Traditional Navajo game teaches lessons

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) – Lakeem Benally brushed the dirt off the top of four shoes buried in a sandbox.

He tapped one shoe with a cedar stick, then dug into the shoe to find a small ball made of yucca inside.

The 11-year-old from Bluff, Utah, shrugged off his accomplishment, saying it was a guess.

But for the hundreds of Navajos who were looking on in early January at the Navajo Nation fairgrounds, the traditional shoe game is more than a guessing game. It teaches morals while maintaining culture.

According to Navajo lore, a wintertime dispute between daytime and nighttime animals culminated with a game that was played to determine whether humans would live in darkness or in light.

”It was a pure test,” said Avery Denny, a culture professor at Dine’ College in Tsaile. ”If the daytime won, there would be no nighttime, and vice versa.”

The game doesn’t determine the cycle of the universe now, but lessons about cheating, trusting one’s instincts and the animals that once played the game are woven into songs that are sung to distract players.

Bennie Begay, a 37-year-old teacher at Rock Point High School, said some Navajos don’t know the stories, ”they’ve only heard” about them.

So he put together a weeklong lesson on the shoe game and teaches his students in an effort to preserve the storytelling tradition.

”The good thing about it is they go home and teach their loved ones,” he said.

The first frost of the year marks the season for the shoe game, the string game – a gift from Spider Woman that allows Navajos to make string designs in the wintertime while the true weavers are dormant – and the Ye’ii Bicheii dancers, which are used in healing ceremonies.

”When you hear thunder, that’s it,” said Eddie Clark, 64, of Kinlichee. ”You can’t play any more until you have snow on the ground again.”

Clark considers himself a professional shoe game player, having participated in the games since he was a young kid.

”I just learned it when the old people used to play like this,” he said. ”Like these little kids, how they come around here and learn how to do it.”

Using 102 yucca stems to keep score, legend has it the animals played the shoe game from the time the sun set until it rose. Each team took turns hiding the yucca ball in one of four shoes, holding up a blanket to keep their choice a secret.

Once the blanket dropped, an animal from the other team took a cedar stick and walked over to find the ball. Four, six or 10 yucca stems are awarded until one team has all 102 yucca stems.

Everything about the game is tied to Navajo beliefs. For instance, the yucca plant is used in traditional ceremonies to cleanse the hair, cedar is used for protection and, according to the tribe’s deities, the life span of a Navajo is 102 years.

During the game between the animals, the coyote switched sides once he saw the other team was winning. That serves as a lesson to Navajo children.

”You have to have trust in yourself and your team, instead of relying on someone else,” Begay said.

The owl didn’t play by the rules, either. When he saw the night team losing, he hid the ball under his wing. After being found out, the leader of the day team took the cedar stick and smacked the ball out of the owl’s wing.

Cheating cost the owl his sight during the day, and the story teaches Navajo children not to do the same.

In the end, both sides realized they had no power over the sun or the moon; so they covered the shoes with blankets at daybreak – just how they were found before the game started at the fairgrounds.

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