franciscan - September 1999
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999
In beauty we walk: The spirituality of the Navajo Indians
by Sister Pamela Clare CSF
The cool, desert night-air is permeated with the sweet smell of a juniper and pinyon pine bonfire blazing high in the darkness. The rhythmic sound of dance-rattles can be heard. Soon a line of masked dancers appears, following a trail of sacred corn pollen.
The high desert plateaux and deep, red-walled canyons bounded by the holy mountains in northern Arizona and New Mexico form the sacred homeland of the Navajo Indians. Native American languages do not have a word for ‘religion’ because their religion, their spirituality, is inseparable from, and completely integrated into, their life. The Indians speak of the Navajo Way, or the path marked with sacred corn (maize) pollen.
The focus of Navajo ritual is on health and well-being. The Navajo were originally hunters and gatherers before they learned to farm and later to herd sheep. A sick hunter is likely to be a dead hunter. So health was understandably important. The Navajo today use modern Western medicine for healing wounds and illness, but turn to traditional Navajo religion for the cure. For the Navajo, having a broken leg set or receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer is merely treating the symptoms. The cure must involve more fundamental questions.
At the heart of the Navajo Way is the concept of harmony, the need to be in right relationship. This concept is often translated as ‘Beauty’ in English. The proper state of the universe is harmony, balance, and equilibrium. Opposites are always present: bad/good, male/female, Mother Earth/Father Sky. These opposites complement each other and are needed for equilibrium. When everything is in harmony, there is good. When things get out of kilter, there is evil. So when illness or bad luck strike, there is some underlying disharmony which must be put to right.
Navajo curing rituals are called Sings. Sings are learned by Singers and passed on through a long apprenticeship. A Sing may have hundreds of songs, as well as many other things which must be learned perfectly. Each Sing is based on a myth which tells how one of the Yei (divine heroes) became sick or out of harmony in some way and then went through an experience of death and rebirth, which brought about the restoration of health and well-being. The Yeis eventually taught people the proper rituals and these have been handed down since the beginning times.
Sings are performed for specific persons who have been diagnosed with a spiritual malaise, but all participants in the Sing feel its good effects. There is no special building set aside for ritual. Religion is not separated out from daily life. Sings take place inside the house. The house itself is sacred, a microcosm of the cosmos and, therefore, holy. The roof is like Father Sky, the walls are like the sacred mountains, and the floor is ever in touch with Mother Earth.
Typically, Sings last nine days. The first four days are devoted to purification through sweat baths and fasting. On the fifth day, an altar is made inside the house. The Singer makes different sandpaintings on each of the last four days. Sandpaintings are complicated depictions of the mythological story which forms the basis of the Sing. They are made on the earthen floor of the house using powdered vegetable and mineral pigments and measure eight to ten feet on a side. The paintings are always open towards the east so that the Yeis can enter. The patient sits on the completed painting and the Singer blesses the person with sacred corn pollen and rubs material from the sacred figures in the sandpainting on parts of the patient’s body in a ritual of identification. The sand absorbs evil influence and, at the end of the ritual, the sandpainting is rubbed out and the remains buried ceremonially. By repetition in song, prayer, painting, and myth, the identification of the patient is made with the mythical hero. This puts the patient into a psychologically-receptive mood. Central to the power of the Sing to provide a cure is in this identification of the Yeis with the patient.
Each night is devoted to singing and the last night is a vigil when dancers masked and costumed as Yeis come
to dance. The men and women who dance are not masquerading as Yeis. They consider that when they put on the sacred
masks, they lose their own identity and become the Yei spirits. The Sing ends with the patient renewed in spiritual
health, all the visitors well-fed and basking in the general well-being produced by the ritual, and the harmony
of the cosmos once more restored. §
Sister Pamela Clare lives in San Francisco and is the Minister Provincial of CSF in the American Province.
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