With Winter Moon’s passage and the approach of the winter solstice just a little less than a week away I am much aware of the (potential healing) dwelling place that I inhabit that also characterizes these dark months of the year.
Unfortunately, even those who acknowledge our seasonal turnings rarely honor the dark as sacred. At the winter solstice the emphasis is still on light.
This attitude reveals to me an inability to be present to dark, in both its generative and non-generative aspects. The original inhabitants of this country honored the dark months of the year very differently than westerners do. Their most important ceremonies occurred during the winter months. Both aspects of the dark were acknowledged and explicated through ceremony. What follows is a history of one of the Navajo healing ceremonies that occur only during the winter months of the year.
The Navajo Night Chant is part of Native American religious tradition. The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B. C. E., continued until approximately 4,000 B. C. E. This perspective, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the Indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.
The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century. The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.
The nine-night ceremony known as the Night Chant is believed to date from around 1000 B. C. E., when it was first performed by the Indians who lived in Canyon de Chelly (now eastern Arizona). It is considered to be the most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies and one of the most difficult and demanding to learn, involving the memorization of hundreds of songs, dozens of prayers, and several very complicated sand paintings. And yet the demand for Night Chants is so great that as many as fifty such ceremonies might be held during a single winter season, which lasts eighteen to twenty weeks.
The Navajo call themselves Diné, meaning” the people.” Their deities are known as the Holy People, and include Changing Woman, Talking God, the Sun, Earth, Moon, and Sky.
The Night Chant is designed both to cure people who are ill and to restore the order and balance of human and non -human relationships within the Navajo universe as part of one process. It’s worth repeating: The two are not separated.
Led by a trained medicine man who has served a long apprenticeship and learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant, the ceremony itself is capable of scaring off sickness and ugliness (cruelty etc) through the use of techniques that shock or arouse. Once disorder has been removed, order and balance are restored through song, prayer, sand painting, and other aspects of the ceremony. It’s important to note that this is a two – step process.
On the day of the chant, crowds gather expectantly outside the lodge where rehearsals have been taking place. The outdoor area in which the ceremony will be held is cleared of spectators, and many fires are lit to take the chill out of the night air. The dancers, who represent the gods, are led in by the medicine man and the maternal grandfather of the gods, along a path of meal that has been laid down for them to follow. The patient emerges from the lodge, sprinkles the gods with meal from his or her basket, and gives each one tobacco. The medicine man intones a long prayer for the patient, repeating each phrase four times. At no time is the patient’s illness separated from the disharmony that occurs around him in Nature. Afterwards the four gods dance, moving rhythmically back and forth, hooting at the end to denote the gods’ approval.
The original Night Chant involved four groups who danced twelve times each with half-hour intervals in between-a total of ten hours. The dance movements involve two lines facing each other. Each of the six male dancers takes his female partner, dances with her to the end of the line, drops her there, and moves back to his own side. The chant itself is performed without variation and has a hypnotic effect on the listeners.
The medicine men who supervise the Night Chant insist that everything-each dot and line in every sand painting, each verse in every song, each feather on each mask-be arranged in exactly the same way each time the curing ceremony is performed or it will not bring about the desired result. There are probably as many active Night Chant medicine men today as at any time in Navajo history, due to the general increase in the Navajo population, the popularity of the ceremony, and the central role it plays in Navajo life and health.
The use of masks, sacred bundles, and sand paintings are all used during this healing ritual. Masks are vital to the application of many “medicines”. They also play a vital role in the initiation of the young. The masks of the female goddesses are actually worn by men, since women are not allowed to minister to the person for whom the chant is being sung.
The sacred bundle is made up of the medicine man’s ritual objects; special feathers, stones, bones, a blade made of flint and pollen to help him effect a cure.
The purpose of the sand paintings is to allow the recipient to absorb the powers depicted in the painting, often by sitting or sleeping on it. It is considered wrong-if not downright dangerous-to reproduce these sand paintings in any way, since they might attract the attention of the gods to a situation where no real healing is intended.
That these healing “work” within the Navajo Universe which includes all of Nature makes sense to me because there is a wholeness to the healing process.
Here are two brief excerpts of the Night Chant that I particularly like.
The first addresses the need to restore balance and harmony to a soul, spirit, body that has been diseased or left alone to deal with bad feelings that others have projected (arrows of harm) because they cannot own their own feelings, or because of a collective need to blame, two aspects of the same problem. What I like best is that there is an acknowledgement that there are natural forces, gods, and people who can create this psychic/physical darkness but that acknowledging these forces can shift the person into a more balanced state. One of Peace.
(There is also an element of absolute trust that this is so…)
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
This very day remove your spell from me.
Your spell you have removed from me.
You have taken it away for me.
Far away it has gone.
The second excerpt addresses the healing that occurs for the individual in the context of the whole of Nature. The relationship between humans and the natural world is restored.
“Peacefully may I walk.
Peacefully, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Peacefully with abundant showers, may I walk.
Peacefully, with abundant plants, may I walk…
As it was long ago, may I walk.
In Beauty may I walk
In Beauty it is finished.”
I find that writing about this ritual has a healing effect on me. It’s as if the writing brings the ritual to life in some non – ordinary way – and so it may be.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.