Kelli Carmean. Spider Woman Walks this Land: Traditional Cultural Properties and the Navajo Nation. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002. xx + 175 pp. $30.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7591-0244-6; $82.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7591-0243-9.
Reviewed by Thomas D. Hall (Lester M. Jones Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, DePauw University)
Published on H-AmIndian (January, 2003)
A Solid Introduction to Navajo Cultural Properties and Ethnography
A Solid Introduction to Navajo Cultural Properties and Ethnography
Kelli Carmean has two goals for Spider Woman Walks This Land: first, to provide a readable introduction to the concept of traditional cultural properties; and second, to "serve as a stand-alone introductory ethnography of the Navajo" (p. xi). She approaches both goals from an anthropological point of view, but also tries to convey something of a Dine (Navajo) point of view through many comments from Navajos. Finally, she also argues that anthropology should be accessible to intelligent readers and conceptually transformative. These are tall orders, but Carmean actually fulfills them quite well.
The book opens with a prologue that retells the story of Spider Woman and how she taught Navajos to weave. The opening chapter discusses the origins of the Navajo from earliest times up to their incarceration at Bosque Redondo in 1864. The following chapter continues that narrative through to the present. These brief chapters cover the high points of Navajo history, noting issues that are controversial and points where Navajo accounts differ from those of anthropologists. The discussion then turns to sacred geography and the meaning of land in terms of Navajo religion, philosophy, and daily life. Within this discussion, she begins developing the argument that the linkage of Navajo beliefs and geographical space is site specific, tied to distinct places, which are vital to the practice of Navajo religion.
These first three chapters serve as background for such topics as the National Historic Preservation Act, resources and development, and cultural resource management. Carmean explains the National Preservation Act succintly and clearly, noting its changes and implementations along with the field techniques to achieve them. While brief, she does not shy away from the many controversial issues surrounding the acts, including the conflicts between Native peoples and non-native peoples as well as those among native peoples themselves, that the National Preservation Act generates. The discussion of development and resources, likewise, is pithy yet cogent. She highlights the "catch-22" of resource development for the Navajo (and many other peoples), showing that the use of resources to gain funds to support preservation of traditions inherently undermines the very bases of many of those same traditions. While the details vary across resources the same fundamental problems are found with respect to oil, coal, uranium, timber, and tourism.
The penultimate chapter examines how the Navajo Nation identifies and manages cultural properties. She is especially insightful in discussing the differences in the understandings of Anglo society and Navajo society of these processes. She notes that neither "group" is monolithic. Each group has multiple divisions and conflicts within the group, as well as between the two groups. Often Navajos reach compromises in ways that differ significantly from how Anglo society would approach conflicts.
The final chapter discusses cultural properties at different scales, including community, region, and the nation or tribe. She links these discussions to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, then uses that linkage to examine these issues in a broader context. She briefly discusses processes at Zuni, Bear Lodge, Wyoming (aka Devils Tower), Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Montana, and Uluru (aka Ayer's Rock, Australia). Here she returns to a discussion of religions, noting that some can change sites for ceremonies to varying degrees, or possibly not at all. She extends the discussion to analyze the ways in which development benefits some while harming others in every society, according to each setting. Especially valuable are the examples showing that particular compromises, surrounding cultural properties, worked to the mutual satisfaction of all parties. These were achieved by paying close attention to the values and beliefs of all these parties.
She closes with a brief epilogue describing two contemporary, educated Navajo women driving to Spider Rock to offer prayers to Spider Woman. This example underscores her underlying theme that Navajo religion, though changing in many ways, is still a vital part of the lives of many Navajo.
Given the variety of philosophical, political, social, and scientific landmines that litter this intellectual landscape, and the vast literature on the Dine [Navajo], Carmean is surprisingly successful in achieving her goals. A novel way of bringing outsiders into the discussion is the insertion, throughout the text, of lightly edited field notes describing experiences with the subjects and people she discusses. This allows students and other non-specialists to "look over her shoulder" while she works. This gives a better sense of where the information comes from and how it is gathered.
Her chapter notes often include the URLs to relevant Internet sites that give either background, official documents, contrary or critical views, or more photos of lands and objects featured in the book. These URLs were last checked in February 2002, but I found nearly all still working in January 2003. The book is extensively illustrated, not as decoration, but as a serious part of the text showing just what is being discussed. The illustrations, along with others located on the Internet, allow any reader not familiar with the Navajo Nation to develop a sense of the area. Finally, in building her account she draws very heavily on Navajo Nation official documents, which is yet another way she brings in Navajo perspectives on these complex issues.
Spider Woman Walks This Land is a superb introduction to the complex issues surrounding cultural properties, grounded in the specifics of Navajo ethnography. It is far from the last word on these issues. Rather, it is a very readable opening for students and other non-specialists.
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Thomas D. Hall. Review of Carmean, Kelli, Spider Woman Walks this Land: Traditional Cultural Properties and the Navajo Nation.
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