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An American MYSTERY! Special
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The Navajo: Yesterday and TodayHillerman on the SouthwestAbout HillermanResources
Traditional Healing

  Navajo cures are targeted at body, mind and spirit, calling on the patient, his kin, singer, and Holy People to restore his harmony with the world.

See also: Hillerman on Skinwalkers
photograph of sand painting in progress
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.

photograph of sand painting symbols
The Navajo name for sand painting translates as "place where gods come and go."
Sand paintings

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 sunlight.

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."

photograph of Jim Chee and Wilson Sam
Novices learn from an experienced medicine man during many years of apprenticeship.
The Sing

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, you see.

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 subject?

(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 people.

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