Sandpainting

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The gods' sandpaintings are kept on deerskin or on sheets of sky or naska rather than being made new in sand each time. The picture cannot be given in this form to men who are not as "good" as the gods; "They might quarrel over the picture and tear it, and that would bring misfortune; the black cloud would not come again, the rain would not fall; the corn would not grow." Pg. 160, Visionary.

Navajo Chantway Myths, 1957; Katherine Spencer.


The creation of drypaintings, often incorrectly called "sandpaintings," are an integral part of almost all ceremonies. There are five required during the Night Way. Among almost all the Indians of the southwest, the drypainting is an important part of curing ceremonies. But no other people have developed this art to the degree that the Navajo have. The People recognize between six hundred and one thousand separate designs of drypaintings. There are thirty-five different drypaintings for the Red Antway ceremony alone. Most often the Singer directs the "painters" but does not directly participate in the creation of the drypainting. The painting is created on sand or sometimes on cloth or buckskin with, of course, sand, cornmeal, flower pollen, powdered roots, stone and bark. Because of the sacred nature of the ceremony, the paintings are begun, finished, used and destroyed within a twelve hour period. The purpose of the painting is curative and it is believed that the patient, by sitting upon the representations of the Holy People represented in the drypainting, will become identified with them and absorb some of their power. At the ceremonies' conclusion the sands of the drypainting are carefully gathered upon the buckskin or a blanket. The Singer then walks east, then south, then west and north. With symbolic gestures up to the sky and down to the earth, he scatters the sands to the six directions from whence they came. Sometimes those present are given a small amount of the sacred sand. In some ceremonies all the sand is buried. A drypainting may be a simple affair of three or so feet wide or it may be as large as twenty feet long and almost as wide and require several assistants to execute. The paintings that are executed during a sacred ceremonial follow a prescribed sequence and outsiders are very seldom allowed to photograph it. On the other hand, because of the desire of so many whites to see a "sandpainting," they are executed for exhibition purposes. In the latter color and direction are usually reversed and many variations brought into effect. Navajo singers considered the creation of an authentic drypainting for exhibition purposes a profanity. Pgs. 50, 51

The Book of the Navajo; 1976, Raymond Friday Locke.

Navajo sacred sandpaintings have the ability to heal the one-sung-over through their indwelling power as sacred, living entities. They summon their power through the ability of their ritual symbols to help the patient focus inwardly as he or she is surrounded by the coexistent forces of the mythic past and the everyday present,which interpenetrate through the ritual. As the one-sung-over experiences firsthand the mythic chantway odyssey undertaken by the hero of the myth, the patient also experiences the same restoration to a state of harmony and health. Basic to an understanding of how the sandpainting heals is the concept of time as cyclic and circular, a principle fundamental to Navajo thought; this embracing, surrounding quality of time leads to an emphasis on dynamic process over static product. Furthermore, everyday and spiritual realities are fused: the spiritual world informs not only ceremonial experience but also everyday experience.

To understand the sacred, living nature of the sandpainting and its power to heal, it is essential to suspend the Western notion that equates the "real" with the measurable. Only by accepting the possibility that time and space can have richer dimensions than the Newtonian ones can we even begin to grasp the depth of the Navajo sacred sandpainting. Although the sandpainting is visually appealing, the painting is far more fascinating when it is understood in its full magnificence, in its mythopoetic context of layered time, space, and meaning. Furthermore, if we can accept that the Western view of the world is but one possible conception of reality, then we not only open ourselves up to a deeper understanding of the sandpainting but also give ourselves the opportunity possibly to learn something new about the way the world really operates.

We have much to learn from a culture whose ideals are based on harmony with the environment. Navajo spirituality affirms humanity's place within nature, as Navajo ceremonies restore and celebrate the interconnectedness of all life. The Navajo recognize our profound connectedness with the natural world and believe that illness - disharmony - results from failure to maintain our reciprocal responsibilities with the environment, as well as from infringement of ceremonial rules and from transgressions against our own minds and bodies.

Put simply, our future on this planet depends upon our ability to live in a way that honors our mother the Earth and our father the Sky.

Mother Earth, Father Sky, Male Shootingway

At the center of Mother Earth is the lake that filled the Place of Emergence. The four sacred plants - corn, beans, squash, and tobacco - emerge from this lake; the roots of these plants firmly connect them to the land and to the earth. The constellations fill the body of Father Sky, whose arms and legs lie over those of Mother Earth, just as the Sky lies above the earth.

"Mother Earth, Father Sky," to show how one particular sandpainting is endowed with presence and animated with power and life to become a sacred, living entity. By focusing on this particular sandpainting, which brings together the entirety of creation, it is possible to achieve a greater understanding of the Navajo concept of reciprocity: the order that must be reestablished in the spiritual, mental, physical, and social realms of the patient's life reflects the order, balance, health, and harmony inherent in the timeless, continuous, repetitive motions of the cosmos. As the patient reconnects with this eternal balance of nature, health is restored.

The Navajo term for sandpainting, 'iikaah, suggests the place of entry where supernaturals "enter and go" (Franciscan Fathers 1910:398). Wyman (1983a:33) believed the description of the sandpainting as a holy altar is the most appropriate because "it is a place where there is sacerdotal equipment and on which ritual behavior is carried out." A sandpainting assists in healing in four ways:(1) it attracts the supernaturals and their healing power; (2) the depiction of these supernaturals identifies the patient with their healing power; (3) it absorbs the sickness from, and imparts immunity to, the patient seated on it; and (4) the picture creates a ritual reality in which the patient and the supernatural dramatically interact. The supernatural powers are thought to be irresistibly attracted by seeing their portraits painted in sand. Once they arrive, they actually become the sandpainted likenesses. As Haile (1947a:xiv) has said, the depictions are "identified with the supernaturals themselves . . . . . they enter the hogan in person. The patient identifies with the supernaturals depicted in sand by sitting on the figures while the singer moistens his palms with herb medicine and presses them to various parts of the patient; the singer also presses parts of his own body to corresponding parts of the patient's body. At the same time he voices the sound symbolism associated with the chant. The singer is considered to be the surrogate of the supernaturals and is thought to be a diyin dine'e while he performs the ceremonial. Thus, the physical contact the patient receives from the singer reinforces the process of identification with the supernaturals, so the patient becomes strong and immune from further harm. Through the establishment of this mutual pathway the evil, or illness, in the patient is replaced by the good, or healing power, of the powerful supernatural images depicted in the sandpainting. Gladys Reichard (1950:112) summarized this process of "spiritual osmosis":"The ritualistic process may be likened to a spiritual osmosis in which the evil in man and the good of deity penetrate the ceremonial membrane in both directions, the former being neutralized by the latter, but only if the exact conditions for the interpenetration are fulfilled." One reason that 'iikaah have the power to heal is that the paintings and the rituals of which they are a part do not merely commemorate past events; rather, through the preparation and performance of the sandpainting ritual, these sacred events are created again in the present. It is the cyclical quality of Navajo time that makes the sandpainting ritual so powerful and so vivid. The forces of life are symbolically represented on the hogan floor, including locality symbols that serve to "place" the patient within this sacred setting; the patient then interacts with the diyin dine'e (supernaturals) within the ritual reality created by the paintings. Pgs. 43,44

Wyman (1983a:61) classified the outstanding parts of a sandpainting as the main theme symbols and subsidiary symbols. he qualified this by saying that while such classification violates a fundamental Navajo principle - that all things in the universe have equal importance - it facilitates analytic convenience. Main theme symbols give the name and principal symbolic meaning to the picture and are the ones a Navajo would choose to state the nature of the picture. The subsidiary symbols (no less important to the Navajo) are smaller than the main theme symbols and are found in the quadrants of a radial design, or parallel to or above or below the main themes in a linear arrangement. As Wyman (1983a61) stated, and as I have found from by own research, although studies differentiate sandpaintings by their linear, radial, or extended center composition, composition is not a significant criterion of differentiation for the Navajos. Thus, a painting with a radial composition and one with a linear composition that share the same main themes are considered by Navajos to be fundamentally the same. The main theme symbols are representations of the human heroes of the origin legend belonging to the ceremonial, the supernatural beings encountered in the heroes' adventures, important etiological factors associated with the ceremonial, or other powers connected with the chant or rite through its myth or through Navajo belief. The anthropomorphized representations of animals, plants, natural phenomena, geophysical features, and material objects are depicted. Thus, Thunders, Wind, Hail, and Clouds may be depicted as "people." These forms are depicted as human to remind us that we share a kinship with these beings, a relationship that we must honor if the sandpainting ceremony is to be effective in restoring balance and harmony to the universe. As Harry Walters (personal communication,1990) explained:"Humans are made from the same elements as the mountains, plants , and stars. They were made before we were so we identify with them (instead of vice versa). These beings (that is, the mountains, plants, and stars) are made in human form in the sandpainting to make them come alive so that we remember we are related to them." The subsidiary theme symbols accompany the main theme symbols. In most instances, the subsidiary symbols are the four sacred plants:corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. Sometimes only one of the plants is used; one or more birds may be depicted as well. Medicine herbs, arrows, clouds, Cactus People, coiled snakes, and mountains are other subsidiary symbols (Wyman 1983a:63). Newcomb (in Newcomb, Fishler, and Wheelwright 1956:9) said that if a locality symbol is in the center of the painting, the figures which are placed in the semidirections (e.g.,southeast) belong to that symbol; on the other hand, the figures oriented toward the cardinal points "represent the immortals or powerful forces expected to arrive at the ceremony coming from the four directions."

Guardian symbols protect the space covered by the design and bring it under control. They also provide for the exchange of evil and good with the outside world. The guardian is an encircling border with an opening to the east. Most frequently this is an anthropomorphized rainbow figure, an elongated ribbonlike form with skirt, legs, and feet at one end and hands, arms, and head at the other end. Next most frequently pictured is the garland, a similar ribbonlike figure with bunches of five feathers at each end. Less commonly seen guardians are the Mirage supernatural and the mirage or mist garland. All of these have spotted ribbonlike bodies with plain, white-bar, or black-cloud ends; these guardians are called rope; a black bar of darkness or black mirage; "rainbow ladders" or "mist" incorporated in a rainbow rope or "trail"; or lightning arrows with a rainbow bar to the west (Wyman 1983a:67-69). At the eastern opening in the guardian of a sandpainting the control of the passage of good and evil is augmented by a pair of guardian figures. Usually, this may be supernaturals such as a pair of big flies, a pair of bats, Sun and Moon, or Pollen Boy and Ripener Girl, but it may also be Bat and Sun's tobacco pouch (Wyman 1983a:71). Other guardians may echo the main themes of the sandpainting designs they guard (Wyman 1983a:72):pairs of snakes, buffalo, arrows, or beaver and otter. Sometimes they are associated only with the chant or its myth (Wyman 1983a:72):weasels for Mountainway and Beautyway; bears for Mountain Chant; stars for Big Starway; anthills for Red Antway; and eagles for Beadway. Additionally, there are other guardian symbols found only occasionally of uniquely. Symbols of location are an essential element because they represent the place where the event commemorated in the sandpainting occurred. They may also symbolize the homes of the supernaturals depicted in the sandpainting or the place where the painting is carried out in the myth. Just as Navajo myths begin with a description of locale, so too do sandpaintings. As Reichard (1950:152-58) explained, place represents a power that must be brought under control. Thus, space is organized into a controllable unit inside the sandpainting guardian.

Locale is so significant to the sandpainting that nearly all of the three dimensional features of the painting are related to the characterization of specific places. Mountains are made in relief by heaping up sand and covering it with colored pigments. The four Sacred Mountains may be made, as well as Spruce Hill (Gobernador Knob, New Mexico), the birthplace of Changing Woman, and Mountain-around-which-moving-was-done (Huerfano Mountain, New Mexico), the early home of Changing Woman. Sky Reaching Rock is a supernatural rock that bridges the terrestrial and celestial realms. Significantly, instead of being made of sand, like other mountains in sandpaintings, Sky-Reaching-Rock is a truncated clay cone measuring about a foot in height that is a permanent part of the Male Shootingway chanter's ceremonial equipment; thus, unlike other sandpainting features, it is not destroyed at the end of the ceremony. In addition to mountains, bodies of water may also be represented three dimensionally by burying shallow bowls, or even bottle caps, to their rims and filling them with water. The surface of the water is then covered with herbs to blacken it. The lake that filled the Place of Emergence is represented in this manner, as are the ponds on Black Mountain and on Mount Taylor and around the base of Sky-Reaching-Rock. Vegetation features may be represented three-dimensionally as well. Trees - the tops of evergreens measuring about twelve inches high - may be placed atop a mountain in a sandpainting; Black Mountain, where Holy Boy shot the mountain sheep with the grebe-feathered arrow in the story of the Male Shootingway, may be represented with two such trees with pine needles on the mountaintop under the trees. Mossy lichen may surround the base of Sky-Reaching-Rock as well as each of the four lakes near its base. All of these features - mountains, bodies of water, and vegetation features - help to establish the locale of the sandpainting and thus to bring it under control for the purpose of restoring harmony and health to the patient. Color is an outstanding aspect of Navajo ceremonialism and plays a significant role in sandpainting. Reichard (1950:187) said that color is never used consistently, nor does it have the same meaning in every setting. Every detail is calculated, however, and chance does not account for apparent exceptions to the rules. Thus, it can only be said that certain color combinations and sequences are usually found in certain relationships with sexual and directional symbolism. Reichard (1950:187-203) described the significance of several colors. White is the color of White Dawn in the east and apparently differentiates the naturally sacred from the profane (black or red). Blue signifies the bright Blue Sky of day and belongs to the south. Yellow represents fructification because of its association with yellow pollen; belonging to the west, this color represents the Yellow Evening Light of sunset. Black is a sinister color; however, because it confers invisibility, black also protects. This color usually represents Night in the north. Red is the color of danger, war, and sorcery and is often paired with black. Pink represents a reddish shimmering quality of light. Gray is the color of evil, untrustworthiness, and despicability. Directionality is significant in Navajo symbolism, and movements during a ceremonial must occur in the "sunwise circuit," or form east to south to west to north, except in Evilway ceremonials. There are two predominant directional sequences of colors for east, south, west, and north. Reichard (1650:164) noted the "Day-Sky" sequence, which consists of the subdivisions of the day associated with directions: White Dawn with the east; Blue Day Sky with the south, Yellow Evening Light with the west, and Darkness of Night (black) with the north. Matthews (1897:216) notes a second sequence that consists of black-blue-yellow-white for the four directions, beginning with the east. Because it is used in connection with dangerous underground places, it is employed in Evilway chants, such as the Big Starway or Hand Tremblingway to protect against witches. Reichard (1950:221) termed this the "danger sequence" and says that black is placed in the quadrant from which danger is most imminent for the particular event depicted, because it confers protection.

Earlier, I noted the conceptual division of aspects of the natural world into male and female entities, citing the groupings of the mountains into male and female figures. This division embraces much more than mere sexual distinction:that which is male (bika'') also carries the connotation of coarser, rougher, and more violent, while that which is female (ba'aad) is considered to be finer, weaker, and gentler. Reichard (1950:176) elaborated on Matthews's (1902:6) observation by saying that the concept of maleness also includes potency, mobility, bigness, energy, and dominance, while femaleness convey generative capacity, passive power, endurance, smallness, and compliance. Again, it is essential to remember that neither is preferable or morally superior to the other but that both are necessary for completion, wholeness, and balance. As would be expected, this conceptual division, so fundamental to the Navajo worldview, is reflected in sandpainting figures. Head shape symbolizes the male-female distinction:male figures tend to have round heads while females have square heads. In some cases this reflects a sexual distinction, but at other times, where both round and square heads are used indiscriminately of both genders, the round-headed figures represent deities with dominant power, a male characteristic (Reichard 1950:177-79). In still other sandpaintings, however, such as those of the Mountainway, the association of power and head shape does not hold. Lightning marks, arrows, and snakes may also indicate gender. Crooked lightning on the legs, arms, and body of a figure indicates that it is male while the straight form indicates a female bearer (Wyman 1983a:75). A similar distinction holds true for lightning arrows or snakes held in the hands of figures; male snakes or Snake People are usually crooked, while their female counterparts are straight. Male/female color symbolism is complicated in Navajo sandpainting, and many exceptions exist (see Reichard [1950:214-40] for a discussion of possible color combinations and their meanings). This is because sex pairing - that is, the powers that are dominant (male) and secondary or weaker (female) - vary from chant to chant. Usually, however, black or yellow symbolizes male figures in sandpaintings and blue or white symbolizes female figures; this holds true for the following chants:Big Starway, Nightway, Big Godway, Navajo Windway, Hand Tremblingway, Beadway, and half the paintings in Plumeway (Wyman 1983a:75). Another common arrangement, seen in the Shootingway and Beautyway, is black and blue for males, white and yellow for females (Wyman 1983a:75). Pgs. 47-55

The sandpainting is considered to be a sacred living entity. The Anglo perception of a sandpainting as an artistic achievement misses the true meaning and cultural significance of the sandpainting. The physical beauty of the depicted image is insignificant in comparison to the ceremonial accuracy and sacredness of the depicted forms. The emphasis of the sandpainting is on process, the dynamic flow of action, and on its ability to summon power through the process of its creation and use. - The sandpainting is considered to be equally alive despite its more transitory nature. This emphasis on active process rather than on static product explains the nature of the painting itself. The completion of a sandpainting may take from one to ten hours, but only minutes pass between the painting's completion and its use, and this is spent not in aesthetic appreciation but rather in a final check of the accuracy of the depiction. The completed painting is much more than the sum of its parts:its power is derived from its state of completeness. Once it has been completed, it is far more powerful, and therefore more dangerous. Pgs. 55, 56

The sandpainting, as a sacred, living entity, must be treated with proper respect; this explains why the painting is subject to ritual disposal after use and why it is crucial that the remains of the painting not come into contact with domestic animals and that these remains be allowed "to return unmolested to the earth" by natural processes. Because the painting is a living entity, replete with power and sacredness, one must not act disrespectfully in its presence. The chanter helps to remind people of the painting's sacredness by explaining various aspects of the image:"While they are making the sandpainting, the chanter tells whoever is sitting there why the forms are as they are. He explains not just the meaning, but also how they came to be." This explanation helps all those present to maintain the proper frame of mind, which is crucial to the efficacy of the ceremonial. Pg. 56

The significance of order and symmetry of form in the sandpainting image cannot be overestimated. Illness, as we have seen, results from a disruption of universal order and balance, and ceremonials work by restoring order to the spiritual, emotional, mental, and thus physical realms of the patient's life. Through the ceremonial the patient's perception of the world is altered. The sandpainting plays a major role in this restructuring of reality by bringing the chaotic under control as it replaces disorder with order. Pg. 58

Part of the sacred beauty and power of the sandpainting - its presence - derives from the spirit that is brought to it during its creation; those who participate in its making are aware of fulfilling this responsibility. At the same time, participation in this process cannot help but enrich them, for they are using their gifts in support and affirmation of the spiritual values that underlie the ceremonial. Clearly, all who are engaged in this creative endeavor must feel a certain level of spiritual fulfillment from having contributed to the restoration of harmony and balance in the cosmos. Pg. 60

The Physical beauty of the sandpainting was but the outer reflection of the sandpainting's inner beauty and sacredness. Pg. 62

Western society tends to value product over process, but the power of the Navajo sacred sandpaintings derives from the activity of its making and ritual use; its meaning and cultural significance are inextricably woven into the process of creation. The efficacy of the sandpainting - its ability to reestablish order in the spiritual and physical world of the patient - is profoundly affected by the dependent upon the process through which the sandpainting is created. The Navajo emphasis on active process rather than static product is ultimately reflected in the final act of sandpainting ritual:the destruction of the painting itself. Pg. 175

9. Opinions vary as to when the sandpainting becomes sacred:some chanters believe the sand is sacred the moment it is brought into the hogan; others say that the sandpainting is not sacred until it has been sprinkled with corn pollen and blessed with a prayer. Pg. 213

From the Navajo viewpoint, the power of the sandpainting is derived from its state of wholeness and completeness. Nothing is lacking when the painting is whole and thue holy. In chapter 4, I discussed the concept of interrealted totality that is fundamental to Navajo thought, citing the annual cycle and its component seasons as an embodiment of this principle. To reiterate, this concept is based on the understanding that ech part of a whole is necessary and equally important, and that the whole is much greater than merely the sum of its parts. This is why the completed sandpainting is more - much more powerful - than the sum of its parts. The Navajo phrase that expresses this emphasis on wholeness, sa'a naghai bik'e hozho, has been the subject of countless reinterpretations through the years. Pg. 188

Chanter A was explaining how the ritual symbols of earth and sky help the patient to focus inward upon the most basic of Navajo principles - reciprocity based upon the interrelated totality that is the universe. He was saying that the painting should remind all those who are present how profoundly their thoughts and actions affect the balance of the world around them. People must act responsibly, treating the creatures of the earth and the entities of the sky with the same respect they would accord their own parents, and in turn the beings of the earth and sky will respond by blessing people with all the good things of life, as parents would provide for their beloved children. He was also saying that human beings must remember the creative power of human thought:people are responsible for their thoughts and actions, and the ceremonial is an opportunity to refocus on the right ways of thinking and acting so that people are reconnected with this desired state of hozho. I believe that it is in reestablishing this powerful sense of connectedness, of oneness with all that is, that we find the true meaning and greatest gift of the sandpainting, wherein its ultimate healing power resides. Pgs. 194-95

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

Drypaintings are such a characteristic and so famous a feature of Navaho ceremonials that they merit some discussion. Although "sandpaintings" is the familiar term, it is a misleading one. In Blessing Way drypaintings, as just pointed out, the background is of buckskin spread on the ground and the designs are formed of vegetable materials (pollen, meal, crushed flowers). In the curing chants, too, the background is occasionally of buckskin, and the designs are made of charcoal and pulverized minerals-not sand at all in the strict sense. At most, sand forms the background of the drypaintings. More than five hundred different drypaintings have been recorded, and there is every reason to believe that many others exist. Some are miniatures only a foot or two in diameter; others are so large-twenty feet or more in diameter-that they can be made only in specially constructed hogans. The small ones can be made by two or three people in less than an hour. The largest ones require the work of fifteen men during most of a day. Each drypainting is linked to a particular ceremonial, and the myth prescribes the design and the manner of making the painting. When only an excerpt from a ceremonial is given, only a single drypainting may be made, but a full performance ordinarily calls for a set of four on successive days. When the ceremonial to be used on any given occasion has been decided upon, the Singer consults with the patient and his family and selects from the various drypaintings prescribed for this ceremonial those four that seem most appropriate to the illness and the assumed cause.

Drypaintings are, on occasion, made out of doors, but usually they are made within the hogan where the ceremonial is carried out. Most of them are appropriate to the daytime, but a few are created after dark. Before the drypainting proper begins, charcoal and minerals are ground and placed in bark receptacles. Clean light-colored wind-blown sand is carried into the lodge and spread over the floor in an even layer from one to three inches thick. On this background the Singer and his assistants kneel or sit to create the design. Colors vary, but the four principal hues-white, blue, yellow, and black-are always present. These colors have symbolic associations with the directions, which vary with the ritual. Most of the color is laid on with the right hand of the artist, who holds the coloring matter against his palm with his closed fingers and lets it trickle out through the aperture between the thumb and flexed index finger. Some parts of the picture are measured by palms and spans; others are drawn freely. Straight lines of any length are made by snapping a cotton string held by two persons. The picture is smoothed off at intervals with the wooden batten used in weaving. Errors are not rubbed out but covered over with the neutral shade of the background. Since the design must not be disturbed, the painters work from the center out, sunwise from left to right.

Designs represent the stories of the Holy People or abstractions of sacred powers. The eight chief figures among the Holy People, other mythological personages such as Big Fly and Corn Beetle, the four sacred plants (corn, beans, squash, and tobacco), other plants such as cactus, stars, lightning, animals of the mountains, the bluebird (symbol of happiness), the Gila Monster and other reptiles, and the sacred arrows or flints often appear in one or more of the four paintings. Frequently the rainbow surrounds the picture on all sides but the east, to protect it from evil influences. Drypaintings are indeed a form of art, often intricate and strikingly beautiful in color and design, but they are not used as forms of self-expression. The pattern is handed down in memory from one Singer and his assistants to others, and the variations permissible to the individual painter are few and minor, like the design or coloring of the kilts of the holy figures. These highly stylized paintings serve, in somewhat the fashion of medieval glass painting, to make visible and concrete the holy figures and religious concepts of The People. Unlike the windows, they are of only temporary use in connecting gods and men. This use is almost invariably centered in the curing of the sick or the disturbed, . . . . . . . Pgs. 150-151

The Navaho; 1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.

The ingredients for the colors of the sand painting are sometimes mixed with sand or dirt to allow them to flow more readily in drawing the lines. White is obtained with a kind of gypsum (tse' lagai), which is pulverized, yellow with yellow ocher (tse' litso) and red with pulverized red sandstone (tse' lichi). Black consists of charcoal (t'esh), obtained from burnt scrub oak (chechil ntliz). or, for the night chant, from dry cedar charcoal (dilkis bit'esh), which is mixed with dirt (lesh). Blue is obtained with a mixture of pulverized charcoal and gypsum added to the dirt. Vari-colored pebbles, however, are not used for the sand paintings.

These preparations are put on bark trays from which a pinch is taken between the index finger and thumb, and allowed to drop on the layer of moist sand, or the "altar," forming the foundation of the drawing. The singer usually superintends the work, directing and correcting his assistants. of whom as many as five and more are at work on the larger drawings. These are made in the hogan, and vary in size and number for the individual chants of which few, if any, are entirely without them. The patient is seated upon the finished drawing which, after various invocations and rites, is erased, and the dirt and sand removed from the hogan. Pg. 69

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

The next morning he went to Chushtoh-ba-ahd, south of Taos, where he wanted to destroy the Crushing Rocks, Tseh-ah-kindithly. And he rode on his Rainbow and took with him the horns of the Dah-il-kadeh. When the Rocks tried to crush him, he would evade them on his Rainbow and the Rocks could not crush him. He did this four times, and then he took the horns of the Dah-il-kadeh and put them across between the Rocks which prevented them from coming together. He then threw his fire between the Rocks, and heated them so hot that when he hit them with his stone knife, they splintered into many pieces. Before he left, he motioned toward the splintered rocks and said:"Hereafter you will be used for the colored sands of which our sandpaintings will be made." And this colored rock which Nayenezgani burned is what the Indians now use for their paintings. Then he went home and was received with rejoicing. Pgs. 95-96

Navajo Creation Myth, The Story of the Emergence; 1942, Mary C. Wheelwright.

The design of this first large Yeibichai picture was called the "whirling Log Sand Painting" and has become one of the best known of all the hundreds that are made for Navaho ceremonies. After the sand had been passed to the painters, two men used long weaving batons to smooth the center pile to a smooth mat for the background. Klah opened a sack of pollen and blessed all of the sand that would be used that day; then someone handed him a long cord, which was held across the background sand, first from east to west and then from north to south. This, snapped into the sand to make crossed lines, located the center. Klah took black sand to make a small black lake in this center which he bordered with white to represent foam, yellow for pollen, blue for summer rain, and red for sunlight. He then returned to his place and the five painters continued the design. Four black logs pointed in the four directions, while the four sacred plants, corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, were laid in the quadrants. At the east stood Hastje-altai, the teacher; at the west stood Hastje-hogan, the god of reproduction; on the north and on the south were the Bighones-kidi - the seed gatherers, bearers, and guards. A rainbow arc was painted to protect three sides, but the eastern side was open, with no guardian symbols.

With the painting finished, there was a pause for smokes and conversation. During this intermission, a file of women entered the lodge bringing big bowls of mutton stew, baskets heaped with small loaves of crusty bread that had been baked in the outdoor ovens, steaming black coffeepots, canned milk, sugar, and cookies, and cups and spoons. I wondered how the men would manage without plates, knives, or forks, but I soon found out. Every man had his own knife with which he carved off half of a loaf of bread, then breaking this in two, he used the crusts to dip up the gravy, potatoes, and chunks of meat. The women poured the coffee and then retired to enjoy their own lunch hour. An hour or so later, at some signal from the medicine lodge, they returned to remove the empty baskets, bowls, and pots, which now were minus every scrap of food, as leftovers would have been an insult to the cooks.

As the men settled comfortably against the wall, Klah started waving his rattle, and when the correct rhythm had been reached, the chant began and continued for several minutes. Then, laying the rattle aside, he picked up his buckskin bag of pollen and, stepping carefully between the designs, sprinkled sacred pollen accompanied by prayer over each figure, then around the rainbow, and, lastly, up through the opening in the roof. Twelve prayer sticks had been erected around the outside of the sand painting, and these, too, were blessed. With this blessing the picture became a sacred altar containing the spiritual power of the immortals.

There was no more talking or joking, no smoking or moving about. A crier stepped outside the door and called, "The ceremony is about to begin. Hasten!" The patient was prepared and waiting and now entered the lodge followed by ten or twelve women of her family, who seated themselves along the wall while the patient still stood near the door. She was dressed in new clothing and a new Pendleton shawl. In the bend of her arm she carried a ceremonial basket filled with yellow corn meal. At a motion from the medicine man she walked near the painting and tossed a spray of corn meal on each figure as her gift to the immortal it depicted. Then she placed her shawl in the southeast corner and on it her silver beads, her velvet blouse, and her shoes and stockings, after which Klah led her onto the sand painting and motioned for her to sit on the western log facing east.

The ceremonial rites consisted of pollen blessings, pressing of prayer bundles to her head and body, drinking of herb infusions, and face painting, these acts being separated by intervals of prayer chant. Near the close of these rites, the medicine man stepped onto the sand painting, pressed his moistened hands to the heads of all the sand figures, then pressed this sand to the patient's head. Then his hands were pressed to the shoulders of the figures and this sand was transferred to the shoulders of the patient. This continued down her body to her feet, sot that the power of the sand-painted figures was transferred to the patient. Since these figures had been perfect, she would now gain perfect health. The last ceremonial rite was that of fumigation. Live coals from the fire pit were placed in front of the patient (and also in front of any member of the audience who wished to have them) and sprinkled with a mixture of herbs which included mint, sage, aromatic sumac, and several others. A dense blue aromatic smoke rose to cover the patient's face and be inhaled. This was to clear her mind of all fear of a repetition of the illness that had troubled her. When the smoke settled, a little water was thrown on the coals and the ceremony was over.

Klah held out a feather wand to help the patient to her feet, and she stepped off the painting to her shawl, gathered everything in her arms, and left the lodge, followed by the other women. The figures on the painting were badly blurred, and Klah now took a wand and erased every vestige of the design. When it was just a gray mat, the helpers scraped the sand into the carrying blanket and took it to the north, emptying it under the lee of a bank where it would not be walked on by sheep or cattle. I asked Klah if he ever kept the sand to use the next day, and he said "No! This has served its purpose and is still holy. It is part of the earth, and the winds will take it back to the place it belongs." Pgs. 122-125


Because the grinding of sand, which is a part of Mother Earth, may well bring bad luck, an older relative of the patient assumes this task and then only after a blessing rite to ward away the evil consequences. Pg. 150

Hosteen Klah, Navajo Medicine Man and Sand Painter; 1964, Franc Johnson Newcomb.

As cedar, pinion, yucca, and other products enter into ceremonials, similarly sand has numerous uses. One of the important methods of purification is the emetic. A bowl of sand holds the ejected contents. The sand may be gathered up with the evils which have been coughed up and removed without the slightest offense. Pg. xxiii

Dezba:Woman of the Desert; 1939, Gladys A. Reichard.

Navajo Sandpainting Textiles The Navajo term for sandpainting is iikaah, "place where the gods come and go." Since sandpaintings are employed in ceremonies designed to summon supernatural forces, it is important for the viewer to approach the subject with the understanding that sandpaintings represent graphic and sacred renderings of the Navajo's religious world.

Traditionally, sandpainting is done only as part of a curing, purification or blessing ritual. When people are in good health, they are in harmony with their whole environment. When they become ill or "out of harmony," they may be treated with one of 60 ceremonies. Sandpaintings thus serve as an integral part of elaborate Navajo healing or blessing ceremonies that are conducted for a patient or petitioner. These ceremonies have a specific spiritual purpose:to summon the presence of the various supernatural powers who figure in the Navajo Creation stories as illustrated by sandpaintings. The intended result is a balanced, harmonious and healthy relationship with the Holy People.

In effect, ceremonial sandpaintings are temporary altars. With the re-creation of their Creation stories by means of the sandpaintings, the Navajo believe that the specific healings associated with each story will bring relief to the patient. A Medicine Man performs the ritual, accompanied by prayers and singing, by touching parts of the sandpainting design and then rubbing the colored sand or powder on the body of the patient. As a result, the altar is destroyed as part of the healing process. Sandpainting weavings, however, are not, nor have they been, a part of Navajo ceremonies. Although sandpainting textiles are reproductions from the Navajo ceremonial Chantways (also commonly referred to as Chants or Sings), they are not intended to be used for sacred purposes. Although fewer Chantways are performed today, they can be divided into seven major groups, and each of these consists of one or more subgroups. These subgroups contain from four to 96 sandpaintings, thus making specific identification difficult.

One area of investigation is the identification of the accuracy of the ceremonial design from specific Chantways reproduced in a woven sandpainting, that is, the weaver's source for the sandpainting textile. For the viewer to fully understand a sandpainting tapestry, the source from which the weaver re-created the design should be considered. It is the translation of ceremonial information to the weaver's loom that embodies the "cultural tension" surrounding the production, sale and exhibition of sandpainting textiles.

Tension is first realized in gender roles. In the Navajo culture, men perform the roles of healer and singer. It is the hatathli, or singer, who through years of study memorizes the complex iconography associated with actual sandpaintings. Traditionally, however, women - not men - are the weavers. It is unlikely that a female weaver would have sufficient knowledge to reproduce sandpaintings successfully from memory. As these two professions are clearly delineated by gender roles, the question of how the singer's images are translated to designs on a weaver's loom is a significant one. The answer to this question for many Navajo has been perceived as a violation against the Holy People.

Reproduction of sandpaintings has always been controversial. Even though the development of sandpainting weaving parallels early instances of sandpainting demonstrations and scholarly documentation of ceremonies, weaving of such items was kept secret.

The first sandpainting rug was woven in Chaco Canyon in 1896 at the request of a gentleman on the Wetherill Expedition (Wheat 1976:48). In 1897, Richard Wetherill had another rug woven that remained in the family's possession until at least 1913. The fate of these early rugs is unknown. Two sandpaintings, one in Chaco Canyon and one in Two Grey Hills, were made in 1904, and several rugs were also made at Newcomb's Trading Post in 1903 and again between 1906 and 1911. No information is available on these rugs, but stories persist regarding the commotion they caused - supposedly resulting in the cessation of production of sandpainting tapestries for a number of years, except for the "great flood of so-called yei and yeibichai blankets" (Wyman, 1983:264).

The yei and yeibichai rugs differ from sandpainting textiles in that they focus on isolated figures, whereas sandpainting weavings are more or less accurate copies of complete ceremonial sandpaintings. The first documented yei and yeibichai rugs also date to the early 1900s. The yei are a particular category of Holy People, as distinguished from the yeibichai, masked-god-impersonator dancers who appear in such ceremonies as the Nightway Chant. The yei and yeibichai rugs do not utilize entire sandpainting images but, like sandpainting textiles, they do depict Holy People. Yei rugs were popularized by Will Evans, a trader at Shiprock, following World War I. These rugs continue to be produced, primarily as tourist novelties, and are seldom based on sandpainting designs. However, even the early yei rugs caused dissent because they depicted permanent images of Holy People.

It is important to remember that initially the reproduction of any of these sacred images was looked upon by most Navajo with apprehension and fear. To the Navajo, a ceremonial sandpainting contains multidimensional power. This power is both visual and conceptual, metaphorical and literal, aesthetic and therapeutic (Witherspoon, 1995:58). For the Navajo, it would seem strange and inappropriate to view a sandpainting as two-dimensional art because, in its proper place, the sandpainting is the powerful and sacred center of their universe. Many stories have been told of terrible consequences - including blindness and crippling - for offending the Holy People. It is not unusual, therefore, to hear that a particular sandpainting weaver has had a healing ceremony. To avoid curses, weavers frequently omit a detail or otherwise modify a design.

Fear and apprehension of weaving a sandpainting were, for a time, allayed by an extraordinary circumstance when the weaver and the singer were one and the same. Historically, the best-known sandpaintings were not woven by a female, but a male weaver by the name of "Left-handed" or Hosteen Klah. Klah was both a weaver and a Medicine Man. He was known to the Navajos by a term that means transformed. His acceptance in both male and female activities was due to the special status and prestige bestowed upon a transformed male. Although it is not certain whether Klah was a transvestite, berdache or hermaphrodite, his orientation placed him in a class of "man-woman" which, in Navajo mythology, is thought to possess special powers in the real world. Klah and his nieces, Gladys and Irene, wove more than 70 sandpainting tapestries between 1919 and 1937.

I asked why he did not weave a rug with a ceremonial design. He said that sacred symbols should not be . . . placed on the floor to be walked on all day. I assured him that . . . [it] would never be used on the floor, but would be hung on the wall of some museum. . . . After talking it over with his family, he decided it would be all right. . . . He had logs brought from the mountain and built a loom that would hold a rug 12 feet square. Then came the problem of finding the right wool. A rug of this size would require about 20 pounds of raw wool, and as the proper background tan color was only found on the underside of the brown sheep, it did not seem possible to collect this much. . . . Many of the Navahos in our valley were critical of this project as they thought the making of an accurate sandpainting in permanent form would bring disaster to the entire tribe. But Klah was too powerful in medicine-man status for them to say anything to him . . . He chanted his prayers and said that nothing would happen - nothing did! (Newcomb, 1964:157)

Sandpaintings of five Chantways are represented in Klah's and his niece's weavings, including 49 tapestries from Night Chant, 9 from Hail Chant, 10 from Shooting Chant and 1 each from Mountainway and Eagleway Chant. When the demand for Klah's sandpainting weavings exceeded what he could produce, he enlisted the aid of his two nieces, supervising their weaving and protecting them by singing over them (Wyman, 1983:265).

To weave a sandpainting textile requires a strong sense of autonomy, self-confidence and physical endurance. The Navajo's respect for autonomy is reflected in many facets of Navajo culture, including language structure, family relationships and particularly religious beliefs. Even though family and friends might disagree with a weaver for producing a sandpainting weaving, they would say nothing. As Ann Hedlund recently noted:

"Throughout the 350-year evolution of Navajo weaving, the individual's freedom to make

decisions - about color, design or any of the myriad aspects of making a textile - has remained central."

In addition to a strong sense of individualism, a weaver must be confident. An extraordinary level of technical skill and special weaving expertise is required to carry out a sandpainting textile. A weaver must be confident of her ability to weave circles, curves and a wide variety of animals and figures. The ability of sandpainting weavers to solve technical problems and accurately translate intricate designs to their weavings places them in a special category of weaving excellence.

Lastly, the weaver must have the physical endurance to weave a large tapestry. Reichard, for example, observed that the prodigious and prolific weaver Altnabah had a sandpainting on the loom for more than three years, and it was only half completed. Sandpainting weavings are often much larger than other styles, which means the weaver must spend more time and effort constructing an oversize loom and acquiring more wool prior to carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving. Sometimes, the wool needs to be dyed in unusual shades such as pink or light green.

Although the earliest-known ceremonial rug was woven from Germantown yarn, subsequent ones, until the 1950s, were almost invariably of handspun native wool. Today, two- and four-ply aniline-dyed commercial yarn is used for most sandpainting weavings. This has been particularly prevalent since 1960, as demonstrated in the weavings of Despah Nez and her daughters Anna Mae Tanner and Alberta Thomas. Despah Nez and her daughters, much like Klah and his nieces, represent another outstanding family of sandpainting weavers, but one that used primarily commercially dyed yarn. This allowed them to spend more time on the weaving process itself. Their creation of more than 120 sandpainting textiles exceeded even that of Klah and his nieces.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, published sources by Gladys Reichard and Mary Wheelwright's Navajo Religion series (which included fully illustrated sandpaintings) were available to talented weavers through entrepreneurial traders. No longer was the singer necessary as a design source for the weaver to produce her tapestry.2 The necessity of direct translation of the complex iconographic idiom was eliminated through these publications. Troy Kennedy, for example, a trader at the Red Rock Trading Post, successfully convinced Despah and her daughters to weave sandpainting tapestries, and eventually encouraged them to create entire ceremonial cycles including Beautyway, Great Star Chant, Bead Chant, Hail Chant, Waterway and Coyoteway.

There is no doubt that weaving sandpaintings is a cultural anomaly. In the context of Navajo culture, the reproduction of sandpaintings as woven textiles is at odds with the intent of actual sandpaintings - thus creating a cultural tension. Sandpainting weavings embody this tension through the translation of sanctioned knowledge passed from a Medicine Man to a female weaver.

While economics served as an incentive for many woven sandpainting textiles, the marketing of the sacred for secular reasons resulted in a beautiful and esoteric art form which, when viewed as an educational device, became a way to preserve the Navajo heritage. Klah's contributions, for example, go beyond the beauty of his magnificent weavings:he was responsible for helping open Navajo religion to permanent record.

The sandpaintings in this exhibition possess integrity, power and spirit. Inwardly, they illustrate the Navajo's absolute respect for the individual, while outwardly they provide the viewer an image of the Navajo's cosmic universe.

- John Gerber curator, Kennedy Museum of American Art, Ohio University, Athens

1. Two of Klah's sister's daughters were married to brothers. The older one, Gladys (Hanesbah) married Sam Manuelito, and Irene (Altnabah) married his younger brother Jim Manuelito. Hence, they were known as Mrs. Sam and Mrs. Jim. These men were grandsons of the famous Navajo headman Manuelito (1821-93), who was the son-in-law of Narbona, Klah's great-grandfather.

 

2. This is not to imply the singer is ever eliminated from the process. Some weavers of sandpainting textiles petition for prayers and occasional ceremonies over them. Hosteen Klah's niece Irene had a Plumeway and Gladys a Nightway ceremony in order for them to weave tapestries. Despah and her daughters, Anna Mae Tanner and Alberta Thomas, also regularly received ceremonies for protection and healing as a result of their weaving activities.

 

References

Newcomb, Franc Johnson, 1964 Hosteen Klah:Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.

Reichard, Gladys A., 1936 Navajo Shepard and Weaver. New York:J. J. Augustin Publisher.

Wheat, Joe Ben, 1976 "Weaving," Indian Arts and Crafts, edited by Clara Lee Tanner, pp. 30-67. Phoenix:Arizona Highways.

Witherspoon, Gary and Glen Peterson, 1995 Dynamic Symmetry and Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo and Western

Art and Cosmology. New York:Peter Lang.

Wyman, Leland C., 1983 Southwest Indian Drypainting. Albuquerque:University of New Mexico Press.

The Navajo symbolizes his gods elaborately in sand. Either he or his assistants have brought to the sing small sacks full of pigment, yellow, red, and white. They prepare these by grinding and mixing them with ordinary sand so they may fall easily through the fingers. They secure black by burning charcoal and grinding it fine; and the blue [gray], brown, and pink which they use, by mixing the original colors. The background is made of ordinary sand wick may be dug near any home. Clean and of even consistency it must be when it is laid about four inches deep on the floor of the ceremonial hogan and smoothed with a weaving batten borrowed from the weaver of the patient's family.

The artists who assist the chanter may now begin their delicate work. When they are finished one may see a scene from the adventures or life of a mythological hero written in conventionalized lines, each of which has a meaning as fixed as writing. To each god is given the most elaborate accouterments: flint armor, feathered headdress, beaded pouch, embroidered skirt, arm tassels, turquoise earstrings and necklace, weapons; in short, all the symbols of his power and the honor accorded to him. The center of the sandpainting or some other part of it will designate the setting so that it may be clear to the informed that the scene takes place on a mountain, near a lake, or in an underground dwelling. All of these things and many more are depicted by the assistants, who sprinkle the dry colored sand through their fingers with practiced skill to attain a complicated picture.

The casual onlooker sees a conventionalized picture without perspective, shown in soft earth colors with perfect balance, and can hardly fail to admire it even though he has not the slightest inkling of its meaning.

The Navajo who is being sung over sees it in the essence of supernatural power. He may not know the details of myth or of drawing, but he does know that it represents what has been laid down in the past as curative and what has been proved during the ages as helpful. The chanter knows what happened to the supernaturals in their wanderings, he knows how to make himself one of them, and further, he knows how to communicate this identity to the "one-sung-over." The patient has the sand rubbed upon him, from the feet and hands of the gods to his own feet and hands, from their heads to his own. Furthermore, he sits on one of the figures and by doing so absorbs its power. He becomes one of the gods. Since they were always restored when misfortune befell them, he also will be restored either from illness, evil or contamination, or he will attain the blessings of the god's restoration which will keep him from future harm. The interest of the Navajo in the painting, although having a strong element of aesthetic pride, is primarily religious.

Dezba: Woman of the Desert; Gladys A. Reichard, 1939

The discussion of colors has shown that each color has an abstract meaning. White is the color of day, of hope, of newness, of change and commencement. The symbol of divinity, white expresses perfect ceremonial control.

Blue is the color of celestial and earthly attainment, of peace, happiness, and success, of vegetable sustenance. Yellow is the symbol of blessing, of generation, of safety, of promise. Black, sinister but protective, is the color of darkness, night, confusion, smoke, omnipresence, of threat, doubt, indefiniteness, wonder, and origin, of finality. Red is the color of danger, warning, and threat, and of protection from those very things; it also represents flesh food and blood. Pink is the color of 'deep sky' or deep water motion. Gray is the color of the unpersuadable dieties, those known to be against man, of the indefinite and fearsome, and protection against them as well.

In addition to its abstract value, each color has specific connotations, subdivisions of the generalization and related to it. The particular, as well as the general, meanings of color are indicated, often only indirectly for each chant, being determined by other elements with which color functions.

Materials for coloring sand are ground or natural colors. White, red, and yellow are found free in nature on the Navaho reservation in the form of clay and ochers. Black is from soot made by ritualistic burning. All, after being ground, are mixed with ordinary sand to give them enough body to fall evenly through the fingers. Blue, pink, and brown mixtures.

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