Run centers on Navajo clan system

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Runners complete the course for the Clan Run on Monday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

CROWNPOINT — Approximately 65 people completed a running event Monday at Navajo Technical University that was designed to teach about the Navajo clan system.

The clan system is a way of identifying oneself to others and it is structured to recognize relations among the Navajo people, according to organizers.

Navajos have four clans, consisting of his or her mother's clan then their father's clan followed by the maternal and paternal grandfather's clan.

Perry R. James is an assistant professor of Navajo studies at NTU and the adviser for the Navajo Club, a student organization that started this semester and sponsored the Clan Run.

During a presentation about the clan system, James asked participants to provide their clans. Some named their first two clans while others listed all four.

Amy Benally, left, and Devona Benally look at T-shirts that have clan names printed in the front on Monday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

He also asked the group to explain the purpose of the clan system.

The responses included identity, kinship and culture as well as continuing the traditional teaching of preventing incest by forbidding marriages into the first two clans.

"One of the main things is establishing that friendship of calling each other by brother, sister, cheii, amásání," James said.

Cheii is the Navajo word for grandfather and amásání is the Navajo word for grandmother.

Participants run up a hill during the Clan Run on Monday at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

In addition to sharing information about clans, the run also recognized the traditional lesson of waking up early and running to the east to greet the rising sun, James said.

Participants completed a 1.5-mile course that traveled on and off the campus and they received T-shirts that listed the name of their maternal clan.

The clothing was also color coded to identify the 21 clan relationship groups.

For example, Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House) and Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms People) are related and under the same group. Individuals belonging to that group received teal T-shirts.

Daniel Vandever, communications director for the university, said the purpose of the T-shirts was to show participants how they are related.

"We wanted to use this as an event to get to know one another but also spread information on what do these clans mean? How does the system work?" Vandever said.

NTU student Ty Dennison participated in the run because he wanted to further his understanding about Navajo culture.

Dennison said he was raised in a Christian home, where some aspects of the culture were taught – including his clan, which is Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water) – but his interest grew after taking a Navajo philosophy class at NTU.

"It's not just a workout. It's breathing in Mother Earth, looking out over the horizon, feeling the ground that we're brought up on," he said.

Participants completed a 1.5-mile course on Monday that traveled on and off the Navajo Technical University campus in Crownpoint.

There were two reasons NTU student Coleen Francis ran on Monday.

The first was due to it being a requirement for the class, Foundations of Navajo Culture, and secondly, running is a hobby, she said.

"I think it's more of being self-aware of who we are as an individual and who we are among our classmates," Francis said about the clan system.

She added she is Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan), born for Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water).

"We might be in one room, but we don't acknowledge or express our clans," Francis said adding maybe activities like the Clan Run will change that.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at