Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dine (Navajo) Philosophy of Community as K’e

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_174



Indigenous methodologies have emerged in response to an old order of Western research practices. Stuart Hall (as cited in Smith 1999) identified four functions of an old order of Western research that show how the positivist research paradigm has guided research in the name of science. These functions have:

1) Allowed researchers to characterize and classify societies into categories; 2) condensed complex images of other societies through a system of representation; 3) provided a standard model of comparison, and; 4) provided criteria of evaluation against which other societies can be ranked. (Smith 1999, p. 42)

These functions reflect a Western value system and underpinned theories of research on indigenous populations in which categories have already been identified as common sense and by which representations and evaluations of indigenous peoples have been created (Deloria 1969; Smith 1999). Ultimately, Western research was utilized to dominate, restructure, and have authority over indigenous people without any regard for the indigenous communities’ goals of self-determination and control over their own resources (Smith 1999).

Researchers who employ indigenous methodologies center the needs of the indigenous communities and nations within research and value their knowledges and ideas as they contribute to the process of sovereignty and nation building. From this paradigm and through these processes, indigenous researchers have resisted contributing to the colonizing ways of Western research and continue to work towards retrieving and remaking themselves and their communities. Philosophies and theories of indigenous communities are alive and intact, found in the collective knowledge contained within the languages, stories, songs, and ceremonies of the people. As these philosophies and theories of the indigenous communities are used as the frameworks throughout the research process, deeper understandings are achievable because of the ontological and epistemological alignment within the process and to the goals of self-determination. As an example of how indigenous knowledge can be centered within the philosophies and theoretical frameworks of research, a Diné philosophy of community was articulated to investigate what community meant from a Diné (also known as Navajo of the Southwestern USA) perspective for one research study (See Kulago 2012).

The Diné, just like other indigenous communities, have philosophies that have guided and sustained them throughout their existence. The philosophy of community for the Diné has been established as the concept of k’é (Kulago 2012). K’é, simply translated as a term meaning family in English, is a concept that also means compassion, cooperation, love, kinship, clanship, friendliness, kindness, unselfishness, peacefulness, thoughtfulness, and all those positive virtues that constitute intense, diffuse, and enduring solidarity through respectful relations with nature and humans.

In what follows, first, the qualities of k’é are explained as a Diné philosophy of community. Then, the ontology and epistemology of the Diné philosophy of community is contextualized through the Diné Kinaałdá ceremony. It is within the ceremonies that Diné people are able to honor, interact with, and be engaged in the teachings of their deities and ancestors. Within the description of the Kinaałdá that the qualities of k’é are highlighted.

Framing K’é as Community

A definition of k’é for the purposes here is summed up by a Diné grandmother describing what “good thinking” means when she states, “Good thinking means teaching our children that we must know one another in the family. We must maintain harmonious relations. We must share with one another. We must be able to depend on one another” (McCloskey 2007, p. 51). Pulling from the statement made by the Diné grandmother, the definition of k’é is made up of four qualities that a Diné community should embody (Kulago 2012). The first quality in the framework of k’é is the basic knowledge of each other in the family. Recognizing kinship through clans demonstrates knowledge of who you are, how you should relate to people, and how other people relate to you. Also, we recognize relationships with certain natural and spiritual elements. The second quality is that of maintaining harmonious relationships by expressing respect, love, compassion, friendliness, kindness, and peacefulness as one would to family members. The third quality is sharing with one another and being generous, unselfish, and thoughtful of others. The fourth quality is being able to depend on one another and being able to be depended on.

The Kinaałdá ceremony expresses the emphasis of these teachings. The description of the ceremony was not broken apart to fit nicely into the specific qualities of k’é because the teachings are ongoing throughout the entire process. To take them apart would make the ceremony incoherent. As one reads the description through the framework of k’é, parts of the ceremony will speak directly to certain qualities of k’é and emphasize a philosophy of community; however, there are multiple interpretations.

Ontological and Epistemological Contextualization of K’é

To investigate what community means from a Diné perspective, the Diné ontology and epistemology needs to be understood. The description of the Kinaałdá ceremony exemplifies the concept of k’é by identifying what is possible to know (ontology) and how knowledge is known and demonstrated (epistemology). What can and should be known within this philosophy are the relationships and interconnectedness between multiple entities of the natural and spiritual worlds. These entities are interconnected at various points throughout the four components that make up a person: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. To contextualize the ontology within this philosophy, the following description of the Kinaałdá ceremony is framed as an educational experience with knowledge and understandings of relationships and interconnectedness as the overarching goals.

Epistemologically speaking, a person is knowledgeable and considered a good, beautiful, and “educated” person when she or he can consistently keep all relationships and interconnections harmonious. Everyday situations require various types of knowledge and can change due to age, gender, clan, place, or other characteristics. The way one acts within those situations indicate what kind of person she or he is. Furthermore, when one is educated and virtuously embodies k’é, she or he is able to recognize others who are educated in k’é. If k’é exists, then the Diné community exists.

Conception of the Kinaałdá

In the Diné creation story, the first man and the first woman found a female baby who became known as Aszdaanáádlehí (Changing Woman), a deity who represents the Earth and motherhood and is identified with reproduction, sustenance, and nurturance. The Holy People (deities) performed the first Kinaałdá ceremony for her to celebrate her ability to bear children and to mold her into the ideal woman and mother (Frisbie 1967; McCloskey 2007). After her Kinaałdá, Aszdaanáádlehí became the mother of two sons whom she taught to take responsibility, maintain a strong sense of identity, and be independent, resourceful adults who ultimately made life on earth safe and possible for human beings (Frisbie 1967; McCloskey 2007). Because of the mothering that Aszdaanáádlehí achieved, she is the ideal woman that Diné women should grow up to emulate. It has been stated that “Motherhood is defined by the acts of giving and sustaining life to create strong bonds of solidarity. The strong and close mother-child bond serves as a model for the enduring relations of kinship” (McCloskey 2007, p. 18). In other words, the relationship between a mother and child is considered the prime model of how people should relate to others, including nature. For both daughters and sons, their mothers were their first teachers of k’é, and the ceremony is the educational experience that sustains the community.

Kinaałdá as an Educational Experience

The Kinaałdá is a ceremony that is an educational experience that calls attention to the importance of k’é. It is a puberty ceremony that is held for a Diné girl when she first starts menstruating. This 4-day ceremony focuses on the girl’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical endurance as she undergoes an intense course on the responsibilities of being a Diné woman. This ceremony includes major events within the 4 days: running to the east three times a day; ritual washing of the girl’s hair; baking ceremonial corn cake; and all night singing conducted by a medicine man on the final night. This ceremony and the teachings within it have been passed down from Diné ancestors for generations.

The Kinaałdá ceremony is a crucial time in any female’s life because the ceremony is the ultimate educational experience that will shape the girl’s adult life and those of her children. The 4-day ceremony traditionally starts and ends inside a Diné hogan. The hogan is a significant site because it is the traditional dwelling that opens to the east to allow the first sunlight and all good things to enter in the morning and has a dirt floor to allow offerings to be made to Mother Earth and all of the elements such as the sun, water, mountains, etc. Songs are sung and offerings are made to show respect for the hogan. The hogan is considered alive. Additionally, the Diné incorporate many sacred places into the teachings during the Kinaałdá. Multiple offerings are made during this ceremony in many different ways to continue the relationship in a reciprocal way, meaning that the universe will offer the things the people need to exist, and the people will continue with their offerings to the universe.

The girl, who is called “Kinaałdá,” is dressed in traditional Diné attire and adorned with silver and turquoise jewelry, which symbolizes a prosperous future. People often offer their jewelry for her to wear so that it acquires good blessings for the girl and themselves. Her hair is ceremoniously tied by an older woman who will mentor the girl during these 4 days and who should mentor her throughout the rest of her life. This woman also massages the girl, so as to “mold” her into a physically healthy woman. The woman, whom the parents choose, is usually a respected elder based on the kind of woman she is and the life experiences she has had by which the parents of the girl determine as “good.” This woman is the person they want their daughter to emulate. It is believed that the girl will inherit this elder’s traits and characteristics, so it is a very important decision, and it is an honor to be chosen.

Throughout the 4-day ceremony, the girl is taught many lessons, by many different people. The girl is the most important person in the ceremony, and the lessons revolve around the goals of keeping respectful relationships. First and foremost, through spiritual belief, the girl is considered “holy” as she is surrounded by the Holy People who are believed to be with her during the 4 days. She must remember her relationship to the Holy People as she should exhibit the kind of person she wants them to see her as. She is also told that her actions affect all of the contributors so she must do things correctly. She is told to be gentle, grateful, generous, caring, and kind. She is told not to be mean, jealous, mad, or stingy. Through her actions, she demonstrates her knowledge of and respect for the Holy People and her family’s wellbeing.

Physically, the girl is told to have a healthy relationship with her body. She should eat as naturally healthy as possible, without any unnatural sugars found in such junk foods as candy or soda. She also runs out of the hogan, to the east, then back into the hogan, three times a day. Each time she is tested to push herself to run farther. She also must keep busy throughout the 4 days. She should be hard working, strong, and not lazy. As one Diné grandfather stated, she cannot help others if she is not healthy and strong (McCarty and Bia 2002).

Intellectually, she is taught the “how to” of many tasks such as cooking, weaving, and sewing, and she is also taught lessons through stories shared by people who attend. Emotionally, she is told to be happy, positive, and strong. She should be motivated, disciplined, and supportive. She is told to think positively towards others, all throughout the ceremony. She is even told to think positively as she prepares food because she feeds those thoughts to the people. These are just some of the basic teachings that are specifically taught during the ceremony through basic everyday activities. Through observation and involvement in all the activities related to the home, the herds, and the fields, she gradually assumes the responsibilities of an adult (McCarty and Bia 2002). The woman who has tied her hair is primarily in charge of these teachings, but other women and men also offer teachings from their experiences.

The greatest emphasis is on k’é. The girl gains and strengthens relationships with all who have contributed to her ceremony as they demonstrate their concern for her future. Respectful relationships that are cooperative, generous, and appreciative are demonstrated through the support offered to her from relatives, family friends, and other community members. During the 4 days, she should be experiencing and internalizing the positive qualities she must adhere to because she is told it will affect all who are involved. Part of the sacredness of the ceremony is the feeling of family closeness and cooperation and the ceremony could not be possible or successful without these attributes.

Support for her wellbeing can be demonstrated in many ways. People are appreciated for anything that they can contribute. No one is required to do anything, but because it is for the wellbeing of the girl and her future contributions to the people, the people participate. People donate their labor by butchering sheep, cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, grinding corn, sewing, etc. People also donate goods such as treats to giveaway, sheep for meat, groceries to feed people, cloth for the girl’s clothing, money, firewood, corn, corn husks, pots and pans, and other items specific to the ceremony. People also sing their songs of prosperity, health, and strength during the final night of the ceremony. Some people show their support by just being present and talking to her. From lectures, storytelling, and participation in the socialization of the ceremony, she can experience the roles, relationships, and ideals of a good and full life (McCarty and Bia 2002).

If present at the time when the girl runs, people physically show support as they run behind her and encourage her to stay strong. The distance, endurance, and perseverance she demonstrates during the run are symbolic of her approach to her life’s goals as her support system is always behind her. They do not pass her because at that point she is setting the pace. The phrase, “to run after them” is a phrase Diné use when talking about helping each other and is considered a paraphrase for “helping or giving aid” (Lamphere 1977).

There is a final giveaway at the completion of the ceremony when the Kinaałdá gives away the ceremonial corn cake and other treats as a way to give thanks and blessings of prosperity to all who contributed. A piece of the cake is offered to Mother Earth to ensure that the relationship between humans and the earth continues in a reciprocal way. All the people helped in their own way, demonstrating that the ideal is to contribute what you can for the success of others. As she becomes an adult and able to contribute to the community, she will be able to contribute what she can. The girl is able to feel the responsibility of her family and although many people helped, the success of the ceremony depended upon her. From this ceremony, she officially becomes a part of the social relationships of reciprocity in the community and prepared to teach the next generation.

To Be a Good, Beautiful, and Educated Person

The Kinaałdá ceremony is meant to mold girls into beautiful, educated women. To be beautiful in the Diné society is to be good and useful which implies friendliness, unselfishness, kindness, strength, ambition, and capability of enduring much (Frisbie 1967). Most importantly, she will be a kind mother. To be educated is to know how to act in every situation in a positive way. People often conclude that one is uneducated if she does not know how to respond in various situations in a good and useful way. To be good, or have good thinking, as a Diné has also been described as “helping” and living under the moral obligation to give aid when requested or when it appears to be needed.

After a girl has her Kinaałdá, the ultimate test of the knowledge she gained from this educational experience is demonstrated by her actions from then on. In any situation she enters into, her knowledge and understandings of the relationships and interconnections will be demonstrated by the way she proceeds through relationships with all entities and people that are around her. Most significantly, when she becomes a mother and/or wife she will demonstrate her knowledge by nurturing and sustaining her family and teaching them k’é. Thus, mothers who have experienced the teachings of the Kinaałdá are the most essential determinants of the existence of k’é and consequently of the Diné community.


Although k’é, the Diné philosophy of community, is present within Diné communities, its presence within educational theory and research is minimal. As with the Diné community, it can be argued that all indigenous communities have their own philosophies of community as well that set protocol of relationships. This exact example should not be attributed to all indigenous communities but should demonstrate the complexities and deeply rooted understandings that guide the everyday protocol of such communities. The complexities and nuances that emerge from an articulation of this philosophy invalidate the generalized theories of research on and about indigenous peoples that have operated through the four colonizing functions of Western research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Teacher EducationElmira CollegeElmiraUSA