevented Haile and other extremely capable and sympathetic ethnographers from finally stepping into the Navajo world where opposites reside as one, together in balance; where creation is destruction, “bad” can be “good” and “good” can be “bad”. Saa Naghaii and Bik’e Hozho provide the life force that animates and binds together all living beings in the universe.
If the inner forms of every living being (including the planet Earth itself, and the sacred mountains) are harmonized with Saa Naghaii and the outer forms are harmonized with Bik’e Hozho, the ideal environment for all is manifested in peace, harmony and living, walking beauty. This view is hardly one of ultimate dualism; rather, it is a unified and harmonious vision of reality incorporating opposites in asymmetric holism. This asymmetric holism on the grandest of scales isHozho.
The Navajo world was created through thought and sound. Together, in the form of ritual, this thought (Saa’ Naghaii) and speech (Bik’e Hozho)manifested in the creation of the universe. Here knowledge as ritual and as the world itself is complete. It cannot be “developed”. It cannot be “discovered”. Once it is, it simply is.
The world was created in one particular way and was organized according to the knowledge of the Holy People. The Holy People created the Navajo world in a sweathouse (Witherspoon, 1977:33). Their purpose was to provide an endless medium for the extension of knowledge. It would be difficult to imagine a more unified vision of the universe. It was complete at its beginning and still requires the participation of intelligent beings in the extension of the awareness of essential knowledge. Every part was planned for and every part is needed. It is now and was then incumbent upon human beings to expand their knowledge of the universe by living in Hozho. Human beings cannot create knowledge; we can only expand our awareness of it.
“This world was transformed from knowledge, organized in thought, patterned in language, and realized in speech (symbolic action). The symbol was not created as a means of representing reality; on the contrary, reality was created or transformed as a manifestation of symbolic form. In the Navajo view of the world, language is not a mirror of reality; reality is a mirror of language” (italics mine) (Witherspoon, 1977:34).
The Navajo word for “knowledge” (eehozin) implies in its definition ‘awareness’, ‘acquaintance’, or ‘familiarity’, and the proper understanding and awareness of a thing’s inner nature and its meaning on different levels, viz. symbolic and phenomenal. Restoration of hozho requires, and is the function of, ritual knowledge (Witherspoon, 1977:43044). This is easier to understand when we remember that the world was created from thought expressed through speech and song. For Navajos, SNBH/hozho is the sum of all of the parts of existence and it is at the same time existence itself. It is also the sum of all the relationships between thought, speech, the gods, people, intentionality, noumenon and symbol, spiritual existence as well as phenomenal, or physical nature itself.
Living to old age without causing trouble that keeps one’s self or others from achieving Saa Naaghaii Bik’eh Hozho is the goal of the traditional Navajo life. Mirroring balance and reality through a long life is the objective. The Blessingway (Hozhooji) facilitates this end by magnetizing power in goodness and beauty through contact with the Holy People to restore balance in Hozho.
It is not difficult to understand why, on the surface, the two phrases of Saa Naghaii and Bik’e Hozho seem disparate; why one could make an argument for the Navajo world view being dualistic, ala Haile and Reichard. SNBH and hozho do express, after all, opposites. This has been clearly explicated. One must go deeper though, beyond the opposites and further into the world of the Navajo thought, or rather, step much further back and view things at a distance, to see that hozho is unity expressed in the relationships of opposites – each to the other and each to all other elements, aspects, and forces of the universe. When one does this it becomes intuitively obvious that the Navajo view of the world is one in which every part, however disparate, reflects the whole. Hozho as Saa Naaghaii Bik’eh Hozho expresses a unified world-view.