Navajo Mnemonics: The Role of Memory in Oral Mythic Traditions

by Heidie Magritz

Oral cultures possess remarkable qualities that effect many areas of cognition. An oral culture influences memory, perception, symbol formation, and the expression of thoughts through speech. The Navajo Indians are one example of this. There is a Navajo song that serves as a good introduction to some concepts in this paper, such as the role of motion in Navajo mentality:

Voice above,
Voice of thunder
Speak from the
dark of clouds;
Voice below,
Grasshopper voice,
Speak from the
green of plants;
So may the earth
be beautiful.


Navajo memory utilizes mnemonic devices in ways unique to oral cultures. Culture plays a large role in the way stimuli is perceived, processed, stored in memory, and eventually how stimuli manifests in language. Two main views on communication skills and their cultural variations can be used to summarize the nature versus culture debate, which compares the amount of influence either genetics or upbringing and environment have on development, pertaining to how memory operates. The first view is that cultural differences in cognition are composed of differences in the existence or amount of some hypothetical, psychological capacity such as egocentrism. The second view is that differences reside in the way particular processes are brought to bear on the problem; how knowledge is transformed and utilized (Cole). Discrepancies in thinking are due to different premises about the nature and operation of reality (Witherspoon). The latter best describes how the Navajo use mnemonic aids and symbol formation in a manner unique to their culture and language. A mnemonic device is a tool, such as a metaphor, rhyme, or formulated pattern, that assists memory. There are three basic principles necessary for mnemonic device to work. First, both the items and their cues must be visualized in the mind's eye. The images must interact to form an integrated association. More than one item may be associated with a cue if the items are elaborated into a unitary image (Baddely). For example, a "sweat" may evoke multiple images, such as the smell of cedar smoke, the sound of the whistling wind, the scorching heat in the lungs. Finally, the semantic meaning of the encoding cues must be significantly distinguishable to avoid misinterpretation and tangled associations (Baddely). Mnemonics can be categorized into reduction coding, where only pertinent information is processed, or elaboration coding, which incorporates as many cues as possible in order to maximize recollection potential (Baddeley).

The Navajo use reduction coding mnemonics to extract the relevant meaning from a dream, story, vision, or experience to create a symbol. The Navajo culture tends to take a more reflective approach, rather than an analytical one, to perception. They observe and listen more than they demand to know why. Oral cultures tend to ask "who causes" rather than "what causes". This gives an idea of the different perceptual viewpoint. In this light, it can be seen that the Navajo may use activity-based knowledge, which is extracted largely from experience in a way that reflects lifestyle, more extensively than non-oral cultures. For example, sitting is considered by the Navajo as a productive activity, not an inactive state of being (Witherspoon). As life is actively experienced, so it is represented in memory. Procedural knowledge consists of a set of procedures or acts acquired for carrying out activities. A sentence will then be represented in memory in terms of a set of actions (Foss & Hakes). This active nature of processing memories is evidenced in the fact that experience embeds things in the memory (Myers). Attitudes that are formed through experience, whether active or vicarious, are more thoughtful, certain, stable, and resistant to decay or extinction. For example, the Hopi Indians practice a ritual where Kachina clowns enact ethical or non-ethical behavior and its consequences. Those who portray the clowns are able to activel;i perceive these events in memory; the audience experiences the ritual vicariously through the clowns. This type of memory storage is actively fortified through actual experiences. Furthermore, information is best remembered when actively explained in one's own terms (Myers). Through the adoption of particular concepts and orientations to reality, humans can actually create the worlds within which they live, think, speak, and act (Witherspoon). In this way, society constructs reality. Interpretations of this reality and the causation of events are all based on an unbreakable connection of mind and matter (Witherspoon).

Thought has tremendous power. The mnemonic devices Navajo use make it possible to propagate their oral culture. These tools are manifested in the basic components of their history, world views, and ways of life. The incorporation of these memory tools into daily life is so complete that it may go undetected to the untrained eye. They are, in fact, so integral to Navajo culture that they are the means to the end in that they continue the oral culture. Indians use a combination of sequential remembering and visual imagery as a basis of mnemonic systems (Baddeley). Sequential remembering is utilized because it provides a systematic, reliable retrieval strategy which includes all the items or events that occurred. The Navajo may find this especially useful when creating intricate sandpaintings that require exact recollection of shape, color, and placement, doubled with the necessity to portray the correct spiritual being for the ritual. Baddeley ran an experiment to test for the significance of imagery and sequence in relation to memory. He asked his subjects to remember spoken sequences of sentences describing the locations of certain animals. Some subject were told to use visual imagery to locate them, while others were told to treat each sentence as a separate semantic unit. Subjects who used imagery recognized sentences that were not said if they were consistent with their visual array. This tendency was not found in the other subjects. Baddeley's findings indicate that subjects go beyond the literal semantic information given and tie in their own visual representations to form detailed schemas about the sentence sequences (Baddeley). Visual imagery contributes to mnemonic memory when it manifests in cultural rituals, art, architecture, stories, and cosmologies and, therefore, acts as a constant and concrete reminder of the ima ges. Perhaps visual imagery in oral cultures is most often used to remember visions and dreams in symbol formation. Visual imagery can also be applied in a more direct way. If a Navajo participates in a ritual or important historical event, he or she has a prime opportunity to capture, create, and expand that experience in images. (A picture says a thousand words.) As most Navajo experiences are also teaching tools, they are repeated often. Repetition and active participation combine to strengthen the particular image's memory trace. In this way, the high frequency of visual and semantic relationships occurring together becomes embedded in memory. Dreams and visions must be encoded semantically for meaning.

Semantic coding and visual imagery are cited s the two basic forms of elaboration coding that dreams and visions must be semantically encoded for recall (Baddeley). Dy extracting verbal meanings from their richly abstract cognitions, the Navajo are able to use semantic coding as a device for remembering the importance and utility of these dreams and visions. Conversely, the meaning is encoded and recalled simultaneously with the actual images seen in the mind's eye; visual imagery and semantic coding strengthen the associations between each other and thus reinforce the memory of such cognitions. Motivation to remember is such a prominent factor in oral cultures that it may be synonymous with a highly used mnemonic device. Bartlett's theory of cultural influence on memory ,as interpreted by Cole, argues that the various cultural characteristics make a difference in the way things are recalled. Cole holds that certain 'memory feats' seen in 'primitive' (oral) cultures are a result of the focus of interest (Cole). This can be seen to some extent in the different blanket patterns the Navajo are known for. Weavers pride themselves in producing blankets of great variability. Also, the meanings of the geometric patterns must be remembered so that duplicates are not made. In this case, the high motivation to produce original blankets is a result of the interest in blanket diversity. Motivated memory is an integral part of the continuation of oral societies. Social motivational perspectives are considered as heuristic alternatives for studying individual and developmental differences in memory. This is because they encompass motivational variables such as beliefs, values, expectations, and coping behavior (Perlmutter & Weinert). Intentional recall is directed to achieve specific purposes embedded in the activities that serve larger functions than the individual person (Perlmutter & Weinert). For the Navajo, intentional memory serves many functions: education, cultural continuity, and the preservation of tribalhistory. Stories heard in youth can portray volumes (of unwritten text) in history, geography, nature study, and ethical behavior. Indians are strongly motivated to remember tribal traditions, stories, dreams, and visions not just because they generally lack a written history, but because these things constitute the backbone of their culture. They provide standards, outlines for ethical behavior, and explanations of events. Propositional trees and schemas are reinforced and expanded when continuously incorporated into daily lives. The Navajo use motivated memory because it brings results. The widespread, ripple effects of memory do not stop here.

Perception of new stimuli is effected by existing memories. Representations of a sentence in the listener's memory is affected by other knowledge already in the memory (Foss & Hakes). ThPse new memories are incorporated with the old to create a schema. This schema serves as a ready-made reference, an existent category, to give meaning to the new information. Psycholinguist Benjamin Whorf suggests that linguistic patterns determine what is perceived and how it is thought about (Whorf). He asserts that language shapes ideas rather than merely expressing them. Gary Witherspoon interprets the Navajo cosmology as their world having been created through language- as it was spoken, so it was (Witherspoon). In the account he cites, First Boy and First Girl sustained life on earth, with thought being male and speech being female. If this holds true for Navajo, then in their era! culture, thought and speech can have a very literal and powerful impact on core concepts and meanings. Witherspoon gives further significance to the power of thought by declaring thought as the crystallization of knowledge. His reasoning is that thought precedes speech and knowledge precedes thought. In this way, thought and speech combine with knowledge to gain creative force. An example of the amount of vitality and magnitude the Navajo attribute to thought is the alleged rule that thinking of good or bad things makes them happen. A direct example of the power of the word is shown in the following lines from the Navajo song in the introduction: "Voice below, grasshopper voice, speak from the green of plants, so that the earth may be beautiful." Reality can be seen as a manifestation of symbolic form. I argue that language in oral cultures is formed and based on rich cultural symbols. Witherspoon suggests that symbols are the building blocks of mental images. Clifford Geertz supports this theory and states that thinking, conceptualizing, and comprehension consist of a matching of existing symbolic models to whatever new, unfamiliar information is received. Geertz goes on to state that metaphor and allegory extend language by broadening their semantic range, thus enabling the language to express meanings that cannot be expressed literally (Geertz). Claude Levi-Strauss also asserts that perceived images act as concrete entities that resemble concepts in their powers of reference (Levi-Strauss). Symbols thus inform the thinking patterns that are expressed through language. One such thinking pattern seen in Navajo language is the concept of perpetual motion. It can be said that the essence of Navajo life and being is movement, constant reformation and restoration of proper relationships.

This is evidenced by the estimated 300,000 conjugations of the verb "to go" (Witherspoon). In fact, Witherspoon suggests that the Navajo language is dominated by verbs which reflect their conception of the universe in constant motion. Naaghaii, a form of one of these verbs of motion, illustrates well the concept of motion. It refers to continually going about and returning, reflective of the cycle of life (Witherspoon). Anpther example of motion expressed in speech refers to the Navajo perception of air as the movement of life. AS stated above, they believe life and their world to be created through spoken thought. They hold that air is alive and thus makes knowledge possible through the breath of life. Air connects all things. Through speech-the expulsion and intake of air- it enables one to communicate and harmonize with the surrounding environment (Witherspoon). These examples show how motion and language are necessary to the Navajo way. Navajo language seems to be largely based on symbolism. It is, therefore, useful to examine how symbols are formed, represented, and manifested in speech. If reality is a mirror of language, then the interplay between experience and perception results in a symbol with rich rhetorical force (Witherspoon). These perceptions and interactions between thoughts and knowledge and symbolic in nature; they represent something else by association. Language is one of the most important aspects of symbolic action (Witherspoon). To understand how symbols inform and constitute a large part of Navajo language, it is necessary to explore how symbols are formed. The first thing needed in the process is either and image, experience, or thought- basically any type of stimuli. This stimulus is broken down into a proposition or set of propositions, which are an abstraction that specifies relations among concepts or schemas. Symbols employ many propositions. The images created out of perception of reality are then formed into a symbol that is associated with many and varied propositions (Fcss & Hakes).

Forms and patterns of procedures then become inherent qualities of language as they are represented and symbolized. The actual formation of a symbol is a higher level cognition. A symbol is formed when perceptual relationships are recognized and represented via mediation. This usually takes shape in words, pictures, or geometric patterns but can also occur in sensations and emotions. Symbols and images are building blocks of each other; they utilize relations and comparisons of propositions (Whorf). This representation of related propositions is an interpretation of one's perceptual experiences. These, in turn, can express certain attitudes towards the world, i.e. worldviews (Whorf). The culmination of all the steps needed to form a symbol exhibits the complex and highly sophisticated cognitive skills oral cultures such as the Navajo possess and use daily. There are some limitations in the analytical discussion of the role of symbols in speech that need to be addressed. First of all, it is difficult to establish the existence of cognitive structures in an individual through linguistic mechanisms (Whorf). This is especially poignant when the person studying Navajo language does not speak it. Secondly, because of the differences in grammar among languages, people are led to different observations, evaluations, and perceptions. No two languages are exactly alike- some things inevitably cannot be represented in the same way. English and Navajo, for example, are so dissimilar that they force the speaker into two completely different conceptions of reality (Hall). Albert White Hat reinforced my hypothesis that in order to understand either of these languages, one needs another heart and mind (White Hat). Finally, the approach that Navajo speech takes towards interpersonal relationships constitutes a large portion of its meaning and orientation. More distinctions are made in regard to the hierarchy of pronouns, for example, which makes evident the differing linguistic approaches (Glenn & Glenn). In conclusion, the formation of speech represents evidence of varied character and the extensive capacity of Navajo memory, thought, symbol use and formation, and speech. These are all interconnected to each other and connected to the concept of their universe through associated propositions and schemas. In this way, their belief of perpetual motion is constantly evidenced in the dynamic capacities of all the above cognitive functions, as well as the continuation of their living oral culture. Speech is a reinforcement of the power of thought. Both of these cognitive institutions are dependent on the strength and clarity of the memory trace and the encompassing merits of Navajo memory. A final remark that aptly states the crux of and inspiration for this paper: if one cannot remember something without writing it down, if it is an idea that is not understood well enough to be used effectively, then it is not important.



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