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Chapter 78; Navajo Indians sand painting

"See, I fill this sacred pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before we smoke it, you must see how it is made and what it means. These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow. But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One, which is like a father, and also it is for the thoughts of men that should rise high as eagles do." Black Elk (1863-1950) Oglala Sioux holy man

Like many ancient people, Navajo Indians understand the mysterious healing power of graphic design and use it in an elaborate healing ritual. The artist, the medicine man, uses naturally colored grains of sand, and pour them by hand to create "places where the gods come and go" in the Navajo language. The graphic design is used as a visual communication device. The figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations of a story in Navajo mythology, which depict objects like the sacred mountains where the gods live, or legendary visions, or they illustrate dances or chants performed in rituals. According to anthropologist Trudy Griffin-Pierce in her study of Navajo sand painting, the power of Navajo sand painting is in the merging of time and space into a place where the present and the mythic past coexist, Griffin-Pierce writes. The Navajo consider sand paintings to be:
“sacred, living entities” with the power to“compress time and space.” It is through the power of sand painting and the associated rituals that an individual can be transported to a place where the present and the mythic world are one, a place where supernatural assistance and healing can be found (Griffin-Pierce 1992, 98–99).
The Oglala Sioux Holy Man Black Elk said "You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round" (quoted in Moodley & West, 2005, p. 298). Another Sioux elder, Lame Deer, said that the Indian's symbol is the circle, the sacred hoop; the circle is timeless and flowing and teaches the meaning of life, which is that new life emerges from death (Moodley & West, 2005). Thus, the medicine wheel can be seen as a model of aboriginal Native American cosmology. For many Native Americas, the medicine wheel is an ancient symbol that can help people understand how to live a healthy life, and see that they are related to all creation (Johnson, 2006).

Medicine wheels, circular time, and harmony

The term medicine wheel is not an Aboriginal term, but was initially used around the turn of the century by Americans of European ancestry in reference to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel located near Sheridan, Wyoming. Over 70 structures classifiable as medicine wheels have at present been identified. All are found in the northern Plains from Wyoming and South Dakota north to the Canadian Plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Most medicine wheels have secondary features associated with them. These include stone TIPI rings, small ancillary stone cairns, stone hearths and anthropomorphic effigies. In Native American usage, medicine means anything that promotes harmony, and an illness is seen as disharmony within a person or between a person and his or her relations (Cohen, 2003). The Ellis medicine wheel, built by the aboriginal Blackfoot Indians, was radiocarbon dated to about 1400 A. D. (Barnett, 2000). The central ring covered a burial lodge where skeletal remains were found. Many medicine wheels had small stone circles (tipi rings) in the area of the wheel (Barnett, 2000).

The Big Horn Medicine Wheel rests at nearly 10,000 ft in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, only a few miles from the Montana border. Forty years ago, solstice and stellar alignments embodied in the Big Horn Medicine Wheel were discovered by the solar physicist John Eddy, who then used these alignments to date the wheel’s origin. His results were published in the research journal Science in 1974. Recognition of this American “Stonehenge” caused a world-wide stir in the popular media with major newspapers and National Geographic taking notice. In 2012, evidence suggests this ”observatory” continues to track and predict astronomical changes through time.

Because the aboriginal Indians left no written records, little is known about the original purpose or meaning of the medicine wheels. The most common speculation is that they were used to commemorate sacred places, but they probably had multiple uses and meant different things to various peoples over the centuries (Cohen, 2003). Some may have been used for ceremonies such as the Sun Dance. The Bighorn and Moose Mountain medicine wheels had 28 spokes, the number of days in a lunar month, leading to speculation that they may have been used as a calendar or solar observatory. In each wheel, two of the stone cairns are positioned so they line up with sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. Similar alignments can be found in the stone rings at Stonehenge (Barnett, 2000).

The Navajo  Dine

The Navajo, who call themselves Dine ("The People"), are the largest Native American group in North America. Their tales of emergence and migration are similar to other Southwestern tribes such as the Hopi (with whom they have a long running rivalry). Navajo ceremonies such as the Nightway and the Mountain Chant are renowned for their beautiful liturgy. The Navajo are the largest single federally recognized tribe of the United States of America. The Navajo Nation has 300,048 enrolled tribal members. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the Four Corners area of the United States. The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region, although most Navajo speak English as well. The Nation's boundaries about the Ute Nation at the Four Corners Monument landmark and stretch across the Colorado Plateau into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Located within the Navajo Nation are Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Monument Valley, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the Hopi Indian Reservation, and the Shiprock landmark. The seat of government is located at the town of Window Rock, Arizona.

Members of the nation are often known as Navajo, also spelled Navaho. Navajo call themselves DinŽ, a term from the Navajo language that means people. The Navajo are closely related to the Apache, and the Navajo language along with other Apache languages make up the Southern Athabaskan language family. Congress established a Hopi reservation within the Navajo Nation's reservation at an historic homeland where Hopi history predates that of Dine in the area.  As Leland  Wyman writes :
There is no word or phrase in the Navajo language that can be translated as 'religion' in the sense of that term in European languages. However, this word is the most convenient label for Navajo beliefs concerning the dynamics of the universe and their techniques for con- trolling them when rational means fail, and for their belief in what may be called the "supernatural," although Navajos do not place such matters in a separate category of experience. It is a tribute to what has been called the Navajos' "genius for adaptability" that they have been able to preserve practically intact their traditional cultural inventory of these beliefs and practices in the face of long and vigorous pressure from European culture and the enormous number of acculturative changes in the last few decades. - Navajo Ceremonial System

The ‘whirling log’

Navajo myths and legends

Exile frequently plays an important role in Navajo myths.  A desire for meaning is concerned with the inner rhythm and outer dynamics of exile. The processes of self-discovery  and renewal is explored through dramatic tension between absence and presence and the experiential conflict between the longing for return  and the ceaseless quest for journey toward the unknown that become  a harbinger of  renewal and new ideas. These confrontational and haunting explorations also seem to take the hero on a journey away from the solitude of mundane inner life, a journey accompanied by incantatory songs of prayer,  conducted by trained specialists called hataafii 'singers' .  A singer specializes in one or two or at most a half-dozen complete chants, because each one is a vast complex requiring accurate knowledge of hundreds of songs, long prayers, plant medicines, material properties, symbolic dry paintings, and ritual acts.

The legend of the ‘whirling log’ is one of such "exile" stories. ‘The whirling log’ which in the Navajo language is literally called “that which revolves,” tells the story of a man who's outcast from his tribe. The desperate man crawls into a hollow log, hoping to flow down river to a distant land to live peacefully and with security. The four deities interrupted his plan and sealed him into the log. They created a wind with enough force to launch him into the river. After four days he drifts into a whirlpool, (thus the whirling log) and finally he is rescued out of the river by emissaries of the four deities. He is reunited with his pet turkey that is carrying a bean and three grains of corn. These are planted and in four days’ time abundant crops have matured; in four more days’ time they are harvested. Finally the man is instructed how to prepare sand paintings celebrating these miracles when he returns to his people.


 In another banishment story    Sweet Medicine, the Cheyenne hero, after being banished from his village, traveled to a sacred mountain. There he received instruction from a group of spirits who taught him about the Four Sacred Arrows and numerous other rules and ceremonies. He spent four years there learning all of these things, and then the Old Ones sent him home with the sacred arrow bundle. He was welcomed back at his village and the people gladly accepted the new teachings. Sweet Medicine continued to live a very long life, but when the time drew near for him to die, the people carried him to the sacred mountain. They built a shelter for him at the base of the mountain and then withdrew a few miles away. The Cheyenne continued to observe all that Sweet Medicine had taught them and to this day consider Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to be a sacred mountain (Stands In Timber 1998, 27–41).

A Miwok myth tells of a time long ago in which animals were like people. In this narrative, Falcon and Coyote decided to make humans, and Coyote pretended to be dead. Soon buzzards and crows came and began pecking away at Coyote’s buttock. The birds kept pecking deeper into his buttock until Coyote suddenly closed the opening and trapped the scavengers inside. With Falcon’s help, the birds were extracted and their feathers plucked. Then Coyote and Falcon planted the feathers in the four directions. Soon the crow feathers turned into people and the buzzard feathers transformed into chiefs. Coyote then pointed out to Falcon that the new people looked just like them, so they would have to become animals. Then all of the First People became the animals and birds that we have today. (Erdoes 1998, 12).

The Legend of the Gambler,

Among the Navajo legends the story of The Gambler is the most interesting. In this story the sages of Navajo using their elaborate power of symbolism warn their decedents of the exploiting man who arrives and engages them in various games of gambling to win all their belongings and finally enslave them all . The story ends with a savior boy who knows all his numbers – a symbol of knowledge, and using this power he emancipates his people. The story begins with the divine gambler or gambling-god named Noqoìlpi, "He-Who-Wins-You-Over" taking the form of a handsome man who descends from the heavens to seduce women and men with his physical beauty and gifts of precious turquoise. Aided by dark spirits in the form of an owl and coyote, Noqoìlpi first wins the men's property, then their women and children, and finally some of the men themselves. Thus the Gambler, who's called "Hasoqata" in Hopi is said to be wicked, merciless, magical who especially targets women. He is sometimes described as a half-man, half-goat.

When Noqoìlpi appeared, he challenged the people to all sorts of games and contests, and in all of these he was successful. He won from them, first their property, then their women and children, and finally some of the men themselves. Then he told them he would give them part of their property back in payment if they would build a great house. Anxious to get back what they had lost, the men labor for many years building a series of roads and palaces for Noqoìlpi. Other people who have heard of the Noqoìlpi's fabulous wealth and power arrive in Chaco Canyon seeking riches. One by one, they and their families fall victim to the Gambler's way with numbers. Then some of the people start to disappear. A cry went up from the enslaved peoples to the Holy Ones of the heavens for relief. The Holy Ones heard their cries and sent a deliverer in the form of a young boy named He-Who-Is-Good-With-Numbers. The boy challenges Noqoìlpi to a series of games and contests. He-Who-Is-Good-With-Numbers wins back all of Noqoìlpi's slaves and their goods. The young victor then frees the people and all of their property is returned to them.

Noqoìlpi became enraged, threatening the boy and his former slaves with curses, but the wind blows back Noqoìlpi's bitter words. The boy then produces a Bow of Darkness which he bends upwards. He places the string on the ground, and has Noqoìlpi's former slaves stand on the string. Then the boy shoots Noqoìlpi up into the sky as if he had been an arrow. Up and up Noqoìlpi went, growing smaller and smaller to the sight till he faded to a mere speck, and finally disappeared altogether. As Noqoìlpi flew upwards into the void, he was heard to mutter in angry tones that someday he would find a way to return and have his revenge on the people.


 Once the designer is finished with his design of a story  he looks over his work, making sure that it is in perfect order, because the order of the art represents new harmony in the ill person’s life and body. The painting also acts as a portal for healing spirits.

According to Deanne Durrett, in his book American Indian Lives: Healers:
Navajo medicine men perform chants (a combination of prayers, myths, and poetry rendered in song) to cure patients by bringing them back in balance and harmony with the forces of the universe. Each Navajo medicine man, or singer, knows at least 35 chants. One chant may contain as many as 500 songs. Along with the words to these songs, each medicine man also knows several designs for sand paintings to be used with the chant. Each chant is designed for a specific illness….Before the ceremony begins, the medicine man and his helpers work for hours to create a sand painting….The patient sits or lays on the sand painting during the curing ceremony. Power is thought to be absorbed from the sacred objects depicted in the sand painting. During the chant, the patient relives events in the life of an ancient hero who was cured by the Holy People. Each sand painting must be destroyed before sunset and another painted the next day if needed. Many of the curing chants originate in the Blessingway ceremony, the backbone of the Navajo religion. This ceremony is used frequently (like preventive medicine) to keep harmony and balance in the lives of those who are sung over."

A sand painting by Alvina Begay (Navajo)

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