Learning from the Navajo

Through 3rd and most of 4th grade, I lived in Ganado, in the Navajo nation. I don’t recall a paved road in town. Horses and dogs roamed free. So did children. My friends and playmates were all Navajo save for one other white kid, the only white kid other than my sister and I at my school. I picked up words and phrases of Navajo, now long forgotten. What I haven’t forgotten though, is an appreciation of Navajo humor. Jokes about the crazy white man were funny and deprecating, but not dehumanizing. Navajo humor was not unsympathetic to human folly. What made it funny was pointing out the ridiculousness of common place ridiculousness and just doing so accurately, without spite. Navajo wit is sharp and wry, but rarely bitter or recriminating.

This, I can now see, reflects a moral universe relatively free of self-righteousness and retributive thinking. Human foibles are part of nature. Seeing humans realistically means expecting flaws and mistakes as much as virtue in others. When things go wrong, try to fix them. Retributive punishment matters less in the Navajo view of things than mending breaches in the community. Justice is not about punishing offenders so much as it is about restoring what has been damaged.

In August of 2020, the US government executed Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo, over the objections of the Navajo Nation. His guilt was not at issue, but tribal sovereignty and what counts as justice according to the Navajo was. The national press focused mainly on the issue of defending tribal rights. That is all well and good. More to the point, to my mind, are the lessons we might take from the Navajo about the aims of justice.


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