Shi Naasha – I Am Walking

Your Weekly Listen for 11/13/16 is this traditional Navajo (Diné) song, performed by Daybreak Warrior. Now sung by Diné parents to their children as a lullaby, the song refers to the end of a terrible time in their ancestral history: the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

In the winter of 1863-64, Kit Carson, a lieutenant in the Union Army, was instructed by his superior, Major James Henry Carleton, to “solve the Navajo problem”. Carson led an army which ravaged the Diné countryside in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, killing men, women and children, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. Without food, and with nowhere left to hide, the starving Diné were gathered at Fort Defiance (near modern day Grants, NM) and were forced to march 400 miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, NM. Out of 11,500 Diné captured, around 8,500 reached Fort Sumner. Some escaped and fled west, some were taken by slave traders, and many died along the way.

The captives were fed meagre army rations, which made them sick. The alkaline water from the Pecos River caused intestinal problems, and many prisoners were killed by an epidemic of smallpox. Winters were bitterly cold, and there was inadequate firewood.

In June of 1865, a Joint Special Committee of Congress visited the reservation to investigate conditions. It was obvious that the Bosque Redondo reservation was a failure. However, it was not until the spring of 1868 that a treaty was signed which finally allowed the Diné to return to their homelands. They had to walk all the way home.

As they walked, they caught sight of Mount Taylor, known to them as Tsoodzil, which they consider to be a sacred mountain. Overcome with joy, they began to sing “Shi Naasha”, which means “I Am Walking”.

Those of you who learned this song from me in music class will notice some of Daybreak Warrior’s pronunciation is different. I learned the song from Julia Begaye’s recording, which you can find on iTunes. I don’t know which is the “correct” version, or if both are correct. I myself do not speak Diné, and I understand that the structure of the language is so different from English that a literal translation is not possible. However, I believe the most important thing to know is that the song is an expression of joy and gratitude.

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