The Diyinii of Naachid: Diné1 Rhetoric as Ritual

Edward Karshner, PhD
Oberlin, Ohio, USA 



Rhetoric is far more than a theory of communication or the antiquated ancestor of freshman composition courses. As a system, rhetoric is the process that directs, on the one hand, individual experiences with the world and structures, and on the other, the stories cultures tell about themselves. These foundational narratives (myths) reveal a culture’s metaphysical understanding of the nature of reality, the psychological understanding of human nature, and the epistemological notion of what can be known. Using the Diné Bahané, this paper will explore Diné rhetoric as naachid, an inclusive, outward-directed communication model of problem solving which functions as a ceremonial purification of mind, body, and speech while simultaneously addressing spiritual, social, economic, and political exigencies. As a rhetorical system, naachid synthesizes thought, symbol, and action through participation in ceremonies which alter an individual’s perception of reality, thus maintaining the balance between the individual and the metaphysical system.

Key words: Rhetoric, Navajo Studies, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Communication, Ritual, Mythology, Ceremony


In the 1972 article “Navajo World View and Cultural Patterns of Speech: A Case Study,” Gerry Philipsen, following the lead of P. Albert Duhamel, structures his analysis of Diné rhetoric by focusing on the cultural manifestations of metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology. While Philipsen asserts that “the Navajo has no written rhetorical theory” (139), he maintains that in Diné discourse “these categories [metaphysics, epistemology, psychology], as well as rhetoric itself, are products and expressions of cultural variations” (139). This study begins where Philipsen’s ends, by taking issue with the assertion that the Diné have no established rhetorical theory. Philipsen’s belief that if rhetorical theory is not written down, it must not exist, emerges from what Paul Zolbrod characterizes as “Europe’s print driven legacy” (Reading the Voice 2). However, this paper argues that Diné rhetorical theory is embedded in their creation and journey narratives recorded by scores of anthropologists since the late 1800s.

This paper will make use of Paul Zolbrod’s The Diné Bahané, a synthesis of songs and stories from various published versions of the Blessing Way Ceremony. While not an attempt to canonize or reduce the rich oral tradition of the Diné, Zolbrod, himself, understands this book to be “an experiment in text retrieval, since my original intention was to present an English version of the Navajo creation story as evidence of an ongoing pre-Columbian literary tradition in North America” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 1). The philosophical value of this text is found in its providing a tangible and stable platform to begin an explication of Diné beliefs. The Diné Bahané strikes a balance between the Western need for physical texts and the demands of a cultural tradition to speak for itself.

Zolbrod’s text will be used to explicate the Diné process of naachid, a generative process of mediation between the exterior world of experience and the interior world of opinion, as approximating the act of creation (metaphysics) by stressing thought and speech as the primary means of altering reality through the redirection of thought (psychology). Naachid, as rhetoric, synthesizes thought, symbol, and action through participation in ceremony (epistemology) which alters an individual’s perception of reality, thus maintaining the balance between the individual and the metaphysical system.

Principles of Rhetoric

George Kennedy defines the act of communication as “the transmission of a message and often involves the creation of a new thought by the reaction of a receiver to the message of an original statement, which then in turn may impel the sender to revise the statement, making it clearer or more forceful, or meeting some objective” (5). In other words, rhetoric is the act by which information is gathered and presented through the meta-cognitive awareness of situations and contexts. Texts constructed by rhetoric reflect a unique model of belief and suggest a preferred mode of action. However, when considering the purpose of rhetoric in a ritual sense, consider I.A. Richards’ definition of rhetoric as being the “study of misunderstandings and their remedies” (106). The liminal quality of misunderstanding in ritual rhetoric is that dissonance is a defect not “in the world” but within the perception (expressed as pistis/belief) of the observer. Barry Brumett writes “consciousness or ideology is a system of belief—not the way things ‘really, truly are’ but what people perceived to be true” (27). Wayne Booth agrees, writing that dissonance, expressed as rhetorical exigence, begins with the first essential warrant of belief which states “the world as we experience it is somehow flawed” (161). The key word is “experience.” In actuality, the world is as it is; only our perception and experience of the world reveals that “something is wrong, deficient, broken, inadequate, lacking” (Booth 161). This perceived rottenness in the world emerges from the epistemic conflict defined in Booth’s second warrant which states “the flaws are seen in the light of the unflawed . . . standards of judgment of the brokenness exist somewhere” (Booth 161).  The starting point of rhetoric is the belief that “things” are not as they should be and a belief in a model that establishes what “things” should approximate. This break between “what is” and “what ought to be” creates not only the possibility for rhetoric but the necessity of rhetoric.

Rhetoric, then, operates within a belief system, and that belief system itself “harkens back to operative principles set in motion at the time of creation” (McPherson 4). Solutions to current problems can be found in the process exhibited in the past. Robert Scott writes that when “looking to the future and making ethical decisions, we must look to the past” (317). These ethical models are narrated in the myths of a culture. Mircea Eliade writes that “because myth relates the gesta of supernatural beings and the manifestation of their sacred powers, it becomes the exemplary model for all significant human activities” (6). Rhetorical action takes shape within a complex series of relationships between agents and their experiences and those experiences filtered through events narrated in myth. In order to fully comprehend Diné rhetoric, a working knowledge of these operating principles is needed.

Metaphysics as Context

According to Philipsen, the principle context of rhetoric is metaphysical which he defines as “presuppositions about the nature of reality, what there is, how it came to be” (Philipsen 133). In Diné metaphysics, the “universe” or “nature” was composed of three layers. The first layer is the “sensed objective world” which is experienced with the five senses and is 100% sacred (Burnside). For the Diné the “sacred” (diyin) is a morally neutral, generative power representing the pure potential of the undefined found at the moment before cognitive awareness. The second layer is the psychological layer of the internal world of feelings and opinions about those feelings (Burnside). This is the layer where direct experiences with the objective world are filtered through cultural constraints to form or support a belief (pistis) which becomes the rationale for action. Finally, there is the third layer of ceremony which functions as epistemological rhetoric. Here, experience and belief are made one when action is performed mindfully (Burnside). The interaction between these three layers establishes the foundation of the Diné rhetorical system.

In the beginning, Diné creation narratives speak of existence as being substantial but formless, undifferentiated, and inactive. John Farella characterizes the Diné act of creation as cognitive when he writes “since there was no movement, there was, of course, nothing to be sensed and, therefore, nothing to think about, and no language or behavior” (119). Then, there is movement. The Diné Bahané describes the creative process as “It is said that at [the Place Where the Waters Crossed] white arose in the east and was considered day . . . blue arose in the South. It too was considered day . . . In the West yellow arose and showed that evening had come. Then in the North Black arose” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 35).

The creation of order is not linear but rather circular. Further, the circle is divided into “equal quadrants beginning in the East” (“Bitse Silei” 5). Within the four quadrants, arranged according to the four cardinal directions, are also four colors and later the four sacred mountains. These layered elements within the divided circle become categories that establish “the four sacred of all things” (Burnside). Each of these semiotic signs recall steps in a recursive process that creates a repetitive movement of awareness, action, and renewal.

This circular process moves according to the principles of nahagha—ceremony. The root of nahagha suggests movement and therefore life while at the same time it suggests an awareness of something because of its motion (Witherspoon 13-14). Both linguistically, and from observation and participation, Navajo ritual suggests thoughtful, meaningful action directed at resolving a perceived estrangement from the idea of order held by an individual. Directly related to nahagha is the verb naaghaii. According to Gary Witherspoon, this verb expresses the idea of “repetition, restoration, or continuous reoccurrence of an event or set of conditions, some of which imply the completion of a cycle or a revolution” (21). Referencing the process and structure of cosmological creation, the goal of the rhetorical/ritual management of “the four sacred of all things” is to arrive at hozho.

In the emergence narratives, hozho is characterized by individuals as they seek “their place on the earth and to tune their lives to the rhythms, melodies, and cycles of the earth and sky” (Witherspoon 258). Most often glossed as beauty or balance, hozho is a “cosmic concert” that expresses “the normal state of the fourth world [our current realm of existence], which is a state of beauty, harmony, health, happiness, and peace” (Witherspoon 264). In other words, hozho is a mental state of peace cultivated through maturity rooted in experiences with the world.

For those who are aware of their place in the process (akonizin), these experiences are “omnipresent, not just occasional. It is the experience of being part of something larger and grander than oneself, the direct experience of oneness (nizhoni)” (Farella 23). From this experience of nizhoni, the individual can “nizhoni go silei” or put things in their proper place. Nizhoni go silei rhetorically arranges experience in a way that reflects the rationality of the metaphysical system. Nizhoni go silei is the key to understanding hozho. When all things are put in their proper place, hozho is revealed. Hozho, then, is not an accidental process but rather one of maturity and transformation stimulated by a natural desire for onto-cosmological harmony.

However, hozho should not be understood as only a cosmological condition. Hozho is also a characteristic and a product of human activity. In the songs of the Blessingway, each hatal (song/prayer) ends with a variation of the refrain:

Before me it is blessed [hozho] as I go about

behind me it is blessed as I go about

below me it is blessed as I go about

above me it is blessed as I go about

everywhere all around me it is blessed as I go about.

(River Junction Curly qtd. in Wyman 616)

The goal of each Blessingway song is to restore the individual to a state of harmony. As mentioned above, however, the entire ceremony serves as a means to remind the individual that beauty/hozho resides within them.

In the Slim Curly version of the Blessing Way, the prayer of “The Bath at Tree-Grove-Slope” ends with “wherever I go blessing radiates above me, where ever I go blessing radiates above me . . . as far as I gaze around me earth usually extends its blessing, where ever I go blessing radiates around me, wherever I go blessing radiates around me” (qtd. in Wyman 235). When this prayer (or variations) is performed by Diné as part of a morning prayer, rather than blessings (hozho) radiating “around” an individual, the phrasing is “hozho radiates/comes from me.” The implication is that hozho is a potential state of being one carries with them. Further the possibility of hozho rests in the conscious actions of the individual.

This preferred state of hozho is restored by turning the cosmological process of movement, awareness, and arrangement into a cognitive process. River Junction Curly’s Blessingway prayer calls on the power of the four sacred mountains as both containers of power and anchors of the creative process to restore thinking to the hozhoji (Blessed Way). Through rhetorical identification he prays “with its [sacred mountain’s] power I will go about, with its body I will go about, with its mind, its voice, I will go about” (River Junction Curly qtd. in Wyman 613). The purpose of prayer is to restore an individual’s awareness of hozho as an essential characteristic of their being. Farella comments that “parts of a person commonly mentioned in restoration rituals include . . . bin (his mind), bizaad (his speech), begat (his moving power or characteristic way of moving)” (97). In order to regain a sense of hozho, the individual must regain the ability to think, speak, and perform the foundational idea of beauty. In the end, the rhetorical quality of prayer validates ideas about foundational essence by manifesting the cosmological process of movement, awareness, and arrangement into a cognitive process.

Psychology: The Epistemology of Rhetorical Agency

With the patterns of belief established and qualitative differences summarized in the text of the creation story, a being now emerges to experience and continue the movement initiated at the beginning. For Philipsen, these prototypical actors in the meta-narrative represent cultural psychology in that they reveal a particular view of human nature (Philipsen 136). The Diné creation story calls these entities the “Air Spirit People.” These first beings are unlikely ethical or meta-cognitive heroes. The text characterizes them as “people unlike the five fingered earth surface people . . . [they] fought among themselves . . . they committed adultery with one another” (Zolbrod,  The Diné Bahané 36-37). The text recounts their misadventures as they muddle from world to world, spreading disorder and ruin as they go. Then, something happens upon their arrival in the fourth world. In this world, the Air Spirit People are adopted by the Kiis’aanii tribe. The kindness of “The People who Live in Upright Houses” and the quality of the land cause the Air Spirit People to pause and consider their past and their future. They come to the realization that “this was a good world, and the wandering insect people meant to stay here” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 47). This is the first time the Air Spirit People demonstrate meta-cognitive thinking and experiential awareness.

The psychological/spiritual layer of the Diné universe expresses the internal world of feelings and opinions about those feelings (Burnside). It is the relationship between the metaphysical and the psychological, placed against the awareness of an agent navigating these layers, that creates the need for rhetoric. Lloyd Bitzer writes in his classic article  “The Rhetorical Situation” that all discourse begins with the awareness of exigence which he defines as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). This is precisely what happens in the narrative. Becoming aware of the perfection of their situation and their own “imperfection,” the Air Spirit People hold a council meeting. They talk quietly among themselves and they resolve to mend their ways and to “do nothing unintelligent that would create disorder” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 47).

This first council meeting is significant in that it illustrates Diné epistemology by exploring “ways of knowing, what can be known, and sources of authority” (Philipsen 134).  What can be known is the process of nahagha exemplified by the natural movement of creation that establishes the necessary conditions for movement and, therefore, life. The metaphysical process of nahagha is reapplied epistemologically as diné k’ehgo nitsahakees, the Diné process of problem solving, which stresses “an understanding of holistic life process—involving thinking, living, planning solutions, and achieving solutions” (“Bitse Silei” 5). Diné epistemology indexes the metaphysical model of the quartered circle with meta-cognitive problem solving strategies. In this onto-cosmological paradigm, the East and the dawn representing nitsahakees (the thinking process) are followed by nahat’a (planning together) placed with the South in the blue sky of noon. Then, iina (doing the plan or arriving at ideas) is indexed with the West and Sunset and the result, sihasin, is placed in the north with the dark of night (“Bitse Silei” 5).

This juxtaposition of physical landmarks [the sacred mountains] and the natural movement of time with psychological landscapes suggests semiotic indexing where “the ‘thing’ (sign) [cardinal direction/time of day] and the ‘something else’ (meaning) [quadrant of the thought process] are linked by way of cause or association” (Brummett 46). The arrangement of elements, the movement and awareness of movement summarizes and establishes “the entire pattern of Navajo life. First, the four are associated with certain patterns of behavior and thought; second, they are reduction of or a model for larger temporal units . . . which are themselves associated with certain activities and thoughts; and finally they summarize qualitative differences in the universe” (Farella 108). The placement of thought within the context of cardinal directions and the time of day is not arbitrary but makes the point that each stage in the rhetorical process is rooted in a cognitive geography and creates a “day” which is a functional and harmonious system in which to accomplish an intended goal.

This psychological arrangement of epistemic signs is the third layer of ceremony. For the Diné, ceremony is an actively focused mediating of the tension created between the objective world of experience and the subjective world of thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This rhetorical process of turning discord into meaningful action has been placed by contemporary Diné philosophy under the term “naachid.” According to Raymond Austin, naachid has two possible meanings: “first, it may refer to ‘gesturing with the hand’ . . . the other meaning may refer to ‘renewal or healing’ of Navajo society or everything encompassing the Diné way” (11-12). The first definition of naachid focuses on the implication of hand use. In James Ferris’ work on the Nightway Ceremony, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the use of gestures to pantomime specific events in sacred narratives. However, naachid has a more cognitive meaning as well. According to Sunny Dooley, naachid references the hands only in that the word means to “rummage” around with the hands, looking for something and in the process seeking to organize or arrange (Dooley). In this case, hands as hands are secondary to their metaphorical function of reordering what is in front of an individual.

The second meaning of naachid goes back to Witherspoon’s concept of nahagha and ritual as a means to renew a perceived disorder. John Farella writes that rituals are epistemologically focused problem-solving strategies of “altering one’s perception of or way of looking at the world” (189). Naachid, then, becomes a ritual where one reconsiders and renews/re-creates “the precepts one adheres to and the demands of the circumstances in which one must act” (Scott 318). Again, we find ourselves looking back to Bitzer’s definition of rhetoric as well as Farella’s understanding of Diné ritual which is “as much oriented toward being about a gestalt shift on the part of participants as it is in producing “‘objective’change” (Farella 189). Like its cosmology, Diné epistemology is expressed as part of a rhetorical process characterized by “increasing complexity reflected in the amount of difference in the material world, as well as in the different ways of thinking that are part of the human . . . world” (Farella 95). Navajo rhetoric, then, is not concerned with the reaffirmation of objective truth but the renewal and reapplication of rhetorical belief according to the complex demands of ever changing situations.

That naachid is considered a ritual means of mediating misunderstandings is affirmed by its use in the Navajo Peacemaker Court established in 1982 to blend “traditional Navajo methods of mediating disputes with regular court operations” (Zion 65). According to Peacemaker Court literature, naachid is defined as “the relationship between the planner and the people for whom the plan is intended. The process of naachid is inclusive, important, deliberate, and invokes the Holy People. It governs the manner in which our reformers shall consider changes” (“Bistei Sillei”). Naachid is to be understood as a relationship between the rhetor who mediates the rhetorical situation and the audience who must be fully and willingly engaged in the process and the ever-changing situation itself. The Holy People function as constraints within the traditional stories. They supply the beliefs and traditions that provide “a blueprint [which] outlines how people should act based on divine rules and principles” (McPherson 4). Finally, change is the primary cause of exigence. Exigence, as illustrated by the Air Spirit People, is a cognitive change rooted in experiences and the awareness of opinions about those experiences.  So, naachid, to use Bitzer’s language, is “pragmatic. . . but functions to ultimately produce action or change in the world” (3-4) by changing the perception of the individual.

The first naachid is also important for its unintended result. It’s not just that the Air Spirit People have changed their tune and live happily ever after. The consequence of this Council is far more onto-cosmological. Shortly after their resolution, they hear a distant voice that gets louder and closer until “They [Air Spirit People] found themselves standing among four mysterious beings. They had never seen such creatures anywhere before. For they were looking at those who would eventually become known as [Diyin Diné]” (Zolbrod,  The Diné Bahané 48). Having become aware of their world and their opinions about the world, the Air Spirit people make use of ritual to bring “things into focus, distilling events that matter” (Farella 28). This ritual mediation of exigence draws the holy people because, as Wyman writes, “ceremony attracts the Holy People . . . if they are correct the holy people . . . are obligated to come and render aid” (“Navajo Ceremonial System” 551). The Air Spirit People, illustrating a capacity to reason beyond the primitive level of bodily needs, draw the Holy People to the Council who reveal what the future holds for the Air Spirit people.

Rhetoric, as a critically conscious act, establishes a clear relationship between knowledge as an artifact and the rhetorical method used to gather and present knowledge. The relationship between the Holy People and ritual is much the same. In Navajo, the word Diyin (holy/sacred) is not, necessarily, a religious term. Rather, diyin carries with it the idea of generative power and “immunity.” For Farella, the diyin are seen to “bound the realm of the possible” (147). In this sense, Diyin Diné are not “holy people” as much as potentially powerful people who are “immune” from confusion. Farella argues that in Diné philosophy, power is not “an inseparable attribute of a being. One has the potential for power through the possession of knowledge, the power is actualized or achieved through the ritual exercise of this knowledge” (62). The Holy People, as concept, express the idea that knowing is being and “it is the possession of knowledge that makes one ‘divine.’ Rather than divineness existing as an inseparable attribute of being, it is acquired” (Farella 26). This “knowledge” that exists potentially in all people is created “moment by moment in the circumstances in which [an individual] finds [him or herself]” (Scott 318).

The Holy People explain to the Air Spirit People that they “want more people to be created in this world. But they want intelligent people, created in their likeness” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 49). According to Farella, this likeness to the holy people consists “simply of the acquisition and ritual exercise of knowledge” (27). So, the knowledge to make one powerful like the Holy People need only be acquired and then used. The Holy People relate how this intelligence is to be acquired. They explain to the Air Spirit people that these “new people” are to “have hands like ours. They are to have feet like ours. They are to have mouths like ours and teeth like ours. They must learn to think far ahead, as we do” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 49). The essential nature of Diné epistemology is revealed in this plan. One acquires knowledge through the experience of the world (senses), the reflection on that experience (the mind), and then a way to construct contingent “truths” about those experiences (speech).

Once again Farella opens a place to think about rhetoric as generative ritual. He writes “acts of creation do not just happen [in Diné metaphysics]; they are achieved ritually” (26-27). Lloyd Bitzer seems to agree when he states that rhetoric, through the use of language and thought, creates discourse which induces action that mediates the altering of perceived reality. Witherspoon, writing specifically about Diné rites, agrees, stating “words, like thoughts, are considered to have creative power” (22). Ritual rhetoric, unlike arresting discourse geared toward engineering the consent of an audience, makes use of the generative power of language. Victor Turner writes that in ritual “speech is not merely communicative but also power and wisdom. The wisdom that is imparted in sacred liminality is not just an aggregation of words and sentences; it has ontological value, it re-fashions the very being of the [individual]” (103).

The individual, in turn, is compelled by the power of language to act and consequently “by acting and in action [he or she] is enabled to know” (Scott 315). In a lengthy quote, Witherspoon breaks down this ritual/rhetorical process of being as

knowledge is the awareness of symbol, thought is the organization of symbol, speech is the externalization of symbol and compulsion is the realization of symbol. Symbol is word and word is the means by which substance is organized and transformed. Both substance and symbol are primordial, for in the beginning were the word and the element, the symbol and the symbolized. (46)

Ritual rhetoric and rhetoric as ritual do not simply use nomenclatures to “direct the attention to some channels rather than others” (Burke 45). Rather, and in addition to, the use of language and discourse to produce change in the individual’s perception of the world, rhetoric calls upon the narrative structure of myth to compel an individual to action and therefore knowing.

In his article “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic,” Robert L. Scott argues that rhetoric, beyond communication, is the process of reflective experience that leads not only to “contingent truth” but the creation of our own authentic selves. John Farella writes that in Diné culture, thinking is a sacred act. In fact, in Diné culture “it is the possession of knowledge that makes one divine [diyin]” (Farella 26). This acquisition of knowledge is rhetorically based: “the stories describe experience, and in that sense they create it . . . if a person listens to the stories, thinks about them, and relates them to his own life, he will necessarily perceive that they are true. Having learned this, he will experience more; having experienced more, he understand the stories better, and so on” (Farella 24). For the Diné, rhetoric as ritual is epistemic in the sense that the experiencing and interpreting of texts leads not just to existing as existing but the cognitive conditions necessary for existing.

This is not to say that the process of naachid always creates harmony or that being is synonymous with balance. Exigence, misunderstanding, disorder are not independent entities at work in the world to confound or test us but are created by us simply as “the price of doing business” (Dooley). Likewise, Robert Scott believes that experience creates contradictory claims (315). Even as we seek to create “truth” or stasis, we find ourselves, time after time, creating in our solutions the very root of our next misunderstanding. Farella agrees, writing that disorder was “not created but came as part of and as a necessary consequence to the creation of something else” (51). Naachid, then, is concerned not with creation as an entity but with establishing the conditions of existence which must include disorder as well as order. 

The Diné Bahané illustrates this idea in the story of “The Separation of the Sexes.” In this story, First Man and First Woman have an argument over who is the hardest working and consequently the most valuable member of the marriage. As the disagreement progresses, both allow themselves to become increasingly angry until First Man leaves the home. The next morning, he gathers only the men, announcing “as for the women, let them stay where they are . . . I have nothing to say to any woman around here” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 60). The text then states that First Man “instructs” the men gathered and pronounces “the women think they can live without us . . . they think they can continue to exist thanks as much to them as us. Well, let us see if all that is true . . . we will cross the stream and live apart from them” (Zolbrod,  The Diné Bahané 60). While First Man does convene an assembly, he violates the first rule of naachid by excluding the women. The remedy to the misunderstanding between First Man and First Woman lies in their working out their own issues. Yet their problems are made the problems of the community and First Woman, as well as the other women, is excluded from mediating the “solution” given by First Man.

Naachid requires an audience fully engaged and equally involved in considering and implementing solutions. The story suggests that First Man does not allow for rhetorical problem solving. Rather, he “instructs” those gathered. Further, the story reveals that “as some of the young men rowed across the stream they wept at having to part with the their wives. They had not been angered by anything the women had said. But they had become used to doing whatever [First Man] had told them to do” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 61). Naachid requires active participation by all members of the audience. Clearly, some of the men with alternative views did not speak out because of either fear or passive acceptance of First Man’s authority. First Man also violates his role as naat’ani  (leader/mediator) by passing down unilateral edicts. First Man’s abandonment of the rules of naachid transforms him from a leader seeking harmony into a tyrant seeking personal justification for his self-righteous indignation.

Eventually, the sexes are reunited once they are encouraged to “talk things out” (baa yati’). However, the faulty naachid that led to the separation has consequences. The Diné Bahané clearly illustrates that when the process of mediation has become corrupt, the outcome will be disorder. In the story, the consequence of the decision to separate is the creation of monsters who “looked nothing like an ordinary child. Instead, this infant was a round misshapen creature with no head” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 94). These monsters, or naa’ye, are not physical beings as much as the resulting situation caused by a poorly conceived solution to a minor disagreement. Naa’ye are understood as representing “anything that gets in the way a person living his life” (Farella 51). Further, as with all Diné concepts, these monsters are considered a power driven by an individual or groups bringing disorder into existence through the failure to properly mediate their dissonant state.

Recognizing that disorder requires mediation, The Diné Bahané records that “when the people saw, they were frightened and ashamed. So, they held a council and decided that this baby should be abandoned. They threw it into a gully and left it there to die” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 94). Once again a council is convened and a group decision is made. Here, the inclusive process of mediation arrives at a temporary solution which is to simply bury the problem and move on. Yet the people are soon to learn that the creatures would “grow up . . . and eventually destroys many of [them]” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 94). There are two lessons taught by this incident. The first is that while the process of discourse (naachid) is the preferred method of problem solving, the process cannot “bury” or take the place of corrective action. In other words, the rhetorical process of mediation is not itself a solution. Second, as stated earlier, the process only works when both rhetor and audience are fully engaged the process of mediation. As this episode suggests, while the council decides (not just one individual), the creature is hidden rather than directly dealt with. In rhetorical mediation, as well as in healing, the Diné way is not to treat only symptoms (fear and shame) but to directly engage the monster itself.

Ultimately, the task of dealing with these monsters will fall to the Hero Twins, specifically Monster Slayer. In the individual actions of this powerful cultural hero, the text presents the ideal cognitive process that each person should bring to the Council. In the story, Monster Slayer systematically destroys the monsters that have decimated the Earth Surface People. Finally, he learns that only four monsters remain: Poverty, Old-Age, Hunger, and Cold. Monster Slayer is driven by Nilchi, the wind (intuition), to seek out and rid the earth of the last of the monsters.

Each encounter with these monsters reveals that Monster Slayer is not just a physical hero but an epistemological one as well. As representative of his encounters with these last four monsters, Monster Slayer travels to Roof Butte to dispatch Poverty Man and Woman. He informs the couple that he intends to kill them so that the earth surface people “will not suffer the consequences of [their] wear and tear” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 267). The couple replies:

If we were to be slain, they [the earth surface people] would have no reason to replace anything, no cause to improve upon the tools they are accustomed to using. But if we go on living and continue slowly to wear out what others use, ingenuity will flourish among them. They will think of better ways to sew and to carve. Garments will become more beautiful. Tools will become stronger and more useful. Designs of all kinds will improve. (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané  267)

Monster Slayer considers this argument and lets the old couple (and the remaining three monsters in turn) live, concluding “some things are better left as they are” (Zolbrod, The Diné Bahané 268).

The adventures of the Hero Twins reveal a uniquely Diné perspective of rhetorical exigence. Diné rhetoric stresses the necessity of exigence in creating the possibility of positive modification and the continuity of the conditions necessary for generative rhetoric. Farella writes that “these negative states assure that there will be planning for the future. At this level, and the level of the assorted emotions, different ways of thinking are produced” (124). The focus of Diné rhetoric, then, is not merely to mediate exigence out of existence. Rather, exigence is seen as “sacred” in the sense that any imperfection is generative, if not potentially dangerous, and needs to be considered in terms of how its modification can create the conditions of thought, differentiation, movement, and, therefore, life.

However, as seen in the birth of the monsters, exigence must be directly addressed in order to determine the exact nature of the situation at hand. Bitzer writes that when an exigence is “perceived and when it is strong and important, then it constrains the thought and action of the perceiver who may respond rhetorically if he is in a position to do so” (7). Monster Slayer illustrates this behavior by responding directly to the monsters that have constrained the thinking and growth of the people. He responds rhetorically by allowing the “negative” conditions to exist since the existence of these conditions allow for the possibility of positive modification and, consequently, growth. The stories teach that all people are positioned to respond to the conditions that they perceive as imperfect. Burying or hiding the problem leads to being hunted by the exigence in which case the “monster” controls the rhetor rather than the rhetor positively modifying the exigence. From the Diné viewpoint, the ultimate role of rhetoric is to acknowledge the possibilities offered by the exigence in order to ensure the agency of the rhetor and audience. In this context, the “organizing principle” of exigence and the agency of rhetor and audience are synonymous.

This examination offers Diné myth as the meta-text that naachid (Diné rhetoric) utilizes to produce and present ideologies, as the power of naachid is to make an audience aware of and partners in this process of knowing. Key to this cooperative process is the creation and reception of texts. Eliade writes that myth is a conscious expression of belief that “have constituted [humanity] existentially” (12). This use of myth as an epistemic and existential model is essential to Diné philosophy where “the ceremonial stories go back to the very beginnings of Navajo life. They form the foundation of what it has meant to be Navajo” (Manolesco and Salabye 20). Following the method used by Gerry Philipsen, this paper has explored naachid as an epistemological ceremony negotiating the layers of meaning encoded in traditional stories (metaphysics) as well as creating awareness in the speaker and audience (psychology) of the layers of contexts in the ever-changing landscape of hanii (“my awareness”). Naachid, beyond communication, is the process of reflective experience that leads not just to “contingent truth” but the creation of our own authentic selves through a recursive and restorative model of thinking and speaking.

Whether from the internet or the constant twenty-four hour cable news cycle, individuals are bombarded with information every waking minute of the day. It is easy to forget that human beings are not merely receivers of information but also generators of meaning. Now, more than ever, in this unprecedented time of accessible data, it is important to look at discourse models as more than just a “theory” or mechanism of communication. Looking at the evolution of rhetorics as epistemological systems reveals the intimate relationship between the metaphysics that establishes the principle model for meaning making and the psychology and epistemology of the agents within that system. In Diné metaphysics, truth or pistis, expressed as oodlah (Diné belief), is created as part of a cooperative process of both physical creation and psychological awareness. Exploring the metaphysics, epistemology and psychology of rhetorical systems reminds us that we exist only to the extent of our participation in the creation of possibility.


[1] Unless used in a direct quote, this paper will use the indigenous name Diné, meaning “The People,” to refer to the Athabascan speaking people of the Four Corners area rather than the more common “Navajo.” This choice reflects the trend in Navajo Studies to use the traditional name of this cultural group.


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Author Bio

Edward Karshner holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Philosophy from Bowling Green State University. For the last ten years, he has studied Diné/Navajo rhetoric as it informs their complex ceremonial system. He is appreciative of the patience and generosity shown him by his Diné friends and teachers as he continues to learn the Diné language. Karshner is an Associate Professor of English Studies at Robert Morris University.

Reference Citation

Karshner, Edward. The Diyinii of Naachid: Diné Rhetoric as Ritual. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3 no. 2, 2016,

Karshner, E. (2016). The Diyinii of Naachid: Diné rhetoric as ritual. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3(2).