WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ., JUNE 3 -- Earnest Becenti is a Navajo medicine man. He also is one of three county commissioners in McKinley County, N.M. Without a doubt, he said, the mystery illness that has struck his people, killing nine Navajos and four others, is linked to man's violent disregard for the Earth.
Maybe it is pollution, he said, a problem with the ozone layer. Perhaps it is caused by jet planes or satellites or power lines or military testing or a diet that centers on fast food. Whatever the source of the deadly disease, Becenti and a dozen other Navajo medicine men and women say they are convinced that it stems from lack of harmony with the planet.
For hours today, the traditional healers spoke in their Navajo language about Dine Bikeyah, their starkly beautiful reservation, and their theories about the medical mystery. Several hundred Navajos sat on bleachers at the civic center in this capital city of the Navajo Nation and sometimes nodded solemnly as the healers conferred.
Reporters were barred from the meeting, but several tribal members relayed information about the speeches and the reaction of those inside.
The meeting was called by Navajo Chairman Peterson Zah, who said he wanted healers from the reservation and medical technicians from the outside world to work together in their search for answers about the disease.
"You know, western medicine can only do so much," Zah said in a statement today. "Western medicine has its limitations. And we're going to call on some Navajo medicine people to help us analyze the situation . . . in certain situations, we have to rely on what we have lived with, traditionally, for all these years."
Zah's assistant, Duane Beyal, said that, in times of stress, Navajos customarily turn to their ancient beliefs.
"During any time of emergency, the Navajo people have always fallen back on their spirituality for help and guidance," he said.
But Zah also continued to deliver messages on local radio stations, urging Navajos to cooperate with medical investigators. Radio is considered the most effective form of communication on this far-flung reservation that covers a four-state area about the size of West Virginia and provides a home to slightly more than 200,000 Navajos.
Becenti and other healers said they see significance in the fact that most victims of the disease have been young and seemingly healthy. They believe that Navajo youth have strayed too far from age-old teachings, filling their bodies with junk food and watching too much television, especially MTV.
Most of the healers choose not to have electricity or running water in their homes, Becenti said, but they dress as anyone else in this region -- in sports shirts, blue jeans and often cowboy hats. To become a healer, a Navajo must study under an elder who teaches proper ways to pray and to make healing potions.
Becenti, 62, said he still believes in the healing powers of corn, which came, he said, "from the Mother Earth." He said he is praying three times a day to combat the disease, sprinkling white cornmeal toward the sky in the morning, yellow cornmeal at noon and black cornmeal at midnight.
Many Navajos attending the meeting today refused to discusss the speeches. "These are really important things," said Daryl Blackgoat, 27. "We have been told not to talk about them with outsiders. They are private and sacred."
Mark Maryboy, 38, of Montezuma Creek, Utah, a member of the tribal council, attended the gathering but only, he said, after being assured by the Indian Health Service that he would not be at risk from the disease. "I'm concerned about the Utah Navajos," he said. "I was told I am free to come and go as I please."
Like older Navajos, Maryboy also believes in a mystical explanation for the disease. "Essentially, we aren't in harmony with nature anymore," he said.
As he spoke, Malvine Litson, 19, of Shiprock, N.M., moved among the crowds, offering hand-made dolls for sale. "This is the Sun Man," she said, displaying a doll with turquoise robes and a headdress of black and white feathers. "It represents healing."