Jish


Much has been written about the sacred, powerful, living qualities of the Navajo jish, or medicine bundle. As defined in the "Medicine Men's Association Letter to Museums, March 1, 1979," the "jish is a sacred living phenomena, a source as well as a repository of sacred power" (in Frisbie [1987:421]). The extent to which jish is considered to be a living entity is illustrated by the following passage: "That jish is like a person . . . . it should be exercised so it doesn't lose its life. Without use, its power declines; that bundle becomes lonely. To lock up a jish for a long period of time would be like if I locked you up in a closet for thirty days and didn't let you come out. You would be weakened from the experience and would need to renewed and strengthened." Pg. 55

Harry Walters, director of the Ned Hatathli Museum at Navajo Community College, Tsaile, related an analogous situation to explain how important completeness is in a ceremonial context, such as the creation of a sandpainting. If a chanter went to a ceremonial with an incomplete jish, or medicine bundle, which included only those items he needed for the particular branch of the ceremonial that he was about to perform, he should still return to get the missing items. All the components of a jish are necessary even the items that are not directly used in the context of the particular branch of the ceremonial being performed because without the missing items, a jish is incomplete and ineffective. Thus, the chanter who attempts to heal a patient with an incomplete jish is only "cheating the patient and kidding himself about his ability to heal the patient." This example illustrates not only how vital completeness and order are in a ceremonial context, but also how the parts function to make the system whole and thus ceremonially effective. Pg. 189

Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting; 1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.

The jish, or pouch, of the chants contains all the requisites for a given chant. With the exception of the hozhoji rite, each chant requires a specific jish, containing the necessary paraphernalia for conducting the chant according to traditional ritual. The term is then applied to the complete paraphernalia which is always carried in a pouch (jish). This is an oblong sack made of sacred buckskin, with thongs made of the same material to secure it. The contents of the pouch consist of feathers, rattles, stones, pollens, animal tissues, native herbs, ochres and clays, and additional paraphernalia for specific chants, some of which are difficult to acquire. The lightning chant, for instance, requires two cane reeds with tassels, one taken from Taos, the other from the west (Oraibi). Others require arrow-points which have been disinterred by a badger or gopher. Some call for the generative organs of the buffalo, the scrotum, etc.; others for arrow-points upon which a bear has urinated, or at least trodden. A collection of this kind is therefore made only after years of patient labor and research, and is in consequence scrupulously safeguarded. When the shaman has disposed of his pouch before death its contents are sold by their heirs, either in part or whole, as the profit may warrant. Pgs. 382-383

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

In order to perform traditional curative or preventive religious ceremonials, Navajo ceremonialists make use of a certain amount of equipment which may include herbs, rattles, fetishes, small pottery bowls, whistles, shells, feathers, bullroarers, unraveling cords, arrowheads, miniature bows and arrows, reeds, small pieces of buckskin, small individual pouches of sacred pollen and medicines, and paint pigments. The paraphernalia, which are obtained over a long period of time, often through the expenditure of much energy and expense, vary in number and type according to the associated ceremonial, history and age of the collection, status of the singer, and other factors. While some of the pieces of equipment may be acquired through trade, purchase, gift, inheritance, or personal quest, many are constructed in ceremonial contexts. Regardless of source, after acquisition each item is often individually blessed with the appropriate ceremony. The paraphernalia, which are sometimes individually wrapped in buckskin and kept in small bags, pouches, or other containers, are usually all kept in oblong, bag-like containers made from hide or other materials appropriate to the ceremonial with which they are associated. In Navajo, this assemblage of sacred equipment constitutes the jish. But, thanks to synecdoche and other linguistic features to be discussed shortly, the term jish also refers to the bag-like containers in which the equipment is kept. The part stands for the whole. For the Navajos, therefore, the term jish refers to the medicine bundle as well as to all of its contents.
Considering its traditional Navajo context, the jish could perhaps best be described as a ceremonial tool kit comparable to the "little black bag" stereotypically associated with practitioners of western medicine, especially those who deliver health care in the patient's home or at locations distinct from their offices or bases of operation. To complete the linguistic analogy, the term jish would apply both to the little black bag as a container and to the thermometers, stethoscope, tongue depressors, and other pieces of equipment contained therein. The analogy can be pushed no further, however, because major differences exist. Foremost among these is the fact that a Navajo jish is sacred and those who use it operate in a ceremonial world where medical and religious beliefs are bound together in a way that non-Navajos sometimes find incomprehensible. As a sacred item, the jish is surrounded by all kinds of rules that demarcate its status and provide for its protection and proper use. These rules are known to jish owners and often to their families as well; to break them is to bring misfortune upon self and others.
Another major difference between a Navajo jish and a western doctor's little black bag is that a jish is considered to be alive. As a living entity with feelings and needs, a jish is both a source and a repository of sacred power. Thus it must be approached, handled, and used in ways that are acceptable to it or misfortune will result. Pgs. 8-9

Another major power characteristic of medicine bundles in Navajo mythology is that of creation. At times, a bundle is the source of particular items, as in the Eagle Catching Myth wherein Monster Slayer produces clothing by playing a flute over a bundle which was brought to his Mount Taylor home by the sisters White Shell Woman and Turquoise Woman (Wheelwright 1962:2). Such examples pale, however, when compared with the creative powers of First Man's medicine bundle as portrayed in Blessingway mythology. After the Emergence, First Man and First Woman plan for the creations which will occur on the Earth's surface. First Man consults his "magic corn bundle which is also called his medicine. It contained the four conventional jewels, white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, each shaped like a perfectly kernelled ear of corn and wrapped in a sheet of the same jewel shaped like an unwounded buckskin of today." This bundle is called a corn bundle because of the jewel corn, and a magic corn bundle because it had the power "to do things" (Wyman 1970a:20-21).
After the bundle has indicated an opinion of First Man's plans through its moving properties, he uses it ceremonially and from it arise two groups of human forms, the materials from which the inner forms of all things will be created. Another ceremonial act yields Young Man and Young Woman (Thought and Speech, Sa'ah Naaghaii bik'eh hozho'; see p.3); these two become the inner forms of the Earth, the means of life for all things as these things proceed through time. First Man and others then go into the creation hogan wherein he constructs, using materials from his sacred bundle, representations in human form of the life forms of things to be created on the Earth's surface. These are the inner forms which will inhabit the physical forms of everything which will live on the Earth's surface-mountains, plants, animals, and all. As before, all of these life forms arise from the sacred bundle.
Changing Woman, the only all-benevolent deity in the Navajo pantheon, is found on Gobernador Knob and adopted by First Man and First Woman. She gives birth to the Twins who proceed to rid the Earth's surface of numerous monsters (caused by unnatural sexual acts among other things). Changing Woman then asks her father, First Man, for his sacred "magic" bundle, and with it the power of creativity. Before giving it up, First Man makes a copy of it to use as a source of witch power on his return to the Lower Worlds. Changing Woman uses First Man's bundle exclusively for Blessingway purposes; she creates corn, and then, mixing parts of her own epidermal waste with cornmeal, she creates the first ancestors of the Navajo people. Changing Woman instructs them on the significance and use of the jish and shows them how to replicate the magic corn bundle of First Man using earth from the sacred mountains. She thus makes a mountain earth bundle for the Navajo people to use for their benefit and transmits it with the knowledge of Blessingway.
It is obvious from all versions of the Blessingway origin myth that First Man's jish is the source of life, both birth and the means by which life is maintained through time. It is a "latent reservoir out of which life becomes manifest" (Gill 1981:53). It should be no wonder that the Navajo concept of life is tied closely to the powers of this sacred medicine bundle. Today the powers of First Man's corn bundle are symbolized in the mountain earth bundle which is an exclusive Blessingway feature (Wyman 1970a:21) and the principal sacred object in Blessingway ceremonies. During the Blessingway, this bundle is held by the one-sung-over while reciting the litany-style prayer with the singer. Then the singer presses it to the body of the one-sung-over in prescribed fashion. This bundle represents Changing Woman's bundle which was brought to the Earth's surface by First Man and which was the source of all surface life. The mountain earth bundle contains earth collected from the four (or six) sacred mountains. Pollen is applied to the earth from each mountain and each is wrapped separately in unwounded buckskin and tied with buckskin thongs. A precious jewel is attached to each of the resulting pouches to indicate its directional association. Between these pouches are placed stick-like cylinders of mirage stone (aragonite), agate, and quartz. Stone figures of horses, game, and other things are also added. Then everything is covered with pollen and all of the individual pouches are wrapped in unwounded buckskin to form the bundle. A white shell tied to the outer wrapping indicates the location of the pouch containing earth from the east mountain, to facilitate directional association.
As gill says, the mountain earth bundle's "structure represents in its jewels and soils, the substance from which life is given form, and in its stone cylinders the animating forces of life, long life and happiness. Its shape and design are that of a world created in beauty (hozhoo), and correspond with other manifestations of that shape in the ceremonial hogan and the surface of the earth itself." Expanding its symbolic meaning further, Witherspoon (1977:91-93) shows that the mountain earth bundle is included in the wide range of referents of the Navajo term Shima, "my mother." This term means not only one's birth mother but also the earth, sheep flock, cornfield, and mountain earth bundle; all referents provide sustenance. The Earth is a living being whose inner form is Earth Woman (or Changing Woman). When Navajos refer to the sacred mountain earth bundle as nihima, "our mother," the use of the term -ma "expresses an association of the soil with Earth Woman, but its principal association with the concept of motherhood is found in the ways in which the mountain soil bundle sustains the lives of those who possess it through the protection from danger and evil it provide them" (Witherspoon 1977:93).
Perhaps the powers and significance of jish are best summarized by comments written by Gill (1981:95) in reference to the cranebills of Flintway and the mountain earth bundle of Blessingway:

(These jish are) representations of the primary religious objects and the sources of power in the vents of sacred history which account for the origin of the ceremonial practices. Both are given by Holy People for the future use of Earth Surface People and the Holy People make clear that these are representations modeled upon the original objects rather than being imitations of them. Both are held by the one-sung-over during the litany recitation of prayers. Both embody i their structure and composition the whole range of meanings developed in the mythological events and communicated in the prayer acts. Throughout the interpretive literature these objects are referred to as having "magical" powers. It is clear . . . . that the source of this "magic" is in their truly remarkable power to represent and to communicate.

Beside describing the origin of jish and revealing some of their many powers, Navajo myths often provide prototypes for assembling jish in ceremonial contexts and transmitting them in almost all of the ways now utilized by the Navajos. In the Hanelthnayhe Rite, First Man keeps the first two pouches he makes (the white shell and turquoise ones) and makes two others for the Navajos (Haile and Wheelwright 1949:9-11). In Blessingway, as mentioned above, Changing Woman makes replicas of First Man's (and First Woman's) magic corn bundle for the ancestors of the Navajos, including in them earth from the sacred mountains (Wyman 1970a:21). In the Great Star Chant, before Younger Brother has his own jish, he uses that of his current teacher, White Star, in treating Black Eagles. Then he asks White Star for a medicine bundle of his own, "and this was made for him by all the Stars; they made him a medicine man." After Younger Brother returns to Earth and transmits the ceremonial knowledge, the Star People decide to take him back to the sky. Before his actual departure, the Star People divide Younger Brother's medicine bundle equally between his former wife and his two sons, instructing each to obtain, by individual effort, the remaining items needed for ceremonial use. Pgs. 18-21
Collaborators divided equipment into two categories: equipment that could be used in any chant, and equipment into two categories: equipment that could be used in any chant, and equipment for use in a particular chant or chant subgroup. What Kluckhohn and Wyman call "non-specific equipment" (chodao' iinii) includes "most equipment for offerings, bullroarer, flints, club, brush, firedrill, basket drum, yucca drumsticks, baskets, sandpainting equipment," and medicine cup, cornmeal, live pollen (normally corn pollen that has been shaken over various animals and plants), little medicine pouches, mixed salve, mixed meat, fossils, claws, mirage stone, crystals, shells, and skins (1940: 23 n.33, 45-48). Among the "chant-specific equipment" (for which they give no Navajo word) are the cranebills of Shootingway and Flintway, the mountain earth bundle of Blessingway, and the hoof rattle of Flintway. As noted earlier, Kluckhohn and Wyman use the term jish, translated as "pouch," for the container for paraphernalia specific to a given ceremonial. They also use the term jish for the total assemblage of ceremonial equipment, translating it as "bundle." Their discussion provides some information about both pouches and bundles.
The "pouches," jish that hold chant-specific equipment, are normally made from "sacred" unwounded buckskin, although mountain sheep hide is preferred for "big ceremonies," paws of unwounded bear for Mountaintopway, and fawn-skin for Blessingway. Pouches must be sewn with the particular type of sinew dictated by the individual chant; sinews include deer, mountain lion, and wolf. Kluckhohn and Wyman give no information about overall design, size, or other details of construction. The "bundles," or jish (when the term is used to mean the total assemblage of ceremonial equipment), are only minimally described. Articles to be kept together are wrapped "in a piece of buckskin or in a kind of portmanteau case of buckskin." For decoration, shells, beads, or claws from the wolf or mountain lion may be tied to the buckskin. Collaborators told Kluckhohn and Wyman how the "pouches" and "bundles" are stored and combined:

Singers who conduct more than one ceremonial normally have one or more pouches for each. They may be wrapped in one bundle together with duplicate articles and the non-specific equipment used in all the ceremonials which the singer conducts, or they may be kept separately, the proper one being selected and placed with the case of non-specific equipment when a given ceremonial is requested. Some singers who know several ceremonials but specialize in one keep the articles specific to the specialty ceremonial together with their total store of non-specific equipment in one bundle, and the items specific to the subsidiary ceremonials in separate pouches. (p. 24)

The authors mention one other kind of bag-like container, "Little Medicine Bags" for which they do not provide a Navajo term. These are made of "buckskin or cloth and tied with buckskin thongs or wool yarn," and are "found in profusion in almost all bundles." These little bags are used for carrying dried ground ingredients for medicine, minerals, clays, sandpainting pigments, small grinding stones, sparkling rock, lightning-struck wood, pipes, roots, various plants, jewels for offerings, and corn pollen, among other things. The tiny bags for pollen are made of buckskin and usually also contain small fetishes or other items. These pollen bags, like the personal pollen sacks carried by lay Navajos, reportedly are more likely to have beadwork or other decorations than are the other small medicine sacks (pp. 46-47). Pgs. 30-31

Navajo Medicine Bundles or Jish, Acquisition, Transmission, and Disposition in the Past and Present; 1987, Charlotte J. Frisbie