Yas Niłt’ees

We’re back for the New Year with Yas Nił’ees, which is the Navajo word for the month of January.

To give some background, the word follows a theme we’ve been pointing out to you recently, which is snow. It sits right there at the beginning.

The next part is a bit of a mystery… niłt’ees refers to the second person act of either frying, cooking, or generally applying heat to something. The root of this verb is, more or less, -t’ees.

That root is echoed in an earlier word from Thanksgiving which is ak’ah bee sit’é. You’ll notice sit’é uses the root to mean “cooked.” Sit’é would be past tense, acting as an adjective, and niłt’ees would be present (or currently in progress) and second person so “you fry/grill/cook/heat/etc.” The root makes the verb, and is essential in learning more advanced Navajo.

Back to the month of January; the following is speculation. Yas Niłt’ees may refer to the time when snow was melted for regular use (i.e. when there was no running water). Otherwise, it would imply ‘melting snow’ as in ‘this is the month when it warms up’ but that would not make much sense because January.

P.S. The adjectival sit’é, being past tense, has 1st, 2nd and 3rd person verb forms which are séłt’é, sínłt’é, and yisté, respectively. So in a sentence like “atsį’ séłt’é” it would mean “I cooked the meat.”

And with that, Happy New Year!


I wanted to take today to shed some more light on the Navajo word for “leader” as it is commonly known.

As a matter of semantic, the Navajo particle -igii (as in Diné Bizaad yee Nidaazbaa’ígíí) is referred to as a nominalizer. I creates an object, more or less, out of an action or process. That particle modifies the root word nit’áh, which signifies the very growth processes that lead to maturity.

The earlier post outlined a framework of qualities in Navajo leadership, but if you were to extrapolate that framework out to deeper levels of society, you’d eventually arrive at the individual (as is intended). At this point, these qualities are practiced as people direct themselves about the way they live their life. In general, the Navajo moral blueprint is that of hózhǫ́, or the balanced and beautiful way.

So in the literal sense, naat’áanii is something that guides growth, or directs it, by means of a process (following a number of rules or conditions). Historically, there was no unified nation of Navajo people, and therefore no universally sanctioned chief like the word naat’áanii has come to imply. The contemporary view of naat’áanii really began in the days of Hwéeldi (the Navajo Long Walk), when American governments demanded that they deal only with “chiefs”, as it was assumed that they could legitimately enter into a treaty on behalf of all Navajo people.

A firm contemporary model of Navajo leadership through governance has yet to emerge even after decades of cycling through from band and clan leadership, to the early councils of medicine men, then onto the Navajo Business Council in the 1920s, and then the subsequent iterations of the Tribal Council that have led up to today’s Navajo Nation Council (complete with balances a checks in the Presidency and Judiciary branches).


Some texts spell this word as níchííl – but the actual pronunciation drops the ‘i’ sound.

Ńchííl is another way of saying ‘it is snowing’ in Navajo.

This may actually be a more common way of saying it, but it more or less serves as a perfect synonym for yidzaas.


Navajo women can call their sons (children – direct descendants and clanwise) shíyázhí or shiyáázh. It’s a term of endearment that can also refer to someone else’s son (niyáázh – your son, and biyáázh – her/its son).

Yázhí itself is the Navajo equivalent of “little one” and is applied more broadly. For example “shizhé’é yázhí” refers to my father’s younger brother (uncle or little father). “Shimá yázhí” refers to my mother’s younger sister.

Applied to animals, yázhí refers to the young animal, or the baby animals.

Mósí yázhí is little cat, or kitten.

Shásh yáázh is little bear, or cub.

Dibé yázhí is little sheep, or lamb.

In Navajoland, you’ll often meet people with the surname ‘Yazzie’, which is said to be a transliteration of yázhí by government officials, who required of the Native American people complete names for record purposes.

Sis Naajiní

In Navajo tradition, there exists a number of sacred mountains (dził) that serve as boundary markers for the Navajo people. The traditional homeland is bordered by four mountains, often called the Four Sacred Mountains.

Sis Naajiní (also Tsisnaajini, Sis na’jin) today is called Blanca Peak and is located in Colorado. Blanca Peak creates the Eastern point of the traditional Navajo land, demarcated according to the plans of First Man and First Woman of Navajo tradition, as each contained the ability to form great things using the songs and materials they carried with them.

The Navajo creation stories tell of a series of worlds that living things had to pass through to get to the current terrestrial world. It began with the first world where spirits lived (often called the Black world, or the Red world, or First Tree, or First Speech). It is said that the First Man and First Woman were not alone when they were created – that Coyote was also living in a human form. As time went, the first group of people began to grow as they found each other and were eventually forced to leave the First World because they carried out many transgressions with each other.

In each world, they gained more people (in the form of the Insect people, the Bird people, and more). And in each world, the people did not live in a good way, leading to their forced expulsion by the greater spirits of each world. The group had to inevitably climb out into new worlds above.

These are stories told by those who know the songs (sin or hátáál), never singing them nor chanting them before the first snowfall as tradition dictates. These chants are comprised of many ‘stanzas’, each with an element of repetition, as goes the Navajo story telling way. The retelling of each of the trials and advancements that the first people made are contained in hundreds of these distinct sections, forming a narrative that is sung over many nights.

Sis Naajiní is a part of that narrative. Formed using the ground brought up from the previous world, Blanca Peak sits to the east (ha’a’aah) and is associated with the color white. If you recall the earlier posts about the Four Sacred Directions, the prayers and songs associated with traditional early morning practices are directed at these mountains. So it follows that Sis Naajiní is also associated with free and balanced thought.

After the mountain was formed, the First Man and First Woman anchored the mountain to the earth with a bold of white lightening (astiniltł’ish), and covered it in a blanket of daylight. It was also decorated with White Shell, dark clouds, and a male rain. Some of the Holy People, beginning with White Bead Boy, entered into the mountain to live in it. The bear was sent to guard the entrance of his home.

The mountains themselves were brought to life by separate winds that entered into them. For Sis Naajiní, Spotted Wind (White Wind) gave it life.

You can see from this short narrative that there are many aspects contained in the traditional Navajo songs. Each living thing experiences its own trials, and they are also included throughout the stories. The worlds and directions and people are numerous, and each has its place in the Navajo creation tradition.