Friday, November 5, 2010

Navajo Sand Painting

The Navajo people are members of the largest Native American tribe in North America. Located in the Four Corners area of the United States (see maps above), their reservation spans over 18-million acres and is known as Dinétah (Navajoland). We also know this area as Monument Valley (see below) because of the incredible rock formations which evolved over millions of years.

According to their legend, the Holy People (Snake People, Spider Woman, Corn People, First Man, First Woman, and many others) lived in worlds below this one and "were guided by First Man in ascending to the world in which we Earth Surface People now live." 1

The Holy People (gods) instructed the Diné (Navajo) in the ceremonies and uses for certain chants, along with the creation of intricate paintings made of various materials. Known as Sandpaintings, these renderings are temporary. Created on a smoothed bed of sand, the Navajo use crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Brown can be made by mixing red and black; red and white make pink. In addition, the sandpainters use pollen, cornmeal, and crushed flower petals to achieve a great variety of colors, according to the instructions of the gods.

The Navajo art of Sandpainting began as a spiritual healing system rather than art for art's sake. Traditional Diné healing incorporates ritualism, prayer, ceremonies, and herbology to increase wellness and promote harmony with the universe. Sandpaintings are part of religious chants in which "Earth People and Holy People come into harmony, giving healing and protection." 2

Many Sandpaintings include yéi figures, which are Navajo spiritual beings. The healing ceremonies involve medicine men chanting particular songs and simultaneously creating a Sandpainting on the ground. The medicine man asks for the yéis to come into the painting and help to heal the patient by restoring balance and harmony.

Once a healing ceremony is complete, the Sandpainting is destroyed. The Sandpaintings one sees in shops and on the Internet are commercially produced and contain important errors. As the real Sandpaintings are considered sacred, should one come into possession of a correctly completed Sandpainting, the Navajos fear that evil would befall the person in possession of what "amounted to a never-ending cry beseeching the Holy People's appearance." 1 Top


Learning to become a medicine man is a painstaking process which takes many years and has been compared to the intensity of one's earning a degree in a modern university. "So much is required in the way of detailed knowledge, special equipment, and the exact memorization of songs, prayers, and paintings, that a single medicina man can usually learn only a few major chants in his lifetime (three or four would be outstanding). The most common chant in general use is Blessing Way because it is short and inexpensive, and can be given any time for many reasons." 3

The ritual of healing is ordinarily done in a specific sequence which is called a "chant". These chants can last anywhere from five to nine days, but never less than three. Each chantway is connected to an origin myth and is never learned in its totality by the apprectice from one person. Rather, the apprentice must find the missing pieces to the puzzle from other Singers (medicine man). Each Sandpainting must be created within a 10-hour period: sun-up to sun-down and vice versa, and each completes a different part of the sequence. The Singer chants long prayers, which are a litany consisting of a series of invocations. "When the chants have been sung beautifully, and the Sandpainting done masterfully, the spirits are 'compelled' to attend this ceremony held in their honor." 4

"The medicine man must first go through a three-day period of purification, fasting, sweating, vomiting, sexual restraint, bathing, and a lone vigil, for he knows that these disciplines bring him in touch with a magnetic and static force that concentrates in solitude. This is the dynamic force that will use him to heal, to bless the patient, to instruct, restore and make whole again. It is an exacting knowledge that he must use, and one that is not acquired quickly." 4

During his three-day purification period, the medicine man is also making other preparations for the chant. He must collect materials for the Sandpaintings, such as the colored stones, flowers, pollen, ground cornmeal, roots and barks. Top


The length of time involved in any specific chant depends on the illness the patient is experiencing and what the family can afford. Just like Western medicine, the medicine man's services are not cheap. "Fee setting is discussed ahead of time with the patient, his relatives and is usally a hard-headed, realistic process." 3

A medicine man may charge cash or may accept beads or livestock for his services. The chants are a community affair and being a gracious host is expected of the patient's family. Therefore, it is expected that the patient's family will pitch in with food and help in the kitchen. "A nine-night chant with many visitors may cost as much as $500 to $1,000." 3

Once a chant has begun, the Sandpainting is just one aspect ritual of the healing process. The process and the drawings themselves do not vary, except in minor, inconsequential areas. To change the design would be to prevent the Holy People from being invited, or it might invoke their anger. This is because Sandpainting is a "sacred prescription akin to a chemical formula. The gods cannot be summoned by other than the means they themselves established for accompanying that holy mission." 1

The patient troubled by physical or mental ills is brought to sit on the Sandpainting, facing east. This is the direction from which the "Holy People will arrive to infuse the Sandpainting with their healing power" 1 After the patient is "sung" to, the Sandpainting is physically transferred onto his body. The chanter dips his fingers into a liquid and then onto the Sandpainting. "The sand which adheres is carried over to that part of the patient's body, which symbolically corresponds or harmonizes with the spirit in the Sandpainting." 4

Once the ceremony has ended, the Sandpainting is destroyed. Sometimes those present may take a small amount in a pouch to hang around their necks. But most of the sand is gathered up by the medicine man to proper disposal. "He walks first to the east, then south, then west, then north, and, finally, with a symbolic gesture, up to Father Sky and down to Mother Earth, he scatters his precious sands to the 'six directions' from whence they came, or buries them, as the occasion demands, where no one will desecrate the alter, or the power of the visual prayer." 4 Top


The chanting and Sandpainting rituals have a miraculous effect on the patient. He knows that the "healing power of the 'sing' is good for a sick mind and a sad heart." 4 These rituals may or may not cure his bodily ills, but he believes deeply in the Holy People who have been summoned to help him resolve his conflicts and regain harmony within himself and the world around him.

Found Here:

Sand paintings, as created by Navajo Indians, were not made to be an "art object," but rather were made as part of an elaborate healing ritual or ceremony. The artist, or in the Navajo context, the medicine man, would use naturally colored grains of sand, and pour them by hand to create these elaborate "paintings."

Once completed, the person that needed healing was asked to sit on top of the sand painting, which was supposed to act as a portal so that the healing spirits could come through the painting and heal the patient. Once the healing ceremony was over, then the painting was believed to have removed the illness from the patient, and therefore had the illness contained within it, so at that point the painting was destroyed.

Here's a look at some more Navajo sand paintings. The figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations meant to tell a story in Navajo mythology. They might represent objects like the sacred mountains where the gods live, or legendary visions, or they illustrate dances or chants performed in rituals.

Found Here:

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