Navajo Sandpainting Textiles

The Navajos have a complex series of healing ceremonies, or chants. They are designed to restore harmony to the patient, or as the Navajos say, "hózhó." Some of these Navajo ceremonies last as long as nine days and nights. Ordinarily, on each of these nights, Old Navajo Whirlling Logs rugthe Singer (medicine man) directs the making of a sandpainting that illustrates an allegory used in the ceremony. According to tradition, the sandpainting must be ceremoniously destroy before dawn, or dreadful taboos can be inflicted upon the Singer and/or patient. The problem in making a sandpainting textile or rug, it cannot be destroyed. Therefore, it was believed that dire consequences would come to the weaver of a sandpainting.

Old, ca 1930, Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile

It was not until the 1930's that a Navajo Singer, Hosteen Klah, broke with tradition, and wove a number of sandpainting rugs, with Klah's hope that tradition could be recorded for posterity.

Today, the Navajo sandpainting textiles come from an area near the Shiprock monument in northwestern New Mexico. This is also the Crystal, Burnham and Two Grey Hills area. Many of these weavers weave both their local styles and sandpaintings. At the present time, Canyon Country Originals has three of this genre of textiles in stock—Whirling Logs from the Nightway Chant, the Great Plumed Arrows from the Mountain Way Chant, and Father Sky/Mother Earth from the Shootingway Chant.

The Whirling Logs Narrative

From the Nightway Chant

The Nightway chant is a nine-day chant. It is estimated that the cost to the Navajo for this curing "way" may cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than ten thousand dollars, depending upon the size of the patient's extended family. The whirling log episode is most readily identified with the Nightway chant, where it appears on the sixth night. Contemporary Whirling LogsThe sandpainting of the whirling logs also appears in the Feather or Plumeway and Waterway chants. It is also called the Floating Logs episode.

In the Whirling Logs narrative, or Tsil-ol-ne story, the hero of the story sets out on a long journey [down the San Juan River]. At first, the gods try to persuade him against going, but seeing his determination, help him hollow out a log in which he will travel down the river.

Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile

Along the way, he has many misadventures which ultimately result in his gaining important ceremonial knowledge. In one such instance, he and his craft are captured by the Water People, who carry him down beneath the waters to the home of Water Monster. Black God threatens to set fire to Water Monster's home and the hero is released, but not before being taught by Frog how to cure the illnesses caused by the Water People.

When he finally reaches the big river [the Colorado River] that is his destination, the gods take his log out of a whirlpool where the rivers meet, and help him to shore.

In the sandpainting, you will see the gods, clockwise from the top, they are Talking God (B'ganaskiddy), the teacher; and at the bottom, Calling God (Hastye-o-gahn), associated with farming and fertility. On each side, left and right, are two humpbacked guardians, dressed alike. The humps are usually regarded as back-packs. They are the seed gatherers and bearers. The two guardians usually carry tobacco pouches.

The Gods carry prayer sticks, Talking God, elder of the Gods, carries a medicine pouch in the shape of a weasel.

Where the rivers met, the hero came upon a whirling cross with two Yeis seated on each of the four ends. From them, he learned the knowledge of farming and is given seeds. He then returns to his home to share these gifts with his people. The yei pair are male and female. The male in black, with a round head mask. The female has a square head mask.

In the sandpaintings, these plants are shown, from the right of Talking God as corn, and clockwise as beans, squash, and tobacco. The plants, and/or other elements of the design are shown in the four sacred colors, white, blue, yellow and black, according to their cardinal positions.

On the right side, bottom, and left side of the sandpainting is portrayed the Rainbow Yei, a guardian god. There is sometimes a circle drawn, and painted blue, at the intersection of the cross, said to represent the whirlpool which was the destination of the episode's hero.

Figures in Navajo sandpaintings generally proceed either towards the sunrise or clockwise, depending upon the viewers orientation. For the Navajo, the cardinal directions start in the east (as opposed to our north), and the east is usually shown at the top of a sandpainting, and open (to let in the dawn's light). This is the same orientation of a hogan, whose door is always in the east.

The Mountain Gods, Great Plumed Arrows Narrative

From the Mountain-Top-Way

The Mountain Chant, together with the Night Chant, is one of the Navajo ceremonials best known to the White Man for two reasons. It was the first Navajo chant to be disclosed to the public, through Washington Matthews' elaborate monograph in 1887. Moreover, the Great Plumed Arrow textile spectacular public performances of the last night have attracted much attention at public demonstrations.

Great Plumed Arrows Sequence
Navajo Sandpainting Textile

A nine-night chant, the last night culminates in a Corral Dance, sometimes called a Fire Dance, from its final act, which is like a sacred vaudeville show in which teams representing various chantways present special acts.

Mountain-top-way is used to treat diseases attributed to infection from bear, porcupine, or snake. "Bear sickness" is most commonly mental disturbance, nervousness, or fainting spells, and "porcupine sickness" may be kidney, bladder or stomach trouble. The main theme symbols of the sandpaintings are the Mountain Gods or the hero in their form, the Long Bodies, Changing Bear Maiden (or her home), great plumed arrows, bears and their dens, porcupines, snakes, feathers, Rainbow People.

In later days, the ceremony has been extended to get rid of the ghosts of evil whites, as in the case of returning school children, who are haunted by bad dreams of their custodians.

According to the myth, after his escape from captivity by the Utes, the hero of the Mountain Chant ("the Prophet"), visited the homes of various supernatural beings to accumulate ceremonial knowledge. On one of his stops, the Prophet visited the home of the Mountain Gods at Wide Chokecherry. They give him one of the Great Plumed Arrows and taught him the dance of the great plumed arrows, actually arrow swallowing. In practice, the shaft is made in two parts, half hollow reed and half wood, and in the Corral Dance of the final night, impersonators of the Mountain Gods pretend to swallow the arrows by telescoping the shafts.

In the accompanying sandpainting, the Mountain Gods are depicted as they taught the hero the use of the bow and arrow for hunting and defense. Each of the gods stand near a plumed arrow, there are two male gods and two female gods. Each of the Long Body Gods holds a quiver of four arrows and a bow. They each stand in the protection device of Rainbow God, with the whole surrounded by the Rainbow God, double protection for this great secret. They are dressed in beaded tunics, stolen from the enemy Utes. Each of the Gods represent a different mountain, denoted by a garland above them signifying the four holy mountains and four holy colors. The top (east) is guarded by two Big Black Fly Gods.

As mentioned above, the final night of this ceremony is very popular, since it is sometime called "Navajo Vaudeville Night." Arrow swallowing is one of the "acts."

The Father Sky and Mother Earth Narrative

Father Sky and Mother Earth appear in many of the sand paintings throughout most of the Navajo healing ceremonies of "Ways." These include the Shooting Way, Mountain Way and Blessing Way. Father Sky, Mother Earth Sandpainting rug They are invoked not because of a part in a particular story, but because of their strength and all pervading importance.

Father Sky, Mother Earth
Navajo Sandpainting Textile

In the body of Mother Earth are the four sacred plants—corn, bean, squash and tobacco. In the body of Father Sky are the constellations, including the Milky Way, represented by the intertwined zigzag lines of dots, and the sun and the moon, represented by the circles with "horns."

The Rainbow God encircles three sides of the sandpainting, to protect the gods, Father Sky and Mother Earth. To guard the top, you find the medicine bag and a small rug—the real sandpainting uses a medicine bag and a bat. (Here may be an intentional change from the real sandpainting, a practice often used to avoid the taboo of weaving an actual sandpainting.) Most sandpaintings incorporate the Rainbow God. In the real sandpaintings, the open end faces the east. Various guardians of the east are used by the Navajos, including buffaloes, beavers, otters, bats, snakes, suns and moons, arrows, etc., according to the respective ceremony.

Healing Ceremonies and Sandpaintings of the Navajos

The Navajo world is filled with Holy People or Gods who are represented by nearly everything and anything, animate or inanimate. Examples, Holy People can be colors, winds, rivers, animals, men, women, children, directions, sky, earth, clouds, etc. On the other end of the scale, this spiritual world is also full of devils, evil spirits, and taboos.

When a Navajo is sick or has misfortune, it is because he or she has offended one of these deities. To regain health or fortune, the "patient" must restore his or her balance with nature by praying to the God responsible for that balance. The praying or healing ceremony is conducted by an hatáálii, a Navajo "Singer," or commonly called "medicine man" by Anglos. An integral part of the ceremony is the creation of sand paintings.

By way of illustration, one of the famous Navajo healing ceremonies is the Mountain Chant, or Mountain-Top Way. This chant is used to cure diseases attributed to infections from a bear. "Bear sickness" is most commonly mental disturbances, nervousness, of fainting spells. The patient can get this sickness by killing a bear, eating bear meat, seeing a bear, or even dreaming about a bear. Any one of these "catastrophes" results in creating an imbalance and gives the luckless Navajo the "bear sickness." This sickness can only be cured by the patient submitting to a Sing or curing ceremony, so that harmony or hózhó can be restored.

According to traditional Navajo belief, the universe is affected by that which is "good," or under control, and that which is "evil," or out of control. Between these two extremes lies hózhó, an amalgamation of such concepts as balanced, pleasant, blessed, holy and beautiful.

Hózhó bridges the forces of opposition and creates balance. But this balance is difficult to maintain because the universe and its Holy People, their pantheon of animate and inanimate personifications, are not only alive but easily offended. By contacting the elemental forces of the cosmos through chanting ceremonies, Singers alleviate suffering and ensure that a patient will not be troubled again by the effects of having come into contact with dangerous forces. Hózhó is then reinstated.

Singers perform chantways in two-, five-, and nine-night variations that contain two principal parts. The first task is purification and exorcism of evil. This is achieved through the use of emetics, herbal treatments and sweat baths. After purification, the first task is followed by the attraction of supernatural powers to reinstate balance or hózhó. It is in the second part of chantway ritual, the summoning of the gods, that sandpaintings are made.

According to legends, the Holy People kept paintings of sacred designs on spiders' webs, sheets of sky, clouds, fog, fabric and buckskin. These holy designs were an integral part of the Gods' own religious ceremonies recounting the lessons of life. The Holy People bestowed upon the Dine the right to create transitory illustrations of these paintings.

The Navajo copies of the gods' paintings are used in their own sacred rituals, usually the illustration of an allegory within a healing ceremony. The Dineh copies of the Holy People pictures assume the form of sandpaintings depicting anthropomorphic supernaturals, the four sacred plants (corn, beans, squash and tobacco), clouds, animals and numerous other objects. Usually, sandpaintings are made inside the Navajo home, the hogan, an eight sided, cribbed-log dwelling. The paintings often are laid out on a one- to three-inch-thick bed of fresh sand that has been smoothed with a wooden weaving-batten, though sometimes a buckskin or cloth serves as a surface.

The principal sandpainting colors--white, blue, yellow, and black--convey symbolic meaning and are linked with the Four Sacred Mountains marking the boundaries of Dinetah, the traditional tribal universe:

• White Shell Peak in the east, Mount Blanca, Colorado, is associated with the dawn;
• Blue Turquoise Mountain to the south, Mount Tailor, New Mexico, signals the sky;
• Yellow Abalone Shell Mountain in the west, San Francisco Peak, Arizona, connotes twilight; and
• Darkness belongs to Black Coal Mountain on the northern periphery, Mount Hesperus, Colorado

The Singer usually has assistants who do the actual "painting," under his direction. Small sandpaintings (a couple of feet square) can be made by a two men in an hour or so. Mammoth creations, often twenty feed wide or more, require the labor of fifteen or more men, for most of a day. Average size is around six to eight feet across.

The sandpainting episodes occur in the second or supplication part of the ceremony, typically on day five through nine in a nine-day chant. The Navajo term for sandpainting is íikááh, "place where the gods come and go." It is an appropriate name since the designs are employed to summon supernatural forces.

During part of an elaborate ceremony, a patient troubled by physical or mental ills sits on the finished sandpainting, facing east toward the hogan's darkened doorway. The Holy People who are being summoned will arrive from this direction and infuse the sandpainting with their healing power. In this way, the evil causing the physical or mental hurt is dispelled, and future threats from malevolent forces are blunted.

When the patient moves onto the painting, this physical contact establishes a mutual pathway wherein human and Gods interact. Through this pathway, the evil or illness in the patient is replaced by the good or healing power of the Gods depicted in the sandpainting.

As the patient identifies with the supernaturals by sitting on the painting, the singer, through song, prayers and movements, relates the body of the patient to the body of the Deities: foot to foot, hand to hand, head to head. Through prayers, the patient becomes identified with the spiritual strength of the Holy People. The patient leaves the sandpainting having internalized the wisdom and guidance of the appropriate Gods, who will continue to guide the patient long after the ceremonial's completion.

After the patient is treated, members of the audience may come up to the sandpainting and daub sand on themselves, thus partaking in the curing ceremony and bringing harmony to their own person. It is this open participation that attracts large crowds to every Sing held on the reservation.

When the ritual is concluded, the drypainting is destroyed by the Singer in the reverse order of its creation and literally swept away. Ceremonious destruction of the sandpainting is essential, for the Holy People are at once revered and feared. Failure to properly dispose of the sandpainting can bring dire consequences to the transgressor.

Navajo Sandpaintings Turned Into Textiles

Navajo rituals focus on blessing, purification and curing. When ceremonies are correctly and completely performed, the gods must reciprocate by restoring health and harmony, hózhó. For this reason, the sandpainting must be ritually destroyed to dissipate its sacred power. Thus, the production of a permanent sandpainting is not only ceremonially inappropriate, it is antithetical to the Navajo belief system.

The persons who had most knowledge of the taboos were the experts in sandpainting, the Singers. Yet it was the Singers who eventually broke with the traditions, to a very limited extent, and began to allow transcription of the designs to paper and hides, primarily to have a teaching aid, and a record to pass on to future generations.

Hosteen Klah (tl'ah, meaning left-handed in Navajo; hosteen, man or mister), a respected medicine man, is customarily attributed to be the one most influential in breaking the tradition.

Franc J. Newcomb, a trader's wife and self-taught Navajo ethnographer, recorded over 700 sandpaintings. She, yes, Franc was a woman, came to the reservation in 1913, and taught school at Ft. Defiance for two years. She married Arthur Newcomb, and they established a trading post on the Navajo reservations some 30 miles north and west of Gallup. Barely a wide space on a dirt road, the trading post was called Newcomb, after the owners. Being isolated, Franc Newcomb began to work with the Navajos, learning their language and many of their customs.

In 1915, becoming friends with a local medicine man, Hosteen Klah, he began to allow her to attend Navajo ceremonies. Then, from memory, she began to make drawings of the sandpaintings and to record the ceremonies. Eventually, Klah was persuaded to make corrections in her drawings. Noting that this activity did not bring down the wrath of the Holy People, Klah became interested in recording these ceremonies to future generations.

It required four years for this singer to learn the nine-night Night Chant. In 1919, two years after Klah became a recognized practitioner of this chant, Mrs. Newcomb persuaded him to make a textile of a ceremonial sandpainting. After incantations to the Holy People, Klah set about making the textile, himself. To be as true to tradition as the taboos would permit, Klah made his first of many sandpaintings in their true-to-form size, mostly twelve feed square. The perceived danger was making a permanent record of the illustrations, that could not be destroyed according to prescribed ceremonies.

Accurate sandpaintings contain an tremendous amount of detail, including many curves, which few weavers can technically master. It is obvious that weaving a sandpainting is demanding in the extreme, and therefore not a skill that can be casually or rapidly acquired. Indeed, Mrs. Newcomb revealed that Klah had been weaving textiles for some time before his attempt at the first sandpainting rug, a rendition of the Whirling Logs sandpainting from the Nightway Chant.

It was not long after Klah's first weaving that the trading post was visited by a party of tourists traveling to the four corners. Among this group was Mary Cabot Wheelwright. She became fascinated with the Klah weavings and purchased one, with the promise never to put it on a floor to be walked upon. This led to an eventual friendship between the two, and eventually to the construction of the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe, now called the Wheelwright Museum. It was to house a collection of Klah sandpainting textiles. The seventeen Klah sandpainting textiles at the Wheelwright Museum constitute the largest, most reliably documented collection known, thus providing a secure base for the development of analytical criteria. (The Wheelwright also has a collection of over 500 reproductions of Navajo ceremonial art, housed for students of the subject.)

Mrs. Wheelwright had the museum designed in the shape of a giant hogan, complete with eight sides, the door facing east, and a cribbed log ceiling. Unfortunately, Klah did not live to see the completion of the museum. He died in 1937, shortly before its completion.

Because of the complexities, and the continuing appeals to the Holy People by the weaver, sandpainting textiles are difficult to make, take a long time, and are very expensive. Every weaver of these textiles has had at least one 9-night Nightway Chant said over her, to protect her from the wrath of the Navajo taboos. It is also pretty strongly suggested that no weaver makes an exact replica of the actual sandpainting illustration.


Go to More Rugs

For an expansion of the Navajo weaving tradition, click below:

Click here for more on
"Navajo Weavers, Yesterday and Today."

Recommended reading - Check They stock most of these titles.
American Indian Textiles, 2,000 Artists, by Gregory Schaaf, CIAC Press, $110.00 (hard back);
Navajo Weaving, Three Centuries of Change, by Kate Peck Kent, School of American Research Press, $18.95 (paper);
Treasures of the Navajo, by Theda Bassman and Gene Balzer, Northland Publishing, $12.95 (paper);
A Guide To Navajo Weaving, by Kent McManis and Robert Jeffries, Treasure Chest Books, $9.95 (paper);
Navajo Rugs, How to Find, Evaluate, Buy and Care for Them, by Don Dedera, Northland Publishing, $14.95 (paper);

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