“It is art that makes life,” wrote Henry James, adding that art “makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” In many Native American cultures, my late friend Leonardo Shapiro, who spent most of his life learning about Indian art, religion, and culture, determined, “art was an ever present part of life, it was the connection between the sacred realms beyond appearance and the everyday necessities of survival.” Among some Native American peoples of the southwest, the Navajo and the Zuni for example, life is inextricably bound to their ceremonial art and performances. (See my article on ROT, “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010.) Next to the Zuni shalako ceremony, the Navajo healing ceremonies, which also include prayers, sweat baths, and ritual bathing, are superb examples of this phenomenon. Though there are several reasons for conducting sings, as they’re commonly known among the Navajo, and making sandpaintings, the Navajo ceremonials exist principally to cure specific ailments through songs, sandpaintings, and face- and body-painting: performance and art.
Most Native American ceremonials involve the whole community so everyone participates in the artistry and performances; they’re not just the provinces of specialized groups, fraternities, or individuals. Though Navajo singer-healers or Pueblo Black Eyes may belong to special groups within the society, most of the participants in these rites are ordinary members of the village. (For a description of a Pueblo ceremony, the Festival of San Gerónimo at Taos, see my article, “Taos & Taos Pueblo: Background,” 24 May 2012.) Some, like the Zuni shalako personators, are selected a year in advance and prepare extensively for the ceremonies; others simply join in as the familiar ritual unfolds. Still others, including outsiders, participate merely by being present. The Navajo sandpaintings are executed by volunteers under the guidance of the hataali, or healer, who’s a trained specialist but who mostly directs the work, making corrections and coaching from the sidelines. The chants, too, are led by this healer, but the singers and dancers are just villagers—members of the community. What’s more, the healing rite can’t even take place unless it’s requested by someone in the community who needs its power: the audience initiates the performance.
Many American Indian societies don’t see disease as biological, physiological, or psychological maladies, but as a reflection of disharmony, hochxo in the Navajo language, in society or the world, which is then manifested in a person’s illness. Healing requires repairing or restructuring this environmental disorder. Among Navajos, transgressing the rules of behavior that keep society in balance disrupts individuals, their families, their goods, and their overall wellbeing, and, by extension, all Diné (‘human being(s)’ or ‘person’/‘people,’ the name Navajo call themselves). Both elements of the healing ceremony, though they contain clear aesthetic and social aspects, are primarily transformative and communal. All these Indian rites have a shamanistic aspect in the use of incantatorial magic to address the forces of nature and effect the world around us. The healing chants, though specifically tailored to cure the illness of a particular patient—known as bik’i nahagha, ‘the one-sung-over’—also benefit the patient’s family, everyone else who attends the ceremony, and the entire Navajo Nation. The healing comes about because the ceremony attracts the appropriate spirits who return balance and harmony, called hozho in Navajo and includes concepts like ‘beauty,’ ‘blessing,’ and ‘holy,’ to the society or the world which has been put into hochxo, causing the illness. The society is thus transformed by the performance. The sick person is also transformed into a Holy Person by the application of the colored powders from designated parts of the sandpainting, which has been inhabited by the spirits depicted in it, to various parts of his or her body.
The elaborate Navajo sandpaintings, one art historian asserted, “reached a lofty expression in which ancient religious significance and high aesthetic value mingled.” The art “probably reached its highest perfection in North America among the Navaho Indians,” declared another scholar. Also known as dry-painting or ground-painting, the pictures drawn on the ground with colored sand are made from pigments crushed from minerals from nearby cliffs into white, blue, yellow, black, and red powder. (Mixing these primary sands creates other colors: red and black makes brown; white and red makes pink.) More than an art form, they are part of some healing ceremonies, serving as a temporary altar on the ground or the floor of the specially-constructed hogan, the traditional round structure of the Navajo people. Varying in size, some sandpaintings may be as large as ten to more than 12 feet in diameter and can require the work of as many as 40 village men from dawn until midday. Sandpaintings—iikaah in Navajo, meaning ‘a place where the gods come and go’—can include conventionalized and stylized images of Holy People and humans as well as other mythical or traditional elements such as arrows, lightning, snakes, earth, sky, wind, rain, clouds, sunbeams, rainbows, stars, comets, thunder, water monsters, animals, plants, herbs, seeds, pollen, and the underworld. The complicated designs, which can appear as delicate as lace, are abstract, angular, geometric, and elongated representations of Navajo legends and the Diné’s creation story forming a symbolic picture of the hero of the myths that explains the particular ceremonial being performed.
As we’ll see, there are numerous healing ceremonials in the Navajo ritual life (Nightway, Blessingway, Mountainway, and so on), so every painting is linked to a specific one and the traditional creation narrative on which it’s based. (Not all ceremonial sings include sand-painting. Sings vary in length, but in an eight-day, nine-night ceremony in which sand-painting occurs, the paintings are made on the last four days of the ceremonial.) The sandpainting is an image of a design the chant’s hero figure received from the spirits during one of his legendary adventures. Sandpaintings depict the creation story of the yei (“the terrible ones”), Navajo spirits who emerged from the netherworld before the creation of the human race and then appeared as helpful advisers; Holy People, Navajo deities who have the power to aid or harm; the Earth Surface People; birds and animals; plants; and mountains, celebrating episodes in the legend of the hero.
For a sing that includes sand-painting, the hataali and his (or her—some hataali are women) helpers start at sunrise on days when one is made and work until noon. The participants create the design by pinching some of the colored sands between their thumbs and index fingers and, squatting or kneeling next to the painting, dribbling it in the pattern dictated by the hataali onto the spot on the ground or the hogan floor prepared with a base of clean, tan sand. The work, which demands exquisite dexterity, progresses from the center outward for practical reasons and in a “sun-wise” sequence (east to south to west to north to east again) for religious reasons. Any man who knows how may work on a painting under the supervision of the healer-chanter who rarely participates himself aside from laying out some preliminary lines. (Though some healers are women and both men and women can be sung over, only initiated males may make a sandpainting or chant in a ceremony.) The volunteers, each of whom works on a different part of the painting, must have been initiated into the tribe but they don’t have to be priests or shamans. There are as many as 30 patterns that can be applied to each healing ceremony and the selected sandpainting is replicated from memory by the healer. Though each healer is permitted to make variations in small details, he must reproduce the image precisely without varying the sacred overall design the spirits taught the chant’s protagonist in the legend. The healer must strictly follow tradition for composition as well as for the individual figures. The Diné believe that the Holy People had made pictures, which they kept rolled up in black clouds, and the sandpaintings were imitations of these for the healing ceremonies. If anyone makes a mistake, the error isn’t erased, but it’s covered with base sand and a new design is made with fresh powder. Though a limited number of sandpaintings have been photographed by anthropologists and scholars, there’s no practical catalogue of the designs to which the healers can refer even though there are from 600 to 1000 existing patterns.
The painting designs highlight the four corners of the earth where the four sacred mountains stand (demarking Dinétah, the traditional homeland of the Diné in the Four Corners, where the boundaries of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet), the four seasons, and the four parts of day. The colors in the painting are symbolic of many aspects of Navajo beliefs and culture, a few of which are:
· white (ground from gypsum): represents the east, Tsisnaasjini (Sacred Mountain of the East: Mt. Blanca, near Alamosa in the San Luis Valley, Colo.), spring, day, dawn of life (birth/emergence)
· blue (criscola): south, Tsoodzil (Sacred Mountain of the South: Mt. Taylor, north of Laguna, N.M.), summer, dawn, youth
· yellow (ochre): west, Doko’oosliid (Sacred Mountain of the West: San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Ariz.), autumn/fall, dusk, maturity
· black (magnetite): north, Dibé Nitsaa (Sacred Mountain of the North: Mt. Hesperus, La Plata Mountains, Colo.), winter, night, death
· red (sandstone): sunshine, the spiritual life
When the healing ceremony is completed, the one-sung-over leaves the hogan. The painting has been destroyed in the process of applying the sands from the images in it to the healing subject, but the hochxo that caused the sick person’s illness has now infected the sands. Because the powers manifest in the sands are unsafe if handled improperly, when the cure is complete they’re removed and returned to nature. The singer obliterates the now-defaced painting and the hazardous sand is taken from the hogan before sunset and returned to the desert to the north where it can’t do any harm.
When the Holy People taught the legendary heroes how to make the sacred paintings, they prohibited the people to make permanent copies of the pictures to prevent damage or contamination. As a consequence, there are no actual sandpaintings that survive the ritual. (In the 1930s, Navajo singer Hosteen Klah, 1867-1937, defied custom and wove a number of rugs using sandpaintings as motifs. Though some Navajo even today see this as a sacrilege, Klah's hope was that this would be a way to record the tradition for posterity.) The only renderings I’ve ever seen are either photos—mostly old ones, and therefore black and white or sepia, by anthropologists since taking pictures at the ceremony today is frowned upon (no permanent reproduction, remember)—or non-ceremonial replicas made as art and sealed in some kind of preservative gel or plastic treatment to keep them intact. These aesthetic versions, much smaller than real ones, are sanitized of any spiritually powerful imagery and display little more than pretty colors for tourists and the curious like me. The authenticity of the iconography is clearly suspect (for art objects and museum demonstrations, the painter often makes small, deliberate errors such as transposing colors or leaving out a figure so as not to offend the spirits), but combining in my mind’s eye the colors from the artificial paintings with the images of old photos have given me a vague idea of what a ritual sandpainting might look like.
To the outsider like me, the paintings are little more than highly stylized, brilliantly colored, delicate images, however aesthetically stunning. With some knowledge of Navajo heroes, legends, and creation story, someone like me might recognize some of the symbols and the references to the narrative, but to a Navajo, the paintings are said to be full of symbolically depicted movement and action. The sand art has no aesthetic value for the Navajo who have no interest in preserving the paintings or reproducing them for artistic appreciation. In the words of Frank Waters, a writer of Indian (Cheyenne) heritage himself and a chronicler in both non-fiction and fiction of Native American culture and life in the Four Corners, as an art form, Navajo sandpaintings are “perhaps the most transient the world has known. They do not last a full day.” (For more on Waters, see “Frank Waters,” posted on ROT on 4 May 2012.) To Euro-American eyes, however, they’re unequalled on the continent:
No other indigenous American art surpasses it in unique technique, in purity of style and emotional depth. Beside it primitive and pseudo-primitive art shows itself to be only crude and undeveloped. Modern abstractions seem childish. For these sand-paintings, so highly developed and rigidly stylized, are abstractions as pure as any ever known. Always symmetrical, equated to the four directions and perfectly balanced with the four primary colors, they are strikingly original designs of form and color whose origin can be felt as far as they can be seen. They are more sophisticated than the latest importations from the Beaux Arts of Paris and the newest innovations seen in the exclusive ateliers of Fifty-seventh Street. And yet they are realistic pictures so childlike, simple, and direct that they defy description.
Sand-painting is only one part of the Navajo healing ceremonials that also include singing, dancing, pollen blessings, pressing of prayer bundles to the head and body of the patient, drinking herbal infusions, face-painting, masking, sweat baths, offerings, and prayer chants, among other ritual activities. During these rites, music, theater, dance, poetry, and the graphic arts are brought together to prevent danger and restore hozho for the one-sung-over, everyone present, and for the whole Navajo people. For the Navajo, the ceremonial sings have two main goals: purification—removing what are referred to as “ugly things”: ridding the bik’i nahagha and the community of an object, creature, or spirit that has infected them—and identification with the Holy People to promote spiritual harmony (hozho) between the patient and the natural and supernatural world around her or him. Purification occurs from sweating, emesis, eating sacred food or herbal medicine, and ritual bathing; identification happens through the chants, sandpaintings, masking and body-painting, medicine bundles and prayer sticks, and other ritual actions.
Among the Diné, singing and ritual are major parts of everyday living. The Navajo have ritual songs for every life event: house-building, travel, the harvest, birth, marriage, illness, and death. In the healing ceremonials, song, dance, and pantomime combine to make simple dramas—like most Native American cultures, the Navajo don’t have a traditional form of theater. They didn’t have a written language, either (alphabets were invented for some Indian tongues in the 19th and 20th centuries), so the ritual songs and the ceremonies that go with them comprise a series of what Frank Waters called “myth-dramas” which are passed orally from one generation to the next to preserve the legends and traditional history of the tribe. The texts of the chants are long, epic passages about the legendary heroes, Holy People, and yei of the Navajo people. Put together, all these separate sagas, each of which tells part of the Navajo evolutionary story, combine to depict the creation myth of the Diné. These myth-based dramas are a kind of mystery or miracle play, but they don’t merely perpetuate the mythological history of the Diné. They also inculcate the fundamental truths of Navajo religion and philosophy, not unlike the medieval morality plays of Europe or the myths of Greece, Egypt, and India, only in the vernacular of the Navajo tradition. Waters expounded his own observations:
There is a great difference between such mystery plays and the European morality plays as we know them. Navaho ceremonialism is not concerned with morality But it is concerned with the fact that the deeds of individuals are not confined to their own spheres of social action; they vitally affect the earth, the waters, the mountains—the whole web of life. Nor is the influence of a character restricted to the term of his physical life. It continues through his ghost to be a psychical force. This interrelation of parts within the solidarity of the whole living universe, the psychic effects resulting from physical causes, the correspondence of inner and outer forms of life, and the continuance of causal action through the realms of life and death, all combine to give meaning and validity to the sings as profound mysteries.
The chants, however, are also important for quotidian communal and tribal life. They are enormous social events when the far-flung tribe comes together by the thousands. (The Navajo Nation, the reservation in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico, is a little under 25,000 square miles, the area of West Virginia. There are over 300,000 enrolled members of the Navajo tribe, about 175,000 of whom live in the Navajo Nation.) Between the ceremonial events, there are open meetings to discuss matters affecting the whole community and, during some chantways, young Navajos are initiated into the tribe. A pervasive atmosphere of friendliness suffuses the community; everyone, even traditional enemies, is welcome and both public and private wrongs are forgotten for the duration of the ceremony. It’s a time when Navajos share thoughts, gifts, and food with family, friends, strangers, and the spirits alike and a sense of generosity and hospitality pervades the Navajo Nation. Celebrants say prayers for all Diné and even for Anglos (that is, anyone who’s neither Indian nor Hispanic) and Latinos. All Navajos try to mend their spiritual connection to the Holy People and they pray for rain, crops, health, and general prosperity. As the singers entreat:
In beauty (happiness) may I dwell.
In beauty may I walk.
In beauty may my male kindred dwell.
In beauty may my female kindred dwell.
But the sings are more than rituals and community gatherings; they’re great fairs, social events where friends and family exchange gossip, and renew their tribal commonality. For every Indian child growing up in the Four Corners, they have the same allure as the county fair holds for a farm kid and a street fair has for a city child. Alongside the solemn prayers and sacred songs and dances, there are gambling, games, horse racing, and great feasts. Low humor and feats of daring are established parts of the ceremony. Because their basic purpose is creating happiness, the clowns, also known as “delight makers,” have broad leeway for their antics. Throughout the long, somber ritual, the clowns might satirize the visiting dignitaries (even from the Anglo world) or even the dancers themselves. Other entertainers swallow arrows or perform a fire dance in which young men leap through flames and bathe each other in flaming torches. The Navajo have the reputation for being great magicians and there are magical performances which have a serious religious foundation: the hataali does a solo dance with an enchanted feather that floats opposite him and another performer makes a yucca plant sprout, grow, bloom, and wither within a half an hour. Later, when the children have been initiated into the tribal secrets and the boys can participate in the rituals of the sings, the childhood sense of celebration and delight never completely leaves them.
The Navajo chantways are, above all, solemn religious ceremonies the main purpose of which is to heal the bik’i nahagha, who, with his family, pays all the expenses of the ceremonial. (This includes the hataali, who gets a fee of from $500 to $1000 for a nine-night rite.) That intention overrides all the others in the end. By far the largest group of chantways is used for curing or preventing illness and for each physical or mental disorder there’s an appropriate healing ceremonial. For instance, the two-night Blessingway ceremony, whose narrative recounts the Navajo story of creation after emergence (the arrival of the Diné on the Earth’s surface from the underworld), prevents disharmony and disorder and preserves hozho, or blessing. Other chantways fall into three procedural patterns: Lifeway, used to treat injuries resulting from accidents (and usually simpler than other sings); Evilway, intended to exorcise indigenous ghosts (there is a specific sing, Enemyway, for dispelling the ghost of an outsider such as an Anglo or some other non-Navajo like a member of some other Indian tribe) and combating the effects of witchcraft; and Holyway, directed at the Holy People and concerned with the attraction of good and the restoration of the patient. Most chants are performed according to Holyway rituals, which may be two, five, or nine nights long, frequently ending in a night-long sing on the last night.
The hataali, who spends his life learning the tribe’s rituals as well as the healing properties of the plants and minerals in the Four Corners, is considered a man of great spirituality. He’s a combination of priest; cantor and choir director; physician, especially diagnostician; psychiatrist; and showman and stage magician. His ability to conduct each of the ceremonials, every last detail of which he must know perfectly by heart, comes from years of study and training at the feet of his predecessor. As with the sandpaintings, there are no records of the texts and procedures of a chantway; the healer learned what he knows the same way he teaches it to his helpers and apprentices, a position that’s assumed in childhood and is a lifelong pursuit: by oral transmission. Just as a skilled hataali probably only knows some few dozen painting patterns, however, he may know a handful of chant ceremonies, each of which may include hundreds of songs, from each type, perhaps two or three from the shorter, simpler rites and one or two each from the longer, more complex ones like the nine-night Nightway chant, arguably the best known beyond the tribe because of the spectacular dances and stirring singing of the last night and public performances of the dances as demonstrations outside of ceremonial practice. In the Nightway chant alone, there are over four hundred songs, plus the sandpaintings, dances, and all the ritualistic details of the masks, prayer sticks, and other ceremonial trappings.
Each chant is concerned with the source of a specific disease or complex of diseases, such as eye, ear, and throat trouble; paralysis; distortion of the limbs; mental disturbances; and even bad dreams or “a troubled spirit.” The ceremonial is intended to exorcise the underlying spiritual cause rather than to treat the physical symptoms of the illness itself, as in Western medicine. One way to see the difference is that Western treatments cure the disease while the Navajo cures heal the patient. The hataali determines what the origin of an individual ailment is, though certain circumstances are believed more likely to cause particular conditions, then selects the chant most closely associated with that imbalance. (Chants traditionally offered for specific illnesses may be used for others if the hataali determines the etiologies are related.) One chant (as transcribed by Washington Matthews, 1843-1905, an ethnographer and linguist known for his studies of Native Americans, especially the Navajo) gives an idea of the breadth of the curing powers of the sing:
My feet restore for me.
My legs restore for me.
My body restore for me.
My mind restore for me.
My voice restore for me.
While the hataali diagnoses the condition and chooses the appropriate chant, he may only provide what the patient requests. The patient also decides what parts of the ceremony should be performed before the public on the final night of the rite—if any: the patient may choose to have a closed ceremony with no public exhibition. So along with initiating the healing to start with, the one-sung-over has considerable control over its shape as well.
The sings usually take place in a ceremonial hogan, which is round like the horizon. (Most hogans are also domed, which seems sky-like to me, though I’ve never read that symbolism anywhere. It may, indeed, be insignificant since the Navajo, like many Indian cultures, believe that life began beneath the Earth’s surface and that the spirits live below rather than in a heaven above. Among the Pueblos, who share many beliefs and practices with the Navajo—sand-painting is, in fact, a Pueblo practice that the Navajos refined—and the Hopi, the place through which both human souls and spiritual beings emerge is called the sipapu.) Movement during a ritual, just as it is in sand-painting, is always in the direction the sun travels: east to south to west to north. Men sit on the south side of the hogan; women sit on the north side. Prayer sticks and other offerings are placed in the east and items that were pressed against the patient in order to remove evil are placed in the north.
Healing ceremonies usually last from one to nine nights, but the duration of a sing isn’t really fixed since a curing ceremonial continues as long as necessary to treat the patient. Partial sings, a single event, or a few rituals from a chantway taking a few hours of a day or night may be performed as a kind of diagnostic to see if the bik’i nahagha benefits, then the entire ceremonial may be given for him or her. Traditionally, a sing that’s cured a patient is performed four times. The repetition of a sing, however, may be extended over many years or omitted altogether. Failure to cure the patient is attributed to misdiagnosis and selecting the wrong ceremony. Even tiny mistakes in the correct chant can damage its therapeutic effectiveness. Certain rituals may only be performed at particular times of the year. No Navajo believer will even sing songs from such a chant out of season for fear that bad fortune will befall him like being bitten by a snake or struck by lightning. (In many Indian religions, the words of the rituals alone are considered so powerful that merely uttering them, even by an outsider and out of context, has potentially perilous consequences. Chantway songs performed as demonstrations are, therefore, sanitized of their spiritual content, just as sandpaintings created for museum displays are, so as not to anger the gods.)
The procedure varies somewhat depending on which healing chant is being performed, of course, but a general pattern holds. A typical sing starts at sundown the first evening with the consecration of the hogan. The participants include the singer and his assistants, the one-sung-over, members of the patient’s family, friends of the patient, and, of course, the Holy People; the public comes only to the last night of the sing. In a nine-night ceremonial, the first night then includes one or two hours of singing and ritual. Before sunrise on the first four mornings, when sandpaintings will be made, a ceremony announces to both humans and Holy People that a rite will be performed in the hogan. The early hours of those days are devoted to sweat and emetic rites to expel evil and cleanse both the patient and all participants. On the first four afternoons, prayer sticks are made, prayed over, and then placed at designated points to compel the Holy People to attend the ceremony. At dawn on the fifth day, the hataali lays out the contents of his medicine bundle, praying over each object, and the one-sung-over touches each of them as they are placed on the altar. The Navajo healing chants, like the sandpaintings, are transformative and these are ritual articles that will be pressed against the patient’s body during the cure to transform the one-sung-over into a Holy Person temporarily. On each of the next four days, a sandpainting is made inside the hogan and the one-sung-over undergoes a ritual bath to purify him further. When the painting is finished around noon, the sandpainting rite is performed.
A typical Holyway chant, the dominant type, consists of about a dozen ritual events separated by interludes (during which various communal activities may take place). Certain procedures occur throughout all chants, most importantly, the singing led by the hataali but joined by all (usually men) who know how. The singing, which accompanies nearly every Navajo ritual act and without which there can’t be a cure, continues every night during the rite, getting longer each night. At intervals, prayers are offered. On the final night, the singing lasts until dawn, summarizing all the purification, invocation, attraction of power, and identification of the preceding rites. Throughout the vigil the patient concentrates on all the singing and ritual. Early in the morning on the last day of the cure, the patient’s relatives help him shampoo his hair, bathe his body in suds made from yucca roots, and dry himself with ritually-ground cornmeal. Then the singer paints the patient’s body from head to toe with symbolic designs to identify the one-sung-over further with the Holy People, as a mark of recognition for them and a guard against further danger, and ties symbolic tokens in his hair. As the final dance begins, the yei enter, each shaking a gourd rattle in his right hand and holding two eagle feathers in his left. These are masked dancers who personate the yei spirits, chanting an eerie song described as “piercingly powerful” with “hypnotic power” as the performers are “displaying almost acrobatic feats of bounding back and forth between octaves.” (Yei interchangeably refers to the dancers, whose masks echo the colors and designs of the figures depicted in the sandpaintings; their dance; and the gods who live in rocks, caves, mountains, canyons, and are etiological factors in the bik’i nahagha’s condition. The yei, who are speechless Holy People, are believed to visit the homes of sick people and perform over them to remove the cause of the illness.) The public is admitted only to this culmination of all the sacred ritualism of the preceding days and nights, considered the most dramatic of the Navajo rites, and visitors from all over come to share in the curative effects and the beauty of the pageant. Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-60), an American anthropologist known for his field work among the Navajo, has described the peak of the “splendid public ritual” of the Mountainway sing, another nine-night ceremony which is, “if anything, more spectacular” than the more popular Nightway:
By the ninth day a huge crown has gathered and horses and covered wagons and (today) automobiles encircle the communal cooking shelter, and the ceremonial hogan, the area in front of which has been leveled for the public exhibition. All afternoon at isolated spots in the timber little groups gather to rehearse the ah leel, the vaudeville acts of the evening. The performers are watched and encouraged by neighbors and relatives. Meanwhile men and boys are cutting, hauling, and piling cedar and juniper for the great fires and to form the enormous corral with which the evening’s rituals will take place.
Just as the last lights flicker on the mesa, the song-priest marches around the corral, sprinkling meal and pollen and chanting prayers of consecration. The waiting crowd throngs into the enclosure, carrying blankets and babies, coffee pots and food. Complete darkness falls, and the tension grows momentarily more expectant. At last the great piles are lighted. Flames soar. The heat scorches and the retreating spectators pack themselves close against the tree limbs which form the enclosure. While the heat is still intense, the twelve Turn-to-White dancers rush in, their staves tipped with white eagle down. They are twirling their staves tipped with white eagle down. They are stripped to the g-string, but their bodies are plastered with white clay. Nearer and nearer they circle to the blaze. At last one dancer gets the tip of his stave in the fire. “Turn to white!” shouts the crowd and he, quickly sliding the ring concealed in his hands down his stave, triumphantly exhibits the feathers that have just sprouted to replace those which were burned off.
There follows a series of ah leel. A man rubs his hands, producing a sparkling, crackling flame; a turtle climbs a tree; there is the arrow-swallowing dance; feathers rise out of a basket and dance in the air before a young girl; green corn grows and yucca blossom, though it is December. The plumed arrow dance is given by different teams to the whizzing of the bullroarer (which the Navajos call the “groaning stick”). Here too, as in the Night Chant, there are elements of comic relief. A dirty old man enters, stumbles about in the manner of the “low comedy”, disappears, reappears with a strapping man dressed as an hideous old crone.
As the first rays of the sun appear in the east on the last night, the rite culminates with an all-night singing of the dawn songs. When the final song is completed, the patient leaves the hogan, faces east, and “breathes in the dawn” four times. The healing ends with a prayer and a song to prevent bad aftereffects from any mistakes during the chant. Following each ceremony, experienced assistants dispose of everything that served its purpose during the sing, just like the sand from the paintings. For four days after the ritual, just as he must during the process, the one-sung-over observes numerous behavioral constraints such a ban on bathing to preserve the body paint, sexual continence, and, because he now possesses the powers of the Holy People and is therefore dangerous, care in everything he does so he doesn’t harm anyone.
Washington Matthews summed up the Navajo healing ceremony: “One idea the hymnist seeks to express is, that the gods, in response to prayer and sacrifice, descend from their lofty homes to cure the patient, and when they do so, assure the patient that his body is holy, i.e., that he is cured.” Or, in the words of another song:
With beauty all around me, I walk.