August 20, 2019


Why Navajos Love Their Country Music (KRISTINA JACOBSEN / 23 JUL 2019, Sapiens)

When I was 17, I worked as a summer park ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a park on tribal trust land on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. One evening, my supervisor invited me to a dance. Excited to be included in an outing with my Diné (Navajo) co-workers, I climbed into her truck, and we cruised to the community center gymnasium in Chinle.

High on a stage, singing tight harmonies in English spiced with Navajo, was a Diné country-western band. Around 200 people wearing Stetson hats and jeans were twirling one another counterclockwise, scooting their boots along the floor, then picking them up high on the quick steps. The dancers seemed to know the words to every song, singing along as the band crooned, "Oh shí baby hold me tight/ Won't you stay with me tonight?"

After each song, the crowd whistled, called out "nááná" (encore), or--the most important sign of approval--stayed on the dance floor to kick up their boots to the next song. The sense of shared community and connection to the music was palpable. I'd entered a world that was completely unknown to me.

In many ways, my anthropology work since that night has been a long-term attempt to unpack the riddle of what I witnessed. How did Navajo cowboys and country musicians turn the stereotype of "cowboys and Indians" on its head? When did Indians become cowboys? What does country music performed by Navajo bands mean to Diné listeners? And what might this tell us about contemporary identities on the Navajo Nation? [...]

Several years ago, I was sitting at a bar in the Navajo reservation town of Gallup, New Mexico, talking with Chucki Begay, the lead singer for a Navajo blues, rock, and soul band. She recalled the day she and her bandmate/partner, Richi Anderson Jr., dropped off their CD at KTNN, the radio station where I used to work. The Navajo deejay listened to the music but refused their request to play it on air. "You guys don't sound Navajo enough," he told them. "You should play country!"

The incident made Begay and her bandmates--all raised on the rez and fluent in Navajo--think about what it means to "sound Navajo." As Begay sees it, the deejay's idea of sounding Navajo harkens back to the original Diné country bands in the 1960s and '70s.

In those days, up to 500 people filled the chapter houses (similar to town halls), dancing to groups like The Fenders and The Wingate Valley Boys. Outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings was on the radio, influencing a generation of musicians. (I met a number of middle-aged Navajo men named Waylon, along with a Garth Brooks Yazzie and a Shelby Lynne Henry.)

Jennings' music still forms an emotional backbeat that reverberates through the reservation. Native Country drummer Arlondo Bia recalls when Jennings passed away in 2002. Arlondo Bia's father, Native Country bandleader Tommy Bia, "got quiet" and withdrew from the family for four days (the standard Diné mourning period) to grieve and properly pay his respects to the artist who so profoundly inspired his musical path.

In listening to the lyrics of Jennings, Brooks, and others, it's easy to see why country music resonates with Diné people. Navajo communities were ranching in the U.S. Southwest long before Anglo cowboys came onto the scene. "We're the real cowboys," many Navajo Nation citizens told me. The Diné have deep ties to their land, a rich and bittersweet past pierced by separation and loss but also resilience and a strong working-class identity. Country music is about love, loss, nostalgia for the past, and connections to land, family, and rural places. These themes are central to what it means to be Diné. What could be more Navajo?

So Diné musicians do not see country music as music belonging to outsiders. They don't see Navajo country as an imitation of a style associated with whiteness and the rural American South. Rather, Diné citizens see country as a fundamentally Diné genre of music. In fact, Diné people have been listening to and performing country music for so long, country music in Navajo spaces can even be seen as "traditional" Navajo music. As one friend--a rancher, photographer, and social studies teacher--said to me, "Country music has always been Diné music."

Posted by at August 20, 2019 12:00 AM