Navajo Night Chant – Part 2 by Sara Wright

Picture of Sara Wright standing outside in natureRead Part 1 here:

The original Night Chant involved four teams 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 only relief is provided by the rainmaker-clown named Tonenili, who sprinkles water around and engages in other playful antics.

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.

There are typically twenty-four Nightway masks, although the ceremony can be performed with fewer. These masks are worn by the God Impersonators who perform the ritual dances. Some of these impersonators-Calling God, Gray God, Whistling God, Whipping God, and Humped back God among them-wear the masks of ordinary male gods with special ornaments attached at the time of the ceremony. Other masks include the yellow and blue Fringed Mouth of the Water mask, the Black and Red God masks, the Monster Slayer mask, the Talking God mask, and the Born for Water mask.

In addition to being worn by the God Impersonators who dance on the dramatic final night of the nine-day ceremony, the 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 masks used in the Nightway ceremony are made of sacred buckskin, which must be obtained without shedding the animal’s blood. Buckskin is a symbol of life to the Navajo people.

The medicine man’s sacred bundle is made up of ceremonial items such as bags of pollen, feathers, stones, skins, pieces of mountain sheep horn, and a flint blade believed to belong to the god known as the Monster Slayer. The sacred bundle also includes gourd rattles and the sacred buckskin masks worn by the God Impersonators.

As in the Mountain Chant, sand paintings play an important role in the healing rituals of the Night Chant. Twelve different sand paintings are considered appropriate for the Nightway, of which a maximum of six are usually chosen: four large and two small. When healing personal illness the patient and his or her family normally have a say in which sand paintings are used. Each one is associated with a particular story and is accompanied by specific songs, prayers, and ceremonial procedures.

It is rarely the medicine man himself who makes the sand paintings, although he is responsible for overseeing their preparation. Usually his assistants do the actual painting, dribbling small amounts of colored sand through their fingers onto a smooth sand surface. The resulting works of art must be perfect; in other words, there can be no deviations from the design set down by the gods.

Every detail in each sand painting has a special meaning. Standard Nightway sand painting designs include First Dancers, Whirling Logs, Water Sprinklers, Fringed Mouth Gods, Black Gods, and Corn People.

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 healings “work” within the Navajo Universe which includes all of Nature makes sense to me because one is not separated from the other.

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 gods and people who can create this psychic/physical darkness but that acknowledging this powerful personal/ mystical/mythological reality can shift both the personal and the resulting discord experienced by Nature into 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.

This second excerpt addresses the healing that occurs for the individual in the context of the whole of Nature,

“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.

Peacefully with abundant trees, may I walk.

Peacefully with abundant birds may I walk.

Peacefully with abundant animals may I walk.
Happily, on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.

As it was long ago, may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.

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 Maine.



Categories: Indigenous Spirituality, Ritual, Sacred Space

Tags: , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Have you participated in this ceremony? How did you get permission to reproduce it for FAR? Did you need permission? Is it always led by a medicine man? Ever led by a medicine woman?

    This ceremony is very interesting. I especially like the lines that begin with “Peacefully.” I hope the vibes (so to speak) of this Night Chant spread across the land and into all our cities to bring peace to the U.S. (at least), which is very troubled in these days. Thanks for sharing with us. Bright blessings, day and night!

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    • The author notes that Navajo men are currently using their roles as medicine men to enhance Navajo patriarchy, but it does not address the question of why only men are able to be medicine men.

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      • Carol, thank you so much…I suspected that like the Pueblo people that patriarchy had made its way into Navajo culture but I couldn’t find direct evidence of it…You have delivered a perspective I feared… in the old stories men and women held equal power…and it has been eroded. When I was in the Amazon in the early nineties I worked with BOTH male and female Indigenous healers – The only difference I could see between the two was that the men traveled sometimes for days to other communities to heal while the women healers worked only within local communities. I was also aware of how catholicism was moviing into the jungle. The Spanish were definitely patriarchal – grimly so – and I wondered how long it would be before these attitudes polluted the ways of the Original People. How is it that even Indigenous communities can’t hold out against patriarchy? That’s my question today.

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  2. I researched in depth using ONLY Native sources Barbara as well as talking to Navajo people while in New Mexico. I have never participated in this ceremony – only Navajo’s can. It is too sacred.

    However, without appropriating the material – which would be offensive I have used parts of some of the prayers giving credit to the People… and adding my own intentions etc.

    Something happens when I read the prayers I included – so something works here.

    What’s important is to be mindful that these healing ceremonies cannot be reproduced – I saw that in the many translations I came across.

    I hoped to find evidence that women led some of these Navajo ceremonies but could find no references – we can’t blame colonialism here – maybe? I am not convinced – something in me believes that patriarchy got in here somewhere but maybe that’s my wishful thinking.

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    • It was 20 or 30 years ago when a man of the Sioux Nation that everybody referred to as a chief held “Sioux-Christian” services or ceremonies every Sunday in a public building in Garden Grove (in Orange Co., where I lived at the time). I had a good friend (a woman whose ancestors were from Latin America) who attended the chief’s services every Sunday. She invited me a few times, I went with her, enjoyed the services (which seemed to be more Christian than Sioux–but what did I know??), was introduced to the chief. One Sunday he had a buffalo skull on his altar. I stared at it, studied it, and after the service asked if I might touch it. “NO!” he thundered, “WOMEN MAY NOT TOUCH SACRED OBJECTS.” Yes, he spoke that loud. Everybody in the room was staring at him, then at me. So I backed up, said thank you, and left with my friend. I never went back.

      On the other hand, I have a dear friend named Valerie who lives in the desert (north of Palm Springs) and regularly conducts Native ceremonies, including vision quests and moon dances. She has the full permission of the local Native leaders and has even traveled to other countries (including somewhere in Africa) to lead her ceremonies. She is highly honored,

      So maybe it depends a bit more on the individual leader than on tradition? I have no idea.

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  3. So beautiful. Thank you, Sara.
    I was once blessed to attend a winter solstice ceremony that a Native American woman who lived on Shasta Mountain performed each year. Although our group was only about 70-80 people, some had come from all corners of the world, just for this ceremony.
    Our guide called the 4 directions, which I was accustomed to.
    Then she called the 5th and the 6th, above and below, which I also knew.
    Then she called the 7th direction: Inside each of us. I was not acquainted with that direction, and it touched me deeply. It still does.
    The “Peacefully” lines of this poem remind me so much of that winter solstice. It is such a gentle reminder that we are not the rulers of this graceful world; we walk with it.
    May we all walk in peace.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Winter solstice, and the other seven spokes of the wheel all have ceremonies that are open to non tribal members and I attended quite a few while in New Mexico… the seven directions are a nice addition. I personally do not use them – I am glad that you had such a meaningful experience.

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  4. Just before I read your last paragraph where you note that writing about the ritual has a healing effect on you, I noticed that reading about it does too. Thank you for sharing the chants especially.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. yes …there is something…I’m glad you felt it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is beautiful, and I think use of prayer and energy in healing is often wonderful and effective. Thank you for sharing it. I personally don’t include any symbols of angry divinity (deities, spirits, ancestors, etc) in my own theology, but I have seen many other people and cultures who do in various religions. I always find it intriguing. Thanks for the lovely post.

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  7. I think it may be wise to acknowledge these dark figures honestly, work with our shadowy sides and go parallel with the others…ignoring these dangers sets us up for the kind of unspeakable violence we are witnessing today, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found you this morning through a J.L.Hudson ethnobotanical seed catalog entry on Cleome. Thank you. I have found another key.

    Liked by 1 person

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