What’s the difference between a Nakai, a Bilagaana, and a Gamaali? And will any of them be going to the Naach’id?

One collateral benefit of writing a book has always been an expansion of my vocabulary.  (FWIW extra money in my wallet is typically not.)

To date, Moonlight Water has proven no exception, even if a lot of the new words I’m learning are in a different language.  In this case Navajo.

So what is the difference between a Nakai, a Bilagaana, and a Gamaali –or for that matter what is Nakai, a Bilagaana or a Gamaali?  And would they really want to or even be allowed to go to a Naach’id?

Let’s start with the easy one:  Bilagaana.  I say “easy” because that’s the one word I was familiar with before I started writing this book. Hey, there had to be some benefit to reading all those Tony Hillerman novels.  It’s like a friend of mine in college once said after a test, “It’s always an easy question when you know the answer.”  But I would suspect some of the “general public” might be familiar with this term, if only because Hillerman’s books did sell well –something mine have never done.

Anyway back to the point: Bilagaana translates literally to “white person.”  However, in the 1860s vernacular, it was also meant to designate Americans -or as they were called by some in the tribe, “The New People”.

Fire Dance by William Robinson Leigh
Navajo Fire Dance by William Robinson Leigh. Courtesy of the Woolaroc Museum

Why the “New People?”  Well compared to the Nakais the Bilagaanas were just “Johnny-come-Latelys.” After all the Nakais, or New Mexicans of Spanish/Mexican descent, had already been there for hundreds of years, many of them spent alternately raiding or being raided by the Navajo on a regular basis.

So now that we know who the Bilagaana and the Nakais are, how do they fit in with the Gamaali?  In today’s world the Gamaali are known as the LDS, or Latter Day Saints. Back  then they were known as the Mormons, and by then they were populating much of the land to the north and west of Dinetah.

By 1860, compared to the Nakais and Bilagaana, the Navajo were on relatively peaceful terms with the Gamaali.

It’s interesting to note that the Navajo viewed the three groups, then and now all considered Americans, as three different entities, or tribes.

OK, now that we know the “who”, what about the “what” ,the Naach’id?

Actually very little is known about the what, which is one of the many subjects I’m hoping to learn more about as I slowly work towards completion of Moonlight Water.  Well respected Southwestern historian David M. Brugge once noted “ethnographic” details about a Naach’id were “very poorly known.”

I would say Mr. Brugge’s description is an understatement.

Lillian Wilhelm Smith Squaw Dance unframed
“The Enemy Way” Ceremony by Lillian Wilhelm Smith. 20 x 16. Oil on canvas.

We do know that a Naach’id, or Tribal Assembly, was held during times of  emergency or other critical situations. i.e. whether or not to go to war. To date, I have only been able to find one first- hand account of the ceremony  itself.

Last Pow Wow of the Navajo      Desert Magazine Nov. 1946

In the article on the link above, “Old Nata”, gives a fairly detailed account of the events, but little description of how the ceremony was conducted.  However thanks to the article I did learn:

-The ceremony began when the sun was five fingers above the mountain range to the east

-The tribe was encamped in an enormous circle around a ceremonial Hogan, families of the Peace Chiefs on the south, War Chiefs on the north.

-There were 12 Chiefs of each “Persuasion.”

-There were ten days of dancing and singing prior to the actual meeting.

-After the meeting began it lasted for four days

 -The ceremonial Hogan was partly underground

-The implements which were placed in the center of the ceremonial grounds were indicative of a war or peace decision.

The article has been a huge help.  The only other writings I have been able to find on Naach’ids so far are by Brugge and well known Navajo anthropologist Gladys Amanda Reichard. Both are very sparse.

In her book Social Life of the Navajo Indians  Reichard writes Naach’ids’ were held “… in the winter, that it involved both political functions such as the making of war and peace and ceremonial procedures including dancing, and that all or most members of the tribe were present simultaneously during portions of the assembly. “

Brugge claims the last known Naach’id was held in the late winter or early spring of 1859.  The  Faulkenburg article would place the final “Pow Wow” very close to the same time.

In my book I’m going to stretch a little and place the “Last Pow Wow of  the Navajo”  in December, 1859.

Why a little  later than Brugge’s or Faulkenberg ‘s writings would indicate?

As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, one of the aspects that attracted  me to the subject is that, while much is known about the major events of the time, little is known of the details. Given the time, place and people, this will most likely remain the case.  While this is frustrating from a purely historical perspective, it allows for a substantial amount of creativity in any historical fiction.

What is known for certain is that by December 1859 Colonel Edward R.S. Canby was receiving peace overtures from most of the influential Navajo Headmen. Included in this group  was Manuelito, who was very much for the path of war in the Naach’id recalled by Old Nata. It would not be too much of a stretch to believe a Naach’id was held shortly before the headmen’s decisions to seek peace, even if there is no documentation of such an event taking place.

Adee Dodge Spirit Horse of the Monster Slayer 19x14
Goddess of the Buffalo Dance by Adee Dodge

Although the aforementioned details about how the ceremony was conducted are known, to me there are still many mysteries.

For example, what were the recognized meeting protocols?  Did they abide by Roberts Rules of Order? Westminster parliamentary procedures?  Quaker Meeting for Worship?

Somehow I doubt it. Seriously, it would be nice to know a little more about the actual workings of the Naach’id. I.e. who was allowed to speak when, and for how long.

I have a feeling before I’m finished some knowledge of this will be presented to me. How?

Who knows? That’s what makes writing an adventure.

So in summary, we now know who the Nakai, the Bilagaana, and the Gamaali were.

But would they have been invited to any Naach’ids?

 I would say not a chance.


4 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a Nakai, a Bilagaana, and a Gamaali? And will any of them be going to the Naach’id?

  1. Have you completed and had published “Moonlight Water”? If so, where can I find it? I checked Amazon without success.

    1. Mark,
      Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately I never finished it. Between some serious health issues and other factors -including the realization that I’m not a very good fiction writer 🙂 I never was able to get it done.

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