Mother Earth, Father Sky

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I have chosen to focus on the "Mother Earth, Father Sky" sandpainting from the Male Shootingway partly because it presents the most detailed depiction of the Navajo heavens of the sandpaintings used today. In addition, since this sandpainting can only be used on the final day of the ceremonial, it embodies the Navajo concept of increase through accumulation. Chanters consider this painting to be a particularly powerful one. Chanter A, who learned this painting nearly seventy years ago, said that he has performed it only four timed in his life, each time at the request of the patient rather than by his own choice. Chanter B considers this to be the most sacred sandpainting he knows, so sacred that he limits its use to once a year. In the story of the Male Shootingway, only after Holy Girl has been restored by the Sacred Twins through sacred procedures is she "strong enough to hear the description of the Earth and Sky painting." Franc Newcomb explains that this painting "represents a consummation of perfection, power, and benefaction." - Because this painting depicts such a powerful image as the entirety of the universe, standing as a visual embodiment of our relationship to all that is, its evocative power is much greater than that of other images. Furthermore, in the long form of the Male Shootingway, this painting represents the culmination of nine days and nights of ceremonial activity - "some ninety hours of music, prayer, graphic arts, dramatic staging, movement, and costume." Earlier, I discussed the sandpainting as an affecting presence that derives its power and energy from its state of completeness and form its ability to compress time and space. Such temporal layering means that in the specific case of the "Mother Earth, Father Sky" sandpainting, several layers of mythic time coexist with the present moment of the actual ceremony: the moment when the Twins learned this painting at Dawn Mountain; the first time the ceremonial was given on earth by the Holy People; the moment when the Sacred Twins saw the earth and sky from the home of their father, the Sun. In addition, the painting recalls origin events that lie outside the body of the Male Shootingway myth; the depiction of the Place of Emergence on the body of Mother Earth recalls the Emergence of the Earth Surface People, and the depiction of each constellation on the body of Father Sky evokes the well-known story of stellar creation, which, because of its order-disorder theme, synecdochially stands for the orderly placement of all sandpainting forms. In turn, the order and symmetry of the sandpainted images symbolize the state of order and harmony that the ceremony seeks to reestablish in the life of the patient. In addition to the compression of time in this painting, space is also collapsed: space expands both horizontally and vertically from an apparently flat surface. What appears to Anglos as a two-dimensional depiction is, for Navajos, three-dimensional. . . . . directional orientation is a fundamental principle in the creation of the painting: the powers of the four directions and the light phenomena associated with them are evoked and are drawn into the painting. After the painting has been finished, the chanter animates it by performing the blessing, which expands the painting in a vertical direction. In addition to the placement of the prayer sticks and the invocation of prayers, he strews corn pollen with an expansive upward and outward ritual motion. The sandpainting then extends upward in space, through the chanter and his sweeping ritual actions. The painting is alive, and it is sacred. (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.) Although the image itself appears two-dimensional (with the exception of the bowl of water symbolizing the lake that filled in the Place of Emergence), the space represented is clearly three-dimensional. The depiction of the Place of Emergence evokes the movement upward through previous worlds that lie below the present world, while the depiction of the night sky represents the heavens, which are located above the earth's surface. The three-dimensional nature of Mother Earth and Father Sky is represented in the layers of sand used to depict them: first, the figure painting on their backs, then their fronts, and finally the figure painting across their chests. Thus, in the sacred sandpainting, "Mother Earth, Father Sky" not only does the past coexist with the present but also space expands outward and upward from an apparently two-dimensional image, resulting in an intensification of experience. . . . . Another indication of how important the concept of completeness is to Navajo thought is the use of the same word, hadaalt'e, to mean both "it is complete" and "it is perfect." Thus, at a basic level, the "Mother Earth, Father Sky" painting derives its power from the fact that it represents female and male, the most fundamental of all binary pairs: the female Mother Earth (sa'a naghai) and the male Father Sky (bik'e hozho), who together represent the entirety of the universe. Pgs. 174-90

The patient and, indeed, all those present are reminded of their connectedness to the forces of the present world as well. When I asked Chanter B why he considers the "Mother Earth, Father Sky" painting to be the most sacred sandpainting, he replied, "(It is because) we walk everyday on our Mother the Earth, under our Father the Sky." He meant that this particular painting is a visual embodiment of humanity's place within the cosmos, an expression of oneness with all that is. Rather than existing apart from nature, humans have their existence within nature, as part of the intricate and infinite web of creation. Human beings carry upon their body visual reminders of their connectedness to the earth and sky. The Navajo believe that people are connected to these entities, and to all the features and beings that live on the earth and in the sky, by the whorls on toes and fingertips, which are an expression of the Holy Wind that suffuses all living things. As a Navajo consultant told James McNeley (1981:35), "these (Winds sticking out of the) whorls at the tips of our toes hold us to the Earth. Those at our fingertips hold us to the Sky. Because of these, we do not fall when we move about." Pg. 193

When you sit on it (the "Mother Earth, Father Sky" sandpainting), think about yourself, if you have a prayer, if you know how to pray, you say a silent prayer. If you don't, you listen to the medicine man pray because this is for you and your faith and all of that together (the universe), with Mother Earth and Father Sky because you are a child of both of them and you think about from here on to the future and that you will have a good life, hozho, a state of beauty and happiness. Sa'a naghai bik'e hozho; you think in terms of that. From here on everytime the Earth in mentioned you will think of Her as your mother and everytime the Sky is mentioned you will think of Him as your father; this is how you will have respect for Them. This is what your think when you sit on the sandpainting . . . . . . And if you have the body painting . . . . . . the token is tied to your necklace . . . . . . Father Sky (and) everything - the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the Milky Way - all of these things in the heavens will recognize you by that. And the same way for everything on the Earth - the different plants, the animals, the mountains - all of these will recognize you (as their child).

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

George Blueeyes, a Navajo elder, wrote a poem that expresses the Navajo reverence for the earth and sky with great lyricism and dignity:

We say Nahasdzaan Shima:
Earth, My Mother
We are made from her.
Even though she takes us daily,
We will become part of her again.
For we ARE her.
The Earth is Our Mother.
The Sky is Our Father.
Just as a man gives his wife beautiful things to wear,
So Our Father Sky does the same.
He sends rain down of Mother Earth,
And because of the rain the plants grow,
And flowers appear of many different colors.
She in turn provides food for him.

He dresses her as a man would dress his woman.
He moves clouds and male rain.
He moves dark mists and female rain.
Dark mists cloak the ground,
And plants grow with many colored blossoms.

The plants with colored blossoms are her dress.
It wears out. Yes, the earth's cover wears out.
The plants ripen and fade away in the fall.
Then in the spring when the rains come again,
Mother Earth once again puts on her finery.
The plants are restored again in beauty.
This is what the stories of the Elders say.

(in Between Sacred Mountains [1982:18-19])

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

The sky is considered male, the earth female, and both are in the relation of man and wife to each other. The earth may also be considered the mother of all living, insomuch as it produces vegetable life, and harbors many insects and animals in addition to being the abode of man. Pg. 35

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

The unobservant or uninstructed traveler may cover miles in the Navajo country thinking he is completely alone. He has not learned to discover the sand-covered abodes of the strange people who have spent some centuries adapting themselves to a desert and semi-desert environment, in making use of most of the facilities furnished by their Mother, the Earth, an animate vibrating personality who has their good at heart, who is lavish in color and atmosphere, and exacting, even cruel at times, about furnishing subsistence.

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

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