Hózhó and Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble”
The Navajo emergence story, Diné Bahaneʼ, shows how people find their place in the world through a series of ordeals and conflicts. At pivotal moments in the story, agents of chaos disrupt the normal state of affairs, and key Navajo figures must respond. Bringing order to chaos—and showing how order and chaos are bound up together—is essential to the concept of hózhó. On the surface, the indigeneous concept of hózhó sounds vaguely similar to what happens in the Judeo-Christian creation stories, from Genesis 1 and 2. When looking closer, however, it becomes obvious that hózhó offers a completely different model for imagining how humans should relate to nature.
According to Michelle Kahn-John and Mary Kolthan’s “Living in Health, Harmony, and Beauty: The Diné (Navajo) Hózhó Wellness Philosophy,” hózhó is not just an important word in culture; it’s an entire “complex wellness philosophy” that includes the basic principles of living.
In some accounts, hózhó was given to the Navajo by the female deity Yoołgaii Asdzáá, or White Shell Woman. In Navajo mythology, Yoołgaii Asdzáá becomes Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé, or Changing Woman, a key deity in their religion who was responsible for establishing the first Navajo clans. The deity responsible for establishing the clans also provided them with a guide for living.
When translated into English, it expresses concepts such as “beauty, perfection, harmony, goodness, normality, success, wellbeing, blessedness, order, and ideal.” It’s the “journey by which an individual strives toward and attains this state of wellness.”
Kahn-John and Koithan emphasize the ethical component of hózhó, but it’s important to keep in mind that the term has an aesthetic component to it as well. “Beauty” and “harmony” refer to how one lives in relation to the environment, but these forms of hózhó also apply to the crafts and products that the Navajo make.
Hózhó and Donna Haraway’s ecological thinking in Staying with the Trouble
This emphasis on the concrete and nearly artisanal nature of hózhó is developed in Donna Haraway’s 2016 book on ecological thinking, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. In her chapter on “Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble,” Haraway examines Navajo weaving as a form of art activism. She quotes a refrain from the song that Navajo weavers sing when weaving: “‘With me there is beauty (shil hózhó); ‘in me there is beauty’ (shii’ hózhó); ‘from me beauty radiates’ (shits’ aa d oo hózhó).” Haraway considers Navajo weaving a form of activism precisely because hózhó is not just about craft; it’s about “right relations of the world, including human and nonhuman beings, who are of the world as its storied and dynamic substance, not in the world as a container.”
After examining the role of hózhó in their crafts, Haraway shows how this important concept explains the structure of many Navajo legends. The two key mythological figures that relate to hózhó are the Coyote and Spider Woman. In Navajo and other Native American cultures, the Coyote is a trickster figure who is an agent of chaos and disorder. In the Diné Bahane, for example, the night sky begins to take shape through the careful choices of First Man and First Woman, but this process is disrupted by the wily Coyote, who snaps a blanket that randomly scatters stars across the sky. The present-day configuration of the sky is a compromise between carefully constructed constellations and chance-driven star clusters.
Just as the First Man and First Woman attempted to bring order to the universe in the midst of chaos, so do Navajo weavers reenact this cosmic event through their weaving process. Weaving is not overcoming chance and replacing it with order; instead, it’s about “staying with the trouble,” as Haraway might phrase it. Integration happens when individuals learn to maintain themselves within a tricky balance of chaos and order.
Navajo String Games and hózhó
Another provocative connection that Haraway makes in Staying with the Trouble is between Navajo weaving and their string games, or na’atlo’o’. Just as weaving has a cosmic component to it, so do string games restore hózhó, by bringing order to chaos.
In this video, “Navajo String Games by Grandma Margaret,” we can find a Navajo grandmother reenacting the Coyote scattering the stars across the sky, as well as some of the important constellations.
daybreakwarrior. “Navajo String Games by Grandma Margaret.” YouTube, 27 Nov 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qdcG7Ztn3c&feature=youtu.be.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
Kahn-John, Michelle and Mary Kolthan. “Living in Health, Harmony, and Beauty: The Diné (Navajo) Hózhó Wellness Philosophy.” Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 2015 May, 4(3): 24-30, 10.7453/gahmj.2015.044.
“Navajo Culture > Role of Women.” PBS, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/missnavajo/women.html.
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