The singer trickles colored sand through his fingers on the hogan floor.
by Caitlin O'Neil
In Navajo thinking, all good things in life result from respect for the harmony of the universe,
known as hozho. An orderly balance governs the actions and thoughts of all living things.
Like any other ideal state, this can be difficult to maintain. Whether conscious, unconscious,
or the result of a skinwalker (see sidebar), a transgression can result in illness, misfortune,
or even disaster and can be remedied only with a prescribed ceremony to the offended deity.
Unlike Western medicine, Navajo cures are targeted at body, mind, and spirit, calling on the
patient, his kin, singer, and divine people to restore his harmony with the world.
Before a singer, or medicine man (they are seldom women), is called,
a hand trembler, or ndilniihii (often a woman), will diagnose the source of
illness. Through prayer, concentration, and sprinkling of sacred pollen, her
hand will tremble and pinpoint the cause, which then determines the
proper ceremonial cure. Then a medicine man, or haatali, meaning
"singer," who knows the proper ceremony is called and preparations are
set in motion.
There are nearly 100 Navajo chants of varying range and intricacy.
Originating from the Creation Story, they are so nuanced and complex
that a medicine man learns only one or two sings over many years of
apprenticeship. Ceremonies last anywhere from one to nine days and
include chants, songs, prayers, lectures, dances, sweat baths, prayer
sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective,
everything must be done as prescribed in the legends.
Ceremonies demand not only time, but money. The medicine man and
his assistants are paid for their services with food, jewelry, rugs,
blankets, baskets, livestock, or cash. The fee varies with the
reputation of the singer, the length of the ceremony, the number of
assistants, and the ability of the patient and his family to pay. In
addition, food and accommodation are provided for attending friends and
family, who assist in the chant and share in the blessing.
The Navajo name for sand painting translates as "place where gods come and go."
Navajo religious beliefs provide for approximately 500 different
sand paintings, which are not only used only for curing the ill but for
conferring blessings. In fact, at the heart of the Navajo religion is
the Blessing Way ceremony, a kind of wish for good luck that gives
hozho to newborns, new homes, new jobs, or marriages. In contrast, the
Enemy Way chant exorcises the ghosts of aliens, violence, and ugliness
and was once used to protect warriors from the ghosts of slain enemies.
Conducted in either the family hogan or a special ceremonial hogan,
sand paintings begin in the morning. Personal belongings are cleared
out, and the floor is swept. Directed by the singer, assistants create
the proper design by trickling sand of different colors through their
fingers onto a base of sand spread over the hogan floor. Sand paintings
vary in size, from around two feet to as much as 20 feet square. The
size and complexity of the design determine the number of assistants and
amount of time needed to complete it. Work begins in the center and
moves outward in a "sunwise" pattern (east to south to west to north and
back to east). Most sand paintings have a protective border around three
sides, often a rainbow, to prevent evil from infusing the work. The top,
or east, is left open to permit entry of those deities called upon to
participate in the ceremony. In order to prevent evil from entering
before the work is complete, ritual bundles may be positioned to
the east as well.
Sand paintings are more accurately called dry paintings, as ocher,
charcoal, gypsum, cornmeal, powdered flower petals, and corn and other
plant pollens are used. The principal colors -- white, blue, yellow, and
black -- are linked to the four sacred mountains (Arizona's San
Francisco Peaks -- west; Navajo Mountain in Utah -- north; Mt. Blanco in
Colorado -- east; and Mt. Taylor in New Mexico -- south) as well as the
directions. Red is often considered a sacred color and represents
The main symbols that appear in sand paintings are representations
of the human heroes of the Navajo origin legend and the Holy People they
encountered. Thunder, wind, animals, and plants are depicted as human to
reflect the Navajo's kinship with these creatures, a relationship that
must be honored if the ceremony is to restore balance and harmony. A
memory for exact detail is essential; the singer must replicate the
painting without errors. If mistakes occur, they are covered with
background sand and painted over. A sand painter can only express his
individuality in the minor details of the figures.
By mid-afternoon, when the painting is complete, the chanter
studies it for errors. Then he goes outside to dismantle a mound of
feathered prayer sticks and other ritual objects placed east of the
hogan doorway to request the Holy People's presence at this ceremony.
(They are irresistibly attracted to their portraits painted in sand.) He
then lays the sticks upright before their images on the painting. Pollen
and cornmeal are applied to the painted figures to bless them. The
Navajo name for sand painting, iikaah, translates as "place where gods
come and go."
Novices learn from an experienced medicine man during many years of apprenticeship.
The patient enters and stands at the eastern edge, strewing white
cornmeal from east to west, south to north, and around the guardian
rainbow. He then sits at its center and faces the open door of the
hogan. When the Holy People arrive, they actually become their
sand-painted likenesses. The singer then moistens his palms with herb
medicine and touches them to body parts of the Holy People in the sand
painting, the corresponding parts of his body, and then the patient's
body. Next he takes sand from certain sections of the design and rubs it
onto the patient to absorb the causes of the illness. The medicine man
orchestrates the powers of the Holy People and transmits to the patient
the restoring hozho needed for the cure.
When these rites are completed, the sand painting is swept away in
the reverse order of its creation. All the sand is ultimately scraped
into a pile in the center of the floor, gathered into a basket or other
receptacle, taken outside the hogan to the east, and given back to
Mother Earth from whence it came.
Hillerman on Skinwalkers|
In an interview with Mystery!, author Tony Hillerman shared his thoughts on skinwalkers.
What exactly is a skinwalker?
It's tied up with the Navajo concept of good and evil. The Navajos
believe that life is a kind of wind blowing through you. Some people
have a dark wind, and they tend to be evil. How do you tell? People who
have more money than they need and aren't helping their kinfolk --
that's one symptom of it. Along with this tendency toward evil, if
they're initiated into a witchcraft cult, they get a lot of powers.
Depending on the circumstances, they can turn into a dog; they can fly;
they can disappear. There are many versions of a skinwalker, but that's
basically what it is. A lot of Navajos will tell me emphatically,
especially when they don't know me very well, that they don't believe in
all that stuff. And then when you get to be a friend, they'll start
telling you about the first time they ever saw one.
What does the term "skinwalker" mean?
Traditionally, skinwalkers are able to change themselves into dogs, and
traditionally they wear the skin of a dog over their shoulders or the
skull of a dog as a cap. So I guess that's the reason for the term. I've
never had anyone explain it to me. Navajos just don't like to talk about
it much, even when you've known them a long time. It's kind of obscene,
Is it obscene or more taboo?
Well, it's both. It's something you don't talk about in polite company.
There's a feeling that a skinwalker might be listening and might want to
get even with you. You're kind of uneasy about it.
In that case, do the Navajo approve of your writing about this
(laughs) I don't know. I know that it's one of the more popular books
among Navajo young people. Maybe it's a little bit like pornography to
them. But I've had no objections to the book. It's hard to judge,
because Navajos are incredibly polite. They just do not like to offend